Perversity, perhaps

(Francis Carco; Jean Rhys)

In ‘A Feeling for Ice’, Jenny Diski describes the moment in her trip to Antarctica when the ship approaches St Andrew’s Bay, ‘the great penguin treat of the trip.’ She notes the ‘legion of black faces and orange beaks pointed out to sea facing in our direction, seeming to observe our arrival.’

‘One day, once a year or so, black rubber dinghies approach, and a handful of people come to the Bay, believing that the penguins are watching them arrive. For the penguins, it’s just another day of standing and staring. They parted slightly to make way for us, but they still stood looking out to sea.’[1]

Looking out to sea, looking in to see. Out there, of course, the days go by, sometimes galloping, sometimes on hands and knees – but generally not hanging around. ‘Time is different at different times in one’s life’, Doris Lessing observed. ‘A year in your thirties is much shorter than a child’s year – which is almost endless – but long compared with a year in your forties; whereas a year in your seventies is a mere blink.’[2]

(Photography by Edward Curtis)

Yes, those earlier days are denser, more numerous. There was a time in the United States when the buffalo numbered tens of millions; by the late nineteenth century, they could be counted in hundreds. In 1849, Francis Parkman had observed of the Western Dakota that the buffalo ‘supplies them with almost all the necessaries of life’, adding: ‘When the buffalo are extinct, they too must dwindle away.’[3] Peter Benson’s Isabel’s Skin is not upbeat on the matter of days— ‘Days come and days pass, and it is too easy to think you know what happened. People change and you think you knew who they were, who you were and how you reached the place you find yourself in, but you know nothing’—but more so when it comes to books, which ‘sleep, awake, open, and sometimes even change a life. They move like herds of animals across dust plains and leave clouds in the sky.’[4]

Red letter days, black letter days, some anonymous, some named. Last Friday was my mother’s one hundredth birthday – or would have been had she hung on just seven more years. When she had trouble recalling which day of the week it was, we hung a calendar on her wall. Now, since I retired, I can usually answer a query of that kind correctly – as long as I don’t have to give too snappy a response.

Named days. On All Hallows’ Eve, and on All Saints’ Day—I suspect that they won’t be marching in, and certainly not here—we walked between the showers, often accompanied by a furious wind as we began the long circuit of the cemetery. Then a few days of wetter weather, the grass of the park beginning to feel spongy, never quite drying out. And this morning a misleading blaze of blue through almost leafless branches at the back of the house where the tortoiseshell cat high-steps along our fence.


‘How odd Memory is – in her sorting arrangements’, the narrator of Walter de la Mare’s unsettling story ‘All Hallows’ remarks, ‘How perverse her pigeon-holes.’[5]

Perverse! The very word is like a bell, tolling me back. . . Well, here’s Guy Davenport, admirer of—and expert on—Ezra Pound’s poetry: ‘Pound’s strategy in choosing the materia and dynamics for The Cantos is at least consistent: reduced to a law it is this: In every subject to be treated, choose the matter which most perversely exemplifies it.’ He adds that it’s a good rule for a poet determined to be original. ‘When, however, the rule tyrannizes its manipulator, its perversity ceases to be strategic, and much in the poem that rings false can be traced to this simple rule.’[6]

Patrick White has a character resolving a theological dispute: ‘Then the old man, who had been cornered long enough [by the young evangelist], saw, through perversity perhaps, but with his own eyes. He was illuminated.  
‘He pointed with his stick at the gob of spittle.  
‘“That is God,” he said.’[7]

Still, the word’s primary nudge, for a Ford Madox Ford reader, is towards Perversité by Francis Carco or, rather, the vexed history of its translation. Carco was a poet, dramatist and novelist, and a pilot during the First World War, when he had an affair with Katherine Mansfield, who stayed with him in the spring of 1915 and drew on that time for at least two of her stories, one of them Je ne parle pas français.

Ford’s affair with Jean Rhys had various consequences for both parties: one of them was his securing for Rhys the job of translating Carco’s novel. As Carole Angier records, ‘This last kindness Ford had done her ended no better than the others: for when Perversity was published in 1928, the translation was credited not to Jean but to Ford. She was angry and upset about this for a long time, convinced that once again he had deliberately exploited and betrayed her. In fact, in this affair she hadn’t been Ford’s victim but that of the publisher, Pascal Covici. Ford had clearly named her as translator from the start, both to Covici and to others; but Covici had evidently decided that the book would sell better with Ford’s name on it.’[8]

Rhys’s own version, nearly forty years after its publication, emerged in a letter to Francis Wyndham, to whom she mentioned that she’d received a letter from Arthur Mizener, asking if she had any letters from Ford—which Cornell University would willingly buy—and also about the translation of Perversité. ‘I did that ages ago’, Rhys wrote to Wyndham, ‘and when it appeared my agent wrote to ask about it, for I hadn’t been told that I was “ghosting”. It was Covici the publisher’s fault, and I know Ford did his best to put things right. Then the book was banned and I heard no more about it. Mr Mizener said that a lot of ink had been spilled, which surprised me, for several people knew I was doing it at the time. I wasn’t very pleased with the translation for it had to be done in a hurry and there was a good deal of slang.’[9]


Arthur Mizener—not in person but by way of his biography of Ford—cropped up in a recent walk. Conversation with the Librarian in parks and cemeteries tends to begin with—or recur to—those perennial themes and questions: is this the worst government that either of us can remember? Yes. How was it news to so many people that the present administration is thoroughly corrupt? Don’t know. Can the country ever recover from the damage they’ve done, are doing, will continue to do to it? Probably not. But then there are trees, birds, other people, weather, food, wine and books.

On this occasion, I rambled on for a while about Arthur Mizener’s biography of Ford, which I’d been re-reading. Although frequently assailed by anecdotes, alleged insights, snippets of research and the like, the Librarian’s interest in Ford is primarily, let’s say, by association, though she was getting along swimmingly with Parade’s End until she reached the final volume, Last Post – the one I edited, of course. Still, the fresh air, the surroundings, the rhythm of walking, together fostered a tolerant attention, so I rattled on.

Fordians tend to have a problem with Mizener. He did a lot of research and produced a great deal of valuable information – but ended up not liking Ford very much, often put the worst possible construction on his actions and reactions, and rarely believed a word he said. But what had struck me on reading the book again after a long hiatus was that Mizener seemed unfamiliar with what a novelist actually does—and, in fact, what anybody does to a greater or lesser degree. When he pointed out, rather censoriously, Ford’s recasting of experiences, rearranging the elements of a story, lightening or darkening materials, retelling an anecdote with variations, I found myself pencilling in the margins ‘But – Art!’ or ‘Fiction! Fiction!’ or silently shouting: That’s his job! or He’s a writer! or even (appallingly appropriative, I know) Me too!

None of which, obviously, will prevent my snaffling whatever useful details I can glean for my own purposes from his—or, indeed, anybody else’s—endnotes.

Not to do so would be sheer perversité.


Notes

[1] Jenny Diski, Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? (London: Bloomsbury, 2020), 103, 104. The essay was first published in January 1997.

[2] Doris Lessing, Walking in the Shade (1997; London: Fourth Estate, 2013), 32-33.

[3] Francis Parkman, The Oregon Trail (1849; edited by David Levin, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982), 199.

[4] Peter Benson, Isabel’s Skin (Richmond: Alma Books, 2013), 19, 123.

[5] Walter de la Mare, Short Stories, 1895-1926, edited by Giles de la Mare (London: Giles de la Mare Publishers Limited, 1996), 339.

[6] Guy Davenport, Cities on Hills: A Study of I–XXX of Ezra Pound’s Cantos (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1983), 257. The book was a revision of Davenport’s 1961 PhD thesis.

[7] Patrick White, The Tree of Man (1955; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961), 476.

[8] Carole Angier, Jean Rhys: Life and Work (London: Andre Deutsch, 1990), 164.

[9] Rhys to to Wyndham, 28 January [1966]: Jean Rhys: Letters, 1931-1966, edited by Francis Wyndham and Diana Melly (London: André Deutsch, 1984), 294-295.

Funerary matters, mutters, meters


In a letter of 19 October 1972 to William Maxwell, following the death of his stepmother, Sylvia Townsend Warner asked: ‘Did you quarrel at the funeral? I rather wish you had, for I’m sure that when you quarrel you do, you quarrel like a tarantula. Nothing can make a funeral satisfactory: the person one wants to meet at it is underground.’[1]

What a resource funerals are to the writer! Leopold Bloom at Paddy Dignam’s in Joyce’s Ulysses, Hamlet at Ophelia’s, Beowulf, the ancient Greeks. Weddings are too, of course, but the central business there is proleptic rather than retrospective. Funerals, though: a collision or at least a gathering of memories, regrets, resentments, fragments of conversation, a blurring and slurring of times, places, still and moving images, words thought or spoken, intended or achieved, compliments and curses, intimacies, betrayals.

William Faulkner spends most of As I Lay Dying’s fifty-nine chapters on the hazardous business of actually getting Addie Bundren’s body to Jefferson, where she wanted to be buried. That forced hiatus has its effects, not least olfactory ones. William the Conqueror’s funeral was so delayed, Peter Vansittart reports, that ‘his over-corpulent body suddenly exploded’.[2]

‘How convenient a good old traditional funeral is!’ Simone de Beauvoir reflects in the closing pages of The Prime of Life. ‘The dead man vanishes into the grave, and his death goes with him. You drop earth on him, you walk away, and that’s the end of it; if you like, you can return from time to time and shed tears over the spot where death is pinned down. You know where to find it.’ She was thinking of her young friend Bourla, a victim of the Nazis, and of two young women she knew who also vanished without trace into the camps, their faces ‘never erased from my memory: they symbolized millions of others besides.’[3]


As for funeral-related stories – Guy Davenport told of the funeral of Charles Olson, a poet of famously large stature. Allen Ginsberg, then, intoning kaddish but apparently unsure of some of the words, ‘stepped in his confusion on the pedal that would lower the outsized coffin into the grave. A soft whirr, the coffin tilted, lurched, and stuck before Ginsberg could leap away from the pedal.’ It transpired that the coffin was wedged ‘neither in nor out of the grave.’ Splendidly, Davenport’s footnote reads: ‘This account, I’m told, is not wholly accurate. I had it from Stan Brakhage, who had it secondhand. I leave it as an example of the kind of folklore about himself that Olson inspired and encouraged.’[4] In fact, a letter from William Corbett, published in the minutes of the Charles Olson Society in June 1998, recalled Corbett’s own attendance at the funeral and Ginsberg’s rendition of kaddish, but continued: ‘The officiating minister who strode up to conduct the burial seemed spooked by the congregation of long hairs some of whom were bearded. He hurriedly waved his silver instruments over the coffin. In doing so, he stumbled and hit the pedal that was to lower the coffin. He quickly took his foot away, and the coffin lurched, tilted sideways and stuck.’[5]

Arthur Ransome remembered the funeral of Peter Kropotkin, whom he had last seen some three years earlier. ‘Then, as now, my attention was caught by his nose, so finely cut, so proud, the very index of the old fighter’s character.’ And of the disciples, he wrote: ‘There were some who had imitated his hair, some who had grown beards like his, but not one had a nose worth looking at.’[6] Clearly, a man with an eye for a nose.

And after the funeral? The wake, the celebrations, the drinks, snacks, exchanges, jokes, stories, occasional tactful silences. Or:

            mule praises, brays,
Windshake of sailshaped ears, muffle-toed tap
Tap happily of one peg in the thick
Grave’s foot, blinds down the lids, the teeth in black,
The spittled eyes, the salt ponds in the sleeves,
Morning smack of the spade that wakes up sleep[7]

And after Harry Lime’s second funeral, in the closing sequence of Carol Reed’s The Third Man, there is that celebrated, sustained shot of Anna’s long walk past the waiting Holly Martins, favouring him with neither glance nor pause, all to the plangent soundtrack of Anton Karas’s zither.

(The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed, written by Graham Greene)

At the end of William Faulkner’s ‘A Justice’, a story (containing a story told by Sam Fathers) told by Quentin Compson looking back at his young self, the children are riding back from the farm with their grandfather. Caddy and Jason have been fishing down at the creek. ‘Caddy had one fish, about the size of a chip, and she was wet to the waist.’ So there is a strong connection with what Faulkner described as the initial image of Caddy with wet and muddy drawers climbing the peach tree to look in through the window at her grandmother’s funeral, the germ of The Sound and the Fury – which began as a story, centred on Caddy, with the working title of ‘Twilight’. ‘A Justice’ too employs ‘one of the most persistent images’ in the writer’s mind, as Joseph Blotner explains: Quentin recognising his lack of sufficient knowledge to penetrate fully the mystery of what he sees and hears, comparing it to twilight. ‘I was just twelve then, and I would have to wait until I had passed on and through and beyond the suspension of twilight. Then I knew that I would know. But then Sam Fathers would be dead.’[8]

As for looking forward rather than back, try T. H. White, author of The Goshawk and The Once and Future King among many others, writing to his friend David Garnett on 19 December 1938 (the year in which The Sword in the Stone appeared), from The New Inn, Holbeach St Marks, Lincolnshire. ‘I don’t know the marsh a bit, and only have the tides in my head, but I go alone. Will you arrange the funeral when I am washed ashore? Stick some goose feathers up my arse and I will fly to my heavenly mansion. There, there. Enough.’[9]

Goose feathers, yes. He did enjoy his outdoor pursuits.


Notes

[1] Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 242. See 44-45 for her account of T. F. Powys’s funeral.

[2] Peter Vansittart, In Memory of England: A Novelist’s View of History (London: John Murray, 1998), 44.

[3] Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life, translated by Peter Green (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965), 605, 535.

[4] Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 80, 81.

[5] http://charlesolson.org/Files/Corbett.htm (accessed 18 October 2021)

[6] The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome, edited with prologue and epilogue by Rupert Hart-Davis (London: Jonathan Cape, 1976), 299.

[7] ‘After the Funeral (In Memory of Ann Jones’: Dylan Thomas, The Poems, edited and introduced by Daniel Jones (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1971), 136.

[8] William Faulkner, ‘A Justice’, in Collected Stories of William Faulkner (New York: Random House, 1950), 343-360; Joseph Blotner, William Faulkner: A Biography, two volumes (London: Chatto & Windus, 1974), I, 566-569.

[9] David Garnett, editor, The White/ Garnett Letters (London: Jonathan Cape, 1968), 37.

Devilish Warnings


‘For years of our lives the days pass waywardly, featureless, without meaning, without particular happiness or unhappiness’, says the narrator of Jane Gardam’s 1985 novel, Crusoe’s Daughter. There are, of course, exceptions – yesterday, for one instance, when I received both Covid booster and flu jab, emerging, as they say, fully armed.

‘‘Hello, good-looking’, the Librarian says—addressing neither me nor, a little more surprisingly, Harry the Cat, the usual object of her admiration—but my new computer. After several years of engaging with a Desktop that felt no sense of obligation—‘Would you please open this file?’ ‘Nah.’ ‘How about that website?’ ‘Not now!’—I’ve invested (interest-free deal!) in new hardware: a MacBook Pro, which is now set up with most basic necessities, thanks to my 5% input and the Librarian’s 95%. There have been very few problems, apart from her tendency to stroke the MacBook—and to murmur compliments in its direction—‘So shiny, so new’. I presume, perhaps unwisely, that this is a passing phase, together with her veiled threats—‘You should watch it very closely: these things have a habit of disappearing.’

(Not a MacBook)

Also disappearing is the summer, since the weather is turning – again, yes, but with serious intent this time. Still trying to wean myself off my appalled fascination with the daily totals of new cases—probably significantly underestimated now—hospitalisations and deaths, I sit listening to ambulance sirens on the distant main roads. Are they more or less frequent now than six months or twelve months ago? Did we just get so used to them then that they all but vanished into a familiar aural background?

In the park and the cemetery, the blackberries are mostly shrivelled or gone. There has long been a widespread belief in this country that they shouldn’t be picked after a certain date, usually Michaelmas but with some regional variations, up to about 10 October, which, as Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud point out, ‘allowing for the eleven-day calendar shift of 1752, is the same thing.’[1] The berries are said to be bad because the Devil has spat on them, stamped on them or, alas, pissed on them. On a walk a few days ago, I noticed a bush in the park still boasting several plump and very black berries and pointed them out. In defiance of devilish warnings, the Librarian’s mother picked one off, popped it into her mouth and pronounced it ‘delicious’.


‘I like to remind myself of the Dorset proverb’, Patrick White wrote, ‘“God gave us meat, we have to go to the Devil for sauce”.’[2] An astonishing number of people now not only want but apparently require sauce.

The Gardam quote I began with continues: ‘Then, like turning over a tapestry when you have only known the back of it, there is spread the pattern.’[3] Some of us are uncommonly fond of patterns. Also in 1985, Anthony Burgess published a piece called, ‘The Anachronist Strikes Back’, in which he remarked: ‘The point is, I think, that the past is made by the present. The pattern we call history is not in history: it’s made by us.’[4] This will not sit well with those for whom ‘history’ is fixed, unchanging and manifesting no need whatsoever for questioning or examination. But still, but still – in the individual life, as in the collective, the past is constantly reappraised, revised, reconfigured. How could it not be?


Notes

[1] Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 24.

[2] Patrick White, ‘The Reading Sickness’ (1980), in Patrick White Speaks, edited by Paul Brennan and Christine Flynn (London: Jonathan Cape, 1990), 75.

[3] Jane Gardam, Crusoe’s Daughter (London: Abacus, 2012), 270.

[4] Anthony Burgess, The Ink Trade, edited by Will Carr (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2018), 157.

Scholars and other fungi

(John Wainwright, Still Life with Mushrooms, Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council)

Browsing the latest issue of the London Review of Books, I came across this, in Colin Burrow’s notice of the new Christopher Ricks book, Along Heroic Lines: ‘The line between seeing things (in the sense of observing things which are there) and seeing things (in the sense of imagining things which are not there) is a finer one in literary criticism than it is in life in general.’[1]

I was drafting a piece the other day that took off from the word ‘scholar’ (but also the word ‘mushrooms’)’, before realising that I would be straying into areas more thoroughly covered in the next issue of Last Post: A Literary Journal from the Ford Madox Ford Society – so desisted. 

Still, that talk of ‘lines’ recalled the toothsome passage from Anne Carson that I’d previously turned up: ‘A scholar is someone who takes a position. From which position, certain lines become visible. You will at first think I am painting the lines myself; it’s not so. I merely know where to stand to see the lines that are there. And the mysterious thing, it is a very mysterious thing, is how these lines do paint themselves. Before there were any edges or angles or virtue—who was there to ask the questions? Well, let’s not get carried away with exegesis. A scholar is someone who knows how to limit himself to the matter at hand.’[2]

I’m not sure that Dominick Medina, in John Buchan’s The Three Hostages, can be said to do that. ‘“He is a deity of les jeunes and a hardy innovator”, MacGillivray says. “Jolly good, too. The man’s a fine classical scholar.”’ But the matter in hand for Medina—‘an Irish patriot crossed with a modern poet—a modern poet who resembles a cross between A. E. Housman and T. S. Eliot rather more than he resembles W. B. Yeats’—is his role as the villain of the novel, which keeps him pretty busy.[3] Rudyard Kipling—no mean Latinist himself, with a lifelong devotion to Horace—suggested that:  ‘One learns more from a good scholar in a rage than from a score of lucid and laborious drudges’.[4]

(A few Buchan books)

Tricky word, ’scholar’ – at one time, it was often understood to mean simply someone who could read and write – which may bring to mind the famous, or infamous, lines from William Butler Yeats:

Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,

Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.

They’ll cough in the ink to the world’s end;
Wear out the carpet with their shoes
Earning respect; have no strange friend;
If they have sinned nobody knows.
Lord, what would they say
Should their Catullus walk that way?[5]

Others are more generous or, at least, discriminating. The narrator of Jane Gardam’s Crusoe’s Daughter remembers of her teenage self: ‘I could understand the whole of Middlemarch. The passion for a scholar. It was a bit like Jo marrying Dr Bhaer in Little Women: you felt sick about it, but you understood.’[6]

Now that is certainly recognisable – feeling sick about things but understanding: more or less a basic requirement these days, to be sure. And it occurs to me that there are aspects of the scholarly life which are insufficiently appreciated. Reading the second volume of Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography, I learned that, through her acquaintance with Michel Collinet, whom she met in Rouen, she discovered that André Gide ‘was a highly skilled performer with a yo-yo. This was the current craze and extraordinarily popular. People walked down the streets yo-yo in hand, and Sartre practised from morning to night, with sombre perseverance.’[7] I found this oddly cheering. Between being and nothingness lies – the yo-yo.

(Simone de Beauvoir via the New York Times)

Ford scholars hold at arm’s length the suspicion – the conviction? – that our man would recoil in horror from our activities. They may also, of course, recall Ford’s famous remarks on Impressionism, ‘which exists to render those queer effects of real life that are like so many views seen through bright glass—through glass so bright that whilst you perceive through it a landscape or a backyard, you are aware that, on its surface, it reflects a face of a person behind you. For the whole of life is really like that; we are almost always in one place with our minds somewhere quite other.’[8]

That is, we can see and take note of that – probable – unease, while also looking through it and beyond it, to the greater good, the promised land of complete and annotated Ford Madox Ford. You’ll love it when it’s finished, Fordie! You have our word. . .

In the meantime, scholars on mushrooms (and more)! See Last Post, issue 5 (due soon).

Notes

[1] Colin Burrow, ‘Ti tum ti tum ti tum”, London Review of Books, 43, 19 (7 October 2021), 10.

[2] Anne Carson, ‘The life of towns: Introduction’, in Plainwater: Essays and Poetry New York: Vintage, 2000), 93.

[3] John Buchan, The Three Hostages (1924; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 51; Karl Miller, ‘Introduction’, x. Medina is in the western part of Saudi Arabia; its ‘Prophet’s Mosque’ is a major Islamic pilgrimage site. The word itself is Arabic for ‘town’ and often refers to the ancient native quarter in North African cities, usually a walled area with many narrow streets.

[4] Rudyard Kipling, Something of Myself (1937; London: Penguin Books, 1987), 51.

[5] W. B. Yeats, ‘The Scholars’ (1915): The Poems, edited by Daniel Albright (London: Everyman, 1994), 190, and see notes, 563-564.

[6] Jane Gardam, Crusoe’s Daughter (1985; London: Abacus, 2012), 79.

[7] Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life, translated by Peter Green (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965), 120.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, Critical Writings, edited by Frank MacShane (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964), 41.

Leg trouble


Near the top of the hill, I pause.

‘Is it bad?’ the Librarian asks with well-worn concern, referring to my left ankle and lower leg, which have been behaving peculiarly in recent weeks. Ankle arthritis, we’ve decided.

But: ‘No’, I say, ‘higher up, seems to be my hip.’

‘Oh’, she says, clearly envisaging a whole new trajectory of complaint.

‘It’ll get easier, I expect.’ Do I believe this? Of course not. But it may. In any case, walking and its attendant ingredients here, trees, dogs, squirrels, the magpies, the children yelling in the school playground, the sudden panoramic view over Bristol that opens up suddenly on our left-hand side as the path sweeps round to run beneath close branches, all distract attention from a mere hip.

Trouble with legs. I remember the Reverend Francis Kilvert: ‘I preached in some discomfort for although the Vicar had assured me the pulpit would be almost up to my chin it was scarcely above my waist and in order to see to read my sermon I was obliged to crouch down in it and stick one leg out behind.’[1] At least he had two: the writer Colette’s father, an ex-captain of the select Zouave infantry, born in Toulon and trained at Saint-Cyr, had lost his left leg in Italy in 1859.[2] I recall too Theresa Whistler’s account, in her biography of Walter de la Mare, of a surgeon named Kidd offering his solution to the writer’s insomnia: ‘an eccentric Irish hypnotist named Leahy, who had a hot temper and a false leg, which proved a disadvantage. Climbing to his patient’s room, sporting a Leander tie [rowing club] and a little drunk, he would succeed in inducing slumber, and would then descend – step, thump, step, thump. Before he had reached the ground floor the nurse was speeding down to recall him. “The bloody man!” he would explode, and rushed up again, bursting in on the patient: “You bloody well go to sleep!”’[3]

In the First World War, those men unable to distinguish left from right were given a hay band and a straw band to tie round each leg. The drill instructor would call out ‘Hay, straw’ instead of left, right. On the back of the envelope of one of his letters to Edward Chapman, the poet and composer Ivor Gurney wrote: ‘Would you like a hay band or a straw – ? I’ve finished with mine.’[4]

Benjamin Robert Haydon, The Mock Election (Royal Collections Trust)

It’s often noticed that artists have trouble with hands – but often enough there are leg problems too. Alethea Hayter wrote of Benjamin Haydon’s inconveniently small studio—‘and he could never get far enough away really to see the effect of the whole picture, and his defective eyesight produced the errors of proportion—particularly the shortness of leg—which give a fatally ludicrous look to so many of his heroic figures.’[5] And, while artists often sketch their own hands, legs come into it too. On Valentine’s Day, 1938, David Jones writes to Harman Grisewood: ‘I think if I could only get not having the worst type of nerves and could work at painting or writing (Bugger—O did not know this had a drawing on the back—it is my leg. I drew it as a study for a thing I’m doing—bugger! I want it, but can’t write this letter over again—well, I shall have to send it as it is and do my leg again if I want it) I should be quite happy alone always.’[6]

At home, I download ankle arthritis exercises and sternly ignore any promptings from the hip. What a trouper. . .

Notes


[1] Entry for Wednesday 4 October 1871: Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, Three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969), Volume Two (23 August 1871—13 May 1874), 53.

[2] Colette, Earthly Paradise: An autobiography drawn from her lifetime writing by Robert Phelps (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), 15.

[3] Theresa Whistler, The Life of Walter de la Mare: Imagination of the Heart (London: Duckworth, 2003), 344.

[4] Letter of early 1915: Stars in a Dark Night: The Letters of Ivor Gurney to the Chapman Family, edited by Anthony Boden (Gloucester: Alan Sutton, 1986), 17 fn.

[5] Alethea Hayter, A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (London: Faber and Faber, 1965), 59.

[6] René Hague, editor, Dai Greatcoat: A self-portrait of David Jones in his letters (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), 84.

Lesson one, lessen won

 (Alfred Sisley, The Bell Tower at Noisy-le-Roi, Autumn’: The Burrell Collection)

In the absence of coherent or effective guidance from government, people are edging back to offices, often cautiously or tentatively, not knowing what to expect, what is expected of them or how others will behave. The Librarian also ventures in, for the first time in eighteen months, to explore the lay of the land.

‘I think that’s “lie of the land”’, I say.

She thinks not. Naturally, having an iPad to hand, she looks the phrase up and begins reading: the current situation, the features of an area. Yes, yes. She gets to ‘North American: lay’ and I make a gesture intended to signify that I rest my case. It means the same thing, she explains, while I point out that we are not North American but English.

‘I’m receptive and welcoming to other cultures’, the Librarian remarks, clearly regarding this as a knockout blow.

Left with Harry the cat and the collected and uncollected works of Ford Madox Ford, I gauge the lie of the land. The first lesson of research is—there must be almost as many versions as there are researchers. One lesson could be: keep things tidy. Or, at least, tidy things up every so often. Lessening chaos, in fact. Lesson and its homophone, lessen, offer one of those minor distractions or deflections so necessary to the diversion from Work. Writers will often sharpen twenty pencils, polish windows, vacuum an already-vacuumed carpet, anything to put off the moment of naked confrontation with a naked sheet of paper. Thinking about words, though, is surely in a different category: a diversion that may prove productive, that may turn out to be no diversion at all, like Ford Madox Ford’s ‘digressions’.


(Research: lesson one)

These make a long, intricate—digressive—trail through his work. I first thought ‘path’ but a path, laid out, is very simple to follow; ‘trail’ implies a little more effort, a little more awareness. So the early Ford of the English Review period (1908-1910) praises, neither for the first nor the last time, Joseph Conrad and Henry James, as the pre-eminent imaginative writers of the day, in his view. But he goes on to point out: ‘The defect of each as an artist is his too close engrossment in the affair he has in hand. In each case this leads to what is called digressions.’ (A digression might be offered at this point by mentioning that on or beside the trail that the ‘digression’ hunter is cautiously negotiating, other figures may sometimes be glimpsed, pursuing an ‘engrossment’ trail.) Ford explains that James, in his desire ‘to build up round his figures an immense atmosphere of the complexities of relationships’, sometimes ‘loses hold’ of ‘the faculty of selection’. In Conrad, it leads to excessive ‘justification’ (another trail), the minute details deployed to thicken and strengthen the reality of the character or situation depicted, by a writer who—sometimes—seems not to know when to stop with those details.[1]


By the 1930s, considering the lengths to which the novelist must go to seize and retain the attention of a reader, Ford observed that: ‘Of course, you must appear to digress. That is the art which conceals your Art.’ Since the reader, ‘you should premise, will always dislike you and your book’, he or she will welcome a digression which countenances removing attention from the book, such as lunch or a ringing doorbell. So provide your reader with what appear to be digressions, Ford advises. ‘But really not one single thread must ever escape your purpose.’ and then: ‘I am—I may hazard the digression!—using that principle of technique in writing this book.’[3]

A few years later, noting how he wanted to inspire in his reader a sense of the whole sweep of the journey and inspire them with a ‘feeling of its oneness’, he offered an example of a digression serving practical and positive ends, recalling his time spent lecturing British troops and finding that ‘a sudden digression from the subject in hand would very much waken group attentions that were beginning to wander.’[4]

As to what lessons actually lessen: ignorance, darkness, certainly – until you reach that point at which you know just enough to begin to grasp how much there is to know and how little of it you will ever learn. This realisation may be a crushing disappointment or powerfully liberating, depending on character. Samuel Johnson might have looked into almost every book that came off the press: you will not. In a long lifetime of relentless, intensive reading, you could read perhaps half as many books as are published in a single year in the United Kingdom. The most accomplished linguist might hope to master well under 1% of the world’s languages. Henry Adams remarked that ‘the profoundest lessons are not the lessons of reason; they are sudden strains that permanently warp the mind.’[5]

(Henry Adams: photograph by Marian Hooper Adams)

Perhaps ‘warp’ is not that encouraging. Try Aldous Huxley: ‘The most important lesson of history . . . is that nobody ever learns history’s lesson.’[6] A more recognisable scepticism, even textbook stuff. Perhaps something a little more literary, then. Joan Didion: ‘My father advised me that life itself was a crap game: it was one of the two lessons I learned as a child. The other was that overturning a rock was apt to reveal a rattlesnake. As lessons go those two seem to hold up, but not to apply.’[7]

Talking to a friend the other day, we were having that conversation, not new but perhaps more frequent lately, about the need for people who saw and felt and viewed and valued things as we did to stick together, to look out for one another and to stand up for what we believed in. I was reminded briefly of James Salter on Graham Greene, an observation more than forty years old that has not lost its relevance. ‘Like Malraux, he asks to be read as a political writer and has set his fiction firmly in that world. The lesson in the books of Graham Greene is the great lesson of the times: one must take sides.’[8]

There’s a lesson we can all learn from. When I say ‘all’, of course, I mean those I want on my side.


Notes


[1] Ford Madox Ford, The Critical Attitude (London: Duckworth, 1911), 89-90.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Henry James: A Critical Study (London: Martin Secker, 1914), 161.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 192-193.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, Great Trade Route (London: Allen & Unwin, 1937), 46.

[5] Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1918; New York: The Modern Library, 1931), 108.

[6] Aldous Huxley, Science, Liberty and Peace (1947), quoted in Sybille Bedford, Aldous Huxley: A Biography (London: Pan Macmillan, 1993), 451.

[7] Play It As It Lays (1970), in Joan Didion: The 1960s & 70s, edited by David L. Ulin (New York: Library of America, 2019), 524.

[8] James Salter, ‘Like a Retired Confidential Agent, Graham Greene Hides Quietly in Paris’ (January 1976), in Don’t Save Anything: Uncollected Essays, Articles, and Profiles (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2017), 29.

Those autumn leaves (turn, turn, turn!)

(Henry Robinson Hall, Coniston Lake from Lake Bank: The Dock Museum, Barrow-in-Furness)

As early as 1 August, John Ruskin at Coniston Lake declared that, ‘The summer is ended. Autumn begun.’ Gilbert White, though, also a close watcher of the seasons, the natural world and everything in it that occurred before his eyes, wrote on 9 September 1781: ‘Red-breasts whistle agreeably on the tops of hop-poles etc., but are prognostic of autumn.’[1] We tend to associate that word now with the progress of a disease but it means only ‘knowing before’ and a prognosticator, my dictionary assures me, means a predictor, especially a weather prophet. Looking forward to autumn, anyway.

On this same day in 1767, White had looked back to the previous summer and feeding his tame bat, which would take flies out of a person’s hand. He added that: ‘Insects seemed to be most acceptable, though it did not refuse raw flesh when offered: so that the notion, that bats go down chimnies and gnaw men’s bacon, seems no improbable story.’[2]

Momentarily, ‘raw flesh’ offers to my suggestible mind the ‘person’s hand’ just mentioned (biting the hand that feeds you, I suppose); while ‘gnaw men’s bacon’ is also oddly disturbing, probably traceable to the word ‘gnaw’. It tends to recall to me the image of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, though, when I look at the painting again (it was first a mural, then transferred to canvas), it’s not what I think of as ‘gnawing’. Werner Hofmann distinguishes Goya’s Saturn from that of Rubens, because there is no delight here: Goya’s cannibal ‘horrifies the observer because he himself is horrified.’ Hofmann also notes that madness has driven him to his crime, ‘like Ugolino devouring his sons in the tower of Gualandi.’[3]

(Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring his Son: Museo Nacional del Prado)

This is from Dante’s Inferno, the penultimate canto (which T. S. Eliot cites in his notes to The Waste Land). Count Ugolino was head of the Guelf government in Pisa for a time until overthrown by a Ghibelline uprising initiated by the Archbishop Ruggieri, in what John Sinclair refers to as ‘this competition of mutual knavery and intrigue’. Locked in a tower with his children and left without food, he watches his sons die one after another and, deranged by grief, eats them. Now, in Dante’s Hell, he gnaws on the skull of the Archbishop (the word occurs in a reference to a tale from ancient history—one of the seven kings who besieged Thebes, mortally wounded by an assailant whom he killed ‘and gnawed the head with rage’). Having told his story, Ugolino ‘with eyes askance took hold of the wretched skull again with his teeth, which were strong on the bone like a dog’s.’[4] Yes, that to me is gnawing – with a vengeance, you might say.

On 9 September 1929, Sylvia Townsend Warner lay under London plane-trees and experienced a moment of extreme joy. ‘There like a bird I sat and sang. An antediluvian old lady with a bow streaming from the back of her hat sat sketching nearby, two little girls played dodge round a tree, and I heard the swish-swish of dead leaves sweeping. It was a moment for ever. Spring cannot bring me the same ravishment. Spring is strictly sentimental, self-regarding; but I burn more careless in the autumn bonfire.’[5]


(John Everett Millais, Autumn Leaves: Manchester City Art Gallery)

Yes, if I had to choose, I might well come down on the side of autumn (eschewing all references to the seasons of a life as opposed to the life of the seasons), though why choose? The pleasures of spring are just a little too obvious, perhaps. Here, in autumnal mode, is young Olive Garnett (sister of the more famous Edward), author and diarist, to whom we’re indebted for some of the earliest glimpses of Ford Madox Ford, his wife Elsie, Conrad, James and others of the period. She’s on Hampstead Heath, skirting the heath in fact, ‘gathering blackberries the while & arrived at that delightful little footpath to the Finchley Road. In the field behind the paling were two haystacks, a pig & some cows.’[6]

(What do you do in the autumn? I do this).

And now the rain has stopped, started again, stopped again. Tiring weather. My sympathies stray towards Elizabeth Bishop, who writes to her friend, the writer and editor Pearl Kazin, 9 September 1959. ‘And—oh well, we read and read and read, all the time, and the books pile up, and I remember a little here and there, and the magazines are snowing us under, and what good it all does drifting around in this aging brain I don’t know!’[7]

We are waiting for a gap in the clouds.



Notes


[1] Ruskin, 1884 diary entry and White quoted by Geoffrey Grigson, The English Year: From Diaries and Letters (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 103, 122.

[2] Gilbert White, The Illustrated History of Selborne (London: Macmillan, 1984), 39.

[3] Werner Hofmann, Goya: ‘To every story there belongs another’, translated by David H. Wilson (London: Thames & Hudson, 2003), 243.

[4] Dante, The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. I: Inferno, Italian text with translation and comment by John D. Sinclair (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), Canto XXXIII, 405-409; Tydeus, one of the leaders of expedition of the ‘Seven against Thebes’, mentioned 402.

[5] Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner, edited by Claire Harman (London: Virago Press, 1995), 43.

[6] Diary entry, Tuesday 9 September: Tea and Anarchy! The Bloomsbury Diary of Olive Garnett, 1890-1893, edited by Barry C. Johnson (London: Bartletts Press, 1989), 46.

[7] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 376.

Lasting


The summer has made a last-gasp effort, a last hurrah, last rites, last trump, with a handful of hot and sunny days – just as a lot of people were beginning to eye up the thermostat on their heating system or at least hunt out the blankets. Hurrahs have been thin on the ground these past few weeks, at least in the wider world, given the retreat from, and betrayal of, Afghanistan; and then the latest phase in the war against women, perpetrated in Texas and ratified by a Supreme Court stacked with anti-choice zealots.


In the (slightly) smaller world of Ford Madox Ford studies, research moves on with the huge task of editing his letters, generally inch by inch through dense thickets, a process punctuated by occasional short sprints over unexpectedly open ground. And the new issue of Last Post, the Ford journal, has emerged, looking very good and ecologically sound, and now sent out to all subscribing members.


In that other world, of varying size, sometimes circumscribed, sometime dizzyingly limitless, a world of bodies, minds, cats, dreams, food, wine, books and walks—that is, home life in the twenty-first century—the blackberry season has come and (almost) gone. We found several excellent sites very close to us: parks, verges, pathways have been cut back much less this year and plant life—including the blackberries—has flourished, helped too by the odd weather that has dominated so much of our summer, rain and sun locked in an endless dance, a close embrace, taking turns to dominate a dozen times in a day.


A lot of supermarket shelves are currently empty and more emptiness is apparently on the way—largely courtesy of Brexit, less the gift that keeps on giving than the rift that keeps on riving—so I find I have no objection whatsoever to free food, literally growing on trees (or bushes), fruit to be served up hot in pies and crumbles or bagged up in the freezer for later rainy days.

As for the Ford letters project, I only have a few dozen books to reread, a few hundred letters to transcribe and a few thousand annotations to make. When you retire from full-time work, you need something to fill the days.

High summer, locally


Frankly, I didn’t think much of July. It used to be a favourite month of mine: it contained my birthday, school holidays, reliably fine weather, test cricket on the BBC. Now it just contains my birthday. And leaks in the kitchen. And worries about the cat. And other leaks in the kitchen. And bodily aches and pains generously distributed, a bad leg here, a repetitive strain injury there; plumbers that don’t get back to you; misnamed ‘freedom days’; our shoddy, barrel-scraping media; weather that was either oppressively hot or relentlessly wet; plus the reliable constants of a global pandemic and half the world seemingly on fire and a government much less keen on democratic rights and free speech than it pretends.

On the other hand, there were books. I reread Ford Madox Ford and the wonderful Stella Bowen, and books by Inez Holden, Jonathan Coe and Elizabeth Taylor, the anthology of weird stories by women edited by Melissa Edmundson, Juliet Nicolson’s Frostquake—and strolled through the first few volumes of Simon Raven’s Alms for Oblivion series, reminded more than once, especially by some of the characters in the early books, of the sentiment expressed by John Dowell in Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier: ‘The instances of honesty that one comes across in this world are just as amazing as the instances of dishonesty.’

But we have, of course, moved on, and August—no, August seems not to have received the note about ‘marked improvement’. Endless rain, an unwell librarian, an internet connection with the strength of a day-old kitten. The plumbers continue not to return calls as I work on through the list. I make contact with a plasterer—my next bout of self-indulgence—but silence has descended since.


And yet—here is Douglas Goldring, Ford Madox Ford’s sub-editor on the famous English Review, a friend of thirty year’s standing and Ford’s first biographer. I’ve been rereading his books and, although he gets some things wrong and is a little too romantic in his view of Stalin’s Soviet Union—as so many people were, in reaction against fascism and the English establishment’s tolerance of, or even enthusiasm for, fascism—he is right about things surprisingly often. I do like Goldring. Always aware of Ford’s absurdities, they never obscure his view of Ford’s literary genius and his many personal qualities, what Pound called his ‘humanitas’. Goldring is opinionated, vigorous, wonderfully convinced and convincing on the changes that became visible after the First World War, the slaughter on the Western Front and the radical change in the complexion of those in power. ‘There was no longer any room in the Establishment for men with traditions of unselfish public service who regarded those who made money out of wars as the scum of the earth.’

Librarians recover; cats perk up; internet speeds revive; daughters can visit, sometimes after long, long pauses; rain can ease and blackberries offer themselves to ready fingers. August can improve—locally, yes, always locally. Julian Barnes, in his ‘Preface’ to Richard Cobb’s Paris and Elsewhere, remarked on his ‘very English taste for the particular and the local’. Unlike some recent manifestations of nationalist zealotry, the Francophile Cobb’s taste was grounded, rather, in a considerably wider range of knowledge and sympathies. David Jones (in ‘James Joyce’s Dublin’) remarked that, ‘of all artists ever, James Joyce was the most dependent on the particular, on place, site, locality.’ Joyce too, though always intensely Irish, was also a citizen of the world, to coin a phrase. As far as improvement goes, then, I am trusting only to the local – just for now.

Binding weeds


On Sunday, and again this morning, with the temperature due to rise to 30 degrees Celsius, we are out early. A handful of dog walkers in the park as we pass, occasional runners putting the time in while it’s still manageable. This morning, the inevitable traffic but our contact with the main road is brief.

Up the steep road to the top Perrett’s Park entrance, where we catch sight of a notice inviting people to help cull the bindweed which takes root and spreads so disastrously. Going on to Arnos Vale, the Victorian cemetery, both cool and quiet at this time of the day, we’re newly aware of the extent to which bindweed has taken hold here too.


Bindweed. Convolvulus arvensis—with the same root, unsurprisingly, as ‘convoluted’, it does its mischief to other plants by winding itself, binding itself, round the host counter-clockwise. Geoffrey Grigson launches with gusto into its local names, my favourites including Billy-Clipper, Devil’s Guts, Fairies’ Winecups, Granny’s Nightcap, Robin-run-in-the-field and Gipsy’s Hat. ‘Every gardener knows it’, Grigson remarks, ‘and perhaps more blasphemy is expended on Devil’s Guts, Cornbine, Withwind, and Withywind than upon all the other weeds of Great Britain. Neither blasphemy, hoeing, nor selective weed killers have yet destroyed it.’ He adds, characteristically (and quite rightly), ‘One should speak kindly of its white and pink flowers, all the same.’[1]

William Curtis, in his late 18th century Flora Londinensis, ‘warned against the deception implicit in its representation’, asserting that, ‘Beautiful as this plant appears to the eye, experiences proves it to have a most pernicious tendency in agriculture’. Only eradication by the spade could destroy it: simply cutting it down wouldn’t do the trick.[2]

No political symbolism here, obviously. None at all.



Notes


[1] Geoffrey Grigson, An Englishman’s Flora (Oxford: Helicon, 1996), 287.

[2] Mark Laird, A Natural History of English Gardening (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 374, 376, 377.