New Year Rabbits


(Norman Garstin, The Rain It Raineth Every Day: Penlee House Gallery & Museum)

January, so far, has consisted—almost exclusively—of rain. Oh, food and drink, books and conversation—and the rabbit-holing so familiar to researchers, following threads that snap or falter or turn out not to be threads at all. But, primarily, persistent, consistent, insistent rain – with a constant soundtrack of sirens, occasionally police, once or twice fire but mainly, almost always, ambulance. Talking, sounding, wailing, rabbiting on. Which, me being so literary these days, recalls The Good Soldier:

Leonora was standing in the window twirling the wooden acorn at the end of the window-blind cord desultorily round and round. She looked across the lawn and said, as far as I can remember:
“Edward has been dead only ten days and yet there are rabbits on the lawn.”’

I always liked ‘as far as I can remember’, so neatly placed in a novel constructed by memories, or what purport to be memories (a few lines later, Dowell will ‘remember her exact words’ about Florence and suicide). As for those Fordian rabbits, I’ve already had my say.[1]

It is, after all, as my friend Helen reminded me, the Year of the Rabbit, according to the Chinese Zodiac (the last one was 2011). At least, on 22 January, it’s farewell to Tiger and hello again to Rabbit. In a brilliant blue sky a week ago (such details tend to be firmly set in such a rain-sodden mental map), quite insubstantial clouds were drifting. Inevitably I drifted too, in the general direction of literary rabbits who were neither Joel Chandler Harris’s Brer Rabbit nor John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom. Of Updike’s quartet, I read the first two, decades ago, but never circled round to the others. Harris’s ‘Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby’, one of the African-American trickster tales that he popularised, was, I think, the story that I was reading part of to an American literature seminar group but laughed too much to continue.


Frobenius and Fox wrote, in their introduction to African Genesis (1937) that: ‘The Berber tales are folklore; and in the Berber jackal we meet that shrewd, amusing and unscrupulous spirit always present in peasant lore, whether it be the jackal here, the hare in South Africa (a veritable Brer Rabbit) or the cunning little fox in the Baltic countries (Reinecke Fuchs).’[2] And Guy Davenport observes that: ‘The Dogon, a people of West Africa, will tell you that a white fox named Ogo frequently weaves himself a hat of string beans, puts it on his impudent head, and dances in the okra to insult and infuriate God Almighty, and that there’s nothing we can do about it except abide him in faith and patience.
   ‘This is not folklore, or a quaint custom, but as serious a matter to the Dogon as a filling station to us Americans. The imagination; that is, the way we shape and use the world, indeed the way we see the world, has geographical boundaries like islands, continents, and countries. These boundaries can be crossed. That Dogon fox and his impudent dance came to live with us, but in a different body, and to serve a different mode of the imagination. We call him Brer Rabbit.’[3]

Rabbits run through many children’s minds (and those of their parents, pretty often): Charlotte Zolotow’s Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present, Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit, Sam McBratney’s Guess How Much I Love You, Rosemary Wells’ Morris’s Disappearing Bag, Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit, Lewis Carroll, A. A. Milne, Richard Adams. In 1890, a collection of doggerel by Frederic E. Weatherley, A Happy Pair, included illustrations by Beatrix Potter, the last of which accompanied a verse called ‘Benjamin Bunny’. At the family home in Bolton Gardens, Beatrix’s pet rabbits were indeed named Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny. Weatherley was then a barrister but later became a prolific songwriter, turning out something like 3000 popular songs, most notably Roses of Picardy.[4]


The poet Edmund Blunden, author of the First World War classic, Undertones of War, was nicknamed ‘Rabbit’, at least by his Colonel Harrison, though Blunden himself seemed concerned on occasion to upgrade this, recalling a moment when, together with a fellow soldier, ‘we ran (myself asthmatical, but swifter than a hare)’.[5] David Garnett was known to friends and family as ‘Bunny’, though he too slipped the snare of his nickname—if in the reverse direction—when reaching for the title of his 1932 account of learning to fly: A Rabbit in the Air.[6] The Garnett family had other dealings with rabbits. David’s aunt Olive noted in her diary for 5 May 1892 that at her brother Edward’s cottage, where he lived with his wife Constance, famous translator of Russian literature: ‘The wild creatures are becoming bold, the rabbits are actually burrowing under the parlour window & are expected to come up through the floor.’[7]

D. H. Lawrence was familiar with every aspect of the natural world – and the first sketch I ever read of his was, I think, ‘Adolf’, about the ‘tiny brown rabbit’ his father brings home one morning after his work on the nightshift. Another short piece, ‘Lessford’s Rabbits’—no pun intended?—was written soon after Lawrence met Ford, then editing the English Review.[8] Ursula Brangwen’s selection of ‘The Rabbit’ as a theme for her class’s composition goes down badly with headmaster Harby: ‘“A very easy subject for Standard Five”’—at which Ursula feels ‘a slight shame of incompetence. She was exposed before the class.’[9]

The Rainbow was, notoriously, prosecuted and all copies and sheets ordered to be destroyed, his publisher Methuen having rolled over in time-honoured fashion and apologised in all directions.[10] Douglas Goldring, who had met Lawrence when working with Ford on the English Review, also had small burrowing animals on his mind when he wrote: ‘Then what a change of front! The deafening silence, broken only by the sound of the white rabbits of criticism scuttling for cover, which formed the sequel to The Rainbow prosecution, will not soon be forgotten by those who were in London at the time. Not one of Mr. Lawrence’s fervent boosters ventured into print to defend him; not one of his brother authors (save only Mr. Arnold Bennett, to whom all honour is due) took up the cudgels on his behalf. English novelists are proverbially lacking in esprit de corps, but surely they were never so badly shown up as when they tolerated this persecution of a distinguished confrère without making a collective protest.’[11]


(Holliday Grainger as Connie Chatterley via BBC)

A dozen years later, writing the second version of his final novel, Lawrence had Parkin (later Mellors) write to Connie Chatterley: ‘“I shouldn’t care if the bolshevists blew up one half of the world, and the capitalists blew up the other half, to spite them, so long as they left me and you a rabbit-hole apiece to creep in, and meet underground like the rabbits do.—”’[12]

There’s always a risk, of course, that references and allusions like this will breed like—I don’t know what. End then with a touch of Rex Stout, who has Costanza Berin put to Archie Goodwin (Nero Wolfe’s indispensable assistant), the question: “Do you like Englishmen?”

     ‘I lifted a brow. “Well . . . I suppose I could like an Englishman, if the circumstances were exactly right. For instance, if it was on a desert island, and I had had nothing to eat for three days and he had just caught a rabbit—or, in case there were no rabbits, a wild boar or a walrus”’.[13]

‘If the circumstances were exactly right’. Well, yes, I think I’m gravitating to that position myself. But, of course, it’s still very early in the year. . . .


Notes

[1] Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915; edited by Max Saunders, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 86; Paul Skinner, “Rabbiting On”: Fertility, Reformers and The Good Soldier’, in Max Saunders and Sara Haslam, editors, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier: Centenary Essays (Amsterdam: Brill/Rodopi, 2015), 183-195.

[2] Leo Frobenius and Douglas C. Fox, African Genesis (1937; New York: Dover, 1999), 1.

[3] Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 3-4.

[4] Margaret Lane, The Tale of Beatrix Potter (1946; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1962), 50-52.

[5] Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (1928; edited by John Greening, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 79, and half a dozen other mentions, though the poem ‘Escape’ (207) has him there as ‘Bunny’, the speaker being ‘A Colonel’. The hare runs on p. 129.

[6] William Maxwell’s young character Peter Morison, in the 1937 novel They Came Like Swallows, was also called ‘Bunny’. In the book, he’s eight years old; Maxwell himself was ten at the time in which the story is set (1918). Then, too, Edmund Wilson—a little less plausibly, somehow—also answered to that name.

[7] Barry C. Johnson, editor, Tea and Anarchy! The Bloomsbury Diary of Olive Garnett, 1890-1893 (London: Bartletts Press, 1989), 73.

[8] ‘Adolf’ is reprinted in Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence, edited and with an introduction by Edward D. McDonald (London: William Heinemann, 1936), 7-13; ‘Lessford’s Rabbits’ in Phoenix II: Uncollected, Unpublished and Other Prose Works by D. H. Lawrence, Collected and Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Warren Roberts and Harry T. Moore (London: William Heinemann, 1968), 18-23.

[9] D. H. Lawrence, The Rainbow, edited Mark Kinkead-Weekes, introduction and notes Anne Fernihough (Cambridge, 1989; Penguin edition with new editorial matter, 1995), 359-360: the chapter titled ‘The Man’s World’.

[10] Mark Kinkead-Weekes, D. H, Lawrence: Triumph to Exile, 1912-1922 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 281-282.

[11] Douglas Goldring, ‘The Later Work of D. H. Lawrence’, Reputations: Essays in Criticism (London: Chapman & Hall, 1920), 70-71.

[12] The First and Second Lady Chatterley Novels, edited by Dieter Mehl and Christa Jansohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 564.

[13] Rex Stout, Too Many Cooks, in Too Many Cooks/ Champagne for One (New York: Bantam Dell, 2009), 17.

Questions and answers


(George Lambert, ‘Moorland Landscape with Rainstorm’: Tate)

Wet. From time to time, windy and wet, but consistently, ceaselessly wet. The rain sees no reason to pause, nor to offer any sign of awkwardness or regret at not pausing. Still, we find ourselves at the extreme backend of a year in which such weather seems entirely appropriate. ‘Family customs should not be kept up after they decompose’, Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote to William Maxwell on 31 December 1975,[1] and I see that statement applicable to so many areas of contemporary life that a sense of absurdity threatens to take over completely. Edmund Blunden recalled flares on the Ypres battlefield on New Year’s Eve, 1917:  ‘Their writing on the night was as the earliest scribbling of children, meaningless; they answered none of the questions with which a watcher’s eyes were painfully wide.’[2]

Questions and answers. Writing to Robert Lowell in July 1948, Elizabeth Bishop reported: ‘I think almost the last straw here though is the hairdresser, a nice big hearty Maine girl who asks me questions I don’t even know the answers to. She told me (1) that my hair “don’t feel like hair at all,” (2) I was turning gray practically “under her eyes.” And when I’d said yes, I was an orphan, she said, “Kind of awful, ain’t it, plowing through life alone.” So now I can’t walk downstairs in the morning or upstairs at night without feeling I’m plowing. There’s no place like New England . . . ’[3]

So, post-Christmas—having added Waste Land books by Matthew Hollis and Lyndall Gordon to the piled piles, plus Basil Bunting’s Letters—and pre-New Year, deciding fun is the order of the day, I move between Edgar Jepson and Eve Babitz, with the occasional break for a walk (in the rain, naturally) and leavened with one foray into podcasts, Lara Feigel talking about her book on D. H. Lawrence with Lauren Elkin at the London Review Bookshop.

Apart from the shafting of the country, the continent, the world, the universe, there have been highlights. A few I started writing about but fell off the end of a paragraph. One was certainly the 250th birthday of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a.k.a. Silas Tomkyn Cumberbatch (the name under which he enlisted in the dragoons). One item in the Librarian’s project of getting me out into the world was a recent revisiting of the Coleridge cottage in Nether Stowey. Her responsibilities extended to edging me towards the window when aware of me tensing in response to the small front room feeling a little crowded as we waited for the guide’s introductory talk to end. Paranoid, moi? Away with you.


Time, as several commentators have observed, has travelled just recently at both lightning speed and no speed at all, the speed of a rock immersed in molasses. I think of Guy Davenport’s story, ‘The Antiquities of Elis’ (which draws on the 6th Book of Pausanias): ‘It was Herakleitos who said that some things are too slow to see, such as the growth of grass, and some too fast, like the arrow’s flight. All things, I have often thought, are dancing to their own music.’[4] I’ve sometimes thought so – exclusively on the good days. . .

‘Did you see my blog?’
‘I did, yes.’
‘And?’
‘No Librarian. No cat. So. . . ’

Yes, we have certain standards to maintain. So, logically, as night follows day, we could not be, by any stretch of the imagination, present-day Tories.

How end a year, what message send to friends and strangers who happen by? I recur to the title of a volume by Jack Yeats, the painter, brother of that famous poet Willie: ‘Ah Well and to You Also’. That seems about right. In which case: all power to your elbow in 2023. Bonne année, Buon anno, Feliz Año Nuevo.

Notes

[1] Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 295.
[2] Edmund Blunden, Undertones of War (1928; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), 234.
[3] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 161.
[4] Da Vinci’s Bicycle: Ten Stories by Guy Davenport (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), 137.

Past presents, present pasts


Reading Daisy Hay’s Dinner With Joseph Johnson: Books & Friendship in a Revolutionary Age, I came to the pages dealing with the contortions of William Pitt’s increasingly repressive administration in its attempts to shut down protest in the 1790s, particularly the recasting of the 1351 Act, which had made it a crime to ‘compass and imagine’ the death of the King, that is, to intend the death of the king, as it was commonly understood. ‘Pitt’s lawyers redefined it, so that an act of imagining alone became a crime. To commit treason one needed merely to have imagined the King’s death, not to have acted to advance it. Writing and speaking thus became treasonable.’ Since the government was appointed in the King’s name, any action which threatened ‘the security and stability of government legally constituted an attempt to “levy war” on the King himself. Political protest thus became treasonable by its very nature.’[1]

I was reminded, unsurprisingly, of a very much more recent decline and fall—but reminded  also of the first undergraduate essay I wrote on my History course, about the French Revolution or, rather, the domestic effects in this country of the dramatic events in France. The marker’s comments included the suggestion, I recall, that I try to refrain from running before I could walk (but also queried my use of the word ‘climactic’, about which I was right and they were wrong, not that I ever dwell on that at all). I’d read fairly widely, and, I suspect not unusually, the book I found most stimulating—and exciting—was E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. I didn’t make a habit of reading 900-page history books but made an exception for this one. At that time, Margaret Thatcher’s government tended to behave as though anything that couldn’t be measured, weighed and, ideally, made a profit from, didn’t exist, so I was strongly drawn to such sentiments as followed Thompson’s assertion that definitive answers to such a controversy as that over the effect on standards of living of the Industrial Revolution still evaded us. ‘For beneath the word “standard” we must always find judgements of value as well as questions of fact. Values, we hope to have shown, are not “imponderables” which the historian may safely dismiss with the reflection that, since they are not amenable to measurement, anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s. They are, on the contrary, those questions of human satisfaction, and of the direction of social change, which the historian ought to ponder if history is to claim a position among the significant humanities.’

Still, the quotation most familiar to readers of the book, certainly the last few words of it, is the intention stated in the ‘Preface’: ‘I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.’ That last phrase is often quoted and recalled but sometimes as if it simply refers to the assumption that, coming later, we simply know and understand more. As Thompson notes further on, though, ‘for those who live through it, history is neither “early” nor “late”. “Forerunners” are also the inheritors of another past.’[2]


(James Longenbach, poet, teacher and fine scholar, died 29 July this year)

Tricky business, the past. That familiar quotation briefly conjured up another, William Faulkner’s ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’, which he puts into the mouth of one of his recurring characters, the lawyer (and occasional amateur sleuth), Gavin Stevens, in Requiem for a Nun. I noticed a few days ago how many literary anniversaries cropped up on 19 December: Constance Garnett’s ‘heroic life’ began at 11 a.m. on that day in 1861;[3] the French writer Colette was married to Henry de Jouvenel in 1912, a simple civil ceremony in the mairie of the sixteenth arrondissement: ‘Madame Colette Willy, woman of letters, notorious lesbian, bare-breasted music-hall star, and social pariah, was now the baroness de Jouvenel des Ursins, and the wife of one of Paris’s most influential political journalists.’[4] From Coleman’s Hatch the following year, Ezra Pound wrote to William Carlos Williams, in a letter that reads with great poignancy now: ‘I am very placid and happy and busy. Dorothy is learning Chinese. I’ve all old Fenollosa’s treasures in mss.’ And: ‘Have just bought two statuettes from the coming sculptor, Gaudier-Brzeska. I like him very much [ . . . ] We are getting our little gang together after five years of waiting.’[5] A little over seven months before German forces cross the Belgian frontier near a place called Gemmenich. . .

But I was thinking, particularly, of David Jones: poet, painter and, for a while, soldier, enlisted in the 15th (London Welsh) Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. For two weeks, his battalion was billeted in farm outbuildings in Warne, a mile south of Rocquetoire, ‘all this time the cold rain continuing, more rain than in any December for 39 years.’ On 19 December they boarded ‘grey-painted London buses for La Gorgue, near Estaires.’ They were headed for the front line at Neuve Chapelle.


(David Jones via The Spectator)

‘In the trenches’, Thomas Dilworth wrote of Jones, ‘he became convinced that any distinction between past and present was superficial, accidental, largely unreal. History had not ended; it continued.’[6] In his  ‘Autobiographical Talk’ (1954), Jones said: ‘You see by what close shaves some of us are what we are, and you see how accidents of long past history can be of importance to us in the most intimate sense, and can determine integral things about us.’[7] Like other literary soldiers—Blunden, Sassoon, Ford, Graves among them—the war haunted his later life and writing, perhaps to a greater extent than most of the others. ‘Decades afterwards, a door slamming or a car backfiring would startle him back to the trenches. In distant thunder, he heard artillery.’[8]

Close shaves and roads not taken. Year’s end, year’s turning: there’s a strong tendency to look both forward and back, reviewing what’s past and anticipating, hoping or—increasingly, these days—dreading what’s to come. For some, such reviews have a tendency to ripple outwards, to include peripheral as well as central figures, the gone as well as the present, not only the dead but the lost, the ghosts of those still living, somewhere, but in places either no longer known to us or just inaccessible, for varied reasons: neglect, forgetfulness, estrangement – or those unexceptional divergences in the trajectories of all individuals’ lives. There in their hundreds, perhaps thousands: friends, colleagues, acquaintances, fellow students, fellow teachers, lovers, almost-lovers, antagonists, the watchers and the watched, the lives that touched us, held us, struck us, changed us, missed us by inches—or by a country mile. ‘If I thought I was not thinking about the past’, Deborah Levy wrote, ‘the past was thinking about me.’[9]


Yes. We are not only subjects but objects, not only observers but observed. That’s the sort of thing that can easily slip a person’s mind as they look about themselves, so much to see, so much to learn, so much to talk about, read about, write about, think about. Recounting his work on an illustrated history of exploration, an impossibly huge task, the contributions sent to his publishers routinely thousands of words too long, Eric Newby comments: ‘I had, and still have, the conviction that I must let the reader know if I discover anything interesting, and unfortunately so many things are interesting. At least they are to me.’[10]

Things certainly look grim just now – and have done this past year, three years, decade, steadily worsening. And not only individuals get lost. The things we—some of us—care about are under threat and under attack, some are already gone and we won’t be getting them back. But after all it isn’t after all, not yet all, anyway. We are still here, still there, the more energetic actively resisting while others, on occasion, discover something interesting, at least to us – and let others know.

So: a wave from the bunker to any passer-by. And, to various friends who, in Auden’s phrase, ‘show an affirming flame’: Joyeux Noël, Buon Natale, Feliz Navidad, Nadolig Llawen – and Happy Holidays.


Notes

[1] Daisy Hay, Dinner With Joseph Johnson: Books and Friendship in a Revolutionary Age (London: Chatto & Windus, 2022),

[2] E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963; revised edition with new preface, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1980), 485, 12, 648.

[3] Richard Garnett, Constance Garnett: A Heroic Life (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1991), 11.

[4] Judith Thurman, Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2000), 247.

[5] Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907-1941, edited by D. D. Paige (London: Faber and Faber, 1951), 65.

[6] Thomas Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War (London: Enitharmon Press, 2012), 62, 63, 93.

[7] In Epoch and Artist (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 25.

[8] Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), 54

[9] Deborah Levy, Things I Don’t Want to Know (London: Penguin Books, 2018), 162.

[10] Eric Newby, ‘Walking the Plank’, in Departures and Arrivals (London: Harper Collins, 1999), 39.

Frost, wine, hyacinth girls


(John William Buxton Knight, Old December’s Bareness Everywhere: Tate)

December: how is it? Bloody cold but sometimes, walking on frosty ground under chilled blue skies, the stark trees nodding as you go – quite beautiful. In December, I – what shall I say, what did I do? Walked, read, ate, drank, wrote a little. Bought and carried home, in fact, a Christmas tree, just this afternoon. The world, despite my repeated requests, did not cease to go to hell, barely paused, in fact. Thank all the gods there are for wine.

In December, ‘Melancholy and Phlegm much increase, which are heavy, dull, and cold, and therefore it behoves all that will consider their healths, to keep their heads and bodies very well from cold, and to eat such things as be of a hot quality.’[1] Ah, yes. Though millions of poor souls in Brexit Britain can only lament and reflect that the chance would be a damned fine thing, forced as they are to choose between eating and heating – and an increasing number able to do neither.


(He came, he saw, he. . .)

Do I still hold my breath when panting runners pass me on the paths in the park? Why yes, I do, but am immeasurably improved in other areas, a few other areas, one or two other areas. Item: dinner with the doyen of Ford Madox Ford studies, Professor Max Saunders, an excellent choice for my first foray into after-dark city streets in something approaching three years. Item: another foray—and another indoor event, though this one with neither wine nor sausages—to see Lyndall Gordon, whose books on T. S. Eliot and Emily Dickinson I’d read and admired, in conversation with Noreen Masud, lecturer in Twentieth-Century Literature at the University of Bristol.

The event was prompted by the publication of Gordon’s new book, The Hyacinth Girl: T. S. Eliot’s Hidden Muse, drawing heavily on the Emily Hale letters in Princeton’s Special Collections, which were finally made available to readers in January 2020. It was a fascinating conversation, not least because of the intelligent exchanges about how we approach those artists whose attitudes or language or assumptions, are sometimes unsettling—or worse—to modern sensibilities. Considering writers of a hundred or more years ago, well, frankly, that’s most of them. We can pick at this, blush at that, throw up our hands here—or just throw up there—and then, often, we just read the work or look at the picture or listen to the music and all that other stuff is, for however short or long a time, simply blown away.


(Emily Hale and T. S. Eliot via New York Times)

So the conversation was consistently interesting – but before it even started, Niamh Cusack read, wonderfully, The Waste Land. Oh, my. ‘That was a blast’, I said to the Librarian afterwards, ‘several times, I didn’t know whether to shout or cry.’ Nor did I. How many times have I read it, all of it, bits of it? I have no idea. Many lines were familiar enough for me to realise my lips were shaping the words along with the reader. At other times, it was completely unfamiliar, a voice from a cloud. ‘I’ve never heard it read by a woman before’, the Librarian remarked. An early chunk of ‘A Game at Chess’ seemed to have passed me by entirely. Echoes and repetitions heard as if for the first time spilled over me. When Niamh Cusack pronounced Sanskrit words, I could feel the Librarian’s gaze on me but steadfastly refused to meet it. I knew she was thinking of my own pronunciation, which I’d picked up from Charles Tomlinson when he read the poem to members of the English Department however many years ago – he explained that he’d been to a performance of sacred Indian music and made his way backstage to ask (as you do): ‘How would you pronounce this?’ It’s occurred to me since that, of course, there would probably be no one way to do so, any more than would be the case if individuals in Yorkshire and Cornwall (or Mississippi and New Jersey) were asked about pronunciation. But when the lines, ‘I think we are in rats’ alley / Where the dead men lost their bones’ cropped up, I was morally obliged to meet her gaze simply because that’s my stock answer to the question, in practically any context: ‘What do you think?’

What do I think? I think that I can’t remember when I last heard words read aloud which made it genuinely difficult for me to stay in my seat. There is something extraordinary about a poem that has been so much read, read about, explained, analysed, annotated, contextualised, parodied, worshipped and damned to within an inch of its life – still striking the ear like thunder, singing in the blood, chafing the nerves and knocking the pulses.

Art, yes, I’ve heard tell of it. Isn’t that the stuff that bears endless repetition because no two readings or viewings or listenings are the same? The cornucopia, the horn of plenty, the Holy Grail, in fact. You could go on long journeys and undergo all manner of ordeals and challenges, battle with ghosts and gods, move through enchanted chambers, withstand the amorous attentions of maidens of surpassing beauty, slay monsters – or you could simply take a book off the shelf (the right book for you, mind, the right book now, at this juncture).


By a knight of ghosts and shadows,
I summoned am to tourney
      Ten leagues beyond
      The wild world’s end –
Methinks it is no journey.

It is, of course. It is.

Notes

[1] Richard Saunders, Apollo Anglicanus, quoted by Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 481.

Infinite presents


(J. M. W. Turner, A Church and Village seen from a Riverside Footpath: Tate)

I was thinking about—or idly musing upon—the infinite, arrived at by the usual wandering off footpaths. Decanting a packet of ground coffee into the regular tin, I was prompted by the resulting level to look at the net weight printed on the packet. It had lessened by some ten per cent, diminished by one-tenth (‘No, we haven’t put our prices up’). But then there has been, inevitably, a strong and widespread sensation of lessening, of shrinkage over the past few years. The narrowness of nationalist discourse, the closing of borders, the hostility to refugees and migrants, together with the pandemic, lockdowns, withdrawals either voluntary or enforced, now a metaphorical or literal huddling together against cold, hunger, discomfort, all in worsening weather.

Often placed against that diminishment are, precisely, ideas of freedom, expansion, movement through time and space. Art, then, or memory, or history, or imagination. Borders, walls, boundaries, limits of any kind set aside, evaded, vaulted over. The infinite – notions of which can swing to both positive and negative poles, depending on the viewer.

I thought of Ford Madox Ford recalling his ‘most glorious memory of England’, in the 1890s, hundreds of Jewish refugees from the Russian pogroms, landing at Tilbury Docks, falling on their knees and kissing the sacred soil of Liberty. ‘It was not of course because they were Jews or were martyrs. And I daresay it was not merely because England was my country. It was pride in humanity.’ But because of ‘an Order in Council’, that route would now be narrowed or blocked: ‘This then was the last of England, the last of London . . .’ And: ‘One had been accustomed to think of London as the vastest city in the world . . . as being, precisely, London, the bloody world!’ But now? ‘Ease then was gone; freedom was no more; the great proportions were diminished . . .’[1]


(Samuel Taylor Coleridge via the BBC)

One of the most famous instances of infinitude is that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Chapter XIII of the Biographia, where he summarises his distinction between imagination and fancy: ‘The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.’[2] This was one of the main targets of another, later, celebrated statement, by T. E. Hulme: ‘Here is the root of all romanticism: that man, the individual, is an infinite reservoir of possibilities’ – against which, Hulme’s version of the classical: ‘Man is an extraordinarily fixed and limited animal whose nature is absolutely constant. It is only by tradition and organisation that anything decent can be got out of him.’[3]

Hulme was primarily a philosopher – a poet only in miniature. I suspect that artists generally tend more towards embracing the positive than feeling repelled or threatened by the negative. ‘We must consume whole worlds to write a single sentence and yet we never use up a part of what is available’, James Salter wrote to Robert Phelps. ‘I love the infinities, the endlessness involved . . . ’[4] Laura Cumming, writing in praise of Jan Van Eyck, observed that: ‘His art is so lifelike it was once thought divine. But he does not simply set life before us as it is – an enduring objection to realism, that it is no more than mindless copying – he adjusts it little by little to inspire awe at the infinite variety of the world and our existence within it; the astonishing fact that it contains not just all this but each of our separate selves.’[5]

In an entry dated ‘[Saturday 24 November 1984]’, Annie Ernaux wrote: ‘One image haunts me: a big window wide open and a woman (myself) gazing out at the countryside. A springtime, sun-drenched landscape that is childhood. She is standing before a window giving onto childhood. The scene always reminds me of a painting by Dorothea Tanning – Birthday. It depicts a woman with naked breasts: behind her, a series of open doors stretch into infinity.’[6]


(Dorothea Tanner, Birthday (1942): Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Is that a wish to see the world, one’s personal world, as an unending series of opened doors? Or simply an observation, a belief, a conviction that this is how the world actually is, that much of what we assume to be fixed, unalterable, closed, finite, is nothing of the sort? Some observers, actors, participants, acknowledge the infinite nature of ideas, of the abstract but, certainly in specific circumstances—the Second World War, in the case of Ronald Duncan, pacifist and farmer—choose to turn away from them: ‘We were people used to dealing with ideas which are infinitely pliable, and for the first time were in contact with things which are rigid, brittle’, Duncan wrote. ‘Contact with things is infinitely more satisfying than contact with ideas. And if we are honest we must admit that few of us are capable of holding abstract conceptions in our heads. If we manage it, it gives us little pleasure. Somehow or other we have fallen into the rot of thinking that pigs and poetry are incompatible. They are not.’[7]

Pigs and poetry. Why, yes. In immediate postwar Sussex, Ford Madox Ford bred pigs and wrote poetry—A House (1921), Mister Bosphorus and the Muses (1923)—though, admittedly, the pigs died or had to be sold off at bacon prices when Ford and Stella Bowen moved to France. Staying in the realm of the abstract—or more abstract, at least, than pigs—I think of Sarah Churchwell, already author of a book on Fitzgerald and the world of Jay Gatsby, writing in 2018: ‘Gatsby’s famous ending, in other words, describes the narrowing of the American dream, from a vision of infinite human potential to an avaricious desire for the kind of power wielded by stupid white supremacist plutocrats who inherited their wealth and can’t imagine what to do with it beyond using it to display their dominance.’[8]

There are, though, different kinds of dominance, some more insidious than others, habits so ingrained as not to be seen any longer as habits, procedures so immediate, so automatic, so normalised as to seem – natural. Annie Ernaux has written of the worldwide web as ‘the royal road for the remembrance of things past’ and adds: ‘Memory became inexhaustible, but the depth of time, its sensation conveyed through the odour and yellowing of paper, bent-back pages, paragraphs underscored in an unknown hand, had disappeared. Here we dwelled in the infinite present.’[9]

The more I look at it, the more unsettling that final phrase is. . .

Notes


[1] Ford Madox Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 85-88.

[2] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions, edited by James Engell and W. Jackson Bate (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), I, 304.

[3] T. E. Hulme, ‘Romanticism and Classicism’, in Speculations: Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art, edited by Herbert Read (Second edition, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1936), 116.

[4] Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps, edited by John McIntyre (Berkeley, California: Counterpoint, 2010), 39.

[5] Laura Cumming, A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits (London: Harper Press, 2010), 13.

[6] Annie Ernaux, I Remain in Darkness, translated by Tanya Leslie (London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020), 37-38.

[7] Ronald Duncan, All Men Are Islands: An Autobiography (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1964), 245, 226.

[8] Sarah Churchwell, Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018), 141. The earlier book was Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby (2013).

[9] Annie Ernaux, The Years, translated by Alison L. Strayer (London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019), 209-210.

Scholars and storytellers


(J. R. R. Tolkien: Reuters via The Guardian)

The incomparable Guy Davenport was born on 23 November 1927 (he died in 2005). I remember making some notes about him in connection with J. R. R. Tolkien some years back, when the company I worked for represented Cornell University Press. In 2013 the press reissued a book first published in 1979, six years after Tolkien’s death, a collection of pieces entitled J. R. R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam. It included contributions from a wide range of friends, colleagues and former students. The first part contains the Times obituary; Tolkien’s 1959 ‘Valedictory Address’ to the University of Oxford; and a personal remembrance by a friend of forty years’ standing. The second part consists of critical essays concerned with the literatures of Old Norse, Old English and Middle English, Tolkien’s own main scholarly interests. The last part comprises three pieces on Tolkien’s famous fictions and concludes with a bibliography of his writings, compiled by Humphrey Carpenter (Tolkien’s biographer).[1]

‘The first professor to harrow me with the syntax and morphology of Old English,’ Davenport writes, ‘had a speech impediment, wandered in his remarks, and seemed to think that we, his baffled scholars, were well up in Gothic, Erse, and Welsh, the grammar of which he freely alluded to. How was I to know that he had one day written on the back of one of our examination papers, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”?’[2]


(One genius by another; or, Jonathan Williams’ photograph of Guy Davenport – ‘in Quakerish garb’ – Lexington, 1964: Portrait Photographs (London: Coracle Press, 1979).

After graduating from Duke University, Davenport was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship and studied at Merton College, Oxford, from 1948 to 1950. His thesis on James Joyce was directed by J. I. M. Stewart; his examiner was David Cecil. Davenport was drafted into the army on his return to the United States and served two years before taking a job at Washington University, St Louis. At Harvard, he worked as graduate assistant to Archibald MacLeish and wrote his dissertation, Cities on Hills, on the first thirty of Pound’s Cantos, under Harry Levin’s direction. It was published a little over twenty years later.

Davenport finished reading Lord of the Rings in March 1963, writing to Hugh Kenner that it was ‘a major work’. He went on: ‘What imagination! Never does his invention run out, on and on. I have a feeling that he has summed up 500 years of literature from the Mabinogion through Von Essenbach to the High Victorians. He has done well in prose what Spenser probably could not have finished in verse. It makes the “realistic” novel look like a skinned knee criss-crossed with band-aids.’[3]

In October 1963, Kenner was two-thirds of the way through the trilogy, remarking of the plans to reissue the work in paperback, ‘It could not fail to do good to anyone who read it through! one of the few books for which there is point in winning a larger public’ (I, 427). Davenport responded three days later: ‘I glow that you like Tolkien. He provides a vocabulary, both of phrases and imagery. Gandalf began life, in The Hobbit, as Sherlock [Holmes] in an astrologer’s gown. Frank Meyer [book review and cultural editor of National Review],[4] who is not uninfluenced in his fight with the Bolsheviki by Gandalf’s war upon the Orcs, got me onto Tolkien. [Stan] Brakhage heavily influenced by Tolkien, his other influence being Pound’ (I, 430)


In ‘Hobbitry’, Davenport noted that he’d talked to Tolkien’s son, Christopher—under whose steady hand the published Tolkien canon has expanded significantly—as well as to his friend ‘Hugo’ Dyson, who said of Tolkien, ‘His was not a true imagination, you know. He made it all up.’ ‘I have tried for fifteen years’, Davenport comments, ‘to figure out what Dyson meant by that remark.’ And he talked to a history teacher, Allen Barnett, who had been a classmate of Tolkien’s and remembered how he ‘could never get enough of my names of Kentucky folk. He used to make me repeat family names like Barefoot and Boffin and Baggins and good country names like that.’

Ah.

Tolkien’s readers run into millions, of course, the viewers of the films based on his books surely running into tens of millions by now. An intriguing if unanswerable question is what proportion of those readers and viewers have a sense of the main focus of his scholarly work.

 ‘Practically all the names of Tolkien’s hobbits are listed in my Lexington phone book’, Davenport writes, ‘and those that aren’t can be found over in Shelbyville.’ He concludes: ‘I despaired of trying to tell Barnett what his talk of Kentucky folk became in Tolkien’s imagination. I urged him to read The Lord of the Rings but as our paths have never crossed again, I don’t know that he did. Nor if he knew that he created by an Oxford fire and in walks along the Cherwell and Isis the Bagginses, Boffins, Tooks, Brandybucks, Grubbs, Burrowses, Goodbodies, and Proudfoots (or Proudfeet, as a branch of the family will have it) who were, we are told, the special study of Gandalf the Grey, the only wizard who was interested in their bashful and countrified ways.’


Notes

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam, edited by Mary Salu and Robert T. Farrell (Cornell University Press, 9780801478871, 325pp, paperback).

[2] ‘Hobbitry’, in The Guy Davenport Reader, edited by Erik Reese (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2013), 273.

[3] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), I, 287. I’ve lifted several details of Davenport’s biography from this superb edition.

[4] As Erik Reece, who knew Davenport well and is his literary executor, wrote, ‘And though he reviewed books for right-wing National Review, he did so simply because Hugh Kenner got him the job, not because he felt any allegiance to William F. Buckley or the conservative movement’: ‘Afterword, Remembering Guy Davenport’,  Reader, 440.

Files in the clouds


(John Constable, Cloud Study: Tate)

The double entry bookkeeping has been a complicated affair just lately; calculating the current balance, that is to say. A madman rushing downstairs yelling ‘All my data’s disappeared!’ was, I suppose, the climax, of a sort. ‘Don’t give yourself a heart attack’, the Librarian advised, adding as an afterthought: ‘Don’t give anyone else one either.’ I suspect I may not be entirely sound on the matter of clouds (data storage rather than weather). I am slowly rebuilding or making visible again a small empire of letters (including Letters). Or so I believe.

Three weeks ago, my phone died; the Librarian set wheels in motion, juggled SIM cards and chargers and I now have, again, a mobile phone that would not be unfamiliar to a consumer around 2013. A few days after the phone death, the lefthand lens of my expensive new glasses fell out. I made it to the optician eventually, the delay due to a bout of Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (yes) as well as rainfall of  deranged frequency and evangelical fervour. When the vertigo receded, a semi-deafness remained, which has made the last few days challenging and sometimes frankly mysterious. Another winter project.

On the other hand – ah well. But wait, yes, on the other hand, the US midterms – after the molten hell of 2016 and the depressing fiasco of 2019, anyone even remotely on the side of the angels will take ‘not as bad as expected’ as something of a triumph.

My reading was also zigzagging with fiendish indecision and smouldering bad temper, until I settled on a run of Penguin Maigrets. Monsieur Georges Simenon for a coherent fictional world and for uplift—‘It was one of those bleak days when you wonder what you’re on earth for in the first place and why you’re going to so much trouble to stay here’—perhaps not always for uplift.[1]


And after all, the weekend just gone: Somerset, good company, food and drink, the Librarian’s birthday, careful maintenance of a diplomatic distance between a young black Labrador and Harry the cat; fish and chips from Herbie’s at Lyme Regis, eaten on a bench on the Cobb. A cloudless day, dazzling blue, the harbour like a millpond – it all changed later but we’d had our visit by then and the sky and sea could do what they liked. Nothing else, in any case, could go wrong after the run of recent delights—except that I had an odd message thanking me for reporting my debit card stolen. Scam, obviously, a message to be immediately deleted. Then an email from someone with whom I have a direct debit arrangement, saying they’d been unable to collect payment. Information that I parked somewhere behind my left ear while we sat in the gardens above the front at Lyme Regis, drinking hot chocolate.

And now we are home, while the rain reliably descends and Harry the cat has no reason to throw up (not being on the back seat of a car) and my reading assumes its usual chaotic character. Finally picking up the phone to call about my lost card, which was not after all sitting on my desk as I’d confidently claimed, I learn that a new card has already been ordered and will be with me soon. The only narrative that makes sense is that I dropped the card on Friday when I was collecting the car, that someone picked it up and handed it in at the nearby branch of my bank rather than running up fantastic bills from online or contactless purchases. I was reminded of Ford’s writing, in The Good Soldier, ‘The instances of honesty that one comes across in this world are just as amazing as the instances of dishonesty.’[2]

As for that data: the crucial files now seem to be in three or four places, cloudbound and deskbound. Are some of them just duplicates? Could one or more versions be safely deleted? Who knows? Will I be putting it to the test? Of course not. . .


Notes

[1] Georges Simenon, Maigret at Picrat’s (1951; translated by William Hobson, London: Penguin Books, 2016), 23.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915; edited by Max Saunders, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 34.

Out, brief candles

(Joseph Wright of Derby, Firework Display at Castel Sant’Angelo: Birmingham Museums Trust)

Walking to the Victorian cemetery, we pass a spent rocket on the pavement. I thought briefly of Mr Leopold Bloom on Sandymount shore, Gerty MacDowell leaning far, far back to watch the fireworks in the night sky and the, ah, stimulated Mr Bloom having to recompose ‘with careful hand’ his wet shirt. ‘My fireworks. Up like a rocket, down like a stick.’[1] The morning after Guy Fawkes’ Night: on the previous evening, we travelled the one hundred and twenty metres to a bonfire in the park. ‘People’, the Librarian reminded me, ‘you’re among people.’ True enough. Several hundred of them, in fact. But it was all in the open air and the only physical contact with a stranger was with the large dog that took a liking to my right leg. Positioned painfully near two young males of the species, the Librarian remarked that ‘boys are horrible’. I know, I said, I used to be one. After a slow start, the flames took a firm hold, climbed, threw glowing embers high into the air. Guy Fawkes. Of course, the effigies burned on the fires used to represent the Pope or various prominent Catholics, while, half a century before Mr Fawkes’ indiscretion, Mary Tudor, Bloody Mary, devoted a fair bit of energy, in her five-year rule as Queen of England, to the immolation of Protestants. One of the Oxford martyrs burnt at the stake in 1555, Hugh Latimer, is supposed to have said to another, Nicholas Ridley (the third was Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury): ‘Be of good comfort, and play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.’ 

Candles, ah, literary candles: Wilfred Owen, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley, Josephine Tey, Ford Madox Ford. . .

(Matthias Stom, An Old Woman and a Boy by Candlelight: Birmingham Museums Trust)

‘Do you happen to know Haydn’s symphony? . . . It is a piece that begins with a full orchestra, each player having beside him a candle to light his score. They play that delicate, cheerful-regretful music of an eighteenth century that was already certain of its doom. . . As they play on the contrabassist takes his candle and on tiptoe steals out of the orchestra; then the flautist takes his candle and steals away . . . .The music goes on—and the drum is gone, and the bassoon . . . and the hautbois, and the second . . . violin. . . . Then they are all gone and it is dark. . . .’[2]

Well, yes. ‘For it is not unusual in human beings who have witnessed the sack of a city or the falling to pieces of a people, to desire to set down what they have witnessed for the benefit of unknown heirs or of generations infinitely remote; or, if you please, just to get the sight out of their heads.’[3]

Ford wrote that even before the outbreak of the First World War, long before our current malaise, with—on bad days—its irrefutably apocalyptic tinge. Still, on a later occasion, there’s this: ‘But I couldn’t keep on writing. I was obsessed with the idea of a country, patrie, republic, body politic, call it what you will[ . . .] Yes: I had a vision of a country.’[4]

It is often, to be sure, hard to keep on writing. Still – a vision of a country. Some people look back in search of it, others look forward, while a good many others clearly don’t care or, contrary to that Dylan song, really do need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Emerging reluctantly from the fictional worlds of P. G. Wodehouse and Kate Atkinson,[5] I find the political landscape essentially unchanged. (I’m reminded that one of Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels is called When Will There Be Good News? No answer is required, as they say.) Perhaps, after the destructive antics of Boris Johnson and the deranged flurry of Liz Truss, some hard-pressed members of the public—even members of the so-called Conservative party—experienced a fleeting frisson of relief that there was now an unelected, right-wing multimillionaire in 10 Downing Street, poised to announce massive cuts in public spending. But in any case he fell at the first hurdle, with his appalling cabinet appointments or reappointments, squandering his one clear chance in sordid little deals; then at the second hurdle of the climate emergency, the subsequent scuffles and scrambles all profoundly unconvincing.

It’s odd that so many of the people who recur obsessively to the Second World War and the defeat of Nazism now seem not to notice or to care that countries long held up as beacons of freedom and democracy are a heartbeat away from – what’s the current phrase, ‘post-fascism’? Leaving aside the worrying recent developments in Sweden, Italy and Israel, the United States is clearly at a crisis point, on the verge of knowing for sure whether or not its two hundred and fifty year old experiment with democracy has effectively ended. Here, the Home Secretary – a scandalous appointment, then a more scandalous reappointment – channels the sort of malignant rhetoric which refugees from Hitler’s regime would find only too familiar, while the Public Order Bill, designed to limit the right to protest to such an extent that it’s effectively removed altogether, might, with trifling revisions in wording, sit quite happily in the legislative registers of China, Iran or Putin’s Russia.

Ah well. If there was settled weather for a while, it is changed and changing now, for sure. As they have it in the Scottish play:

Banquo: It will be rain tonight.
First Murderer: Let it come down.
(They fall upon Banquo)


Notes

[1] James Joyce, Ulysses (1922; London: The Bodley Head, revised edition, 1969), 482, 483.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Provence (London: Allen & Unwin, 1938), 261.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915; edited by Max Saunders, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 12.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, No Enemy (1929; edited by Paul Skinner Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 132.

[5] Kate Atkinson’s long novel, Life After Life (London: Transworld, 2014), is centrally concerned with bearing witness, as several characters—and the author herself—make clear: Ursula (472), Miss Woolf (457-458), ‘Author Note’ (618).

Parrot or Bevan; or, wagging the beards

(D. H. Lawrence)

‘Please compress your last dozen unwritten—or unpublished—blog posts, into a single phrase.’

I think I’d be tempted to go with what are often referred to as D. H. Lawrence’s last words, (which they weren’t, though pretty close to the end): ’This place no good.’[1] He was referring to the Ad Astra sanatorium in Vence, of course. And he was referring to something much wider, of course. I would be referring, not to this house—last refuge of common sense and sweet reasonableness that I can truly rely on—but to the wider world that is being laid waste, particularly this country, where we live and love among the ruins that these dreadful people have reduced us to, are reducing us to. Here, at any rate, we are. Where is that? Phrases like ‘post-apocalypse’ and, yes, ‘among the ruins’ occur more often that they should, possibly because I’ve been reading Lara Feigel’s hugely impressive book on D. H. Lawrence,[2] possibly because I keep getting glimpses of the daily news.

I was reminded somehow (somehow) of Hugh Kenner’s letter to Guy Davenport (13 October 1967). They’d been discussing the name of the couple in whose house Ludwig Wittgenstein had died: was it Parrot or Bevan? Davenport was quoting the 1958 memoir by Norman Malcolm, Kenner citing the viva voce testimony of artist and writer Michael Ayrton. Kenner wrote: ‘Ayrton is in Chicago for 10 days (opening a show) but on his return I shall press him re discrepancies between Parrot and Bevan. Maybe, being English, they spell it Bevan but pronounce it Parrot. He did confirm Parrot the other day.’[3]

(For those not familiar with some of the oddities of English pronunciation of names, try Featherstonehaugh, Auchinlech, Marjoribanks, Woolfhardisworthy or Cholmondley.)[4]

(The Reverend Francis Kilvert – including beard)

But I digress – old joke, shared among Fordians, Ford’s ‘digressions’ generally being anything but – yes, of course. Yesterday I was thinking of the Reverend Francis Kilvert, writing in October 1873: ‘This morning I went to Bath with my Father and Mother to attend the Church Congress Service at the Abbey at 11. When I got to the West door a stream of fools rushed out crying, “No room, you can’t get in!” I knew they were liars by the way they wagged their beards and as this crew of asses rushed out we rushed in and after waiting awhile worked our way up the north aisle till we reached the open transept and got an excellent place near the pulpit.’[5]

He shows here an impressive confidence in discerning the purveyors of untruths. He himself was undeniably bearded, and there was, clearly, an illegitimate manner in which beards were wagged. ‘But’, as Olive Schreiner once remarked, ‘there is another method.’ Kilvert, no doubt, had the key to it. Or perhaps God—conventionally assumed, certainly then, to resemble a man with a beard—sympathised and  helped out a little.

Schreiner had discussed the two methods by which ‘[h]uman life may be painted’, ‘the stage method’ in which characters were ‘duly marshalled at first and ticketed; we know with an immutable certainty that at the right crises each one will reappear and act his part, and, when the curtain falls, all will stand before it bowing.’ And there is, she admits, ‘a sense of satisfaction in this, and of completeness.’ Then: ‘But there is another method—the method of the life we all lead. Here nothing can be prophesied’ and ‘[w]hen the curtain falls no one is ready.’[6]

(Olive Schreiner, via the Irish Times)

It’s an argument for a greater realism, for a narrative reflecting more recognisably the ordinary human experience, echoed, if only in part, by a great many writers subsequently. Perhaps it leans far enough towards ‘mere life’ that the conscious artist might wonder where he or she actually comes in; but, in any case, the talk of stages and footlights and curtains certainly imply that she has in mind Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-8), which begins ‘Before the Curtain’ and ends: ‘Come children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.’[7]

The attitude to fiction exemplified by that beginning and that conclusion also exercised Ford Madox Ford – on more than one occasion and over some thirty years. He wrote in his ‘Dedicatory Letter’ to Last Post: ‘I have always jeered at authors who sentimentalised over their characters, and after finishing a book exclaim like, say, Thackeray: “Roll up the curtains; put the puppets in their boxes; quench the tallow footlights” . . . something like that.’[8] The following year, in his book on the English novel, he remarked of Thackeray that he ‘must needs write his epilogue as to the showman rolling up his marionettes in green baize and the rest of it’.[9] His final book had a final jab: ‘But what must Mr. Thackeray do but begin or end up his books with paragraphs running: “Reader, the puppet play is ended; let down the curtain; put the puppets back into their boxes. . . ”’[10]

(James Elder Christie, Vanity Fair: Glasgow Museums Resource Centre)

Ford’s main criticisms of Thackeray (and other English novelists) were, firstly, that they were always interpolating moral apothegms or making sly comments about their characters; and secondly, that they committed these, and other misdemeanours while eschewing serious consideration of literary techniques because those were foreign, in short, because they were often too concerned with demonstrating that they were, in the first and most important place, English gentlemen.

I sometimes suspect a bastard version of this in the current, and recent, political situation. Anybody who offers intelligent, knowledgeable or insightful criticism of government policies on the economy, defence, immigration, education, health, social care or, indeed, just about anything else, is termed, by Conservative politicians, commentators, right-wing media hacks, opaquely-funded think tanks and the rest as ‘unpatriotic’ or ‘un-English’ or ‘doing the country down’. Irony-hunters – look no further.

Most of these characters—‘this crew of asses’—are, of course, clean-shaven – but, I suspect, would not have fooled the Reverend Kilvert for a moment.

Notes

[1] At the end of a letter to Maria Huxley [21 February 1930], in The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Volume VII: November 1928-February 1930, edited by Keith Sagar and James Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 651.

[2] Lara Feigel, Look! We Have Come Through!: Living with D. H. Lawrence (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022).

[3] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 948. It was in fact at the home of Dr Edward Bevan and his wife Joan, as detailed in Ray Monk’s Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (London: Vintage, 1991), 576ff.

[4] Examples from the often invaluable Schott’s Original Miscellany, by Ben Schott ((London: Bloomsbury, 2002), 17.

[5] Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, Three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969). Volume Two (23 August 1871–13 May 1874), 381.

[6] The Story of an African Farm (1883, under the name Ralph Iron; new edition, Chapman & Hall, 1892), vii-viii.

[7] William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero (1848; edited by John Carey, London: Penguin Books, 2003), 5, 809.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, Last Post (1928; edited by Paul Skinner, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 4-5.

[9] Ford Madox Ford, The English Novel (London: Constable, 1930), 7 (with its slight amendments, this followed the American edition of the previous year).

[10] Ford Madox Ford, The March of Literature: From Confucius to Modern Times (London: Allen & Unwin, 1939), 587.

Passing by – or bypassing

(Unknown Artist, Two Figures Roll Out a Scroll of Paper with a Landscape Design on It, Watched by a Third: Wellcome Collection)

‘Any good news?’
‘There’s a goldfinch singing in the tree in the garden.’
‘Any bad news?’
(Unrolling forty-foot long scroll): ‘Where should I begin?’

A weird couple of weeks, my daughter’s text read. You might well say so. A new monarch and a new Prime Minister. Mutterings, stray black ties, then confirmation that London Bridge had, indeed, fallen. Some things since then, I gather, have gone extremely well, as smoothly as many years of rehearsals and preparations and a large wad of public money could make them; others seem be going extraordinarily badly. It was sobering, for instance, to hear of people threatened with arrest for being in charge of blank sheets of paper, not so long after British expressions of outrage and disbelief at the same phenomenon on the streets of Putin’s Moscow. By degrees, quite reasonable displays of decorum and respect began lapsing into absurdity: the often excruciating media coverage was predictable, perhaps less so some of the cancellations and closures: football matches, kids’ fun runs, bicycle racks, condom vending machines, guinea pig awareness week. . .

Since then, we’ve had the unedifying spectacle of a government clearly in hock to the fossil fuel industry, now augmented by the reckless vandalism proposed, first, by the latest Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, perhaps the most preposterous appointment in an era notorious for such appointments; second, a frankly disgusting mini-budget, focused solely on shovelling yet more money into the hands of those already stinking of the stuff. Never fear, the proles will pay. And their progeny, of course, unto the second or third generation.

The weather has changed, most evidently the early mornings: Harry the cat exchanging the briefest of greetings with the outside air before drifting back upstairs to the bedroom while I pull the back door discreetly shut; and the butter harder to spread. I note with just a touch of disquiet that the next Nicolas Freeling book I shall read—and here a footnote to ‘good news’, three Van der Valk novels in the nice green Penguin jackets—is titled Gun before Butter.


And there was The Queue. I read that a quarter of a million people chose to queue for many hours to pass the Queen’s coffin. Millions more watched the television for hours, although at least as many millions, probably more, got on with their lives in various other ways. As for The Queue: I’ve read explanations of the several credible reasons for people being there but, though Elizabeth II had been on the throne for almost the whole of my life and my mother died at much the same age as the Queen, the one never reminded me of the other (nor was there any grandmotherly resemblance) and I feel no need for a version of ‘something larger than myself’ that involves a huge crowd – the sight of one, even on a screen, still brings me out in a rash. And I am, anyway, I suppose, of the sizeable constituency that admired and respected the late Queen for the way she fulfilled her role while believing that the role itself was past its sell-by date and that this should really be the juncture at which the whole issue is debated, from the ground up (especially from the ground up). But I suspect that substantial elements of the country are neither willing nor able to engage with such matters.

In the Victorian cemetery where we walk, we skirted a wedding in full swing when we were there a while ago, a mass of people on the steps of the building, anyway: cameras, hats, smart clothes, excited chatter. A little earlier on that same afternoon, a funeral had, I think, just finished. We were passing what seemed to be the aftermath of a wake, two or three staff in the late stages of tidying the outdoor venue, sweeping up, rearranging tables and benches. And that near-miss was probably funeral enough for me for a while.

I was, I recall, rather more exercised by the possibility that I’d confused, at some stage, Norman MacColl, editor of the Athenaeum, with Dugald Sutherland MacColl, painter, critic and Keeper of prestigious galleries (the Tate and the Wallace Collection), but also wanting to check on that other connection between moonrise and ‘Henri Beyle who wrote as Stendhal’. Was I in fact thinking of Stonehenge in another context? Fairly specialised concerns, to be sure, but then a lot of people have interests that would fall under that heading for a majority of passers-by.

That’s the crucial point about passers-by, of course. They pass by. As do I, in a great many circumstances, as do I.