‘No mouse or man after a hundred years’: a note on Denton Welch


On 27 February 1948, the novelist, short story writer, artist and autobiographer, Denton Welch wrote: ‘In Gide’s Journal I have just read again how he does not wish to write its pages slowly as he would the pages of a novel. He wants to train himself to rapid writing in it. It is just what I have always felt about this journal of mine. Don’t ponder, don’t grope – just plunge something down, and perhaps more clearness and quickness will come with practice.’[1]

It was, I think, back in October 2020, when my reading took in Elena Ferrante, Alan Garner, Seamus Heaney and Paraic O’Donnell, that I came across this journal entry for that month in 1945:

‘Connie met us in the garden, and because I had grown a beard while in bed, she knelt down on the grass in front of me and murmured something about Christ. Then she got up, looking very old and knowing and monkified, and passed close to Eric, saying nonchalantly, as she brushed his fly buttons with her hand, “Would you like these undone?” Her voice was so light, so almost social sneering, that I could not feel that there was any real sexuality in her, only the ghost of frivolous excitation. Then she began to talk to me about dukes, the Dukes of Cumberland and Cambridge, I think. She always gets on to dukes with me. I wonder why?’

It’s an account of Welch and his close friend Eric Oliver going for tea with Cecilia Carpmael, a wealthy friend of Welch’s mother, a painter with a studio in Cheyne Walk and a house in Kent – ‘and her mad sister, Connie’. If not before, I think it would have caught and held me at those last two sentences.

I don’t know Welch’s writing style well enough to guess at the likelihood of wordplay (probably none whatsoever) in that ‘dukes’—slang for ‘fists’—or, closely following ‘sexuality’ and ‘excitation’, whether there’s a hint of ‘dykes’ (which Eric Partridge suggests was only adopted in the 1930s), but, having only previously read his novel In Youth Is Pleasure, and that more than a dozen years ago, I began reading the Journals properly. Somehow, mysteriously, in the way of these things, I also acquired and read both his last, not quite finished, novel A Voice Through a Cloud and the fine biography, Denton Welch: The Making of a Writer, by the editor of the Journals, Michael De-la-Noy.[2]


Partway—I’m reminded that, years ago, reluctant to accept this one-word version of what he must have thought should be hyphenated or separate words, the poet Charles Tomlinson, who was supervising my thesis, wrote in the margin of a draft chapter: ‘Perhaps you meant “Parkway”?’ (a Bristol railway station)—yes, even when only partway through all three books, one of my strongest and most immediate impressions is that Welch was—as Dylan Thomas remarked of Rilke to Vernon Watkins—‘a very odd boy indeed’.[3]

Welch died in December 1948, at the age of thirty-three. At the age of twenty, he had been involved in an appalling road accident: when cycling he was struck by a car and left with such serious injuries, including a fractured spine, that he was subject to periods of intense pain for the rest of his life, often bedridden with prolonged violent headaches, haemorrhages and fevers. But he also had respites during which he produced stories, poems and essays, drew and painted, wrote many letters, learned to drive a car, to cycle again and go out pretty often, to poke around in antique shops, explore old houses, picnic with Eric Oliver, pay visits to friends or, more often, receive them.

The passage about Gide’s journal practice, which Welch seemed to wish to emulate, is quoted by Michael De-la-Noy at the beginning of his edition of the Journals, when he states that he believes they deserve to be published in their entirety ‘not because they pretend to represent a polished example’ of his ‘neatest literary style or most cleverly condensed subject matter’ but because ‘they stand as a testament to his astonishingly rapid maturity as an author’, as ‘an invaluable record of a tragic and often heroic life’ (Journals xii).

De-la-Noy states in his introduction that Welch never revised the Journals, but much of the writing is extraordinary and would be even had it been extensively revised. As I’ve no doubt quoted before in another connection, ‘the quotabilities swarm’.[4] Some readers may find a few of his concerns ‘precious’: his prolonged and detailed interest in the renovation of his doll’s house, the architectural features of churches, a Georgian jug, the panelling in an old house, a silver teaspoon – but he has an astonishing recall of material details and, not surprisingly, a constant awareness of death and curiosity about how the present might be seen from the future, and sometimes of an audience in that future.


Walt Whitman, in ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’, observed the crowds and envisaged others, fifty or a hundred years hence, seeing the islands, enjoying the sunsets and ‘the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling back to the sea of the ebb-tide’.[5] Welch writes in November 1942: ‘Sometimes I think of when we shall be quaint, be ancient history – like 1840 and gas lamps in the street or like De Quincey and his Anne in Soho Square, in the doorway with the port and the spices which saved his life. When we shall be like ivories or wax figures seen against a flat background. Something after us as well as before. Our future laid out as the nearer past of the people gazing back at us’ (Journals 25).

In 1944, having received an airmail letter from an aircraftman in India, who had kept track of all Welch’s work and wanted to buy a picture from him, he wrote: ‘It made me feel, when I heard of it, as if I had been preserving myself on a top shelf for years, waiting to be discovered. As if I were dead and done with, and watching some future person ferreting me out’ (Journals 173). In 1947, a little over a year before his own death, he writes: ‘I have been thinking of my mother who died twenty years ago. In years to come, when I shall be older than she was when she died, it will be as if I were her elder brother; then, later still, her father’ (Journals 340). In the year of his death, there is this wonderful entry: ‘This afternoon, with the red sun sinking down into all its coloured cushion clouds – so cold that the people in the streets seem to be ashamed of their faces – and now here, after Russian tea and two fat chocolates sent by Pocetta, just arrived from America. Chopin pours over me from the wireless box. Nothing but this small picture will be left of the day; many years after, people may be able to read, then say, “He was cold, he watched the sunset, he ate a chocolate,” but nothing more will be left to them’ (Journal 352-353).

(Enitharmon Editions)

Sometimes it’s just the oddity, the sheer individuality of the writing, not a sense of striving for effect but rather the product of a mind increasingly reliant upon memory, the consolations of solitude, the gradual withdrawal from a world becoming inaccessible to him in any case. In April 1944: ‘Peter talked about the nice police sergeant he knew who was friendly with Somerset Maugham, E. M. Forster etc. He also talked about his crook friend who likes licking girls all over in Hyde Park and who made £900 out of the Black Market. A curious mixture’ (Journals 143). I like there the specificity of the location in which those comprehensive lickings occur. Or this, on the last day of 1944: ‘In my wall is the mouse that scratches and dances. It seems as immortal as we are, and it is all a painted lie. No mouse or man after a hundred years – no cottage in the trees – only the earth, the water, the dripping woods and the low sky for ever’ (Journals 176).

He is writing his journal largely (1942-1948) in a time of war: it does impinge, sometimes obliquely, sometimes with brutal immediacy—the explosion of a time-bomb which landed in the garden of his home in 1940 smashed all the windows, uprooted a tree and covered the surrounding area with mud and dust—but most often in connection with food. Or, at least, although his biographer comments that Welch ‘was obsessed throughout his adult life’ with food, which occurs often in the imagery in his fiction too,[6] perhaps that’s just my having always connected those years with the difficulty or impossibility of obtaining all sorts of food. In fact, he often describes quite unexceptional meals in careful detail—‘We went on to a dish of new peas, hard boiled egg, split lengthways, sardines, new potatoes with mint and butter, salad hearts and sweet dressing’ (Journals 200)—but at least a dozen times I paused to wonder: ‘Could they really get that or those in 1943 or 1946?’

Just thirty-three years in all. Born in Shanghai, where his family was—and had long been—in business, then schools in England, sometimes selected in the light of their attitude to Christian Science (Welch’s mother was an adherent), Goldsmith School of Art in New Cross. Two books published in his lifetime; the book of stories he’d prepared for the press appeared two days after his funeral; and the almost-finished A Voice Through a Cloud, two years after his death.[7] Like so much of Welch’s writing, it’s intensely autobiographical, beginning with an account of his accident—‘I heard a voice through a great cloud of agony and sickness’, the voice being a policeman’s—and going on to trace the aftermath of that profoundly life-altering event. It’s a remarkably accomplished and moving account, with acute recall of his childhood: ‘Out of doors my nostrils were always filled with the smell of humid earth and dank grass, and my heart with the pleasure-fear of seeing ghosts and apparitions.’ There is also a later spur to a memory which, in some particulars if not the primary one here, will strike a chord with many readers: ‘I was reminded of the letters I had written to my mother when she died and I was eleven years old. I used to take these letters out with me into the fields; there I would post them in rabbit-holes, under the overhanging cornices of streams, amongst the tangle of roots and stones and earth, in empty birds’ nests, in old tins and bottles and the pockets of ragged clothes on rubbish dumps, down waterfalls and millraces and a deep forgotten well in the garden of a ruined cottage.’[8]

Easy to quote—’a deep forgotten well’—but harder to stop quoting. Some wonderful stuff, anyway, which has won Welch a good many admirers over the years, from Edith Sitwell, Elizabeth Bowen and W. H. Auden to Alan Bennett, William Burroughs and John Waters. And—obviously—me.

Notes


[1] The Journals of Denton Welch, edited by Michael De-la-Noy (London: Allison & Busby, 1984), 353.

[2] Denton Welch, A Voice Through a Cloud (1950; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983); Michael De-la-Noy, Denton Welch: The Making of a Writer (Harmondsworth: Viking, 1984).

[3] Dylan Thomas, Letters to Vernon Watkins, edited by Vernon Watkins (London: J. M. Dent and Sons and Faber and Faber, 1957), 105.

[4] Hugh Kenner on Part II of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, in A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (London: Marion Boyars, 1977), 194.

[5] Walt Whitman: The Complete Poems, edited by Francis Murphy (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986), 190.

[6] De-la-Noy, Denton Welch, 35.

[7] Unfinished ‘by a dozen or so pages’: De-la-Noy, Denton Welch, 12.

[8] Welch, A Voice Through a Cloud, 10, 57, 65.

The local exotic


‘Come, come, now, my blonde darling, I may not have written for a little longer than usual, but it couldn’t have been that “over a month” you mention. And you mustn’t worry about not hearing from me now and then. A lot of things can happen in a wartime Army to make writing difficult, and they don’t all have to be bad. If anything should happen to me, the good old USA would notify you, your name and address are on my dog tag. (The new dog tags, not yet issued to us, have no name and address of next-of-kin on them.)’

Dashiell Hammett was sending reassurances (after a fashion) from the Aleutians to his older daughter Mary, in February 1944.[1] Over a month! Still, it was, as he says, the Aleutians in wartime. ‘Darling’, Ford Madox Ford wrote to Stella Bowen in November 1918, ‘I haven’t had a word from you for three days—& you can imagine how long a time that seems to me’.[2]

There are people now that we haven’t had a word from for six months, people that we haven’t seen for a year – or more. So how would this work? That the people we haven’t seen for the longest period are the ones we most want to see? Of course not – or not necessarily. We are, after all, human animals, so we have, most of us, some of us, a few of us, lived in that magical state where we miss people the moment they leave us, more, even before they leave us since we can predict the moment when that separation will occur and feel it on our skin before it happens.

I see that people are pining away for the loss of a sight of Athens, Paris, New York, Sydney, Prague, Bilbao. I have been to some, though not all, of those places but, to be frank (to be earnest), the places I am plagued by pictures of—unannounced, unprompted, unasked for—are palpably absurd. Absurd and banal and not to be mentioned in the context of these discussions of exotic and far-flung locations.  They are the corners of streets not far from here; the road leading to a park in Bath; the hill running down to the Librarian’s parents’ home; a lane in Clifton, three miles away.


The local is lodged in my brain in a way that those others are not. Even the marvels of that apartment in Prague, that we talked of this evening. Even the baguette and Brie and glass of red wine on a pavement in Paris, bringing to mind the letter that Ford Madox Ford writes to Henry Goddard Leach, the editor of Forum and Century, in 1938, about the pieces he is thinking of drafting: ‘Another I meditate treating very soon is simply the fact that France—from the point of view of culture and the arts—manages everything so infinitely better than either branch of Anglo-Saxondom that the sooner we acknowledge the fact the sooner we shall be out of the wood.’[3]

And that was it, more or less. I remember thinking at the time, as I sat on that pavement in Paris: If we can’t even manage to provide bread and cheese and a glass of wine at this sort of level, how the hell can we manage anything else?

The answer was, of course: we can’t. And so it proved. Proves. Has proven. Will prove. Will prove to have proven.


Notes


[1] Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett, 1921-1960, edited by Richard Layman with Julie M. Rivett (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2001), 281-282.

[2] Correspondence of Ford Madox Ford and Stella Bowen, edited by Sondra J. Stang and Karen Cochran (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994), 38.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 288.

Habits – not the monkish kind


I was thinking about habits—not the monkish kind—but order, repetition, the almost unthinking, hardly a novelty in a plague time, when the Librarian and I wear ruts in the park that trace out our daily walks there. I’m aware, for instance, that I hear tunes in my head to accompany various tasks or movements: unscrewing the top of the coffeemaker to clean it and walking up or down stairs, I hear thirteen notes. On the stairs, this corresponds to the theme tune of The Archers—I don’t listen to the programme but anyone in this country who ever listens to the radio recognises that theme tune, as they do EastEnders, whether they watch the television programme or not—or a riff in the Kinks’ Autumn Almanac or, worryingly, ‘Me and My Teddy Bear’.

Habit, custom, ritual? The last is more ceremonial, usually religious, though it need not be, An often repeated series of actions will qualify—which brings me to the cat, just lately. Breakfast dish; back door; dish again; back door again; check that the dish is empty; stroll upstairs to lie on the Librarian until she gets up.

The back door is part of the deal. Having no catflap, the arrangement is that, if the cat asks for the door to be opened – I open it. Sitting at the table, eating breakfast, reading, in sub-zero temperatures or with a drifting rain, the arrangement holds. He doesn’t actually step outside unless there’s warmth and sunshine – but a deal’s a deal.

Habit, though: positives and negatives. ‘Chaos often breeds life, when order breeds habit’, Henry Adams wrote, who would not quite qualify as a Man with No Regrets.[1] And, once established, a habit sticks: ‘A habit or an attitude of mind is the hardest thing to change, whatever tricks or suppressions you may play with its projection’, Mary Butts wrote.[2] Some habits are worse than others or, rather, harder to break. Ronald Duncan wrote of ‘the worst and most dangerous of all mental diseases—the habit of seeing things as we wish them to be, not as they are.’ He liked the formulation so much that he used it again twenty years later, just a little amplified.[3] The narrator of Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman wryly observes that ‘The habit of sardonic contemplation is the hardest habit of all to break.’[4]


Some habits become stylistic tics, artistic signatures, as Guy Davenport remarked of Picasso: ‘throughout his career his habit of combining full face and profile became a stylistic trademark—prompting Henri Rousseau’s perfectly accurate observation, “You and I, M. Picasso, are the two greatest living painters, I in the modern manner, you in the Egyptian,” the full-face eye in a face seen sideways being the rule in Egyptian drawing.’[5] Penelope Fitzgerald alluded to ‘the insight of long habit, so much more reliable than love’.[6]

Born in Paris and moving to London at the age of twenty-three, W. L. George published his novel The Making of an Englishman, centred on the Anglicising of a Frenchman, in 1914. ‘I believe silence is England’s secret’, George’s narrator says, ‘and I bore many a snub before I acquired the habit.’[7] Reviewing this ‘atrocious’ book, Ford Madox Ford wrote: ‘if I were an Englishman, I should try to kick Mr George sixty times round Leicester Square for writing it.’ Like his review, George had, Ford concluded, ‘his tongue in his cheek’, concluding: ‘He is a wicked man.’ George was, in fact, a friend of his, part of the English Review circle, and writing about George’s novel gave Ford an opportunity for several digs at English national traits as he had come to regard them, not least the inarticulacy of ‘the English gentleman’.[8]

Sixty years ago, Richard Cassell suggested that Ford developed ‘a theory of style from the English habit of avoiding direct speech.’[9] The Inheritors, written in collaboration with Conrad (but mostly by Ford), begins:

“Ideas,” she said. “Oh, as for ideas—”
“Well?” I hazarded, “as for ideas—?”[10]


A little over twenty years later, with Conrad so recently dead, Ford wrote: ‘If you listen to two Englishmen communicating by means of words, for you can hardly call it conversing, you will find that their speeches are little more than this: A. says, “What sort of a fellow is … you know!” B. replies, “Oh, he’s a sort of a …” and A. exclaims, “Ah, I always thought so….” This is caused partly by sheer lack of vocabulary, partly by dislike for uttering any definite statement at all. For anything that you say you may be called to account.’[11] 

These days – I don’t know. Calling to account seems to have gone right out of fashion in this country – and several others. In any case, for the foreseeable future, my Englishness will continue to carve deeper ruts on the park walks and limit itself to broken sentences should any stranger be so reckless as to approach me.


Notes


[1] Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1918; New York: The Modern Library, 1931), 249.

[2] Mary Butts, ‘Traps for Unbelievers’, in Ashe of Rings and Other Writings (New York: McPherson & Company, 1998), 317.

[3] Ronald Duncan, Journal of a Husbandman (London: Faber 1944), 212; see All Men Are Islands: An Autobiography (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1964), 8: ‘the worst and most dangerous of all mental diseases which is the habit of seeing things as we would wish them to be and an inability to see things as they are.’

[4] Angela Carter, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972; London: Penguin Books, 2011), 245.

[5] Guy Davenport, Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature (Washington: Counterpoint, 1998), 68.

[6] Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower (1995; London: Everyman, 2001), 301.

[7] W. L. George, The Making of an Englishman (London: Constable, 1914), 72.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, ‘Literary Portraits—XXI. Mr W. L. George and “The Making of an Englishman”, Outlook, XXXIII (31 January 1914), 143.

[9] Richard A. Cassell, Ford Madox Ford: A Study of His Novels (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1961), 68.

[10] Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad, The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story (1901; Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999), 5.

[11] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (London: Duckworth, 1924), 135-136.

Predictably, that was January


So that was January. Turning over in bed onto my left side, I feel a slight discomfort and remember that, jostling for position in the month’s high notes—with snow, some of the Ford Madox Ford material I’ve been looking at, the cat’s developing relationship with a table tennis ball and probably the best venison spaghetti Bolognese I’ve yet made—is my first shot of Pfizer vaccine. That is, the one made by BioNTech in Germany, then sent to Pfizer in Belgium to be formulated and bottled.

I went to the local surgery rather than a football stadium, and it was all very efficient, though every patient had to wait for fifteen minutes afterwards, to make sure there were no serious reactions to the vaccine, so I was in close proximity to more people than at any time in the past ten months except, possibly, when I had my flu and pneumonia vaccinations in October. But everyone was masked—medical grade in my case, at least—and sitting a safe distance apart.

A positive touch in these strange times, for sure, and the whole vaccination process so far is a huge credit to the NHS – though here’s Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, pointing out that 2021 could be a lot less predictable than 2020:

‘From last January onwards, we knew this was a novel virus for which we had no immunity. We knew it was transmitted from human to human, and while it often triggered no illness at all it could also end in death. Once we knew that last January, then 2020 became predictable. Unfortunately, we are now entering a year whose outcome is far less predictable. The virus is evolving and changing, and so that is reducing our capacity to cope with it – and that means we are really going to be stretched.’
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/31/jeremy-farrar-until-we-are-all-safe-no-one-is-safe-covid-is-a-global-problem


In Elizabeth Bowen’s The Hotel, Sydney Warren thinks: ‘“It is all very well to escape to the future and think it will always be that; but this is the end of the future.”’ More encouraging, perhaps—and not in a novel— George Yeats (Georgie Hyde-Lees), electing to remain for the present in Dublin, wrote to her husband, W. B. Yeats, then in London, on 1 February 1923. ‘It seems strange to me that I have no feeling of fear over the future, but this very lack of anxiety increases my belief that there is no need for fear, for if I do not fear for you when you are my whole world surely my instinct is right?’

I like the incident that Alice Miller mentions when discussing her first novel, More Miracle Than Bird, which centres on George Yeats. Approached by a man who asked her how it felt to live with a genius, George answered: “Oh, all right, I never notice.”
https://lithub.com/how-do-you-write-about-a-woman-who-loathed-the-spotlight/

I think, on the whole, I’ll try to balance a fair bit of noticing with not too much prediction. Until March, at least.

Snow and other falls


I see that it’s one of those packed literary anniversary days: the births of Robert Burns, Virginia Woolf, Somerset Maugham, J. G. Farrell – and the death of Dorothy Wordsworth. Unusually, I’ve read at least some work by all of the celebrants, though – Sassenach! – not that much Burns.

In his column published on 25 January 1908, Ford Madox Ford remembered one of the maxims of his old schoolmaster: ‘“Schreib wie du sprichst!”’ Ford went on: ‘Write as you speak! What a glorious but impracticable counsel! For if we had written as we spoke then what a queer mixture of schoolboy slang in English, what an ungrammatical colloquial German, what queer French or Virgilian Latin it would have been!’ And yet: ‘“Schreib wie du sprichst!” How often since then have I repeated those words to neophytes; how often have I not striven after that impossible ideal!’ So much of English prose writing, he asserts, has been damaged by adherence to stilted, flowery or Latinate models. And Doughty? ‘I detest his style; I revel in his books.’ The latest of these, Wanderings in Arabia, Ford finds ‘a work of great value, that value lying in ‘the number of sensations that it conveys.’ Doughty’s book ‘is of this great value and interest, for it is really a projection of life; not a mere “writing about” things.’[1]


Writing versus speaking: an old song. The idea of writing just as you speak would, I suspect, appal some people: yet anyone giving a presentation—or writing a poem, or a story, or anything else—must surely need to gauge how it sounds. Can it be read aloud without sounding awkward, pompous, false? If you can’t voice it without tying yourself in knots, pity the poor devils who are going to be on its receiving end.

So, the past week: what stands out? The inauguration, naturally – and not just Amanda Gorman, hugely impressive as she was. ‘My God’, the Librarian said as she caught sight of the Biden and Harris contingents, ‘their families look like normal families!’ And so they did, yet another point of marked contrast with what came before.

Beyond that: we have surely passed the point at which even the vigorous promoters of Brexit could pretend that it was anything other than the crippling disaster half the country always knew it would be – and the many people who voted for it must finally suspect that they are, as they undoubtedly are, viewed with utter contempt by those who brought it about, including the xenophobic right-wing press. Strange, though, how unwilling the authors of this catastrophe are to own it and take responsibility for it – as adults surely should do..

What else? I suppose my grasping the fact that we probably had two serious chances to tackle Covid-19 in this country – and blew them both. Now we hear of discussions about border restrictions – at least ten months late – and quibbles over who should be subject to them. Just people from Brazil and South Africa? All that inconvenience at Heathrow, dear me. And I sit here wondering just who is at Heathrow and why the hell are they there? Stay home! There’s a pandemic!

On the plus side: snow! And, definitely, Russell Davies’ devastatingly good It’s a Sin; and, a little on the down side again, my latest minor kitchen injury. No doubt, most people get through life without the base of a wine glass breaking off in their hand and making a mess of it – but it seems I’m not one of them.


Note

[1] This column is reprinted in Ford Madox Ford, Critical Essays, edited by Max Saunders and Richard Stang (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 52-55. Ford is writing about Wanderings In Arabia, arranged and introduced by Edward Garnett (Duckworth, 1908).

Something in the west

The Scarlet Sunset circa 1830-40 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/D24666

‘We could go for a later walk’, the Librarian said, ‘and try to catch a sunset – if there is one. It’s a bright, clear day at the moment.’ The sunset time on the BBC weather site was 16:34. I remembered being on the Dorset coast a couple of years ago, when we could watch the sun slip out of sight at exactly the predicted time. Science: knowledge ascertained by observation and experiment, critically tested, systematised and brought under general principles, derived from the Latin, to know – so not popular with everyone.

I suspect that there are dawn people and sunset people – and, needless to say, a huge number of others that will take both or neither or who, in any case, are never up sufficiently early to take a balanced view of the matter. Wordsworth’s dawn (in which it was bliss to be alive) in The Prelude embraced both youth and the initial promise of revolutionary France. A red sky at night, the proverb says, has shepherds capering about in sheer glee. Certainly my mother, who was a keen amateur painter, could never get enough of sunsets – but then she lived for a few years in the Far East, and a vista of junks picking their way through a dazzling sunset across the South China Sea was absurdly romantic to western eyes. A more prosaic question is probably: does your day stretch awfully ahead of you in some deadening job that barely puts food on the table after a ten-hour stint or is the prospect rather more alluring?


The narrator of Henry Green’s first novel, Blindness, lingers on an approaching sunset. ‘The sun was flooding the sky in waves of colour while he grew redder and redder in the west, the trees were a red gold too where he caught them. The sky was enjoying herself after the boredom of being blue all day.’[1] John Ruskin, writing in the early 1870s, was a little more agitated: ‘I…cannot any more look at a sunset with comfort, because, now that I am fifty-three, the sun seems to me to set so horribly fast; when one was young, it took its time; but now it always drops like a shell, and before I can get any image of it, is gone, and another day with it.’[2]

Guy Davenport observed that ‘Turner’s violent sunsets can be traced to a volcano in the Pacific, which loaded the air with dust and made chromatic changes in the sky. An element in romanticism can thus be traced to tectonic plates. From Turner, Ruskin; from Ruskin, Proust; from Proust, Beckett. Our sense of history can always be activated by such connections, whether they’re dependable or not. Every age’s past is a chosen one, and tells as much about the age as about the history it recovers.’[3]

Writing to his friends Geoffrey and Ninette Dutton, the Australian novelist Patrick White mentioned that his story, ‘Being Kind to Titina’, was based on his partner Manoly’s ‘childhood and youth in Alexandria and Athens’, and that he wanted to write a novel ‘about a boy growing up in those places, in a large family and ending with the German invasion of Greece. I think of it under the title of “My Athenian Family”, and see it as a kind of Greek version of a Turner sunset’. One of his favourite paintings was Turner’s ‘Interior at Petworth’ and, in a letter to Mary Benson (30 June 1971), he wrote that he used to go and look at it almost every Sunday when living in London: ‘besides being a subtle painting, I feel it taught me a lot about writing.’ Late Turners, he told another friend, Penny Coleing (23 June 1971), made him ‘grow breathless with delight every time I see them’.[4]


I was trying to remember the title – of a book or a section of a book – to do with sunsets, or the sinking of the sun in the west. I could remember the rhythm: the something of the something in the west but got no further. The Decline of the West seemed a possible part of it – Spengler? David Caute? – but no. The closest I got was the latter half of the title of a Cormac McCarthy novel I’d read years back: Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West – and noticed that he’d written a play called The Sunset Limited. Of the novel, I mainly recalled a great deal of blood, scalping and general mayhem.

To Hugh Kenner, Davenport wrote on 18 January 1974: ‘Cormac McCarthy, the Gothic nuvvlist of Sevier County, Tennessee, has begun sending back his Xerox copy of Tatlin!, page by page, with the socks of my prose pulled up. He is right most of the time, but he has made me feel so unsure of my ability to write even a simple English sentence that I’ve had dark and despairing thoughts of withdrawing the manuscript altogether.’ To which Kenner sent his reassuring reply five days later: ‘Pay no ultimate heed to Cormac McCarthy. No hand is surer than your’n with English syntax and epithet.’[5]

There was, of course, no sunset on our walk: no sun to begin with by the time we went out, barely any light at all in fact. It had become a day determined to give a new edge to the word ‘dull’. Still, it was good exercise.


Notes

[1] Henry Green, Nothing, Doting, Blindness (London: Vintage Books, 2008), 421.

[2] Ruskin, Fors Clavigera (New Edition: 4 volumes, 1896), I, 373.

[3] Guy Davenport, ‘Wheel Ruts’,  Grand Street, 7, 2 (Winter, 1988), 246.

[4] Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 202, 203n.

[5] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 1503, 1504.

Rosemary and rue


We walk back from the frosty cemetery, my jacket pocket stuffed with sprigs of rosemary, courtesy of the bush—one of two—in the park we cut through on the way. The original Latin phrase (ros marinus) translates as ‘sea dew’. Put soon into a jar of water, it lasts surprisingly well.

‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance—pray you, love, remember’, poor Ophelia says to Laertes (Hamlet, IV, v). ‘And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.’

There is, I suspect, little danger of our failing to remember the events of the past week. In our country, record numbers of Covid-19 cases seemingly every day, and the hospitals, especially in London, in crisis. In the United States, a record number of daily deaths from the same cause – and, ah, what seems rather like an attempted coup. Astonishing scenes from the Capitol, which apparently surprised even some of those who knew something very like it was on the cards – let alone the ones who pretended that it hadn’t been coming down the track for the past four years. Clearly, I don’t know enough about American politics to understand why the man who incited all this—and incited or effectively authorised so much more—isn’t already behind bars, along with a good many other members of his entourage, past and present. ‘The cradle of democracy’, I’ve seen the United States referred to as several times recently (not always ironically). If that’s so, the child has been sickening for some time now and, for all the hopeful signs, the prognosis must be in doubt.

Here, luckily, no Conservative politician is acquainted with Donald Trump; nor do they even recognise the name. The thumbs-up, the golden elevator, the smarming and sucking up and toadying – never happened. Reality can be so misleading.

In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (IV, iv), Perdita (which means lost, suitably enough, though she is found again) offers ‘flowers’ to the disguised Polixenes and Camillo: ‘Reverend sirs,/ For you there’s rosemary and rue. These keep/ Seeming and savour all the winter long.’ ‘Rue’, of course, offers puns a-plenty but its Old High German root, I see, meant ‘mourning’.

Let’s hope for sufficient doses—and effective distribution—of rosemary and rue.

Also the living


New Year’s Day, and we walk in the cemetery. I think we might catch a glimpse of that fabled ‘sovereignty’ which is all the rage among Brexiteers but I see only a couple of examples of the more common unicorn. So it goes.

That we are, for the most part, in the company of the dead, is not inappropriate, given the past nine months. But there are also the living – saving the Librarian, I find there are a few too many of those for my current peace of mind but they mostly keep their distance and the paths are wide here.

On this day in 1916, D. H. Lawrence wrote to his agent, James Pinker: ‘Already, here, in Cornwall, it is better; the wind blows very hard, the sea all comes up the cliffs in smoke. Here one is outside England, the England of London — thank God.’[1]

Two years later, Wyndham Lewis found himself in the region of Neuville-Saint-Vaast, where the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska had been killed in June 1915, at the age of twenty-three. Lewis wrote to Ezra Pound on 1 January 1918: ‘I was taken out sight-seeing today, with a dismal & angry feeling I passed the place, through the fields, anyway, where Gaudier was killed. The ground was covered with snow, nobody about, and my god, it did look a cheerless place to die in.’[2]

2020 has been, by almost every measure, a dreadful year. The United States, Brazil, India, Russia, France have registered appalling figures of infection and death. Here in the United Kingdom, where terrible numbers of infections and deaths have also been recorded, the unutterable foolishness of Brexit has lurched to its appointed, what – end for some people, way station for others. In contrast to the astonishing achievements of the scientific community and the beleaguered National Health Service, our government has continued on its blundering way, handing out lucrative contracts to their unqualified, unsuitable chums as they go. Her Majesty’s Opposition, meanwhile, are missing in inaction.

But we have – what we have, whatever each of us has that is valued and cared for. We can lament the recent past and dread—or even be sanguine about—the future but, on the whole, the present seems the best bet, and as truly local as possible.

Happy New Year, as the saying goes.


Notes

[1] Letters of D. H. Lawrence II, June 1913–October 1916, edited by George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 494.

[2] Pound/Lewis: The Letters of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis, edited by Timothy Materer (London: Faber and Faber, 1985), 113.

The turning of the year, the turning of the pages

(Anthony, Henry Mark; Stonehenge; Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/stonehenge-19092)

St Thomas grey, St Thomas grey,
The longest night and the shortest day.[1]

‘I might be lost’, Adolfo Barberá said to Iain Sinclair, ‘but I know where I am.’[2] Many of us can say, with confidence, that we’re lost. Do we know where we are? We now appear to be quarantined on an island off the coast of Europe. There are features discernible in this winter solstice landscape and the main one is probably recurrence, repetition, things going round again. I find the same quotations running through my head, for sure, such as Guy Davenport’s, ‘In our time we long not for a lost past but for a lost future’, or this from Charles Olson:

What has he to say?
In hell it is not easy
to know the traceries, the markings[3]

In England, the pattern is established, if not one to emulate. Receive the advice, ignore it, then eventually act on it—too late—and retreat from it too soon. Repeat. Even the—what is the latest euphemism, ‘low information voters’?—yes, it must surely be dawning on even those co-operative souls that the Leave UK gang hasn’t handled matters quite as well as they might have done. The news from Kent, on the other hand, must be hugely reassuring to those who voted for that Brexit thing.

(Via BBC)

Has this country ever been governed so badly? As we edge, run or career towards the end of 2020, it occurs to me that I’ve been reading for dear life these last months, as if the relentless turning of pages could offset to some degree the idiocy and dishonesty of this government and, frankly, the sheer insanity of the United States administration and many of its supporters.

‘Prose is the devil’, Ezra Pound once remarked in a letter to Alice Corbin Henderson, poet and assistant editor to Harriet Monroe at Poetry magazine. ‘ALL prose is the devil, except perhaps a little of Flaubert and De Maupassant.’[4] Nevertheless, pace Ezra—who was, I note in passing, a clue in yesterday’s speedy crossword, ‘troubled US poet’, though why he should be described as ‘troubled’, more so than Robert Lowell or Anne Sexton or John Berryman or Sylvia Plath or a hundred others, who can say?—it’s been mainly prose that I’ve been reading, although, in conjunction with Roy Foster’s incisive book on Seamus Heaney, I found myself reading (or sometimes rereading) the first six books of Heaney’s poetry.[5]

Some tremendous books have passed before my eyes this year, though it still feels hugely pleasing to be back with Maigret—in Antibes at the moment. There have been jaunts avec M. Simenon in previous months, and a few Golden Age authors such as Margery Allingham but, beyond those, I took in several of the year’s high profile titles. Still, not for the first time, some of the best things were older – but, in either case, most seemed to be by women this time around.

Some of them cropped up on several Books of the Year lists: Maggie O’Farrell’s impressive Hamnet and Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light (I added her collection of pieces from The London Review of Books, Mantel Pieces, and—one I’d missed—her fine memoir, Giving Up the Ghost). Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting was a blast and Helen Macdonald’s collection of essays, Vesper Flights, was marvellous, one of my books of the year for sure. After Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults, I read her earlier, very unsettling The Lost Daughter.


Not quite so new but add Annie Ernaux and Mary Gaitskill, just about anything by either of them:  Ernaux seems to have reinvented or recast the genre of autobiography (Fitzcarraldo Editions have done five of hers in translation now); while Gaitskill seems to possess something like perfect pitch.

Maybe the most fun was either Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time, six hundred plus pages which I ripped through in a couple of days; Ysenda M. Graham’s British Summer Time Begins; or Paraic O’Donnell’s two novels, The Maker of Swans and The House on Vesper Sands, which came recommended on Melissa Harrison’s podcast, ‘The Stubborn Light of Things’, also the title of the collection of her monthly nature diary columns in The Times, certainly another of my books of the year.

‘The year’, ‘the year’ – an endlessly recurring phrase, often in conjunction with such optimistic sentiments as ‘the next one can’t be worse’ and ‘soon be over’.

Ah, well.

Notes


[1] Quoted in Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 505.

[2] Iain Sinclair, ‘Diary’, London Review of Books, 21 May 2020), 40.

[3] Guy Davenport, Apples and Pears (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), 63; Charles Olson, ‘In Cold Hell, in Thicket’, in The Collected Poems of Charles Olson, edited by George F. Butterick (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 155.

[4] The Letters of Ezra Pound to Alice Corbin Henderson, edited by Ira B. Nadel (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993), 43.

[5] R. F. Foster, On Seamus Heaney (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020).

It’s beginning to feel a bit like Christmas

The Christmas lights are on; and fat Santa is standing in the alcove. We have some holly; and the Christmas tree has arrived, a little larger than expected, the base of the trunk not quite fitting into the stand.

‘Just saw a bit off.’
‘With what?’
‘Ah – the saw.’
‘Which is where?’
‘I don’t know where it is but we must have one.’
‘Must we?’

After a reasonable amount of investigation, it seems that we have no saw. Or did and lost it, or gave it to someone needy. Or it rusted or pined away from neglect. We order a saw. Length: twenty-one – are these inches or centimetres? It arrives the next day.

I’m used to watching the Librarian’s dad wield a saw, which he does confidently, fluently and effectively. I, on the other hand, differ from that specification just a little and, as a spectacle, may already be a standing joke to extra-terrestrial scouts, even an element in their amusing PowerPoint presentations of life on planet Earth, once they’ve stopped laughing at Brexit. Still, the tree is now in situ, decorated and subject to the baleful stare of the cat.

So the year dwindles down. Today is a popular birthday among the literati or, more broadly, the culturati, including one of my favourite writers, Sylvia Townsend Warner, as well as Ira Gershwin, Osbert Sitwell, Alfred Eisenstadt, Dave Brubeck and Nick Park. One of the most poignant must be that of the painter Frédéric Bazille (born 6 December 1841), who enlisted in the Franco-Prussian War and, during the winter of 1870-1871, ‘the bitterest in living memory’, was killed during a minor attack on Beaune-la-Rolande, on 20 November 1870. For ten days – ten days! – Bazille’s father ‘dug in the snow-covered battleground, looking for his son. Eventually he found his body. He hauled it back to Montpellier himself, on a peasant’s cart.’[1]

(Bazille, View of the Village)

It’s still only a few months since it ceased to be the case that, when asked if I had a personal Twitter account, I would remember, and often quote, the lines in Auden’s Letter to Lord Byron:

Indeed our ways to waste time are so many,
Thanks to technology, a list of these
Would make a longer book than Ulysses.[2]

The Librarian would update me daily and more or less selectively on the latest absurdities from a deranged president, a lying Cabinet minister or an idiot actor. Taking over the Twitter account for a literary society has granted me direct and immediate access to such delights, or rather, less direct than through the commentary of individuals on my timeline. It is, of course, something of an echo chamber, since those the Society follows tend to be well-informed, well-read and clear-sighted when it comes to American politics, Brexit and the English government’s record on the Covid-19 pandemic. Specialists in the apocalypse, you might say.

Still, 2020 almost gone. A vaccine in sight. Are we downhearted, you ask – but do not, I notice, wait for an answer.


Notes


[1] Sue Roe, The Private Lives of the Impressionists (London: Chatto and Windus, 2006), 82, 83.

[2] W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, Letters from Iceland (London: Faber and Faber, 1937), 53.