No birthday goat


It’s a bright and brassy day and – ‘We could walk by the city farm and see the goat’, the Librarian says, ‘and then maybe go on as far as the harbour.’

‘The goat may not be out in this weather’, I say (pawn to c4), ‘and the harbour area will be swarming with infected people (Bf4).’

‘We’ll be in the open air’, she says, ‘you can wear a mask and’—(Qd4)—‘it’s my birthday.’

Birthdays – they come but once a year, unless you’re a reigning monarch. The pleasure, the anticipation, the dread, the guilt. ‘I did not forget your birthday’, Elizabeth Bishop wrote to her friend Loren MacIver, ‘but could not find the Western Union and had no telephone. Forgive me. I am just not used to work, you know, and find it takes a lot of time, effort, and character, etc.—things I don’t have any of.’[1]

Occasionally, there are instances of peerless symmetry: D. H. Lawrence’s wife Frieda, both born and dying on 11 August, or Charles Waterton, the traveller and conservationist, buried on his 83rd birthday. Some people celebrate by doing something life-changing. On his thirty-first birthday, Saturday 22 February 1913, the sculptor Eric Gill went to Brighton to be received into the Church by Canon Connelly, accompanied by his wife Ethel – who afterwards changed her name to Mary. Then they went home, in time for Leonard and Virginia Woolf to arrive for the weekend.[2] Others involve themselves in other people’s birthday celebrations – sometimes unwisely. So Major-General J. F. C. Fuller, Boer War veteran, military theorist and former disciple of Aleister Crowley, served as Oswald Mosley’s minister of defence-in-waiting—so some pretty bad choices already—then, in April 1939, accepted an invitation to Hitler’s fiftieth birthday parade. In that same year, he denied allegations about German concentration camps.[3]

Still, presents! Occasionally, beauty trumps utility. Of W. B. Yeats receiving on his fortieth birthday ‘a book so ornate you couldn’t read it’— a copy of Chaucer from William Morris’s Kelmscott Press—Hugh Kenner comments: ‘Fortunately, Morris tended to print books you’d already read.’[4]


The Librarian made do with a few books, a necklace, champagne, chocolates, fish pie (which, admittedly, she made herself), phone calls and text messages: a proper lockdown birthday. There was no goat; nor did we go on to the harbour that morning. But the next day, Arnos Vale Victorian garden cemetery being open, we wandered around some of its 45 acres, sticking to the wide paths. Damp weather but a good, unbirthday walk.


Notes


[1] Postcard dated 10 February 1966: Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 443.

[2] Fiona MacCarthy, Eric Gill (London: Faber & Faber, 1990), 115.

[3] David Seabrook, All the Devils are Here (London: Granta, 2002), 77.

[4] Hugh Kenner, A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984), 216.

Just a footnote?

(Gerrit Dou, Maid at the Window: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam)

So – yes and no. America’s made a decisive start on the crucial task of cleaning house but there are some stubborn stains and a deal of anxiety about just how much of the building is structurally sound. Will even this dark period not be an historical footnote eventually?

On that matter of footnotes – I was reading Denton Welch’s journal for January 1944, when Welch and Eric Oliver, the intimate companion of his last years, took refuge from the rain in a pub called the Chequers in the Kent village of Crouch. ‘It was not imitation at all, very home-made, unperiod, just itself. All round the walls were narrow benches. There was a daddlums board and darts board, nothing else except a table and two chairs.’[1]

There was a what board? ‘Daddlums’? My Chambers and Concise Oxford dictionaries merely shrugged when consulted; downstairs, my Shorter Oxford was heaved off the shelf with no better result. Wandering online confirmed a not unreasonable guess that it referred to a version of table skittles.

The Journals do carry a good many footnotes by their very efficient editor but these tend to be of that specific factual kind: explaining who people were, correcting or adding to an assertion that Welch has made, references to his published stories in which various people appear under different names, explanations of some abbreviation or phrase current at the time of Welch’s writing, much of it during the war and all of it during the 1940s – the journal covers the years from 1942 to 1948, when Welch died at the age of thirty-three. No ‘daddlums’, at any rate.

Ironically, perhaps, Welch himself writes a little later: ‘Is it in Montaigne that I have just read that the way to know what to write about is to think of all the things you wish writers in the past had mentioned? I wish that people should mention the tiny things in their lives that give them pleasure or fear or wonder. I would like to hear the bits of family or intimate history they knew’ (Journals 175). Yes, we tend not to mention the details of our lives which are so familiar that we barely notice them, and these are often the precise materials that future historians will be crying out for.

Personally, I’m a fan of footnotes and acknowledge the meatiness of the remark by Chick, Saul Bellow’s narrator: ‘I have always had a weakness for footnotes. For me a clever or a wicked footnote has redeemed many a text.’[2] They can  be a means of smuggling in an editor’s obsessive interests—which the text itself may not warrant mention of—and can ease other feelings too. Alethea Hayter writes of historical painter Benjamin Haydon’s son: ‘Frank Haydon suffered miseries of embarrassment from his father’s dogmatism and showing off, and years later he revenged himself by writing vicious footnotes to the more pious and pompous sentences in his father’s diary.’[3]

In context, there’s something undeniably pleasing about that ‘vicious footnotes’.

Of his 1941 book on W. B. Yeats, Louis MacNeice wrote: ‘The book is nearly all quotations (I am beginning to think the ideal lit. critic would only speak in person in footnotes)’,[4] while Hugh Kenner, leaving Santa Barbara for Baltimore, explained the nature of his concerns in a letter to Guy Davenport (21 November 1972): ‘The principle is not desertion of a leaky ship, nor sight of pastures greene, but simply need for a massive change if I am to avoid becoming a writer of footnotes and sequels to my previous work. I have finished what I set out to do 20 years ago, and need to get started on something else of some magnitude.’[5]

Should I quote Robert Phelps once again? Absolutely: ‘Scrapbooks, footnotes, almanacs, letters, diaries, questionnaires, marginalia, memos, alphabets . . . how I love them. Pasolini once called himself a “pasticheur.” I think I am an annotator. The story exists for the scribbled notes in the margin.’[6] Sylvia Townsend Warner, having created a new story about her elfin, faery world, wrote to her friends Marchette  & Joy Chute: ‘It is rather beautiful and has a great deal of information about Elfhame unknown till now as I have just invented it. Oh, how I long to give it learned footnotes, and references. There is such heartless happiness in scholarship.’[7]

Happy but not heartless, Bertie Wooster breaks off partway through The Mating Season to observe: ‘But half a jiffy. I’m forgetting that you haven’t the foggiest what all this is about. It so often pans out that way when you begin a story. You whizz off the mark all pep and ginger, like a mettlesome charger going into its routine, and the next thing you know, the customers are up on their hind legs, yelling for footnotes.’[8]

Still, questions inevitably arise. What to put in a footnote – or, very often, does this need a footnote at all? Or, occasionally, would a footnote here end up being longer than the page, chapter, volume, it is intended to explicate?

I recall editorial discussions over whether or not to footnote an anti-Semitic remark voiced by a character in Ford’s Parade’s End (we decided not to). As readers, we notice it, but should we, as editors, draw attention to it, to say, in effect, this is worthy of your scrutiny? What might that note say? That such racist slurs were commonplace in English society at that time in all classes? In a sense, that would militate against a text which renders a world, a time, a social context in which such remarks were, precisely, barely noticed or refuted or queried. And ‘at that time’? I recall a history of anti-Semitism by Léon Poliakov from the University of Pennsylvania Press: its four volumes ran from the time of Christ up to the rise of Hitler. Had there ever not been a time?

(George Orwell)

Some relevant phrases that had long stuck in my head I later tracked down to an essay by George Orwell, ‘Anti-Semitism in Britain’, published in Contemporary Jewish Record in April 1945. Early on he writes: ‘it is generally admitted that anti-Semitism is on the increase, that it has been greatly exacerbated by the war, and that humane and enlightened people are not immune to it.’[9] This is pretty dismaying, given the late stage of the war at which Orwell is writing, although the full horror of the concentration camps was only then just emerging into public knowledge, Auschwitz liberated as Orwell was writing the essay and others, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen among them, during April, as the essay was published.

Orwell points out almost immediately how ‘anti-Semitism is an irrational thing’ and that the ‘accusations’ of which he has given examples, remarks made to him over the past year or two, ‘merely rationalize some deep-rooted prejudice.’ He adds that, ‘To attempt to counter them with facts and statistics is useless, and may sometimes be worse than useless’ (65), which has its own uneasy resonance for us, given the past four and a half years, to reach no further back. He concluded that he didn’t believe anti-Semitism could be ‘definitively cured without curing the larger disease of nationalism’ (70).

So yes, hardly helpful simply to point out that anti-Semitic remarks were common in the 1920s since they were still flourishing twenty years later in wartime Britain (and can hardly be said to have vanished now). And there is always the temptation in any case, which some commentators seem unable to resist, to ascribe fictional characters’ views and prejudices to their author, as Guy Davenport wrote to James Laughlin: ‘It annoys the hell out of me when reviewers say I like or dislike whatever: they’re always looking at what a character likes or dislikes. In a confessional age I keep my mouth shut (in fiction; not as a critic, natch). . . . ’[10]

Probably no footnote is necessary for ‘a confessional age’.


Notes


[1] Denton Welch, The Journals of Denton Welch, edited by Michael De-la-Noy (London: Allison & Busby, 1984), 121.

[2] Saul Bellow, Ravelstein (London: Viking, 2000), 2.

[3] Alethea Hayter, A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (London: Faber and Faber 1965), 70.

[4] Louis MacNeice, Letters of Louis MacNeice, edited by Jonathan Allison (London: Faber, 2010), 369.

[5] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 1424.

[6] Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps, edited by John McIntyre (Berkeley, California: Counterpoint, 2010), 38.

[7] Letter of 8 April 1973, in Sylvia Townsend Warner, Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 265.

[8] P. G. Wodehouse, The Mating Season (1949; in The Jeeves Omnibus: 3, London: Hutchinson, 1991), 177.

[9] Quotations from George Orwell, I Belong to the Left: 1945, edited by Peter Davison, revised and updated edition (London: Secker and Warburg, 2001), 64-70. The essay is cited approvingly in the opening pages of Brian Cheyette, Constructions of ‘the Jew’ in English literature and society: Racial representations, 1875-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 1-2.

[10] W. C. Bamberger, editor, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 96.

On not sending condolences

Theodor de Bry; America sive Novus Orbis (America or the New World); American Museum & Gardens; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/america-sive-novus-orbis-america-or-the-new-world-271604


Four years back, 10 November 2016, I wrote a blog post on the company website, one of the very last such posts since we closed the company offices down just after that date:

‘A few months ago, several American friends and colleagues were kind enough to express their sympathy in the wake of the calamitous EU referendum result and what it said about the state of our country.

The least we can do is to reciprocate and send them our sympathy, condolences and best wishes, following the Presidential election and what it says about the state of their country.’

Today, let’s just make it ‘best wishes’, with the fervent hope that we never have to send condolences again.

My nerves are bad tonight (and likely to remain so until Wednesday)

I’m a fairly greedy and promiscuous reader these days—though yesterday I was worryingly pleased to see that, of the ninety-nine books read so far this year, fifty were written or edited by women and that the one I’m most likely to finish next is by a man, which will give me an even hundred, precisely fifty-fifty, though unplanned and unintended, so no credit to me, obviously. I remembered the Beckett character who observes: ‘I’ve always had a mania for symmetry’: having knocked down a man met in the forest and kicked him in the side, he is now manoeuvring  himself into a position from which he can kick him in the same place in the other side.[1] Symmetry is often pleasing but I’m not afflicted by that particular mania – not, at least, to that extent.

A greedy reader, as I say, and with a pretty strong stomach – but just lately I find that I can’t bring myself to read anything substantial about the imminent U.S. election. My nerves won’t stand it. And I’m not even American. I accept that we don’t have much to celebrate, given our own corrupt and incompetent government, but democracy seems even more threatened there and in more violent, urgent and brazen ways. Much of it, in any case, is quite mysterious to me: those Evangelicals proclaiming a Christianity which bears no relation to any version of it that I’m familiar with; the aggressively overt voter suppression, seemingly performed with impunity; and the undisguisedly partisan judges who make my understanding of that phrase ‘the rule of law’ just a little wobbly.

T. S. Eliot—American citizen, later British citizen and almost exactly half of his life spent as each—wrote:

“My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
“Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
“What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
“I never know what you are thinking. Think.”

I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.[2]

Yes, one is tempted to say: Good answer, I share that general suspicion.

David Jones (born on this day in 1895), having survived Mametz Wood, trench fever and much else, unsurprisingly had a touch of the same thing as the speaker in Eliot’s poem, writing to his friend Harman Grisewood on 14 February (‘St. Valentine’s Day’) 1938: ‘I think if I could only get not having the worst type of nerves and could work at painting or writing (Bugger—O did not know this had a drawing on the back—it is my leg. I drew it as a study for a thing I’m doing—bugger! I want it, but can’t write this letter over again—well, I shall have to send it as it is and do my leg again if I want it) I should be quite happy alone always.’[3]

Too much in the way of nerves or too little? I recall this line by P. G. Wodehouse: ‘Whiffle on The Care of the Pig fell from his nerveless hand, and he sat looking like a dying duck.’[4] None of us, surely, wants to look quite like that.

But I think that one of my favourite literature-related nerves items is the passage in Allyson Booth’s fascinating Postcards From the Trenches, where, referring to Wallace Stevens’ poem, ‘A Postcard from the Volcano’, she writes: ‘Like the children who pick up bones without stopping to consider that they once strung nerves and housed passions, we read modernism without fully realizing the extent to which it handles the bones of the war dead.’[5] Yes. Here’s the Stevens poem:

Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once  
As quick as foxes on the hill;

And that in autumn, when the grapes  
Made sharp air sharper by their smell  
These had a being, breathing frost;

And least will guess that with our bones   
We left much more, left what still is   
The look of things, left what we felt

At what we saw. The spring clouds blow   
Above the shuttered mansion-house,   
Beyond our gate and the windy sky

Cries out a literate despair.
We knew for long the mansion’s look   
And what we said of it became

A part of what it is . . . Children,   
Still weaving budded aureoles,
Will speak our speech and never know,

Will say of the mansion that it seems   
As if he that lived there left behind   
A spirit storming in blank walls,

A dirty house in a gutted world,
A tatter of shadows peaked to white,   
Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun.[6]

‘And what we said of it became/ A part of what it is’. Wonderful.

Hold your nerve, America. Please.


Notes


[1] This is Molloy, of course: The Beckett Trilogy (London: Picador Books, 1979), 78.

[2] The Waste Land, ll.111-116: The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 59.

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

[4] ‘The Crime Wave at Blandings’, in Lord Emsworth and Others (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966), 29.

[5] Allyson Booth, Postcards From the Trenches: Negotiating the Space Between Modernism and the First World War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 17.

[6] Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems (New York: Vintage Books, 1982), 158-159.

A vast quantity of letters (and a counting pony)

(D. H. Lawrence/ Nancy Mitford: both © National Portrait Gallery)

In a letter partly about letters, Nancy Mitford wrote to Hamish Erskine on 24 October 1932: ‘The others have all gone off to a circus but I remain here by the fire & with D. H. Lawrence’s letters. Terrible to have reached an age (or a stage) when one would rather hear about a pony counting to 9 with its foot than bother to go & see it do so. Lawrence’s letters are terrifying – would you read them if I sent them to you? But they must be read – all & carefully or no use & there is a vast quantity of them.’ Mitford added a postscript: ‘The children are back – the pony counted to 20 AND LAUGHED OUT LOUD. Well well.’[1]

That selection of Lawrence’s letters, edited by Aldous Huxley, had appeared the previous month and was reprinted before the end of the year. It was certainly a hefty volume, coming in at almost 900 pages, though Mitford’s ‘vast quantity’ would be thrust into sharp perspective fifty years on by the Cambridge edition of the letters, which increased Huxley’s 790 items by a factor of more than 7, added invaluable annotations and restored the excisions which Huxley had made—‘cutting out feeling-hurting passages, uninteresting bits and things which are repeated in several letters to different people . . . tho’ it’s often worth keeping repetitions because of the subtle variations’.[2] Understandably, he felt he needed to tread a little warily since his edition was appearing only two years after Lawrence’s death at the early age of 44. Huxley had first proposed to Frieda Lawrence that they produce a memorial volume, ‘reminiscences by various people interspersed with Lawrence’s own letters’, offering (‘this goes without saying’) to do whatever work was involved for nothing. But the idea ‘petered out’.[3]


Lawrence and Huxley had met in 1915, apparently at the home of Lady Ottoline Morrell. She suggested to Lawrence that the two of them should get to know one another and Lawrence wrote to Huxley a week or so later, inviting him to tea.[4] They met again in the mid-1920s and Huxley was very important to the Lawrences in the last years of Lawrence’s life.[5]

If, like Orwell, Huxley was not a great novelist—Brave New World and Island, like Animal Farm and 1984, tend to be viewed as fables or satires rather than ‘straight’ novels—he was certainly a significant writer and an extraordinarily interesting figure: Sybille Bedford’s great affection for him is made wholly understandable in her biography of him. 

A year into the First World War—he was then 21—Huxley wrote a letter to a family friend of the Huxleys, the concert violinist Jelly d’Aranyi: ‘This war impresses on me more than ever the fact that friendship, love, whatever you like to call it is the only reality.’ He went on: ‘You never knew my mother—I wish you had because she was a very wonderful woman’ (Julia Huxley had died in 1908). ‘I have just been reading again what she wrote to me just before she died. The last words of her letter were “Dont be too critical of other people and ‘love much’”–and I have come to see more and more how wise that advice was. It’s a warning against a rather conceited and selfish fault of my own and it’s a whole philosophy of life.’[6]

Certainly, that advice—if not always easy to follow—is, yes, not bad. Really not bad at all.


Notes


[1] The Letters of Diana Mitford, edited by Charlotte Mosley (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993), 51. To a Guy Davenport reader, the counting pony can only recall the typing dog that caused the Stan Brakhage–Joseph Cornell contretemps: see ‘Pergolesi’s Dog’ in Davenport’s Every Force Evolves a Form (Berkeley: North Point Press, 1987), 144-146.

[2] To Dorothy Brett, 10 March 1931: Letters of Aldous Huxley, edited by Grover Smith (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969), 346-347.

[3] Sybille Bedford, Aldous Huxley: A Biography (London: Pan Macmillan, 1993), 235.

[4] Letters of D. H. Lawrence II, June 1913–October 1916, edited by George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 452, n.2  and 467-468.

[5] David Ellis, D. H. Lawrence: Dying Game, 1922-1930 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 312, and later instances indexed.

[6] Huxley, Letters, 83.

Zounds and scars and other niceties

‘During the endless hours flat on your back’, Ernst Jünger wrote in his famous memoir  of the Great War, ‘you try to distract yourself, to pass the time; once, I reckoned up my wounds. Leaving out trifles such as ricochets and grazes, I was hit at least fourteen times, these being five bullets, two shell splinters, one shrapnel ball, four hand-grenade splinters and two bullet splinters, which, with entry and exit wounds, left me an even twenty scars.’[1]

Virginia Woolf’s Mr Oliver (‘of the Indian Civil Service, retired’) refers to the nearby Roman road: ‘From an aeroplane, he said, you could still see, plainly marked, the scars made by the Britons; by the Romans; by the Elizabethan manor house; and by the plough, when they ploughed the hill to grow wheat in the Napoleonic wars.’[2]

Scars on the body, scars on the land. The wounds are not always visible. In 1944, the poet Keith Douglas died soon after the Normandy landings. Drawing on an unpublished memoir by one of his fellow-officers, his biographer Desmond Graham wrote that Douglas ‘had climbed from his tank to make his report, when the mortar fire started. As he ran along the ditch one of the shells exploded in a tree above him. He must have been hit by a tiny fragment, for although no mark was found on his body, he was instantly killed.’[3] There was a story of Edward Thomas being killed at Arras by the force of a shell-blast that left no mark upon his body: this is discussed and definitively contradicted by his most recent biographer.[4]

‘Zounds’, Philip the Bastard says in Shakespeare’s King John. ‘’Swounds’, he has Prince Hamlet say. These, both standing in for ‘God’s wounds’, are examples of what Geoffrey Hughes called ‘Elizabethan minced oaths’, abbreviations and euphemisms in response to ‘Puritan injunctions against Profanity on the Stage’. Shakespeare himself enlarged the repertoire to blood and eyelid (‘’sblood’ and ‘’slid’).[5]

(Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, 1899)

It’s hardly comparable to war or deities but ageing certainly inflicts wounds of various kinds. Not everyone is as cavalier as me with knives in the kitchen but what is most noticeable is the body’s increasing slowness to heal. So many nicks and cuts and gashes, though: Doctor Freud would have a field day with me unless, perhaps, one can merely be clumsy in certain contexts.

Literature would hardly be content with marks upon the body, certainly not only those. ‘Language is what eases the pain of living with other people’, Anne Carson writes, before adding sharply: ‘language is what makes the wounds come open again.’[6] Colette wrote of a character she named Charlotte: ‘Her presence lured other ephemera from the depths of my memory, phantoms I seem always to be losing and finding again, restless ghosts unrecovered from wounds sustained in the past when they crashed headlong or sidelong against that barrier reef’.[7] In Sarah Hall’s novel The Wolf Border, Rachel, having just given birth, is impatient for contact with her baby and with the ministrations of the surgeons and the midwife. ‘There seems no need for anything else now. There is no wound. The only wound is life, recklessly creating it, knowing that it will never be safe, it will never last; it will only ever be real.’[8]

(Via BBC)

One of the most alarming wounds is mentioned by E. P. Thompson, when recounting the history of ‘Governor’ Thomas Pitt, of Swallowfield (1653-1726), grandfather of the rather more famous William Pitt. He bought up Old Sarum, famous rotten borough, after his return from East Indian buccaneering (trading outside the East India Company’s monopoly), did a deal with the Company, made even more money in India, became Governor of Madras, ‘and acquired, for some £20,000, a monstrous diamond weighing 410 carats, which had been smuggled from the mines hidden in the wounds in a slave’s leg’.[9]

A nice image to close on. My thumb—courtesy of the sharp lid of an opened tin lurking in the sink—is doing just fine at its own leisurely pace. No sign of any gems there, not the merest sparkle.


Notes

[1] Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel, translated by Michael Hofmann (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004), 288.

[2] Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts (1941; edited with an introduction by Frank Kermode, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 3-4.

[3] Desmond Graham, Keith Douglas, 1920-1944: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), 256.

[4] Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Edward Thomas: From Adlestrop to Arras (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 412-413.

[5] Geoffrey Hughes, Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English (London: Penguin Books, 1998), 18, 104.

[6] Anne Carson, ‘Just for the Thrill: An Essay on the Difference Between Women and Men’, in Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (New York: Vintage, 2000), 232.

[7] The Pure and the Impure (translated by Herma Briffault; 1962; Penguin Books, 1971), 26.

[8] Sarah Hall, The Wolf Border (London: Faber 2015), 254.

[9] E. P. Thompson, Whigs and Hunters (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 110

Blitz Writing

Memories—or stories, or myths—of the Blitz have surfaced several times of late, a comparison that doesn’t really fit, as has often been pointed out, but perhaps understandable during that very brief period earlier this year when there was a widespread sense of something affecting or afflicting the entire nation, a sense too of a collective effort and responsibility.

There are, though, a couple of genuine points of comparison: the Blitz is usually defined as having lasted around eight months, during which time nearly 30,000 people were killed and around 25,000 wounded. Covid-19 in its British context has lasted around that long so far; and the excess deaths attributed to it are pretty close to the entire casualty figures from the Blitz.

‘Blitz writing’ is a fairly crowded field, with some eminent names—depending on your definition of the term—ranging from Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Henry Green, Patrick Hamilton, William Sansom and H. D. to Evelyn Waugh, E. M. Forster, James Hanley, Mollie Panter-Downes, Vera Brittain and Virginia Woolf, producing poetry, essays, letters, fiction and diaries.

I’ve been reading a book that offers examples of those last two, and with precisely that title: Blitz Writing: Night Shift & It Was Different at the Time by Inez Holden, edited by Kristin Bluemel and published by Kate Macdonald’s excellent Handheld Press
(https://www.handheldpress.co.uk/shop/womens-lives/blitz-writing/)

The second part is drawn from Holden’s diaries, evidently selected and edited with great care, part of a project originally intended to be shared with George Orwell, with whom she had a close relationship. The first is a short novel about the workers at an aircraft factory over six nights, both men and women of various ages, classes and backgrounds. Its title recalled for me the first published writing of one of my admired authors, Sylvia Townsend Warner, ‘Behind the Firing Line’ by ‘A Lady Worker’, an account of her wartime work in a munitions factory, which appeared in February 1916.[1] Warner published quite a few stories set during the Second World War but their landscape was the towns and villages of the southern counties of England rather than London or any other major city.[2]

Inez Holden came from a wealthy upper-class background; her friends included H. G. Wells, Anthony Powell and Stevie Smith (both Powell and Smith based fictional characters on her) and she partied with such luminaries as Cecil Beaton, Stephen Tennant, Tallulah Bankhead and Harold Acton. Holden’s first novel, Sweet Charlatan, appeared in 1929, the same year as Living, a novel focused on the workers in a Birmingham factory, by Henry Green—also from an upper-class background. Green’s novel was more obviously adventurous stylistically—he eliminated definite articles, for instance—and was a peacetime work. Written during the war and centrally concerned with it, particularly the period of the Blitz, Holden’s focus was also predominantly on working-class life. By the ‘mid-to-late thirties’, Kristin Bluemel writes in her informative introduction, Holden ‘identified herself as an anti-Communist socialist’ (xv), a position clearly comparable to Orwell’s own.

(The Impersonation Party, 1927: Holden second from right in striped top)

‘More obviously adventurous stylistically’ Green’s novel may have been but, while Holden’s novel seems aligned with the ‘seemingly objective, truth-telling stance associated with 1930s documentary fiction’ (xviii), recalling in this the famous assertion on the first page of Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin (1939)—‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking’—it’s very written, with some sly and subtle touches, some noticeable idiosyncrasies, such as her avoidance of comparative terms—opting for ‘more happy’ rather than ‘happier’, ‘more clear’ rather than ‘clearer’—as well as supple shifts into other registers and varied narratorial angles.

The novel opens with the heading ‘Monday’ and the injunction: ‘Follow me’, though the words are spoken by Sid, the second-in-charge of the night shift. Nevertheless, we follow. Ten lines in, the ‘I’ of the narrator first appears. The character called ‘Feather’ can reasonably be seen as a projection of Holden’s own social background or may, rather, be split between the two. Much of the time ‘I’ adheres to what she could plausibly hear and see – but not consistently: ‘Feather remembered the time’ and ‘Feather thought’ – though these moments are followed by ‘Feather also said to me’, allowing the inference that she has spoken to the narrator of what she remembered and thought (52). But, on the following page, when a girl called Nan quickly slaps a young Home Guard boy who is lounging around her work bench, ‘Feather, who had happened to look up and see this happen, thought: “She’s like those high-class cricketers who can field and throw back in one movement.”’

The ‘objective’ realist stance allows for perceptive moments that many readers will acknowledge the accuracy of: ‘Sometimes it was like that in the factory. The machinery noise never ceased, but it was the sound of a squeaking boot or a dropped cup, the noise within the noise, the unwarranted attack that was so painful’ (54). Holden also seizes sometimes on surprising metaphors and similes, as when alluding to the foreman jealous of the ease with which Feather and Sid converse: ‘Flash Jim, who now walked away on his work looking as acid as if he had been nourished on vinegar fed to him from the end of a hat pin’ (70). Some observations might well be applied to other ages than her own: there is in the factory ‘a convention against easy heroical talk and pat-off patriotism in the workshop; that way of yapping-out was all right for people who did not work at all, read in the newspapers sitting well back in their arm-chairs and thought, “We are all in it together” because they listened to the radio news four times a day’ (74). Then, too, ‘The few months ago in war-time so soon became “the old days” so that already we looked back on the first months of war as on remote memories of adolescence’ (78). The narrator remarks at one point that: ‘Fatigue had a great strength, perhaps it was stronger than love or hatred, because it could produce a mood which no insults or sorrow could reach’ (82).

(H. F. Davis/ Getty Images/ via The Guardian)

Kristin Bluemel comments (xvii-xviii) on the degree to which Holden listened to the Blitz, how sound connects the chapters of the novel and the use made of individual sounds in the remarkable final chapter: separate and, in context, odd, out of place and doubly memorable. First is the penny whistle, its clear notes heard even amidst ‘the usual orchestra of city bombardment’, played by ‘the street musician who stood, each evening, at the end of the road where the shops started’. He goes on ‘with this work as if the happenings around did not concern him.’ To the narrator, who is on firewatching duty, the whistling takes on ‘an enduring sound like the treble tune of thrush heard through a thunderstorm’ (77). She makes her way towards the area where the factory at which she works is sited and realises that the building has been hit. ‘A small crowd of people were standing in the road watching. This group was like a revue sketch crowd of actors carefully made up to seem absurd’ (82).

Later, as part of the blazing factory collapses, a bird begins to sing. There comes ‘a second sound of falling stones’ and ‘the note of the singing bird became more clear’ (83). The narrator makes her tired way home. ‘I remembered again two clear sounds, the penny whistle at the beginning of the bombardment, the bird singing at the end of it. Between these two sounds there showed a chink of light through which I could see the start of a more hopeful life, a future in which the courage of people could also be used for their greater happiness and well-being’ (85). 

Handheld Press will be publishing another Inez Holden title in March 2021: There’s No Story There: Wartime Writing, 1944-1945. She’s quite a discovery, and I’m glad to have made it – or rather, to have had it made for me.


Notes

[1] Partly reprinted as ‘The Night Shift’, in Sylvia Townsend Warner, With the Hunted: Selected Writings, edited by Peter Tolhurst (Norwich: Black Dog Books, 2012), 23-29.

[2] Many of them included in the recently published English Climate: Wartime Stories: https://persephonebooks.co.uk/products/english-climate

‘A Lady Asks Me’

Italian (Venetian) School; Portrait of an Unknown Young Woman; Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/portrait-of-an-unknown-young-woman-189206

‘A Lady asks me’, as Ezra Pound begins Canto 36, borrowing from his own translation of Guido Cavalcanti’s ‘Donna mi prega’, ‘I speak in season’. In fact, here, the season is undeniably autumn – and it’s the Librarian, asking what I’m finding the worst thing about the pandemic – ‘apart, obviously, from huge numbers of people dying’.

I know already that she misses, often very keenly, her library, the beautiful physical space itself and her colleagues—the greetings on a staircase, words exchanged in a corridor, on the phone or round the edge of a door, those brief moments that, tabulated and totalled, make up a significant proportion of any working day, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

For me, though, the shape of the days is much less changed. I read, I write, I walk, I cook, I feed the cat. The things that huge numbers of my fellow-citizens are apparently frantic for don’t really bother me. In another age, we would go to the cinema occasionally and to restaurants a little more often: but a large part of going out to eat—and of being in the cinema—is being able to relax. I certainly couldn’t relax in those settings at the moment, so why would I do it? Going on holiday: yes, but we’d be doing the same things, just in a different setting and at a substantial cost, and the logistics of any such trip make my head hurt. I’d really like to walk by the sea again – but now, as always, I don’t want to do it in the company of several thousand others.

There’s a world out there of worsening political chaos, lethal incompetence, thousands of avoidable deaths (and how many more in the United States, whose president is waging war against his own country); after the schools failures, now the universities fiasco, students imprisoned while administrators rearrange deckchairs on an ever more steeply tilting deck amidst ignorant comments from politicians and tabloid journalists.

Louis MacNeice writes in Autumn Journal:

It is this we learn after so many failures,
The building of castles in sand, of queens in snow,
That we cannot make any corner in life or in life’s beauty,
That no river is a river which does not flow.

Even in lives superficially unchanged or little changed, this has changed. Life at present does not flow. Watching moving water, the fact of it moving becomes less and less its dominant feature; the currents that make our own lives flow are often invisible, unremarked. So perhaps one of the worst things is the simplest. We can go out, we can walk, other people can and do take buses or trains – but never now in an untroubled way, never wholly spontaneous, never unthinking, never without watchfulness, wariness, a readiness to take evasive measures. It’s the old literary metaphor of the poem as a field of action, of moving through hostile territory, always on the qui vive. A potentially productive conceit, you might argue, but probably not how you want to live your – civilian – life.

On this day in 1916, Ford Madox Ford published a piece called ‘Trois Jours de Permission’, about a three-day leave granted to him a little earlier that year, which he spent in Paris, much of it waiting for some grand fromage or other. ‘Yes, one learns to wait’, Ford wrote. ‘The most impatient temperament, somewhere in France, will be strait-waistcoated into inaction, into introspection.’

So here I am, somewhere in England, inactive and introspective, waving goodbye to September – though mentally active and prospective enough to expect little better of October. . .

Intact in the mind

22 September. In 1798—not an uneventful year—Ann Radcliffe wrote of sitting on shipboard, en route from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight: ‘a fine view of the town, the hospital, the forts and harbour, as we sailed out, the sea not rough. Hear the he-hoes of the sailors, afar in the channel, and the boatswain’s shrill whistle.’[1]

I’m reminded that my sister, born in Portsmouth, would have been 75 today, and that I have several images of its harbour, the seafront and yes, the Isle of Wight, fairly secure in my memory, ‘intact in my mind’ as William Maxwell termed it, in a letter to Sylvia Townsend Warner on this day in 1954: ‘Do you know I always believe implicitly in the places you describe as not only existing but being part of your life? Once read about, they remain intact in my mind, and I could move right into any house or piece of property you have ever written about. It occurred to me, on the train this morning, that perhaps you ought to have me insured.’[2]

As for the border between things remembered from ‘life’ and from books, which are a great part of many lives, it’s as porous as most other borders and is becoming more so, and not just for me. Fiction, as generally understood, has entered increasingly into the areas of public life where it’s not been conventionally expected to occur. When political figures don’t know the answer to a question—or do know but don’t want to say—they just make something up and barely bother to hide the fact. More official advice yesterday and today, so many talking or shouting heads buffeted by passing breezes, obviously humming along to a Bob Dylan song, though whether ‘Blowing in the Wind’ or ‘Idiot Wind’ it’s becoming harder to tell.

Now that the Christmas cracker motto ‘Follow the science’ has become visibly more complicated—it always was though it suited some people to pretend otherwise—I imagine we’ll all go on more or less as we were. Those lucky enough to be in a position to choose various degrees of isolation will so choose; those unavoidably more vulnerable will, alas, continue vulnerable; the frankly exploited, yes, the same; those reckless both on their own account and that of others will go on being so.

I’m now sometimes seen in daylight, though still prone to veering off paths and pavements. But we’ve cancelled our holiday in Dorset – and have put in a little extra pasta and a little extra wine ahead of. . . well, fill in your catastrophe of choice here, though ‘catastrophe’ isn’t quite the word. A downward turn, the Greek original says – but we’re well past that. Play some music, phone a friend and buckle up.


Notes


[1] Radcliffe’s journal, quoted by Geoffrey Grigson in The English Year: From Diaries and Letters (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 128.

[2] Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 55.

Foxed, boxed

(Via Natural History Museum)

I begin to think that the foxes recognise us – by sight or scent? The second, more likely. At first they would retreat much further along the road that crosses the hill we walk up; now, as we reach that point, we see them sitting or crouching only a few metres from the junction and can almost see the thought bubble that reads: It’s them, walking straight up as usual. No problem.
 
A morning’s tally of close encounters: three foxes, one white cat—emerging like a ghost from the bushes in the small park—one woman runner and, as we pass the larger park when almost home, a man with two small dogs. On another morning, darker and with a heavy mist, we see no foxes, two cats and five people: not so good. But always the birds: sparrows, certainly, in some of the hedges, and blackbirds, beyond which even my provisional identification skills peter out.
 
I’ve read, just lately, reflections on several encounters with the wild, by Helen Macdonald, John Burnside and Melissa Harrison, particularly focused on what Harrison, probably in her excellent podcast (https://melissaharrison.co.uk/podcast/) called the ‘I and Thou’ moments, after Martin Buber, the moment of relationship rather than objectification, when the bird, the animal, the forest, even the single tree, looks back at the observer, listens to the listener, in a reciprocal engagement.
 
Certainly, for me, these near-encounters with the wild—however wild urban foxes are reckoned to be these days—are like a shot into the veins, a thrill along the nerves, a rush of oxygen into flagging lungs. Is it the increasing rarity, the always-attendant sense of what’s being lost, the disorienting nudge out of the circles and boxes and bubbles into which we back ourselves these days, even without pandemics? Hard to say. It could just be the contrast with people, with some people.
 
National leaders trashing their own countries’ reputations—and often enough trashing  the countries themselves—the lethal incompetence, the undisguised corruption; the sheer impunity, the denial of climate emergency, the barefaced, continuous lying and the blatant contempt for those voters who, quite bafflingly, will vote for them again—or so it seems. To those of us old enough to remember the Thatcher years, Cold Wars, nuclear stand-offs, illegal invasions and the rest, it seems extraordinary to find oneself thinking—and saying—‘It has never been this bad before.’
 
Ah, well. Winter is coming—as the saying goes.