Those autumn leaves (turn, turn, turn!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

We are waiting for a gap in the clouds.



Notes


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lasting


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


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


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


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

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

High summer, locally


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

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

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


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

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

Binding weeds


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

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


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

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

No political symbolism here, obviously. None at all.



Notes


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

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

Dripping, deluging, divining

(Walter G. Poole, ‘Gauguin Played Here’: private collection)

The drip from the leak into the bucket quickens when stimulated by the cold water tap being run, then gradually quietens. Books from the last set of shelves are temporarily stacked on the floor of the sitting-room. Chunks and strips of broken plasterboard lean against the garden wall. The boiler is turned off, so no hot water; at night and at odd times during the day, we turn the water off at the mains. A Gas Board engineer is due on Monday, by chance the ill-conceived and misnamed ‘Freedom Day’.

I can hardly pretend surprise that our elected leaders finally abandoned even the pretence of governing the country and embraced again the notion of herd immunity—‘a dangerous and unethical experiment’, as a great many scientists have phrased it— though little over half the population has been fully vaccinated and cases have passed 50,000 in a day, the highest number of new cases anywhere in the world, I notice.

So, after last year’s Eat Out to Help Out the Virus debacle, we have Freedom to Catch and Transmit Covid-19 Day, another cunning wheeze. Tolerant to a fault I may be but I’m getting a bit sick of these people, their latest move to accelerate the privatisation of the National Health Service worthy to be set beside the corruption, the hypocrisy, the casual racism, the fake culture wars and this continuing lethal incompetence. But then I’m also getting a bit sick of the people who go on supporting and enabling them even now, unwilling to hold the guilty to account but perfectly happy to attack other targets they’re cynically diverted towards.

But soft! What light in yonder window breaks?—a call from British Gas to say that an engineer is in our area and could come in the next half-hour. We don masks and confine the cat to another room. The engineer arrives, looks at the leak, goes up to the loft, confirms yes, ball valve in hot water tank, fetches a new one from the van, returns to the loft and soon calls down to me to turn the mains water back on. Moments later the leak, tired of its minor status, transforms into cascade, waterfall, deluge, while the engineer plunges downstairs, shouting ‘Turn it off! Turn it off!’ I turn it off and attend to the explanation about a rare defective ball valve. Pretty small-scale in the light of appalling news from Belgium and Germany but alarming enough.

(William James Müller, ‘A Waterfall’ (sketch: York Art Gallery)

Now he’s capped off  – something or other. The water is turned on, anyway, though not yet the boiler: we’ll wait until Monday and another engineer who’ll finish the job. Plenty of symbolism here, for the augur, the haruspex or even the paranoiac. A drip can become a flood; but a flood can be diverted, even halted. Broadly, we are now, I’d say, mid-flood with more to come. But recovery is possible. It will, though, take at the very least a change of government and a measurable increase in the number of English people willing to live in the twenty-first century rather than some other period of their choice.

A little mad about good letters

(Elizabeth Bishop)

On 8 July 1971, Elizabeth Bishop wrote to her friends Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale: ‘I have to get to Cambridge early in September to arrange my new flat—and do some work on my new seminar, on “Letters”!’ She mentioned Jane Carlyle, Anton Chekhov, ‘my Aunt Grace’, John Keats, a letter found in the street, and asked for suggestions, ‘just on the subject of letters, the dying “form of communication.”[1]

‘Dying’ — already, fifty years ago.  My pronounced appetite for reading letters must be nearly as old, from Ackerley to Zukofsky. Is that a clue to why, though? Remnants, often receptacles, of a disappearing world, the attraction of the receding, the vanishing, the casualties of cultural, social and economic history. Prose is often just written – letters are at least always written to, addressed to, someone, an individual, which seems to offer something to grasp, to hang onto. They may appear written with eventual publication in mind, as is sometimes the case with diaries. But they’re often revealing and go to forming the autobiography that the writer may have declined to write, or never got around to writing.

I like, too, the ways in which letters themselves become the subject of letters, or of anecdotes (in letters), strands of biography or criticism. ‘Historians don’t go where sources don’t lead,’ Maya Jasanoff remarks, ‘which means they usually stop at the door to somebody’s mind. Even when diaries or letters seem to “tell all,” historians typically treat what happened as one thing, and what somebody made of it as another. Novelists walk right in and roam freely through a person’s feelings, perceptions and thoughts. What happened is what you make of it. That, Conrad argued, could make fiction the truer record of human experience.’[2] In his preface to Lawrence Durrell’s ‘Mediterranean’ writings, Alan Thomas mentioned that: ‘The debt of future literary scholars to Hugh Gordon Porteous might well have been greater, for he received many letters from fellow poets and accumulated a good deal of material when writing his excellent life of Wyndham Lewis. He sorted all this original material into two groups, important and less important. Unfortunately, he placed the former in a paper bag similar to the kind he used for the disposal of garbage. He returned home one evening to find that his charlady had given this to the dustmen.’[3]

To J. Howard Woolmer (21 March 1997), Penelope Fitzgerald wrote: ‘How nice to get one of your laconic letters which say exactly what you mean and no more – and after all that’s what letters are for.’[4] Twenty years before, she had recorded the rather gloomy scenario of the painter Edward Burne-Jones burning ‘many hundreds of letters, though he hated to lose Swinburne’s.’[5]

One of the earliest bestsellers that I recall when I started in the book trade was The First Cuckoo, an anthology of letters to the Times and Claire Tomalin, in her biography of Thomas Hardy, noted among the Reverend Henry Moule’s many activities that ‘He wrote letters to The Times about the potato.’[6]

(Sylvia Townsend Warner via NYRB editions)

Sylvia Townsend Warner reflected more than once on the value—and the mutual pleasure—of letters. To William Maxwell, she remarked: ‘The people who were attached to me might, however, like a collected volume of my Letters. I love reading Letters myself, and I can imagine enjoying my own.’[7] And, to David Garnett, little more than a week earlier: ‘You enjoy my letters, I enjoy yours. We are like those Etruscan couples who sit conversing on their tomb. We belong to an earlier and more conversational world, and tend to finish our sentences and tie up our shoelaces.’[8]

My favourites volumes would include:
D. H. Lawrence, without a doubt.
Guy Davenport, correspondence with Hugh Kenner and with James Laughlin
Letters between James Salter and Robert Phelps.
Sylvia Townsend, correspondence with William Maxwell, with David Garnett, with anybody.
Patrick White.
Edward Fitzgerald – and Penelope Fitzgerald, come to that.
Eudora Welty, to Maxwell again and to Ross Macdonald.
Nancy Mitford.
Elizabeth Bishop herself.

I am currently spending a great deal of time peering at Ford Madox Ford’s often execrably handwritten letters – or staring at words and phrases in previously published versions that annotation has smoothly sidestepped thus far. What is that? Quotation? Misprint? Misremembering? Joke? And what does that mean? The shocking news—I jest but it would, I suspect, be genuinely shocking to some people—is that not everything exists on the world wide web. Not every book and journal has been digitised—even when they have been, often in fuzzy scans, the original books have misprints, missing pages, wrong pagination, transposed chapters, startling variations between UK and US editions.

Ford, recalling Hokusai, an old man mad about painting, ‘humbly’ wrote himself down as a man ‘a little mad about good letters’.[9] There are certainly some good letters above his signature. So this promises to be endless fun. Almost endless, that is, since a deadline will certainly come calling.

Notes

[1] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 544.

[2] Maya Jasanoff, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World (London: William Collins, 2017), 10-11.

[3] Alan G. Thomas, editor, Spirit of Place: Mediterranean Writings (1969; London : Faber and Faber, 1988), 13.

[4] Penelope Fitzgerald, So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 365.

[5] Penelope Fitzgerald, Edward Burne-Jones (London: Michael Joseph, 1975), 227.

[6] Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man (London: Viking, 2006), 50.

[7] Letter of 23 June 1976, Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 301.

[8] Richard Garnett, editor, Sylvia and David: The Townsend Warner/ Garnett Letters (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994), 213.

[9] Ford Madox Ford, Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911), 296.

Travels, not Keatsian

From 25 June to 6 August 1818, John Keats went walking with his friend Charles Brown, to the Lake District, Scotland, briefly to Northern Ireland and back to Scotland. 42 days, 642 miles. On 29 June, setting off at four in the morning, they climbed Skiddaw, the sixth highest summit in England, just north of Keswick in Cumbria : ‘I have an amazing partiality for mountains in the clouds.’

I myself have an amazing partiality for staying at home of late, walled in by books. Nevertheless we ventured, the Librarian and Harry the cat and I, as far as Somerset (and Dorset and Wiltshire: meandering roads), and stayed the night—actually three nights—in A Different Place, for the first time since Christmas 2019. Not quite a Keatsian trip but quietly impressive on its own terms, I thought.


Once there, we talked, ate, read, walked, drank a little wine. At the Chalke Valley History Festival, the Librarian and I mooched about and necked a salted caramel ice-cream while her parents went to see Tom Stoppard and his biographer, Hermione Lee, discourse before a rapt audience in a large tent. Slightly unsettled by our earlier view of combatants wielding sticks, apparently in their underwear (‘Look! People fighting in their pants!’), we stayed to watch Dan Snow, with a smattering of other historians and willing helpers, re-enact the Battle of Agincourt.

But the main business, apart from the company, was to see the sea, again for the first time in too long. It was a quiet stretch of coast—having no facilities—offering sea, sand, sea cabbage, occasional dog walkers, a distant angler, a wheeling gull or two, pebbles, mysterious flowers, mysterious stone circles.


As for literary connections—Keats aside—there was the village of Broad Chalke, familiar to John Aubrey, author of Brief Lives, and home to historical novelist and poet Maurice Hewlett (1861-1923), who lived in the Old Rectory. In 1904, recovering from a breakdown, Ford Madox Ford spent time at Winterborne Stoke, three miles from Stonehenge. He met and walked with W. H. Hudson, who had recommended that area as one to which Ford might escape from his situation in London. He later remembered standing for half an hour with Hudson watching a rookery near Broad Chalke. He saw a good deal of Hewlett too. At Christmas 1911, Ezra Pound also stayed with Hewlett, an occasion poignantly recalled—ghosts and shadows—as he sat in the military detention centre near Pisa:

and for that Christmas at Maurie Hewlett’s
Going out from Southampton
they passed the car by the dozen
     who would not have shown weight on a scale
               riding, riding
                     for Noel the green holly
     Noel, Noel, the green holly
     A dark night for the holly
          (80/515)

Reading at the kitchen table

June days. The opened back door at breakfast time now my choice as well as the cat’s. The butter in the dish more malleable; the heating never coming on because the temperature doesn’t drop below the thermostat setting. It seems only a short time since the postman emerged from determined rain to deposit a parcel at the front door: beautifully wrapped and containing attractive – ah, books, yes. The whole affair, including the books themselves, such a class act that it could only have been my order from Kate Macdonald’s Handheld Press. Three more then, to be steered firmly past beckoning flat surfaces and upstairs to the front bedroom, where the chest of drawers has three separate piles on top of it: five, ten and twenty-four volumes respectively. Other nearby piles total another thirty-one and there are more on the tops of the bookcases as well as in them. I am losing the battle here, several battles by the look of it, never mind the loft, which the occasional plumber or roofer will survey with odd and slightly strained expressions.

(I once saw a letter quoted from someone who said they never bought a new book unless they’d finished reading all the books they already had. I could see what the words in the letter meant—as defined in a dictionary—but couldn’t make any real sense of them put together in that way.)


The postal delivery coincided with my attempt to clear the kitchen table, finding, among the journals, catalogues, empty envelopes, papers left over from the local and mayoral elections last month, six books, in various stages of being-read: Peter Vansittart’s A Literary Companion to London (I’d been combing through this for any Ford Madox Ford-related details that I’d missed elsewhere); Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water (the sequel to A Time of Gifts); Jim Down’s fine, unsettling Life Support, which the Librarian was reading (I’d read it a couple of months ago); Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia (essays, interviews, letters); Derek Jarman’s Garden (the Librarian again, following up Olivia Laing’s essays); and Deborah Levy’s just-published Real Estate.

Another recent arrival is an expanded—and rather handsome—edition of Greg Gerke’s See What I See: Essays, issued by Zerogram Press of Los Angeles, with a prefatory piece by Steven Moore. There are six new essays, shared among the three sections in proportions commensurate with distribution over the whole volume: three essays in ‘The Writing Life’; two in ‘The Silver Screen’; and one in ‘Real Life’.

Moore’s ‘Foreword’ begins by describing Gerke’s collection as ‘a splendid example of the return of the personal in modern literary criticism’ and ends by terming it ‘a beguiling collection of belletristic essays meant for those of us for whom art is a passion, not a profession or a pastime but a way of life.’

Both of these judgements are well-observed. The reader does indeed get a sense of a mind and body behind the words: the ‘personal’ could easily be misconstrued in this context given that we often seem to be suffering from little else. Opinions batter us from all directions – many of them unimpeded by any knowledge of, or insight into, the things they pronounce upon. But that’s not the case here (indeed, Gerke has his own opinion of opinions paraded as something else).


See What I See: imperative or interrogative? Or collaborative? We are offered, in the main, enthusiasms: writers and painters and directors whom Gerke has thought about and responded to. Some, clearly, are of long standing, some newly discovered, some returned to, seen afresh in the light of changes, not least in the writer’s—or viewer’s—own life.

Moore’s second observation about those ‘for whom art is a passion, not a profession or a pastime but a way of life’, nicely points up the classic distinction between ‘serious’ and ‘solemn’. Gerke, a New York-based fiction writer as well as essayist, does indeed take this stuff seriously. The subjects of his essays—William Gass, Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein, Geoffrey Hill, William Gaddis, Louise Glück, Henry James, Eric Rohmer, Ingmar Bergman—are not lightweights; but Gerke is never po-faced about them. He can be funny, odd, quirky, confiding (I’d say that all these terms can be applied to his short fiction too)—but his focus, for his readers as for himself is, ultimately, pleasure. And it is—for the reader and the viewer—something more thoroughgoing, more engaging of the senses than a quick kiss behind the bike sheds or a caress on the way upstairs: it is, rather, a full-on, grown-up affair.

In ‘On Influence’, he remarks: ‘If one hasn’t read a lot of Shakespeare, why hasn’t one read a lot of Shakespeare? If one doesn’t “get” Henry James, one must ask why one doesn’t “get” Henry James. While licks of love are sweet, little can compare with full immersion.’ Then: ‘And the connection between art and love is not some tenuous, new-age conceit; rather, it is as real as rain. Love takes time because we don’t know what we love until the bloom retires and we are left with a presence not endowed with a glow, but a cast-iron reality.’

I note again, in ‘A Year With Wallace Stevens’: ‘His answers were not easy—they weren’t even answers, but patterns, conquests of thought, of tomfoolery, with music and word motion contained inside swerving ideas both raw and cooked.’ And, in ‘Mr. Turner, Boyhood, and Criticism’, ‘Everyone bellows how life is unfair, but does everyone know life is unfair and beautiful, often at the same time?’

They say—among the things they say—that one test of a writer’s quality is an ability to engage and hold your attention even when they’re discoursing on subjects of which you know little or nothing; and, sometimes, on subjects in which you have no acknowledged interest. Gerke’s knowledge of cinema, his passion for it, outstrips mine within a couple of sentences – but his discussions of Rohmer, Rossellini, Kubrick, Antonioni, are arresting not least because of the intimacy of that knowledge, the closeness of identification between writer and subject— the title of one piece is ‘Does Eric Rohmer Have the All of Me?’ while, in one of the recently added essays, he writes: ‘Yes, I took Antonioni into my life and he affected how I saw the world’, a statement which is immediately anatomised though not retreated from.

Again, some of his chosen writers are not exactly mine but I see one crucial affinity, highlighted in that phrase ‘total immersion’. While I frequently admire single books there’s just no substitute for a corpus—the mot juste—a body (not a limb, not an isolated feature, such eyes! such lips!) with all its imperfections, the failures and near-misses and try-outs that make sense of the triumphs, the personal oddities or traits or weaknesses that go to making the work of interest in the first place. I am not sympathetic to the voices that mutter or shout ‘if only’ – if only Lawrence hadn’t been in love with his mother, if only Pound hadn’t discovered economics or moved to Italy, if only Woolf hadn’t been a snob, if only Yeats hadn’t had those notions of aristocracy and spirit companions, if only James had had a satisfying sex life, if only Emily Dickinson had got out more – my strong conviction being that you would not then have had Lawrence or Pound or Woolf or Yeats or James or Dickinson at all, or rather some version of them rendered so innocuous and uninteresting as to surrender all claim to our attention anyway.

Gerke is certainly drawn to full immersion: ‘A Year with Wallace Stevens’, ‘Going Steady with Gertrude’ (Stein, of course), ‘The Patrick White Experience’, ‘Bergman’s Spell’—which asks, along the way: ‘How is a spiritual life possible in a techno-Gomorrah such as we inhabit?’—and ‘Nearer My Hong Sang-soo to Me’, an essay on the prolific South Korean film director and screenwriter, which ends with the reflection that: ‘As the years go by and Hong’s filmography swells, his biography [ . . . ] lessens. The work stands for the person—the goal for most artists.’

In his introduction, Steven Moore mentions Gerke’s two books of short fiction and also alludes to ‘a lengthy novel in the works’. I shall look out for updates on that news—and go on reading at the (oddly, if temporarily, tidy) kitchen table.

Highlights, lowlifes, old fashions

‘One after another I feel my friends snap off from the old moorings, and become derelict. England herself seems like a ship adrift, entirely without course or anchorage. We must watch out.’— D. H. Lawrence to E. M. Forster, 30 May 1916.

The highlights of the past week probably didn’t include a chunk of one of my teeth breaking off at dinner—that was quite some flatbread—or being almost mown down by a speeding cyclist on the hill. There was a brisk exchange of views: always the master of the witty rejoinder, I finally offered: ‘Well, fuck off anyway.’

Rats, though. A highlight there. The agility and determination of the rat that shinned up the metal pole of the bird table, swung on the half-coconut while furiously gnawing, leapt at the fat ball in its metal cage, missed and almost fell but recovered itself superbly. The cat watched this performance through the glass with a naturalist’s interest but showed no particular desire to intervene..

Elsewhere, reports of the Dominic Cummings testimony to the joint inquiry by the health and science committees was pretty dispiriting, partly because it merely confirmed what anyone paying attention over the past year and a half already knew or strongly suspected; and partly because it won’t make a damn bit of difference to those people who vote for Johnson and his crew in any event. So, to those who say ‘if this doesn’t make any difference, we’re finished’, well, it looks as though we may very well be finished.

The reliably splendid Marina Hyde has discussed the question that increasingly preoccupies commentators:
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/may/28/cult-britain-boris-johnson-prime-minister

It turns out that all the stuff I took as read for most of my adult life—expecting elected representatives to be, or at least to seem, truthful, not markedly corrupt, believers in public service and the rest—is now hopelessly old-fashioned. Even though a good many MPs are still like that, there’s an obvious political advantage for those in government to pretend otherwise.

Old-fashioned! The very phrase is like a bell, to toll me back from thee to my sole self!

Sugar and bitters, sweet and sour. Still, I’m reminded that, of the Walt Whitman exhibition put on in Paris in the 1920s, Sylvia Beach (bookseller and first publisher of Ulysses) recalled: ‘Only Joyce and the French and I were still old-fashioned enough to get along with Whitman.’

And Whitman seems to be doing all right. So maybe even a rational politics will drift back into view at some stage, this fitful optimist murmurs. . .

Going in circles

After a year or more of travelling no further than a couple of miles from home, whatever the shape and length of the walks, on closer nodding terms with the tulips than with other human animals, we broke out of the circle a few days ago and into. . . a circle. It was, though, a stone circle, more than that since Stanton Drew offers the third largest complex of standing stones in England, three circles, ‘the central “Great Circle” consisting almost entirely of fallen stones’, solid blocks of the local dolomitic conglomerate. As with the Rollright Stones in the Cotswolds, near Long Compton, a village on the borders of Oxfordshire and Warwickshire, ‘folklore decrees that the stones are uncountable.’[1]

The Bath antiquary John Wood claimed that he had counted the stones, ‘though the cloudburst that followed was attributed to his folly by the villagers.’[2]


Wood had added that those who did make the attempt ‘proceeded till they were either struck dead upon the spot, or with such an illness as soon carried them off.’ Quoting this, Janet and Colin Bord enlarge a little upon the ‘wedding legend’, the story traditionally associated with the stones, that they were a wedding party turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath. The wedding, on a Saturday, went on until the fiddler stopped at midnight, saying that he couldn’t play on the Sabbath. ‘But then a dark stranger appeared and continued the music, and the merry-makers danced faster and faster and could not stop. At dawn, the music ceased, and they saw that the fiddler was none other than the Devil. They could not run away from him, and he said that one day he would return and play to them again. Until that day comes, they stand, as still as stone, in a field at Stanton Drew.’[3]

The details vary in several versions, as Kingsley Palmer points out, noting that an alternative name for the stones is ‘The Fiddlers and the Maids’. ‘All however agree that it was punishment for breaking the sabbath which caused the tragedy, that it was the bride who insisted on continuing beyond the midnight hour and that the devil himself led the dance in the form of a fiddler. The legend obviously has strong moralistic overtones, and the role of the bride suggests its masculine origin’.[4]


When the famous antiquarian and biographer John Aubrey stayed with his grandmother in Compton Dando, he would visit Stanton Drew, which he referred to as ‘bigger than Stonehenge’. He claimed not to believe the story ‘that on her way to be married, a bride and the company she was with were all turned into these stones, which are grouped together, hard as marble and nine or ten feet high. One is called the bride’s stone, another the parson’s stone, another the cook’s. The stones are a dirty reddish colour and take a good polish. I cannot help wondering how they really came to be there, and why.’

Thirty years later, Aubrey went back ‘to see the stone monument there that I knew as a child. The stones stand in plough land.’ The corn was ready for harvest so his attempts to measure the stones were hampered. He recorded that the villagers broke the stones ‘with sledges because they encumber their fertile land. The stones have been diminishing fast these past few years. I must stop this if I can.’[5]

On a brisk and bright and breezy day, one pound per person entrance fee slipped into the honesty box, and we’re through the gate and into the field, with the River Chew beyond. It’s very atmospheric, or was when we were there, wind fanning through the grass, stones standing, leaning or fallen, some with small pools of rainwater in the shallow depressions, stone weathered into wildly varied colours, shades and textures.


The Great Circle, at 113 metres in diameter, is the second largest after Avebury, and has 26 surviving upright stones. Recent research, outlined on the English Heritage site, states that there were nine concentric rings of wooden posts inside the great circle, each standing several metres tall. Similar timber circles such as Woodhenge are known elsewhere, but this is apparently the largest and most complex timber monument known in the British Isles. There would have been a large, deep circular ditch around the stones, 6 or 7 metres wide and about 135 metres in diameter. The site may date back around 4500 years.

https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/stanton-drew-circles-and-cove/history/

Hardly the ends of the earth for us, but a few miles—and a few thousand years—beyond our own recent circle. Modest progress but progress, after all.


Notes


[1] Images of Prehistory, text by Peter Fowler, photographs by Mick Sharp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 124.

[2] Julian Cope, The Modern Antiquarian: A Pre-Millennial Odyssey through Megalithic Britain (London: Thorson 1998), 222.

[3] Janet & Colin Bord, Mysterious Britain (London: Paladin Books, 1975), 29.

[4] Kingsley Palmer, The Folklore of Somerset (London: Batsford, 1976), 74, 75. The story is also retold in Sybil Marshall, Everyman’s Book of English Folk Tales (London: Dent, 1981).

[5] Ruth Scurr, John Aubrey: My Own Life (London: Chatto & Windus, 2015), 26, 155.