Autumn harvest

Sargent-gassed

(John Singer Sargent, Gassed, Imperial War Museums)

September. Originally the seventh month of the year. The Welsh name, ‘Medi’, is the word for reaping; the Irish, ‘Meán Fómhair’ means ‘mid-autumn’; and the Scots Gaelic, an t-Sutltuine, refers to the abundance and cheerfulness of harvest.[1] It hardly feels like mid-autumn here yet, early mornings aside; and while the ‘astronomical’ autumn begins on 23 September, the date of the autumn equinox, the ‘meteorological’ autumn began on 1 September (mine too).

The ‘abundance of harvest’. Yes, I’m currently closely engaged with a handsome festschrift for poet and publisher (and much else) Jonathan Williams, which I intend to write about in the very near future. Jeffery Beam, one of the book’s editors, closes his introduction with the observation that, ‘One might call Jonathan’s life a poetics of gathering, and this book is a first harvest.’[2] Then too, harvest looms very large indeed in a superb recent novel, All Among the Barley, by Melissa Harrison.[3] She took part in a Festival of Ideas event last night with Tim Pears, ‘The Pastoral Novel and Lessons of History’, held at the main Waterstones branch in Bristol, both of them very impressive, articulate and engaged (the moderator was good too). Melissa Harrison, asked to read an extract from her book, recited from memory, as Alice Oswald does her poetry. With prose, it’s rarer, though I recall an event years ago at which Iain Sinclair read and then Stewart Home recited or, possibly, improvised, talking very quickly and for a good fifteen minutes.

Harrison-Barley

I read Melissa Harrison’s novel on the train to and from Manchester. Set in the 1930s, it doesn’t need to spell out or even point towards the painful resonances with our current situation. The narrator dreams of the countryside in which she grew up. ‘Awake, I would picture in loving detail the valley’s fields and farms, its winding lanes and villages, conjuring up a vision of a lost Eden to which I longed to return. But at last I came to see that there is a danger in such thinking; for you can never go back, and to make an idol of the past only disfigures the present, and makes the future harder to attain’ (324).

Wave-IWMN

The Imperial War Museum North is exhibiting Wave, initially conceived for the installation at the Tower of London in 2014, designed by Tom Piper and sculpted by Paul Cummins. Poppies as symbols of remembrance (the history, the controversies, the disparate opinions) featured in the current exhibition, Lest We Forget? As well as some fascinating photographs, film footage, documents and commissioned war paintings—Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer, Wyndham Lewis—there was the huge John Singer Sargent picture, Gassed, which I’d been trying to show to the Librarian for quite a while: when we asked in London it had been lent to Washington but now we’d finally caught up with it.

Whitworth

Once checked-out of the hotel, we walked to the refurbished Whitworth Gallery, a stunning success, every detail a real class act, now one of the Librarian’s favourite places (and mine). To walk into a huge and elegant space—the exhibition is called In the Land—a Terry Frost canvas on either side of the threshold, past a Peter Lanyon, a Bryan Wynter, a Roger Hilton, then a Barbara Hepworth and John Milne’s aluminium Icarus, to the end wall’s pairing of a John Piper and a beautiful Ben Nicholson—it’s a damned fine walk. Prints of Darkness: Goya and Hogarth in a Time of European Turmoil was wonderful and terrifying, reminding me again how precisely Goya’s ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’ provides the default text for our times. Textiles from the Islamic World included some breathtaking exhibits and Bodies of Colour—yes, wallpaper—was diverting too.

Goya-sleep-of-reason

(Goya, ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’)

Then the City Gallery—remarkable—with the wonderful cards that people fill in: ‘What did you enjoy most about your visit?’ One read: ‘I saw it with my wife’. Another: ‘The Ancient Arts were decent. Thank you.’ Then the Central Library. Bloody hell. Fantastic. The Wolfson Reading Room. The rows of intent and silent readers. The Henry Watson Music Library. The kids picking out tunes on the piano, working out songs together. Democratic. Non-judgemental. Free. This stuff matters. I think of all the Tories and privatisation fetishists who say: ‘We don’t need libraries’ or ‘Nobody uses libraries’. They know nothing; they display such shameful ignorance that they should never pronounce on this or any other issue again. Never ever again.
References

[1] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 355.

[2] Jonathan Williams: The Lord of Orchards, edited by Jeffery Beam and Richard Owens (Westport and New York: Prospecta Press, 2017), xiv.

[3] Melissa Harrison, All Among the Barley (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018).

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