Notes to self

(Lily Delissa Joseph, Teatime, Birchington Ben Uri Gallery & Museum)

‘Are you writing?’ my elder daughter asks, when the Librarian and I meet her for tea at the Watershed café.
‘Mainly footnotes’, I answer.
Footnotes! We have been here before.

In Last Post, the final volume of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End tetralogy, Sylvia Tietjens reflects on the damage she has managed to inflict on her estranged husband Christopher. The ancestral home, Groby, has been let to rich Americans and Mrs de Bray Pape, in the course of her ‘improvements’, has brought down Groby Great Tree and has also mangled the dovecote:

But apparently it was going to mangle the de Bray Papes to the tune of a pretty penny, and apparently Mr. Pape might be expected to give his wife no end of a time…. Well, you can’t expect to be God’s Vice-gerent of England without barking your shins on old, hard things.[1]

‘Vice-gerent’? Not something I’d come across, as far as I could recall. I consulted a reference book or two and the resultant footnote read: ‘Properly not hyphenated, though in practice it often is. Applied to priests and, specifically, to the Pope, it does mean representative of God or Christ. The Papist Ford may be punning on Popes and Papes here.’ Under the more familiar ‘viceregent’, one of the dictionaries I peered into had: ‘often blunderingly for vicegerent’. A fairly easy mistake to make, I’d have thought: if annotating at all, the decision to footnote the word was hardly controversial. But the key phrase there is probably ‘if annotating at all’.

I suspect that quite a few readers still object to annotation on principle: how can you familiarise yourself with, and come to know, the language of Shakespeare if you stop for a footnote and a species of translation into modern English every couple of words? But such a question, posed on a quiet country road, is soon drowned out by traffic on a highway which can lead to unsettling termini. What? You’re reading The Tale of Genji, War and Peace and the Icelandic Sagas in translation? Are you planning simply to waste the next two hundred years of your life?

But then plays and poetry perhaps present slightly different criteria for discussion than do novels. Narrative, story, that determined forward movement, certainly a quicker reading – do you really want to pause for footnotes there, lose momentum, weaken the impetus, misplace a thread or two? And there are, after all, different kinds of footnote. A term likely to be unfamiliar to some, even most, readers can be briefly illuminated. But here’s a scene from Ford’s A Man Could Stand Up—, the third volume of his Parade’s End tetralogy. Christopher Tietjens, in the trenches during Ludendorff’s great offensive of Spring 1918, waits amidst the strafe for the enemy attack:

Noise increased. The orchestra was bringing in all the brass, all the strings, all the woodwind, all the percussion instruments. The performers threw about biscuit tins filled with horse-shoes; they emptied sacks of coal on cracked gongs, they threw down forty-storey iron houses. It was comic to the extent that an operatic orchestra’s crescendo is comic. Crescendo! …. Crescendo! CRRRRRESC…. The Hero must be coming! He didn’t![2]

In an earlier scene, two volumes (and a World War) back, Tietjens had walked on a path across a Kentish field with, ahead of him, the young suffragette Valentine Wannop:

“God’s England!” Tietjens exclaimed to himself in high good humour. “Land of Hope and Glory!” —F natural descending to tonic, C major: chord of 6-4, suspension over dominant seventh to common chord of C major. . . . All absolutely correct! Double basses, cellos, all violins: all wood wind: all brass. Full grand organ: all stops: special vox humana and key-bugle effect…”[3]

(Francis Sydney Muschamp, Scarborough Spa at Night, Scarborough Art Gallery

In 1939, in one of the last pieces he wrote before his death, certainly one of the very last he published, we see this: ‘Now then, the full orchestra of all the seven arts, all brass, all percussion, all wind, all strings, all wood wind, is away.’[4]

One kind of reader will respond: ‘So what?’ Another kind of reader: ‘Annotate it to within an inch of its life.’ I’m somewhere in between though a good deal—a great deal—closer to the inch-mob than to the so whats?

Ah, but annotate one, two or all (disregarding the option of ‘none’)? If one, which one? The first because chronologically earlier? The second, then the third, because they look back to the first? And is the point of doing so that he repeats himself – or likely to be taken as such by a reader less familiar with the Ford canon? All writers repeat themselves, to a greater or lesser degree, a fact often made apparent only by – annotation. Repetition is rarely exact repetition and is, in any case, often a part of a deliberate artistic programme or policy. Ask Miss Gertrude Stein. And, while not everyone finds recurrence of interest, some of us do (to a worrying degree, perhaps). A phrase or a moment recalled twenty, thirty or more years later; a play or a poem referred to repeatedly – I’m curious to know why. The writer, painter, composer may be the most admired, so the poet or novelist refers over and over to Dante, to Joyce, to Donne, to Cézanne, to Bach. T. S. Eliot, composing or assembling The Waste Land, draws on Shakespeare’s The Tempest at least half a dozen times, as Matthew Hollis reminded me over breakfast this morning.[5]

But, briefly, the arguments for my annotation habit in the arena of Fordian letters are three. Firstly, words drop from sight or change their usage and may present to a reader blank spots in a text which can be simply and painlessly repaired by a note, as can the names of now-forgotten writers and editors and society figures, defunct periodicals and the like; secondly, many critical texts are intended to be read by several kinds of reader, from the casual browser to the professional scholar, who can ignore them or pore over them, according to taste and occasion – and some of them will be extremely glad to know of echoes, recurrences, patterns and connections; thirdly, you have to take your fun where you can find it.

On Tuesday, half the recycling was not collected – for no explicable reason. Yesterday, a Spring month, here in the south of England, snow was falling. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Should I annotate that last sentence? Probably not.


[1] Ford Madox Ford, Last Post (1928; edited by Paul Skinner, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 163.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, A Man Could Stand Up— (1926; edited by Sara Haslam, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 79.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), 133.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, ‘A Paris Letter’, Kenyon Review, I (Winter 1939), 20.

[5] Matthew Hollis, The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem (London: Faber, 2022), 282. Elsewhere, he discusses the afterlife of the notes that Eliot was obliged to add to meet the publisher Liveright’s demands for a volume of a certain length: ‘For all Eliot’s ambivalence, the notes are now forever fused with the poem’ (376). As they are. But I don’t see that as a clear and present danger in this case.

2 thoughts on “Notes to self”

  1. Dear Paul, I try to resist burdening you with chat; but your posts are irresistible. A comic vein in the last two posts suggests your happiness underneath the hardship of note-gathering. (It took me years of headache and pleasure to accumulate the hundred pages of notes now drafted for my edition of The Lion and the Fox). As for your bell-ringing adventure: by chance I am re-reading Hugo’s Notre Dame and wishing that Quasimodo had as much a part in it as he is given in all the bastardized versions. As for your mailbox at the empty house: shades of Kipling’s “The Wish House”! Hoping that you, the Librarian, and the note-chasing go well, Robert


    1. Thank you, Robert. 100 pages! But ‘headache and pleasure’ sounds right: I always liked Graham Greene’s description of Ford’s voice in his late books being one of ‘hilarious depression’. I don’t doubt I shall end up aiming for something like that. And ‘The Wish House’ – one of my favourite Kipling stories, yet another tale to revisit! All best wishes, Paul


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