Futures imagined or misplaced


(A touch of Futurism: Umberto Boccioni, Elasticity (1912): Palazzo Brera, Milan, Italy)

‘What interest have all men in common?’ Ezra Pound asked in January 1912. ‘What forces play upon them all? Money and sex and tomorrow.’ Of the last, he remarked further: ‘And tomorrow? We none of us agree about.’[1] We can at least agree about that non-agreement: even the meaning of ‘tomorrow’ is uncertain in a lot of contexts – literally ‘ tomorrow’, the very next day (though tomorrow, they say, never comes)? Or more along the lines of Macbeth’s ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’?

The first version of tomorrow is the seventieth anniversary of the death of George Orwell and I notice I don’t have a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the house; nor am I sure how or when that disappearance happened. I remember bits of it quite well (as do most of its readers, I suspect), including the cheery suggestion that a feasible image of the future is of a face being stamped on forever; and the Party slogan, ‘Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’

I noticed too that Steven Poole’s ‘Word of the Week’ was ‘xenobot’—that prefix from the Greek, xenos: strange foreign—from the recent announcement that scientists had ‘created the first living robots by building machines using stem cells taken from African frogs’:

In Jeanette Winterson’s novel, Frankissstein: A Love Story, Dr Stein ‘goes to the window, watches the buses up and down Oxford Road, carrying their cargo of people who aren’t thinking about the future beyond teatime or tomorrow or their next holiday or whatever fear is the fear that waits for them in the dark. It’s raining. That’s what most people are thinking about. The size of our lives hems us in but protects us too. Our little lives, small enough to make it through the gap under the door as it closes.’[2]


(Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell © National Portrait Gallery, London)

Thinking about the future—and thinking about the past’s thinking about the future—is the mainspring of Winterson’s novel (though it contains much else): looking back to Mary Shelley’s conception and writing of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818), looking at the present’s—and the likely future’s—relationship with artificial intelligence, robotics and cryonics. But for most of those not actively engaged in futures—more than I first thought: financial, political, medical, urban planning, electronics, writers of science fiction and how many more?—Dr Stein is probably not far off. Not always the fear that waits for us in the dark but mainly pretty small, and likely short-term too. Longer term, death and taxes are said to be the only certainties. In latter years, unless you have a pretty hefty pension package, you may not pay much tax at all. Death you can’t outwit, outlast or buy off—although, needless to say, this is not a truth universally acknowledged.


It’s hard enough to think about the present just now, and increasingly difficult to remember parts of the past; it must surely take a particular sort of mind to open itself to possible future trends and developments and make constructive guesses or predictions. The doyen of Ford Madox Ford scholarship, Professor Max Saunders, has just published a new book called Imagined Futures: Writing, Science, and Modernity in the To-Day and To-Morrow Book Series, 1923-31 (Oxford University Press). That series ran to more than one and fifty titles and the list of its authors boasted some very celebrated names, J. B. S. Haldane, Robert Graves, André Maurois, Vera Brittain among them. Saunders has written informative pieces about the series on the Oxford University Press blog and The Conversation website:



Now the crowdfunding publisher Unbound plans to produce a new series, the first five of which will be: The Future of Serious Art by Bidisha, The Future of British Politics by Frankie Boyle, The Future of Men by Grace Campbell, The Future of Stuff by Vinay Gupta and The Future of Antiquity by Sir Richard Lambert. If you want to pledge your support, there are various options, from £40 (plus shipping) for all five paperbacks to more expensive signed or limited editions.


Where might one begin to define, predict or even locate the future? ‘Home is where one starts from’, T. S. Eliot remarks, reasonably enough in East Coker—but earlier, at the very outset of Burnt Norton, plunges straight in: ‘Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future/ And time future contained in time past.’[3] Julia Blackburn writes, of the small party held to celebrate the completion of her book: ‘I say that I hope everyone will like the book if it is eventually translated into Italian and that being here in the valley has made me think that time past and time present and time future is like a vast landscape and we are walking through it on a tracery of thin paths.’[4] The scholar Roger Lewis wrote in an introduction to Rudyard Kipling’s Rewards and Fairies that Kipling ‘has seen the future, and it is the past in masquerade.’[5] Joseph Conrad, in Heart of Darkness, has his master mariner Marlow observe that: ‘The mind of man is capable of anything – because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.’[6]

Does our understanding of the past or our grasp of the present better equip us for a stab at the future? ‘Strange how, when you are young, you owe no duty to the future; but when you are old, you owe a duty to the past. To the one thing you can’t change.’ So the narrator in Julian Barnes’ The Only Story.[7] But of course, in one sense, we change the past all the time, rewriting, revising, editing. We augment, elide, censor and, increasingly, bits fall out. And, if we sometimes mourn the past, the losses, disappearances, things never repeated which were meant to be—sometimes we also mourn the future, what we, as individuals, as a country, as a species, will not have or see or know again. ‘In our time’, Guy Davenport’s Adriaan van Hovendaal writes in his journal, ‘we long not for a lost past but for a lost future.’[8]

I have a faint memory of reading, or reading about, a fiction concerned with precisely that: a sort of lost property office stacked not with packages, umbrellas and raincoats but with futures that became unmoored. But I may have imagined it.




[1] Ezra Pound, ‘I Gather the Limbs of Osiris. IX: On Technique’, Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 32.

[2] Jeanette Winterson, Frankissstein: A Love Story (London: Jonathan Cape, 2019), 160.

[3] T. S. Eliot, ’Four Quartets’, in The Complete Poems and Plays (London: Faber and Faber, 1969), 182, 171.

[4] Julia Blackburn, Thin Paths: Journeys In and Around an Italian Mountain Village (London: Jonathan Cape, 2011), 248.

[5] Roger Lewis, ‘Introduction’, Rudyard Kipling, Rewards and Fairies (1910; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1987), 10.

[6] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness with The Congo Diary, edited by Robert Hampson (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 63.

[7] Julian Barnes, The Only Story (London: Jonathan Cape, 2018), 168.

[8] Guy Davenport, Apples and Pears (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), 63.


A slight pricking of the thumbs

petworth reynolds macbeth & the witches

(Joshua Reynolds, Macbeth and the Witches
National Trust Collections: Petworth House and Park, West Sussex)

‘You’re not very safe around sharp things,’ the Librarian observes, watching me wrestle with sheets of kitchen roll. ‘Put some pressure on it.’

‘Everyone has little accidents in the kitchen,’ I say.

‘Not as often as you do.’

‘dear hemingway’, Ford Madox Ford began a letter in November 1932, ‘(I have cut off the top of my left thumb with a sickle and so cannot put down the capital stop)’. He had conveyed the same news to Ezra Pound, probably a little earlier: ‘i have cut off the top of my left thumb in a gardenin operation and writing is difficult to me’.[1]

No, not that: on this occasion, I merely sliced off several layers of skin from my forefinger, leaving a relatively small wound which, nevertheless, had only one ambition, one aim in life: to bleed. It took quite a while to stop it.

Ford’s letter, though. The first point of interest is that he’s still writing to Ernest Hemingway, with whom he’d fallen out in Paris during the brief life of the transatlantic review. Hemingway included unflattering portraits of Ford and Stella Bowen in The Sun Also Rises (1926) and generally wrote disparagingly about Ford in letters to various correspondents in the intervening years but there was some direct contact in 1932, partly because Ford wrote round to a good many writers, Hemingway among them, soliciting testimonials for a pamphlet issued to accompany the 1933 trade publication of Ezra Pound’s A Draft of XXX Cantos.


(Via Peter Harrington Books: https://www.peterharrington.co.uk/authors/p/ezra-pound )

There was also the hugely admiring introduction (dated January 1932) that Ford had written for the Modern Library’s reissue of A Farewell to Arms.[2] Ford’s November 1932 letter acknowledges the copy of Death in the Afternoon that Hemingway has sent him: ‘i have been absorbing instruction from it ever since last night when i got it and shall shortly be able to talk like any aficionado’ (Letters 216). In 1935, Ford published a report for the New York Times on the trial of Bruno Hauptmann for the kidnapping and murder  of the young son of Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne. The report was headed ‘Trial is Likened to a Bullfight’ and, in Great Trade Route, Ford described how, to his companion Janice Biala, the painter with whom he lived during his last decade, the people she met ‘were of unexampled vindictiveness and ferocity’ toward the defendant. ‘For her it was as if she were in a bull-fight crowd, every member of which would have spat on, if it could, and have tortured, the bull . . . which is not, of course, the attitude of any bull-fight crowd’.[3]

More than thirty years would elapse before the publication of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, with its cheerful defamation of several of his contemporaries, including Scott Fitzgerald, Wyndham Lewis, Gertrude Stein and Ford.

Ernst Jünger, in his classic First World War book Storm of Steel, wrote of finding the split thumb of a driver more sickening than wholesale slaughter and mutilation: ‘It’s an example of the way in which one’s response to an experience is actually largely determined by its context.’[4] Another contemporary of Ford’s, C. E. Montague, with a sly nod to the second witch in Shakespeare’s Macbeth—‘By the pricking of my thumbs,/ Something wicked this way comes’ (IV, i)—had the narrator of one of his stories remark: ‘Besides, I had felt a slight pricking in my thumbs, such as usually visits me when I come near an intellectual, even one who is not a burglar.’[5]

NPG 2752; Benjamin Jonson by Abraham van Blyenberch

(Abraham Blyenberch, Ben Jonson: National Portrait Gallery)

The poet and dramatist Ben Jonson presumably experienced something more than ‘a slight pricking’. When he killed the actor Gabriel Spencer in 1598, Jonson pleaded self-defence but also claimed ‘benefit of clergy’, the advantage of literacy being that he was able to read Psalm 51 (in the King James Bible) in Latin. The implication was that, since only members of the clergy could do so, it was inappropriate for them to be tried in a secular court rather than a (more lenient) ecclesiastical one. Possessing the power to save you from an undesirable rendezvous with the public hangman, the Psalm came to be known as the ‘neck verse’. In this instance, Jonson was only (only!) branded on the thumb.[6]

At least the skin on my forefinger will grow back. Probably.


[1] Ford Madox Ford, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 216; Brita Lindberg-Seyersted, editor, Pound/Ford: The Story of a Literary Friendship (London: Faber & Faber 1982), 112.

[2] Reprinted in Ford Madox Ford, Critical Writings, edited by Frank MacShane (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964), 127-136.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, Great Trade Route (London: Allen & Unwin, 1937), 198.

[4] Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel, translated by Michael Hofmann (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004), 91.

[5] C. E. Montague, ‘A Fatalist’, in Action (1928; London: Chatto & Windus, Phoenix Library, 1936), 164.

[6] Peter Vansittart, In Memory of England: A Novelist’s View of History (London: John Murray, 1998), 48.


Tales of reconstruction

FMF-No-Enemy Kipling-Traffics

The latest Times Literary Supplement (3 January 2020) has a feature in which various writers select a book currently unavailable that they believe warrants reissuing: ‘Some nominations for out-of-print books that deserve to be rediscovered and republished’. Some interesting choices, a few of them enlightening, one or two slightly puzzling in the way they’re presented. Some, though not all, comment briefly on the recent publication history of their selected title. Internet searches have made tracking down secondhand copies a much less strenuous affair, while an increasing number of books now are available, or at least can be ordered, in rather disgusting print on demand versions, the older ones often simply scanned in, so with texts ranging from unreliable to unreadable.

Several books I’d not heard of at all—which was presumably the point, or one of them—and some are triumphantly on the money. Ruth Scurr, for one, with her highlighting of the wonderful Alethea Hayter; and Elizabeth Lowry chooses Kipling’s Traffics and Discoveries, which is a fine collection: she quite rightly mentions ‘They’ and ‘Mrs Bathurst’ and I assumed that they at least would be included in the intriguingly titled Collected Stories from Everyman. The second one is but, bafflingly, while ‘A Sahib’s War’ and ‘“Wireless”’ are, ‘They’ is not. The Everyman is a handsome volume but even 900 pages is not enough to gather up all the best, or a wholly representative range, of Kipling’s stories, as several editors have no doubt discovered.

Still, the main points of interest for this reader were, firstly, the title of the piece: ‘Tales of reconstruction’; and secondly, the book whose subtitle provides the TLS heading: Ford Madox Ford’s No Enemy: A Tale of Reconstruction. It’s chosen by the estimable Alexandra Harris: it was published, as she says, in 1929, and mostly written ten years earlier.

It’s of particular interest because, firstly, that’s where the name of this blog comes from; secondly, because while some of the contributors mention recent reprints, Harris doesn’t add anything to that ‘1929’. There was, though, a 1984 Ecco Press edition, a straight reprint of the original Macaulay edition; then the first UK edition, which I edited for Carcanet Press in 2002. It went out of print a few years back and Carcanet haven’t reprinted it but, after a couple of years when secondhand copies advertised on the ABE website were offered at ridiculous prices, there are several copies currently available for quite reasonable sums.

The Carcanet volume didn’t attract much attention when it appeared, less than I’d expected for the first British edition of a book by a major British writer, after a gap of more than seventy years. A short but invaluable notice from Alan Judd, eminent novelist and biographer of Ford; and a very brief review in the Guardian by someone who seemed to have read the first dozen pages and left it at that. For Alexandra Harris, it is ‘one of the most arrestingly original books I know about the experience of landscape.’ She adds that Ford ‘finds a language of numbness and revelation that anticipates Woolf’s “moments of being”; he works through layers and collages that we might now associate more readily with Sebald.’

That’s well said: though I may be biased, having mentioned Sebald in my 2002 introduction. A very interesting feature anyway: and a few titles I’ll certainly look out for. Perhaps not the Ford though: I seem to have several copies already.


An open or shut case


(Nicolas Poussin, A Dance to the Music of Time: Wallace Collection)

January, its name derived from Janus, the two-faced Roman god of doors and beginnings. In the Renaissance, his two faces became a symbol of past and future in allegories concerning time.[1] In periods of peace, his temple was closed. In Virgil’s Aeneid:

War has twin matched portals (the name they are known by is ‘War Gates’)
Sacred in cult and in frightening symbols of Mars the Relentless.
Sealed by a hundred barrier bolts made of bronze and eternal
Hardness of iron. And Janus is never off guard at the entrance.

Or, with a seventeenth-century flavour:

Two gates of steel (the name of Mars they bear),
And still are worship’d with religious fear)
Before his temple stand: the dire abode,
And the fear’d issues of the furious god,
Are fenc’d with brazen bolts; without the gates,
The wary guardian Janus doubly waits.

(With a brief pause to admire that neat ‘doubly waits’.)[2]

To Paul Nordoff, 5 January 1946, Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote: ‘No one in wartime can quite escape the illusion that when the war ends things will snap back to where they were and that one will be the same age one was when it began, and able to go on from where one left off. But the temple of Janus has two doors, and the door for war and door for peace are equally marked in plain lettering, No Way Back. And the dead are not more irrevocably dead than the living are irrevocably alive.’[3]


In January 1909, Ezra Pound met Olivia Shakespear, mother of his future wife, Dorothy. He also met Frederic Manning, the Australian poet and prose writer. In the same month in 1930, Manning’s fine novel Her Privates We (as by ‘Private 19022’) was published by Peter Davies. The private edition, anonymous and unexpurgated, had appeared the previous year, as The Middle Parts of Fortune. My 1986 edition, with an introduction by the historian Lyn Macdonald, uses the later title but the earlier, unexpurgated text.

In the Daily Mirror of Wednesday February 26, 1930, it was reported that: ‘Mr Frederic Manning, now revealed as the writer, is the author of two books, “The Vigil of Brunhild” (a narrative poem) and “Eidola”, which are regarded by eminent critics as among the finest contemporary books of verse, a life of Sir William White, and a volume of short stories entitled “Scenes and Portraits”.’ It went on: ‘The latter volume attracted considerable attention at the time of its publication. Colonel Lawrence, author of “Revolt in the Desert”, who was the only person to discern the author correctly from internal evidence, wrote to the publisher: I’ve read “Scenes and Portraits” at least fifty times, and the man who wrote it is the only man who could possibly have written “Her Privates We.”’


I’m a sometimes enthusiastic re-reader myself (though I’ve read Her Privates We and Scenes and Portraits only once) but – ‘at least fifty times’? A touch of exaggeration there. In February 1930, writing to Charlotte Shaw , Lawrence mentioned seeing J. G. Wilson of Bumpus the booksellers: ‘I said to him “who wrote Her Privates We – that being a superb lovable book, what The Mint ought to have been) – for I know his touch?” He said “I think it begins with M . . . ” and rang up Peter Davies. That let a flood of light in: So to P. D. I said “You haven’t heard of me, my name is Shaw: but perhaps you’ve read a thing called Revolt in the Desert which I published as Lawrence. Did the author of Scenes and Portraits write Her Privates We?” He was flabbergasted, having promised not to give it away.’ He added that Scenes and Portraits ‘has been one of my friends since undergraduate days, so of course Her Privates We is bound to make me happy.’

Later that month, responding to a letter from Manning which asked ‘Was it some uncanny flair, that led you to me; or did Will Rothenstein tell you that he has some letters from me with my regimental number on them, 19022?’, Lawrence wrote: ‘No, it wasn’t Rothenstein’ – ‘As for the authorship of the book—the preface gives it away. It is pure Scenes and Portraits.’[4]

Manning died in February 1935 at the age of fifty-two; Lawrence died just three months later, at the age of forty-six, killed in a motorcycle accident. Manning’s publisher, Peter Davies, took his own life in 1960, at the age of sixty-three. He had won the Military Cross in the First World War, was a cousin of Daphne du Maurier, and founded his publishing house in 1926, with financial help from J. M. Barrie. He was one of the Llewelyn Davies boys befriended by Barrie, who later claimed to have based his character Peter Pan on Peter Davies.

Are the temple doors generally open or closed these days? They’re surely propped ajar just now.


[1] James Hall, Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art, revised edition (London: John Murray, 1996), 167.

[2] Virgil, Aeneid, VII, 607-610, translated by Frederick Ahl (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 178; Virgil’s Aeneid, translated by John Dryden (New York: Airmont, 1968), 193.

[3] Sylvia Townsend Warner, Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 91.

[4] The Letters of T. E. Lawrence, selected and edited by Malcolm Brown, corrected edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 436-437. Pop ‘19022’ into a search engine now—why would you?—and you find a train that runs a little over a thousand miles from Lucknow, in Uttar Pradesh, to Mumbai.



Light in December


(More fog than light over the river today)

‘Susan Hill. Kathleen Jamie. And you’re reading what?’
‘William Faulkner.’
‘Which one?’
‘I’m rereading Light in August.’
‘Why that one?’ the Librarian asks.

Because it’s the next one in the Faulkner canon? Not exactly. Because one of the central characters is called Joe Christmas? No, not a factor. Because the festive season is an obvious point in the year at which to embrace a tale of violence, prejudice and racist murder? Not that. Because those things seem so consonant with our current malaise? Tempting but. . . Because it’s not Absalom! Absalom!? Almost.

Over the past year or two, I’ve reread several William Faulkner books. The early ones, Soldiers’ Pay (set in Georgia) and Mosquitoes (New Orleans) are interesting but it’s not until Flags in the Dust—a heavily edited and shortened version of which was published as Sartoris—that Faulkner unrolls his Yoknapatawpha territory: ‘Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. Area, 2400 square miles. Population: Whites, 6298; Negroes, 9313. William Faulkner, sole owner and proprietor’, as he sets down the details on his map, often reprinted. Other rereading included the Collected Stories, Sanctuary – and The Sound and the Fury. Could that be as good as I remembered it? It could.


(http://www.gradesaver.com/short-stories-of-william-faulkner/study-guide/section14/, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29590820 )

Between other books and other writers, I slowly circled round towards Absalom! Absalom! again—the first long-ago reading was stunning but the second attempt, for some reason, fell at an early fence. This month, I wanted something meaty, one of the big ones, that wasn’t – just yet – Absalom! Absalom! So: Light in August.

Light in August has several plotlines that touch or clash at various points: the young Lena Grove’s search for the father of her unborn child, who has fled to Jefferson, changed his name and become the bootlegging partner of the abused, haunted and—probably—murderous Joe Christmas, who believes himself to be of mixed ancestry, though he passes for white. Lena will alter the lives of others, directly or indirectly: Byron Bunch, who is shaken out of his diminished life of risk avoidance and determined insignificance for love of her; and the (also haunted) disgraced Reverend Gail Hightower. Christmas has been pursuing an affair with Joanna Burden, whose abolitionist grandfather and half-brother were killed in an argument over African-American voting rights. And there is the aptly-named Percy Grimm, captain in the State national guard, who shoots Christmas and—while he is still alive—castrates him with a butcher’s knife. Faulkner made a point of stressing the date of the novel in which that character was created: 1932, ‘before I’d ever heard of Hitler’s Storm Troopers’.[1]

Cleanth Brooks questions the evidence for Christmas’s mixed-race origins offered by the text and concludes that there is no definitive case made; while Richard Gray comments that, ‘Faulkner has made sure that the question of Joe’s racial status can never be answered.’[2] But it’s the belief—of Christmas himself and others—that he is of mixed race which is decisive in the immediate and widespread assumption of his guilt of Miss Burden’s murder, though the novel is carefully less definite on the matter of that guilt.

But there are positive elements in the novel too, certainly in Faulkner’s view (as well as a good deal of comedy). In her 1956 interview with Faulkner for the Paris Review, Jean Stein Vanden Heuvel quoted to him Malcolm Cowley’s comment that Faulkner’s characters carried ‘a sense of submission to their fate’. Faulkner responded that Lena Grove, the young pregnant woman in search of the man who has abandoned her, ‘coped pretty well with hers. It didn’t really matter to her in her destiny whether her man was Lucas Burch or not. It was her destiny to have a husband and children and she knew it, and so she went out and attended to it without asking help from anyone. She was the captain of her soul.’ Lena was, Faulkner commented, ‘never for one moment confused, frightened, alarmed. She did not even know that she didn’t need pity.’[3]


(The fire at the Burden house, visible at multiple points throughout the novel)

Rereading Light in August after a hefty number of years, I found much of it familiar, some of it unremembered, and elements I must have been faintly aware of that came into sharper focus. Lena’s simplicity, endurance and quiet determination provide a steadying ballast to the novel but it clearly required other elements, which are sometimes reminiscent of Greek tragedy: the substantial role of the chorus, in varying forms and guises, the strong current of inevitable crisis and catharsis. There is the remarkable—and frightening—speed of narrative in the chapter where Grimm pursues and kills Christmas, by that stage as inescapable, as inexorable as fate. There are echoes too in the stories of both Lena and the strongly contrasted character of Joe Christmas. On the opening page of the book, Lena is thinking: ‘although I have not been quite a month on the road I am already in Mississippi, further from home than I have ever been before. I am now further from Doane’s Mill than I have been since I was twelve years old’; while later, two-thirds of the way through the novel, Christmas is once more in Mottstown, on a street that he remembers from childhood: ‘It had been a paved street, where going should be fast. It had made a circle and he is still inside of it. Though during the last seven days he has had no paved street, yet he has travelled further than in all the thirty years before. And yet he is still inside the circle.’[4]

Faulkner may not have loved Lena as intensely as he did The Sound and the Fury’s Caddy Compson but she is nevertheless drawn with great warmth and sympathy—though, as has been pointed out, views of her are always exteriorised, she is consistently observed and discussed and evaluated through the prism of male speech and male gaze. Faulkner began the book, he said, ‘knowing no more about it than a young woman, pregnant, walking along a strange country road’,[5] and it can hardly have been irrelevant to that initial vision that, earlier in the year of the novel’s composition, his wife had given birth to a daughter that lived only nine days.[6]


(Faulkner with Billie Holiday, 1956)

I still find, as I do with D. H. Lawrence’s novels, passages that become clotted or overburdened by Faulkner’s compound words, ‘dreamrecovering’, ‘shadowdappled’, ‘diamondsurfaced’. The novel is full of voices yet sometimes the telling lurches into language that fractures the plausibility of oral commentary. Faulkner, as David Minter remarks, ‘remained insistent, even abrupt, in mingling the colloquial and the elevated’.[7] But, as with Lawrence, such blemishes are finally, in the scale of the whole, just scraps of chaff on the granary floor.

A little later in his Paris Review interview, in a variation on Requiem for a Nun’s famous line, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’, Faulkner commented: ‘The fact that I have moved my characters around in time successfully, at least in my own estimation, proves to me my own theory that time is a fluid condition which has no existence except in the avatars of individual people. There is no such thing as was—only is. If was existed there would be no grief or sorrow.’[8]

‘Now the final copper light of afternoon fades; now the street beyond the low maples and the low signboard is prepared and empty, framed by the study window like a stage’ (Light in August 744). Light, yes. Kathleen Jamie writes: ‘The wind lifts the grasses and moves the thin branches of the leafless trees and the sun shines on them, in one movement, so light and air are as one, two aspects of the same entity.’[9]

And yes, she is writing of a day in February but – I’m reading it in December.


[1] Faulkner in the University (1957), 41, quoted by Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), 60.

[2] Brooks, William Faulkner, 49-51; Richard Gray, The Life of William Faulkner (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 184.

[3] James B. Meriwether and Michael Millgate, editors, Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980), 253.

[4] Faulkner, Light in August (1932), in Novels 1930-1935, edited by Noel Polk and Joseph Blotner, (New York: Library of America, 1985), 401, 650.

[5] Joseph Blotner, William Faulkner: A Biography, two volumes (London: Chatto & Windus, 1974), I, 703.

[6] Gray, Life, 177.

[7] David Minter, William Faulkner: His Life and Work (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 50.

[8] Lion in the Garden, 255.

[9] Kathleen Jamie, ‘Light’, in Sightlines (London: Sort Of Books, 2012), 91.

Boors carousing

van Heemskerck II, Egbert, 1634/1635-1704; Boors Carousing and Playing Cards

(Egbert van Heemskerck II, Boors Carousing and Playing Cards: The Bowes Museum)

‘It takes reckless resolution now, to admit that one has known a more civilised age than the present’, Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote to Ian Parsons at Chatto and Windus, sympathising with the ‘inadequacy of the reviews’ of their recent Letters of Marcel Proust, translated and edited by Mina Curtiss. ‘It is painful to admit it to oneself, and apparently shameful to mention it to others.’ She went on: ‘At the time when we first knew each other there were the usual number of fools about, I think—but at least those fools did not feel it incumbent on them to be boors too.’[1]

Boor: a rough and bad-mannered person, my concise dictionary says, a bit thinly. Try another: a countryman, a peasant; a Dutch colonial in South Africa; a coarse or awkward person. Derived from the Dutch, boer, ‘perhaps partly from Old English, būr, gebūr, farmer.’ Better. Surely ‘rough’ together with ‘a countryman or peasant’ will serve for all those paintings, almost exclusively Dutch genre pictures of the seventeenth century, entitled Boors Carousing, occasionally preceded by ‘Interior with’ or followed by ‘and Playing Cards’.

In Warner’s case, of course, this use of the word is nicely placed midway between her short story, ‘Boors Carousing’, included in her 1947 collection, The Museum Of Cheats, and her 1954 novel, The Flint Anchor. In that novel’s early pages, the fourth generation of the Barnard family in Loseby has a thriving business; Joseph Barnard has married his second wife, bought Anchor House and ‘laid down a cellar of port wine, for he intended to get more than daughters in his second match.’ Then: ‘One cannot manage a business without becoming literate, one cannot become literate without exposing oneself to the culture of one’s day. Joseph Barnard read Burke on the Sublime, bought a Dutch canvas of Boors Carousing, installed Rumford grates, and sent his elder son to Harrow and Cambridge.’[2]


The story, ‘Boors Carousing’, concerns Kinloch, a writer—‘“studied from myself”, according to Sylvia’, her biographer notes[3]—who has the house to himself for a while and has, apparently, ‘found it almost impossible to get on with the novel’ while his sister and her children have been staying; he has, rather, ‘written short stories, a prey to human nature – which is poison and dram-drinking to the serious artist.’ Choosing to put off writing a little longer, he is reading in his library half an hour later while the rain pours down when there is an unwelcome knock at the door. It is Miss Metcalf, daughter of the late rector, who had, Kinloch reflects, ‘drunk himself and his fortune out of existence’. She is asking for help to lift a rabbit hutch on to an outside table since the river is rising. He takes a strong liking to her house: ‘a charming place to live, if one did not object to being flooded from time to time’. The view from the Metcalf house ‘was better than his own; for one thing it included his house, and at exactly the right distance to be seen at its best.’ Then too, ‘No one was likely to come knocking at her door.’

Invited inside for a drink, he finds himself drinking pre-war whisky, ‘strong and smooth as silk’, then another, ‘to keep the cold out’. Miss Metcalf has poured herself ‘a little one too, to keep him company.’ He imagines himself here, where one could be ‘uncommonly cosy’, a house totally unrestored but which, with modest expenditure, could be made a very desirable property. And then, ‘No one would come to stay in such a house as this. They could not. He would turn the second bedroom into a bathroom.’ Miss Metcalf ‘also was keeping the cold out, and it had greatly improved her.’ She draws his attention to a picture above the mantelpiece: ‘It was a large steel-plate engraving, Luridly brilliant. Kermesse, perhaps, or possibly Boors Carousing.’ She informs him that it’s ‘a very fine specimen. And very valuable.’ She’s sometimes thought of taking it down but doesn’t know what she’d put in its place. And, if there were nothing, the patch on the wallpaper would always be there to remind her. True, Kinloch thinks. ‘Absent or present, the boors would always be carousing.’ Reminding her of her father, who had left her ‘stupefied and penniless. Absent or present, it would taunt her with an inherited alcoholism, a desperate maidenly desire for strong drink.’

Walking home, he imagines possible futures, imagines her brief obituary, then himself as attentive neighbour, taking her the odd bottle, sitting in her father’s chair and tippling with her. ‘What a story she would make!’ And, of course, he is already writing it, has already written it. Returned to his house, he enters the library and commences to write it down.[4]

These characters are not boors; nor do they actually carouse—‘to drink freely and noisily’. Yet the picture with that title (perhaps with that title), even if removed from the wall, will remind Miss Metcalf of what her life has become and how it came to be so, and how it has shaped what her life will continue to be; Kinloch is reminded, should he need reminding, that such figures as those in the painting, enjoying themselves, are also the source of enjoyment and satisfaction in others: observed, interpreted, recalled, presented.

‘“You to the life!” he said aloud. “Do nothing for her, but put her into a story.” The admission released him.’ He will, he does, he has, put her into a story. And the ‘admission’, that he will not, in fact, be that attentive neighbour, with cheering visits and bottles to share, does release him, does free him from that merely human response, enabling the artistic one, which always requires a little distance, a touch of iron in the soul, a sliver of glass in the heart.

So Kinloch to Miss Metcalf; so Warner to Kinloch; so the reader to Warner, a fruitful and extended line.

[1] Sylvia Townsend Warner to Ian Parsons, 26 December 1950: Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 124.

[2] Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Flint Anchor (London: Chatto & Windus, 1954), 9.

[3] Claire Harman, Sylvia Townsend Warner: A Biography (London: Chatto & Windus, 1989), 214.

[4] Sylvia Townsend Warner, Dorset Stories, illustrations by Reynolds Stone (Norwich: Black Dog Books, 2006), 191-200.


Not getting the news


‘It is difficult/ to get the news from poems’, William Carlos Williams wrote in ‘Asphodel, That Greeny Flower’, ‘yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.’

Nearly two weeks since the General Election and there are two consistent elements around here: it seems to have rained every day since then; and I’ve not had so much as a sniff of the other kind of news, the daily diet of stuff which in past days I’ve tended to pore over, something close to an addiction. This last fortnight, since the moment we saw the figures from the exit poll, I’ve not read or watched or listened to any news at all. I still collect the newspaper—having already paid for it, on subscription—but start from the back pages and confine myself to the crossword and a few reviews. That aversion may be down to self-preservation or detoxification or concern for my mental health or just a weariness with feeling constantly enraged and disgusted.

No doubt I’ll re-engage at some point but, for the moment, it’s fine: read books, watch Netflix, cook, drink wine, walk. Upstairs, the radio plays music, not news bulletins. I know that the worst sort of people are in the ascendant just now, that bad things are happening or are due to happen, that all the dire warnings turned out to be true—and I don’t really need the confirmation that it’s so or need to see the blood on the floor to know that something died.

As for the party that I currently support—it’s this one: Guy Davenport, Annie Ernaux, William Faulkner, Natalia Ginzburg, Henry Green, Ford Madox Ford, Mary Gaitskill, Joan Didion, Georges Simenon, and whoever else I’m reading or rereading next month and the month after that.

‘Freud, one of the grand masters of narrative, knew that the past is not fixed in the way that linear time suggests. We can return. We can pick up what we dropped. We can mend what others broke. We can talk with the dead.’—Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?