(Charles Sims, The Shower: Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums)
April comes in like a drowned rat. The wettest English March for more than forty years – but today? It’s raining. Though traditionally placed at 15 July, St Swithin’s day has gone rogue, completely unmoored from the calendar. Forty days and nights of rain appears a conservative estimate of the drenching we’re ensnared in.
‘More social interaction than I’ve had for a while’, I said to the Librarian some while back. This comprised, firstly, a dialogue with the driver of the recycling truck that had failed to remove a broken box even though we’d received the replacement. ‘Can’t you take this one?’ ‘Not us. That’s Avonmouth.’ ‘I thought the old one was meant to be collected.’ ‘Can’t take it. It’s hard plastic. They’ll tell you to break it up and put it in your black bin anyway.’
Next was a knock on the door: the driver of the resurfacing lorry. ‘Is that your van?’ ‘No. There are men working next door. Maybe theirs.’ ‘Can’t make anyone hear.’ In the back garden, I call over the fence. ‘You might have to move your van.’ ‘Not our van. We saw the signs yesterday.’
(Being-in-the-world. Not quite Heidegger bur definitely being in the world.)
At least there was the excitement of seeing the offending van winched on to the back of a lorry and trundled away; the downside being that its alarm went off at regular intervals while the operation was in progress.
I left the broken recycling box outside to dry off before taking it through the house to break it up in the garden. It’s still there. Nothing has dried off. Conjugate that: nothing has dried off, is drying off, will dry off. The inspiration for that exercise comes from hearing the Librarian in the front room, intoning questions in French about trying the roasted mangoes with honey or invitations to dance at the castle, everyday stuff that gets those verbs meshing.
I resume readerly interaction with Hannah Rose Woods and Eleanor Catton, pausing to wonder exactly when it was that we went to a reading at Topping’s Bookshop in Bath and came away with a signed copy of The Luminaries. It was September 2013, I find. She mentioned James Salter as one of the writers she valued to the person ahead of me in the queue, so I told her, while she was signing my copy of her book, that we’d seen Salter interviewed and heard him read at the Watershed in Bristol in May, in the Festival of Ideas programme. He was almost eighty-eight then, in good form and good voice. He died in 2015, just past his ninetieth birthday. Eleanor Catton was already on the shortlist for the Man Booker prize. I wished her luck — but she didn’t need it.
Five years since I read any Salter. What would I revisit now? A Sport and a Pastime and All That Is, yes. Probably Light Years, maybe Burning the Days. Some of the stories and, always, the marvellous correspondence with Robert Phelps.
‘I also had a lovely letter from John Collier, who was seventy this month. His letter bears no reference to time, does not acknowledge it. He writes as if he had always been part of the world and always would be.’ ‘I have 65 pages of outline, not to mention 150, at least, of notes. All this to be entitled to write a single paragraph, the last paragraph of the book.’ ‘Why am I writing about myself all the time? Then again, who else do I know?’ ‘Imagine finding a friend late in life when one’s heart has begun to close.’ ‘I’ve felt, for a month, like those English of the Great War years, 1914-, who saw everyone they knew simply vanish and vanish forever.’
Change that ‘everyone’ to ‘everything’ and look around the world and things get a little chilly. On the other hand – good grief, I think the rain has stopped. To the park! Yes, the paths will be flooded and the grass beside them waterlogged and the road below the park running with water since the drains gave up the ghost – but the rain has stopped!
(Herbert James Draper, Ulysses and the Sirens: Ferens Art Gallery)
—I know you think I’m obsessed with sirens. —Yes. —But there were three at once just now. And at least a dozen or more, so far today. —Think of where we are. —Arterial junction on this side of the city. But still . . .
But still. Sirens. Or Syrens? The meaning of which, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary sternly pronounces, is ‘chiefly British spelling of siren’. Elsewhere, ‘syren’ is simply termed ‘old-fashioned’.
‘What song the sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions, are not beyond conjecture’, Sir Thomas Browne wrote in chapter 5 of his Urn Burial. His editor points out that those questions had been put by the emperor Tiberius to test the grammarians. Or, according to Suetonius, in his life of that strikingly unpleasant Roman, ‘his greatest passion was for mythology, to the extent that he made himself seem foolish and absurd; for he used to make trial of scholars, a class of men on whom [ . . . ] he was especially keen: “Who was Hecuba’s mother? What was Achilles’ name when he was among the virgins? What songs used the Sirens to sing?”’
Sleight of hand, yes, siren to siren: but both rub shoulders under the one dictionary heading. A beckoning and a warning; a come-on and a note of caution. The mythological nymphs whose singing required Homer’s hero to be bound to his ship’s mast while his crew had their ears stuffed with beeswax; but also a signalling or warning instrument, as well as an American genus of eel-like amphibians (typically living in muddy pools). The proposed derivation is suitably tortuous: Middle English from Old French from Late Latin from Greek (Seirēn).
‘I imagine’, Ford Madox Ford wrote, ‘that I should prefer to be where Christobel low-lieth and to listen to the song the syrens sang. But I am in London of the nineteen tens, and I am content to endure the rattles and the bangs—and I hope to see them rendered.’ He had used the phrase—‘what songs the Sirens sang’—a year earlier; and would use it, or a variant of it, on several later occasions. In 1931, reporting fierce storms in the South of France to the novelist Caroline Gordon, one of which had drowned seventeen men, he added: ‘the Mediterranean being a treacherous syren’.
Ford also recalled, from his days of editing the English Review, a piece by Norman Douglas called Syrens, ‘which was, I think, the most beautiful thing we printed.’ That Douglas essay begins: ‘It was the Emperor Tiberius who startled his grammarians with the question, what songs the Sirens sang.’
Not that Ford and Douglas were the only ones with Sirens on their mind. E. M. Forster was at it too. In his ‘The Story of the Siren’, a Sicilian boatman tells the English narrator the story of his brother’s sighting of the Siren, when he dives for silver coins. Permanently changed, he marries a woman similarly bewitched, who is murdered by a priest while pregnant, religion and popular superstition having conspired to produce the conviction among the villagers that the couple’s child would empower the Siren, that the Pope would then die and the world be turned upside down.
Also in 1920, the writer John Rodker’s recently created Ovid Press issued an edition of 200 copies of Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, with initials and colophon by Edward Wadsworth, who had been briefly associated with the Omega Workshops, then with the Vorticists, contributing five illustrations and a review of Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art to the first issue of Blast.
The third stanza of Mauberley:
ἴδμεν γάρ τοι πάνθ᾽ ὅσ᾽ ἐνὶ Τροίῃ εὐρείῃ Caught in the unstopped ear; Giving the rocks small lee-way The chopped seas held him, therefore, that year.
The first line, from Homer’s Odyssey (Bk.XII, 189), ‘For we know all the toils that are in wide Troy’, is, precisely, from the Sirens’ song, its transmission unimpeded by that ‘unstopped ear’ (while ‘lee-way’ is Pound’s bilingual rhyme with Τροίῃ, and those choppy seas or, rather, that ‘therefore’, suitably disturbs the rhythm of the final line).
Richard Buxton notes that the Sirens are ‘depicted by post-Homeric sources as women above the waist and birds below it’ and prints the image of an Attic vase, which the British Museum dates to c.480-470 BC, one of the Sirens having thrown herself off a cliff onto the ship, ‘perhaps because the safe passage of Odysseus’ vessel marks a defeat for the Sirens’ power’. 
In May 1940, after the Nazi invasion of the Lowlands, Mollie Panter-Downes noted that ‘the bus changing gear at the corner sounds ridiculously like a siren for a second, as it used to do in the first edgy days of the war.’ But even those of us (now most of us) not old enough to recall the originals have been made familiar with the sound of air raid sirens by film and television dramas.
Things were a little more makeshift in the earlier war. When the Gothas, heavy wide-spanned biplanes, virtually took over from Zeppelins the attacks on London in the summer of 1917, E. S. Turner wrote: ‘Belatedly the Government introduced a proper warning system of maroons [fireworks used as signals or warnings]; one of the earlier methods had been to send out a fast open car with a bugler (sometimes a Boy Scout) standing in the back, or a policeman hard-pedalling a cycle with a ‘Take Cover’ notice. Engine drivers had their own way of sounding “All Clear”; they blew a cock-a-doodle-do on their whistles.’ Hard luck if your attention was elsewhere when that policeman cycled by.
Dropping off the car on returning from Somerset, we are almost deafened by a rush and cacophony of wailing vehicles, both ambulance and police. I suspect I know what song those sirens sing.
 Browne, Selected Writings, edited by Claire Preston (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1995), 105. Thetis sent her son Achilles to the court of King Lycomedes on Skyros to avoid his being sent to war with Troy, where he was destined to die. He disguised himself as a girl under the name of Pyrrha but was tracked down by Odysseus.
 Suetonius, Live of the Caesars, edited and translated by Catharine Edwards (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 132.
 Ford, ‘On a Notice of “Blast”’, Outlook, XXXVI (31 July 1915), 144. Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’ may have wantonly embraced Tennyson’s 1830 poem ‘Claribel’ (‘Where Claribel low-lieth’) here.
 Ford, ‘Literary Portraits XXVIII—Mr Morley Roberts and Time and Thomas Waring’, Outlook, XXXIII (21 March 1914), 390; Thus to Revisit (London: Chapman & Hall, 1921), 7; The Marsden Case (London: Duckworth, 1923), 44; and ‘Somewhere the sirens smiled’, in The Rash Act (1933; Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1982), 187.
 Brita Lindbergh-Seyersted, A Literary Friendship: Correspondence Between Caroline Gordon & Ford Madox Ford (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1999), 11-12.
 Ford Madox Ford, Return to Yesterday (London: Gollancz, 1931), 408-409; Norman Douglas, ‘Sirens’, English Review, II, ii (May 1909), 202-214.
 Forster’s story was ‘hand-printed by the Woolfs’ and published in a limited edition in July 1920: The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume 2: 1920-24, edited by Anne Olivier Bell, assisted by Andrew McNeillie (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), 51-52 and n.; E. M. Forster, Collected Short Stories (London: Penguin Books, 1954), 179-187.
Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, in Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 549.
 Richard Buxton, The Complete World of Greek Mythology (London: Thames & Hudson, 2004), 142.
 Mollie Panter-Downes, London War Notes (1971; edited by William Shawn, new preface by David Kynaston, London: Persephone Books, 2014), 64.
 E. S. Turner, Dear Old Blighty (London: Michael Joseph 1980), 123.
(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.
‘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!
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…”
(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.’
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.
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.
 Ford Madox Ford, Last Post (1928; edited by Paul Skinner, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 163.
 Ford Madox Ford, A Man Could Stand Up— (1926; edited by Sara Haslam, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 79.
 Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), 133.
 Ford Madox Ford, ‘A Paris Letter’, Kenyon Review, I (Winter 1939), 20.
 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.
On a strike day, the Librarian sets off early, bound for picket line and rally, one of millions currently defending their livelihoods, pay, pensions, conditions—not to mention the future of school and university education, the National Health Service, transport systems, emergency services and social care, just about everything that a civilised society requires, come to think of it.
Foot soldier in a different campaign, I peer at online newspaper archives—The Folkestone Herald! The North Star! The Gloucester Journal!—and mutely interrogate the pages of Suetonius, biographies of Liberal statesmen and the Catholic Encyclopedia or run a cyber-finger down columns of common First World War acronyms and abbreviations. Then: how many serving soldiers had that surname? Ah, 5,762. But perhaps—recurring hopefully to Olive Schreiner—‘there is another method’.
I think sometimes of old volumes of letters I’ve read, or old biographies: ‘Cannot trace’, ‘Not yet identified’. That was then; this . . . Isn’t everything online? No. Aren’t all archives freely accessible? No. Can’t you translate anything from one language to another on one of those whizzbang websites? No (especially if he makes it up).
‘I am making quite good progress with that book’, Ford Madox Ford wrote to his friend Charles Masterman, the Liberal politician and head of the British propaganda department, in October 1914. I use the same cautious terms. Since this is not a leap year—no leaping!—it’s already the last day of February as I sit trying to work out which cousin of which daughter of which Lady This or Lady That married the right man (right for me, never mind for her). The ennobled families of England (and, often, Scotland; less often the other countries that make up, for the moment, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) breed, or bred, like rabbits, it occurs to me once more, if not for the exact same reasons as the poor. Bloodlines, money, influence, money, land, money. Clearly a genealogist would be handy since, as far back as I can recall, the interconnections of families have given me a headache. I can cope with straightforward cousins adequately but as soon as ‘second’ or ‘third’ or ‘removed’, even, on occasion, ‘by marriage’, swim before my eyes, darkness descends.
Apart from a genealogist, what else might help? Who or what would be useful? My provisional list features a few gaps or weaker links that may well be filled by fellow-editors or other colleagues and would include: someone with a better grasp of colloquial French than mine; a fluent Welsh speaker and, ideally, a Flemish one too; a classical scholar; an expert on Catholic doctrine, texts and rituals; a Biblical scholar, to be on the safe side; a couple of military historians, specialising in the First World War, plus one conversant with the minutiae of domestic British politics of the period, including a detailed knowledge of the career of David Lloyd George, ‘Dai Bach’; an expert on the topography of London; ditto Sussex; ditto Kent (again, to be on the safe side). In reserve, an expert on pigs and potatoes; scholar of dialect and slang, particularly of Sussex and Kent; and one or two historians of the London newspaper and periodical press.
(James Boswell by Joshua Reynolds, 1785: National Portrait Gallery)
On a good day, of course, I am—or attempt or aspire to be—all or most, or at least some, of these things myself – to a degree. Happy things, degrees, as James Boswell knew. ‘21 November 1762. Since I came up [to London], I have begun to acquire a composed genteel character very different from a rattling uncultivated one which for some time past I have been fond of. I have discovered that we may be in some degree whatever character we choose.’ And here he is a little later in the land of Rembrandt and Vermeer: ‘Tissot [a medical doctor] said mankind were all mad and differed only in degrees.’
Not always happy things, of course, as C. L. R. James perceived: ‘To the extent that a historical parallel is suggestive, to that very degree it is dangerous.’ And talk of dangerous degrees recalls Alexandra Harris on the beginning of what historians call the Little Ice Age. ‘The start was the worst of it; there was never again such prolonged rain, frost, and drought as in the years of the Great Famine of 1315-18. But the altered climate forced long-term changes in English farming. Though the average annual temperature fell by only a degree Celsius, it was a critical degree.’
How is our patient, Earth, today? Alas, doctor, situation critical.
Post! Bank statement for the Ford Madox Society. The London Review of Books. The Times Literary Supplement. And – a bellringing journal? My grasp of campanology is feeble, consisting almost entirely of The Nine Tailors, Dorothy Sayers’ 1934 novel, which takes its title from the saying that ‘nine tailors make a man’, a reference to the number of strokes at the beginning of the tolling for the dead (it was six for the death of a woman). In Akenfield, Ronald Blythe described it as three times three for a man, three times two for a woman; then the years of the dead person’s age would be tolled. He added that the practice continued up to the Second World War, ‘when all the bells of England were silenced. It was never revived.’
A wrongly delivered bellringing journal, then, but the address is a very local one and can be slipped into the afternoon walk. And so it is—a detour through the park first to avoid the adjacent road, which often requires walking in the road because of all the antisocial dimwits that leave their cars on the narrow pavement. Still, even in the park, you have to avoid, in addition to cyclists, those people on those damned scooters to whom no rules apply: ‘E-twats’ is the technical term. But I exit the park close to the crossing lights, nip up the facing road and find the number. A notice is prominent in the small front garden: SOLD. The house looks dark but not empty. Should I knock – or would that risk involving me in an H. P. Lovecraft story? Discretion, valour, all that jazz. I stuff it through the letterbox, not without difficulty, and retreat.
It’s not always, though, a matter of retreat. ‘Quite an adventure for you’, the Librarian observes, as we return from Bath. ‘Going on a train. Going into shops. And a café.’
Indeed. ‘It is not grace but patience’, Guy Davenport observed, ‘that gets most of us through the world.’
And our cherry tree is blossoming.
 Olive Schreiner. The Story of an African Farm (1883), v.
Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763, edited by Frederick A. Pottle (London: William Heinemann, 1950), 47.
Boswell in Holland, 1763-1764, edited by Frederick A. Pottle (London: William Heinemann, 1952), 256.
 C. L. R. James, Beyond a Boundary (1963; London: Vintage, 2019), 205.
 Alexandra Harris, Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015), 66.
 Ronald Blythe, Akenfield (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972), 84.
 Letter to Hugh Kenner, 8 October 1965: Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), I, 732.
(Norman Garstin, The Rain It Raineth Every Day: Penlee House Gallery & Museum)
January, so far, has consisted—almost exclusively—of rain. Oh, food and drink, books and conversation—and the rabbit-holing so familiar to researchers, following threads that snap or falter or turn out not to be threads at all. But, primarily, persistent, consistent, insistent rain – with a constant soundtrack of sirens, occasionally police, once or twice fire but mainly, almost always, ambulance. Talking, sounding, wailing, rabbiting on. Which, me being so literary these days, recalls The Good Soldier:
Leonora was standing in the window twirling the wooden acorn at the end of the window-blind cord desultorily round and round. She looked across the lawn and said, as far as I can remember: “Edward has been dead only ten days and yet there are rabbits on the lawn.”’
I always liked ‘as far as I can remember’, so neatly placed in a novel constructed by memories, or what purport to be memories (a few lines later, Dowell will ‘remember her exact words’ about Florence and suicide). As for those Fordian rabbits, I’ve already had my say.
It is, after all, as my friend Helen reminded me, the Year of the Rabbit, according to the Chinese Zodiac (the last one was 2011). At least, on 22 January, it’s farewell to Tiger and hello again to Rabbit. In a brilliant blue sky a week ago (such details tend to be firmly set in such a rain-sodden mental map), quite insubstantial clouds were drifting. Inevitably I drifted too, in the general direction of literary rabbits who were neither Joel Chandler Harris’s Brer Rabbit nor John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom. Of Updike’s quartet, I read the first two, decades ago, but never circled round to the others. Harris’s ‘Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby’, one of the African-American trickster tales that he popularised, was, I think, the story that I was reading part of to an American literature seminar group but laughed too much to continue.
Frobenius and Fox wrote, in their introduction to African Genesis (1937) that: ‘The Berber tales are folklore; and in the Berber jackal we meet that shrewd, amusing and unscrupulous spirit always present in peasant lore, whether it be the jackal here, the hare in South Africa (a veritable Brer Rabbit) or the cunning little fox in the Baltic countries (Reinecke Fuchs).’ And Guy Davenport observes that: ‘The Dogon, a people of West Africa, will tell you that a white fox named Ogo frequently weaves himself a hat of string beans, puts it on his impudent head, and dances in the okra to insult and infuriate God Almighty, and that there’s nothing we can do about it except abide him in faith and patience. ‘This is not folklore, or a quaint custom, but as serious a matter to the Dogon as a filling station to us Americans. The imagination; that is, the way we shape and use the world, indeed the way we see the world, has geographical boundaries like islands, continents, and countries. These boundaries can be crossed. That Dogon fox and his impudent dance came to live with us, but in a different body, and to serve a different mode of the imagination. We call him Brer Rabbit.’
Rabbits run through many children’s minds (and those of their parents, pretty often): Charlotte Zolotow’s Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present, Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit, Sam McBratney’s Guess How Much I Love You, Rosemary Wells’ Morris’s Disappearing Bag, Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit, Lewis Carroll, A. A. Milne, Richard Adams. In 1890, a collection of doggerel by Frederic E. Weatherley, A Happy Pair, included illustrations by Beatrix Potter, the last of which accompanied a verse called ‘Benjamin Bunny’. At the family home in Bolton Gardens, Beatrix’s pet rabbits were indeed named Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny. Weatherley was then a barrister but later became a prolific songwriter, turning out something like 3000 popular songs, most notably Roses of Picardy.
The poet Edmund Blunden, author of the First World War classic, Undertones of War, was nicknamed ‘Rabbit’, at least by his Colonel Harrison, though Blunden himself seemed concerned on occasion to upgrade this, recalling a moment when, together with a fellow soldier, ‘we ran (myself asthmatical, but swifter than a hare)’. David Garnett was known to friends and family as ‘Bunny’, though he too slipped the snare of his nickname—if in the reverse direction—when reaching for the title of his 1932 account of learning to fly: A Rabbit in the Air. The Garnett family had other dealings with rabbits. David’s aunt Olive noted in her diary for 5 May 1892 that at her brother Edward’s cottage, where he lived with his wife Constance, famous translator of Russian literature: ‘The wild creatures are becoming bold, the rabbits are actually burrowing under the parlour window & are expected to come up through the floor.’
D. H. Lawrence was familiar with every aspect of the natural world – and the first sketch I ever read of his was, I think, ‘Adolf’, about the ‘tiny brown rabbit’ his father brings home one morning after his work on the nightshift. Another short piece, ‘Lessford’s Rabbits’—no pun intended?—was written soon after Lawrence met Ford, then editing the English Review. Ursula Brangwen’s selection of ‘The Rabbit’ as a theme for her class’s composition goes down badly with headmaster Harby: ‘“A very easy subject for Standard Five”’—at which Ursula feels ‘a slight shame of incompetence. She was exposed before the class.’
The Rainbow was, notoriously, prosecuted and all copies and sheets ordered to be destroyed, his publisher Methuen having rolled over in time-honoured fashion and apologised in all directions. Douglas Goldring, who had met Lawrence when working with Ford on the English Review, also had small burrowing animals on his mind when he wrote: ‘Then what a change of front! The deafening silence, broken only by the sound of the white rabbits of criticism scuttling for cover, which formed the sequel to The Rainbow prosecution, will not soon be forgotten by those who were in London at the time. Not one of Mr. Lawrence’s fervent boosters ventured into print to defend him; not one of his brother authors (save only Mr. Arnold Bennett, to whom all honour is due) took up the cudgels on his behalf. English novelists are proverbially lacking in esprit de corps, but surely they were never so badly shown up as when they tolerated this persecution of a distinguished confrère without making a collective protest.’
(Holliday Grainger as Connie Chatterley via BBC)
A dozen years later, writing the second version of his final novel, Lawrence had Parkin (later Mellors) write to Connie Chatterley: ‘“I shouldn’t care if the bolshevists blew up one half of the world, and the capitalists blew up the other half, to spite them, so long as they left me and you a rabbit-hole apiece to creep in, and meet underground like the rabbits do.—”’
There’s always a risk, of course, that references and allusions like this will breed like—I don’t know what. End then with a touch of Rex Stout, who has Costanza Berin put to Archie Goodwin (Nero Wolfe’s indispensable assistant), the question: “Do you like Englishmen?”
‘I lifted a brow. “Well . . . I suppose I could like an Englishman, if the circumstances were exactly right. For instance, if it was on a desert island, and I had had nothing to eat for three days and he had just caught a rabbit—or, in case there were no rabbits, a wild boar or a walrus”’.
‘If the circumstances were exactly right’. Well, yes, I think I’m gravitating to that position myself. But, of course, it’s still very early in the year. . . .
 Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915; edited by Max Saunders, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 86; Paul Skinner, “Rabbiting On”: Fertility, Reformers and The Good Soldier’, in Max Saunders and Sara Haslam, editors, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier: Centenary Essays (Amsterdam: Brill/Rodopi, 2015), 183-195.
 Leo Frobenius and Douglas C. Fox, African Genesis (1937; New York: Dover, 1999), 1.
 Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 3-4.
 Margaret Lane, The Tale of Beatrix Potter (1946; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1962), 50-52.
 Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (1928; edited by John Greening, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 79, and half a dozen other mentions, though the poem ‘Escape’ (207) has him there as ‘Bunny’, the speaker being ‘A Colonel’. The hare runs on p. 129.
 William Maxwell’s young character Peter Morison, in the 1937 novel They Came Like Swallows, was also called ‘Bunny’. In the book, he’s eight years old; Maxwell himself was ten at the time in which the story is set (1918). Then, too, Edmund Wilson—a little less plausibly, somehow—also answered to that name.
 Barry C. Johnson, editor, Tea and Anarchy! The Bloomsbury Diary of Olive Garnett, 1890-1893 (London: Bartletts Press, 1989), 73.
 ‘Adolf’ is reprinted in Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence, edited and with an introduction by Edward D. McDonald (London: William Heinemann, 1936), 7-13; ‘Lessford’s Rabbits’ in Phoenix II: Uncollected, Unpublished and Other Prose Works by D. H. Lawrence, Collected and Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Warren Roberts and Harry T. Moore (London: William Heinemann, 1968), 18-23.
 D. H. Lawrence, The Rainbow, edited Mark Kinkead-Weekes, introduction and notes Anne Fernihough (Cambridge, 1989; Penguin edition with new editorial matter, 1995), 359-360: the chapter titled ‘The Man’s World’.
 Mark Kinkead-Weekes, D. H. Lawrence: Triumph to Exile, 1912-1922 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 281-282.
 Douglas Goldring, ‘The Later Work of D. H. Lawrence’, Reputations: Essays in Criticism (London: Chapman & Hall, 1920), 70-71.
The First and Second Lady Chatterley Novels, edited by Dieter Mehl and Christa Jansohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 564.
 Rex Stout, Too Many Cooks, in Too Many Cooks/ Champagne for One (New York: Bantam Dell, 2009), 17.
(George Lambert, ‘Moorland Landscape with Rainstorm’: Tate)
Wet. From time to time, windy and wet, but consistently, ceaselessly wet. The rain sees no reason to pause, nor to offer any sign of awkwardness or regret at not pausing. Still, we find ourselves at the extreme backend of a year in which such weather seems entirely appropriate. ‘Family customs should not be kept up after they decompose’, Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote to William Maxwell on 31 December 1975, and I see that statement applicable to so many areas of contemporary life that a sense of absurdity threatens to take over completely. Edmund Blunden recalled flares on the Ypres battlefield on New Year’s Eve, 1917: ‘Their writing on the night was as the earliest scribbling of children, meaningless; they answered none of the questions with which a watcher’s eyes were painfully wide.’
Questions and answers. Writing to Robert Lowell in July 1948, Elizabeth Bishop reported: ‘I think almost the last straw here though is the hairdresser, a nice big hearty Maine girl who asks me questions I don’t even know the answers to. She told me (1) that my hair “don’t feel like hair at all,” (2) I was turning gray practically “under her eyes.” And when I’d said yes, I was an orphan, she said, “Kind of awful, ain’t it, plowing through life alone.” So now I can’t walk downstairs in the morning or upstairs at night without feeling I’m plowing. There’s no place like New England . . . ’
So, post-Christmas—having added Waste Land books by Matthew Hollis and Lyndall Gordon to the piled piles, plus Basil Bunting’s Letters—and pre-New Year, deciding fun is the order of the day, I move between Edgar Jepson and Eve Babitz, with the occasional break for a walk (in the rain, naturally) and leavened with one foray into podcasts, Lara Feigel talking about her book on D. H. Lawrence with Lauren Elkin at the London Review Bookshop.
Apart from the shafting of the country, the continent, the world, the universe, there have been highlights. A few I started writing about but fell off the end of a paragraph. One was certainly the 250th birthday of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a.k.a. Silas Tomkyn Cumberbatch (the name under which he enlisted in the dragoons). One item in the Librarian’s project of getting me out into the world was a recent revisiting of the Coleridge cottage in Nether Stowey. Her responsibilities extended to edging me towards the window when aware of me tensing in response to the small front room feeling a little crowded as we waited for the guide’s introductory talk to end. Paranoid, moi? Away with you.
Time, as several commentators have observed, has travelled just recently at both lightning speed and no speed at all, the speed of a rock immersed in molasses. I think of Guy Davenport’s story, ‘The Antiquities of Elis’ (which draws on the 6th Book of Pausanias): ‘It was Herakleitos who said that some things are too slow to see, such as the growth of grass, and some too fast, like the arrow’s flight. All things, I have often thought, are dancing to their own music.’ I’ve sometimes thought so – exclusively on the good days. . .
‘Did you see my blog?’ ‘I did, yes.’ ‘And?’ ‘No Librarian. No cat. So. . . ’
Yes, we have certain standards to maintain. So, logically, as night follows day, we could not be, by any stretch of the imagination, present-day Tories.
How end a year, what message send to friends and strangers who happen by? I recur to the title of a volume by Jack Yeats, the painter, brother of that famous poet Willie: ‘Ah Well and to You Also’. That seems about right. In which case: all power to your elbow in 2023. Bonne année, Buon anno, Feliz Año Nuevo.
 Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 295.  Edmund Blunden, Undertones of War (1928; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), 234.  Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 161. Da Vinci’s Bicycle: Ten Stories by Guy Davenport (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), 137.
Reading Daisy Hay’s Dinner With Joseph Johnson: Books & Friendship in a Revolutionary Age, I came to the pages dealing with the contortions of William Pitt’s increasingly repressive administration in its attempts to shut down protest in the 1790s, particularly the recasting of the 1351 Act, which had made it a crime to ‘compass and imagine’ the death of the King, that is, to intend the death of the king, as it was commonly understood. ‘Pitt’s lawyers redefined it, so that an act of imagining alone became a crime. To commit treason one needed merely to have imagined the King’s death, not to have acted to advance it. Writing and speaking thus became treasonable.’ Since the government was appointed in the King’s name, any action which threatened ‘the security and stability of government legally constituted an attempt to “levy war” on the King himself. Political protest thus became treasonable by its very nature.’
I was reminded, unsurprisingly, of a very much more recent decline and fall—but reminded also of the first undergraduate essay I wrote on my History course, about the French Revolution or, rather, the domestic effects in this country of the dramatic events in France. The marker’s comments included the suggestion, I recall, that I try to refrain from running before I could walk (but also queried my use of the word ‘climactic’, about which I was right and they were wrong, not that I ever dwell on that at all). I’d read fairly widely, and, I suspect not unusually, the book I found most stimulating—and exciting—was E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. I didn’t make a habit of reading 900-page history books but made an exception for this one. At that time, Margaret Thatcher’s government tended to behave as though anything that couldn’t be measured, weighed and, ideally, made a profit from, didn’t exist, so I was strongly drawn to such sentiments as followed Thompson’s assertion that definitive answers to such a controversy as that over the effect on standards of living of the Industrial Revolution still evaded us. ‘For beneath the word “standard” we must always find judgements of value as well as questions of fact. Values, we hope to have shown, are not “imponderables” which the historian may safely dismiss with the reflection that, since they are not amenable to measurement, anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s. They are, on the contrary, those questions of human satisfaction, and of the direction of social change, which the historian ought to ponder if history is to claim a position among the significant humanities.’
Still, the quotation most familiar to readers of the book, certainly the last few words of it, is the intention stated in the ‘Preface’: ‘I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.’ That last phrase is often quoted and recalled but sometimes as if it simply refers to the assumption that, coming later, we simply know and understand more. As Thompson notes further on, though, ‘for those who live through it, history is neither “early” nor “late”. “Forerunners” are also the inheritors of another past.’
(James Longenbach, poet, teacher and fine scholar, died 29 July this year)
Tricky business, the past. That familiar quotation briefly conjured up another, William Faulkner’s ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’, which he puts into the mouth of one of his recurring characters, the lawyer (and occasional amateur sleuth), Gavin Stevens, in Requiem for a Nun. I noticed a few days ago how many literary anniversaries cropped up on 19 December: Constance Garnett’s ‘heroic life’ began at 11 a.m. on that day in 1861; the French writer Colette was married to Henry de Jouvenel in 1912, a simple civil ceremony in the mairie of the sixteenth arrondissement: ‘Madame Colette Willy, woman of letters, notorious lesbian, bare-breasted music-hall star, and social pariah, was now the baroness de Jouvenel des Ursins, and the wife of one of Paris’s most influential political journalists.’ From Coleman’s Hatch the following year, Ezra Pound wrote to William Carlos Williams, in a letter that reads with great poignancy now: ‘I am very placid and happy and busy. Dorothy is learning Chinese. I’ve all old Fenollosa’s treasures in mss.’ And: ‘Have just bought two statuettes from the coming sculptor, Gaudier-Brzeska. I like him very much [ . . . ] We are getting our little gang together after five years of waiting.’ A little over seven months before German forces cross the Belgian frontier near a place called Gemmenich. . .
But I was thinking, particularly, of David Jones: poet, painter and, for a while, soldier, enlisted in the 15th (London Welsh) Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. For two weeks, his battalion was billeted in farm outbuildings in Warne, a mile south of Rocquetoire, ‘all this time the cold rain continuing, more rain than in any December for 39 years.’ On 19 December they boarded ‘grey-painted London buses for La Gorgue, near Estaires.’ They were headed for the front line at Neuve Chapelle.
(David Jones via The Spectator)
‘In the trenches’, Thomas Dilworth wrote of Jones, ‘he became convinced that any distinction between past and present was superficial, accidental, largely unreal. History had not ended; it continued.’ In his ‘Autobiographical Talk’ (1954), Jones said: ‘You see by what close shaves some of us are what we are, and you see how accidents of long past history can be of importance to us in the most intimate sense, and can determine integral things about us.’ Like other literary soldiers—Blunden, Sassoon, Ford, Graves among them—the war haunted his later life and writing, perhaps to a greater extent than most of the others. ‘Decades afterwards, a door slamming or a car backfiring would startle him back to the trenches. In distant thunder, he heard artillery.’
Close shaves and roads not taken. Year’s end, year’s turning: there’s a strong tendency to look both forward and back, reviewing what’s past and anticipating, hoping or—increasingly, these days—dreading what’s to come. For some, such reviews have a tendency to ripple outwards, to include peripheral as well as central figures, the gone as well as the present, not only the dead but the lost, the ghosts of those still living, somewhere, but in places either no longer known to us or just inaccessible, for varied reasons: neglect, forgetfulness, estrangement – or those unexceptional divergences in the trajectories of all individuals’ lives. There in their hundreds, perhaps thousands: friends, colleagues, acquaintances, fellow students, fellow teachers, lovers, almost-lovers, antagonists, the watchers and the watched, the lives that touched us, held us, struck us, changed us, missed us by inches—or by a country mile. ‘If I thought I was not thinking about the past’, Deborah Levy wrote, ‘the past was thinking about me.’
Yes. We are not only subjects but objects, not only observers but observed. That’s the sort of thing that can easily slip a person’s mind as they look about themselves, so much to see, so much to learn, so much to talk about, read about, write about, think about. Recounting his work on an illustrated history of exploration, an impossibly huge task, the contributions sent to his publishers routinely thousands of words too long, Eric Newby comments: ‘I had, and still have, the conviction that I must let the reader know if I discover anything interesting, and unfortunately so many things are interesting. At least they are to me.’
Things certainly look grim just now – and have done this past year, three years, decade, steadily worsening. And not only individuals get lost. The things we—some of us—care about are under threat and under attack, some are already gone and we won’t be getting them back. But after all it isn’t after all, not yet all, anyway. We are still here, still there, the more energetic actively resisting while others, on occasion, discover something interesting, at least to us – and let others know.
So: a wave from the bunker to any passer-by. And, to various friends who, in Auden’s phrase, ‘show an affirming flame’: Joyeux Noël, Buon Natale, Feliz Navidad, Nadolig Llawen – and Happy Holidays.
 Daisy Hay, Dinner With Joseph Johnson: Books and Friendship in a Revolutionary Age (London: Chatto & Windus, 2022),
 E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963; revised edition with new preface, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1980), 485, 12, 648.
 Richard Garnett, Constance Garnett: A Heroic Life (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1991), 11.
 Judith Thurman, Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2000), 247.
Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907-1941, edited by D. D. Paige (London: Faber and Faber, 1951), 65.
 Thomas Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War (London: Enitharmon Press, 2012), 62, 63, 93.
 In Epoch and Artist (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 25.
 Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), 54
 Deborah Levy, Things I Don’t Want to Know (London: Penguin Books, 2018), 162.
 Eric Newby, ‘Walking the Plank’, in Departures and Arrivals (London: Harper Collins, 1999), 39.
(John William Buxton Knight, Old December’s Bareness Everywhere: Tate)
December: how is it? Bloody cold but sometimes, walking on frosty ground under chilled blue skies, the stark trees nodding as you go – quite beautiful. In December, I – what shall I say, what did I do? Walked, read, ate, drank, wrote a little. Bought and carried home, in fact, a Christmas tree, just this afternoon. The world, despite my repeated requests, did not cease to go to hell, barely paused, in fact. Thank all the gods there are for wine.
In December, ‘Melancholy and Phlegm much increase, which are heavy, dull, and cold, and therefore it behoves all that will consider their healths, to keep their heads and bodies very well from cold, and to eat such things as be of a hot quality.’ Ah, yes. Though millions of poor souls in Brexit Britain can only lament and reflect that the chance would be a damned fine thing, forced as they are to choose between eating and heating – and an increasing number able to do neither.
(He came, he saw, he. . .)
Do I still hold my breath when panting runners pass me on the paths in the park? Why yes, I do, but am immeasurably improved in other areas, a few other areas, one or two other areas. Item: dinner with the doyen of Ford Madox Ford studies, Professor Max Saunders, an excellent choice for my first foray into after-dark city streets in something approaching three years. Item: another foray—and another indoor event, though this one with neither wine nor sausages—to see Lyndall Gordon, whose books on T. S. Eliot and Emily Dickinson I’d read and admired, in conversation with Noreen Masud, lecturer in Twentieth-Century Literature at the University of Bristol.
The event was prompted by the publication of Gordon’s new book, The Hyacinth Girl: T. S. Eliot’s Hidden Muse, drawing heavily on the Emily Hale letters in Princeton’s Special Collections, which were finally made available to readers in January 2020. It was a fascinating conversation, not least because of the intelligent exchanges about how we approach those artists whose attitudes or language or assumptions, are sometimes unsettling—or worse—to modern sensibilities. Considering writers of a hundred or more years ago, well, frankly, that’s most of them. We can pick at this, blush at that, throw up our hands here—or just throw up there—and then, often, we just read the work or look at the picture or listen to the music and all that other stuff is, for however short or long a time, simply blown away.
(Emily Hale and T. S. Eliot via New York Times)
So the conversation was consistently interesting – but before it even started, Niamh Cusack read, wonderfully, The Waste Land. Oh, my. ‘That was a blast’, I said to the Librarian afterwards, ‘several times, I didn’t know whether to shout or cry.’ Nor did I. How many times have I read it, all of it, bits of it? I have no idea. Many lines were familiar enough for me to realise my lips were shaping the words along with the reader. At other times, it was completely unfamiliar, a voice from a cloud. ‘I’ve never heard it read by a woman before’, the Librarian remarked. An early chunk of ‘A Game at Chess’ seemed to have passed me by entirely. Echoes and repetitions heard as if for the first time spilled over me. When Niamh Cusack pronounced Sanskrit words, I could feel the Librarian’s gaze on me but steadfastly refused to meet it. I knew she was thinking of my own pronunciation, which I’d picked up from Charles Tomlinson when he read the poem to members of the English Department however many years ago – he explained that he’d been to a performance of sacred Indian music and made his way backstage to ask (as you do): ‘How would you pronounce this?’ It’s occurred to me since that, of course, there would probably be no one way to do so, any more than would be the case if individuals in Yorkshire and Cornwall (or Mississippi and New Jersey) were asked about pronunciation. But when the lines, ‘I think we are in rats’ alley / Where the dead men lost their bones’ cropped up, I was morally obliged to meet her gaze simply because that’s my stock answer to the question, in practically any context: ‘What do you think?’
What do I think? I think that I can’t remember when I last heard words read aloud which made it genuinely difficult for me to stay in my seat. There is something extraordinary about a poem that has been so much read, read about, explained, analysed, annotated, contextualised, parodied, worshipped and damned to within an inch of its life – still striking the ear like thunder, singing in the blood, chafing the nerves and knocking the pulses.
Art, yes, I’ve heard tell of it. Isn’t that the stuff that bears endless repetition because no two readings or viewings or listenings are the same? The cornucopia, the horn of plenty, the Holy Grail, in fact. You could go on long journeys and undergo all manner of ordeals and challenges, battle with ghosts and gods, move through enchanted chambers, withstand the amorous attentions of maidens of surpassing beauty, slay monsters – or you could simply take a book off the shelf (the right book for you, mind, the right book now, at this juncture).
By a knight of ghosts and shadows, I summoned am to tourney Ten leagues beyond The wild world’s end – Methinks it is no journey.
It is, of course. It is.
 Richard Saunders, Apollo Anglicanus, quoted by Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 481.
(J. M. W. Turner, A Church and Village seen from a Riverside Footpath: Tate)
I was thinking about—or idly musing upon—the infinite, arrived at by the usual wandering off footpaths. Decanting a packet of ground coffee into the regular tin, I was prompted by the resulting level to look at the net weight printed on the packet. It had lessened by some ten per cent, diminished by one-tenth (‘No, we haven’t put our prices up’). But then there has been, inevitably, a strong and widespread sensation of lessening, of shrinkage over the past few years. The narrowness of nationalist discourse, the closing of borders, the hostility to refugees and migrants, together with the pandemic, lockdowns, withdrawals either voluntary or enforced, now a metaphorical or literal huddling together against cold, hunger, discomfort, all in worsening weather.
Often placed against that diminishment are, precisely, ideas of freedom, expansion, movement through time and space. Art, then, or memory, or history, or imagination. Borders, walls, boundaries, limits of any kind set aside, evaded, vaulted over. The infinite – notions of which can swing to both positive and negative poles, depending on the viewer.
I thought of Ford Madox Ford recalling his ‘most glorious memory of England’, in the 1890s, hundreds of Jewish refugees from the Russian pogroms, landing at Tilbury Docks, falling on their knees and kissing the sacred soil of Liberty. ‘It was not of course because they were Jews or were martyrs. And I daresay it was not merely because England was my country. It was pride in humanity.’ But because of ‘an Order in Council’, that route would now be narrowed or blocked: ‘This then was the last of England, the last of London . . .’ And: ‘One had been accustomed to think of London as the vastest city in the world . . . as being, precisely, London, the bloody world!’ But now? ‘Ease then was gone; freedom was no more; the great proportions were diminished . . .’
(Samuel Taylor Coleridge via the BBC)
One of the most famous instances of infinitude is that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Chapter XIII of the Biographia, where he summarises his distinction between imagination and fancy: ‘The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.’ This was one of the main targets of another, later, celebrated statement, by T. E. Hulme: ‘Here is the root of all romanticism: that man, the individual, is an infinite reservoir of possibilities’ – against which, Hulme’s version of the classical: ‘Man is an extraordinarily fixed and limited animal whose nature is absolutely constant. It is only by tradition and organisation that anything decent can be got out of him.’
Hulme was primarily a philosopher – a poet only in miniature. I suspect that artists generally tend more towards embracing the positive than feeling repelled or threatened by the negative. ‘We must consume whole worlds to write a single sentence and yet we never use up a part of what is available’, James Salter wrote to Robert Phelps. ‘I love the infinities, the endlessness involved . . . ’ Laura Cumming, writing in praise of Jan Van Eyck, observed that: ‘His art is so lifelike it was once thought divine. But he does not simply set life before us as it is – an enduring objection to realism, that it is no more than mindless copying – he adjusts it little by little to inspire awe at the infinite variety of the world and our existence within it; the astonishing fact that it contains not just all this but each of our separate selves.’
In an entry dated ‘[Saturday 24 November 1984]’, Annie Ernaux wrote: ‘One image haunts me: a big window wide open and a woman (myself) gazing out at the countryside. A springtime, sun-drenched landscape that is childhood. She is standing before a window giving onto childhood. The scene always reminds me of a painting by Dorothea Tanning – Birthday. It depicts a woman with naked breasts: behind her, a series of open doors stretch into infinity.’
(Dorothea Tanner, Birthday (1942): Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Is that a wish to see the world, one’s personal world, as an unending series of opened doors? Or simply an observation, a belief, a conviction that this is how the world actually is, that much of what we assume to be fixed, unalterable, closed, finite, is nothing of the sort? Some observers, actors, participants, acknowledge the infinite nature of ideas, of the abstract but, certainly in specific circumstances—the Second World War, in the case of Ronald Duncan, pacifist and farmer—choose to turn away from them: ‘We were people used to dealing with ideas which are infinitely pliable, and for the first time were in contact with things which are rigid, brittle’, Duncan wrote. ‘Contact with things is infinitely more satisfying than contact with ideas. And if we are honest we must admit that few of us are capable of holding abstract conceptions in our heads. If we manage it, it gives us little pleasure. Somehow or other we have fallen into the rot of thinking that pigs and poetry are incompatible. They are not.’
Pigs and poetry. Why, yes. In immediate postwar Sussex, Ford Madox Ford bred pigs and wrote poetry—A House (1921), Mister Bosphorus and the Muses (1923)—though, admittedly, the pigs died or had to be sold off at bacon prices when Ford and Stella Bowen moved to France. Staying in the realm of the abstract—or more abstract, at least, than pigs—I think of Sarah Churchwell, already author of a book on Fitzgerald and the world of Jay Gatsby, writing in 2018: ‘Gatsby’s famous ending, in other words, describes the narrowing of the American dream, from a vision of infinite human potential to an avaricious desire for the kind of power wielded by stupid white supremacist plutocrats who inherited their wealth and can’t imagine what to do with it beyond using it to display their dominance.’
There are, though, different kinds of dominance, some more insidious than others, habits so ingrained as not to be seen any longer as habits, procedures so immediate, so automatic, so normalised as to seem – natural. Annie Ernaux has written of the worldwide web as ‘the royal road for the remembrance of things past’ and adds: ‘Memory became inexhaustible, but the depth of time, its sensation conveyed through the odour and yellowing of paper, bent-back pages, paragraphs underscored in an unknown hand, had disappeared. Here we dwelled in the infinite present.’
The more I look at it, the more unsettling that final phrase is. . .
 Ford Madox Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 85-88.
 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions, edited by James Engell and W. Jackson Bate (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), I, 304.
 T. E. Hulme, ‘Romanticism and Classicism’, in Speculations: Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art, edited by Herbert Read (Second edition, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1936), 116.
Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps, edited by John McIntyre (Berkeley, California: Counterpoint, 2010), 39.
 Laura Cumming, A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits (London: Harper Press, 2010), 13.
 Annie Ernaux, I Remain in Darkness, translated by Tanya Leslie (London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020), 37-38.
 Ronald Duncan, All Men Are Islands: An Autobiography (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1964), 245, 226.
 Sarah Churchwell, Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018), 141. The earlier book was Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby (2013).
 Annie Ernaux, The Years, translated by Alison L. Strayer (London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019), 209-210.
The incomparable Guy Davenport was born on 23 November 1927 (he died in 2005). I remember making some notes about him in connection with J. R. R. Tolkien some years back, when the company I worked for represented Cornell University Press. In 2013 the press reissued a book first published in 1979, six years after Tolkien’s death, a collection of pieces entitled J. R. R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam. It included contributions from a wide range of friends, colleagues and former students. The first part contains the Times obituary; Tolkien’s 1959 ‘Valedictory Address’ to the University of Oxford; and a personal remembrance by a friend of forty years’ standing. The second part consists of critical essays concerned with the literatures of Old Norse, Old English and Middle English, Tolkien’s own main scholarly interests. The last part comprises three pieces on Tolkien’s famous fictions and concludes with a bibliography of his writings, compiled by Humphrey Carpenter (Tolkien’s biographer).
‘The first professor to harrow me with the syntax and morphology of Old English,’ Davenport writes, ‘had a speech impediment, wandered in his remarks, and seemed to think that we, his baffled scholars, were well up in Gothic, Erse, and Welsh, the grammar of which he freely alluded to. How was I to know that he had one day written on the back of one of our examination papers, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”?’
(One genius by another; or, Jonathan Williams’ photograph of Guy Davenport – ‘in Quakerish garb’ – Lexington, 1964: Portrait Photographs (London: Coracle Press, 1979).
After graduating from Duke University, Davenport was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship and studied at Merton College, Oxford, from 1948 to 1950. His thesis on James Joyce was directed by J. I. M. Stewart; his examiner was David Cecil. Davenport was drafted into the army on his return to the United States and served two years before taking a job at Washington University, St Louis. At Harvard, he worked as graduate assistant to Archibald MacLeish and wrote his dissertation, Cities on Hills, on the first thirty of Pound’s Cantos, under Harry Levin’s direction. It was published a little over twenty years later.
Davenport finished reading Lord of the Rings in March 1963, writing to Hugh Kenner that it was ‘a major work’. He went on: ‘What imagination! Never does his invention run out, on and on. I have a feeling that he has summed up 500 years of literature from the Mabinogion through Von Essenbach to the High Victorians. He has done well in prose what Spenser probably could not have finished in verse. It makes the “realistic” novel look like a skinned knee criss-crossed with band-aids.’
In October 1963, Kenner was two-thirds of the way through the trilogy, remarking of the plans to reissue the work in paperback, ‘It could not fail to do good to anyone who read it through! one of the few books for which there is point in winning a larger public’ (I, 427). Davenport responded three days later: ‘I glow that you like Tolkien. He provides a vocabulary, both of phrases and imagery. Gandalf began life, in The Hobbit, as Sherlock [Holmes] in an astrologer’s gown. Frank Meyer [book review and cultural editor of National Review], who is not uninfluenced in his fight with the Bolsheviki by Gandalf’s war upon the Orcs, got me onto Tolkien. [Stan] Brakhage heavily influenced by Tolkien, his other influence being Pound’ (I, 430)
In ‘Hobbitry’, Davenport noted that he’d talked to Tolkien’s son, Christopher—under whose steady hand the published Tolkien canon has expanded significantly—as well as to his friend ‘Hugo’ Dyson, who said of Tolkien, ‘His was not a true imagination, you know. He made it all up.’ ‘I have tried for fifteen years’, Davenport comments, ‘to figure out what Dyson meant by that remark.’ And he talked to a history teacher, Allen Barnett, who had been a classmate of Tolkien’s and remembered how he ‘could never get enough of my names of Kentucky folk. He used to make me repeat family names like Barefoot and Boffin and Baggins and good country names like that.’
Tolkien’s readers run into millions, of course, the viewers of the films based on his books surely running into tens of millions by now. An intriguing if unanswerable question is what proportion of those readers and viewers have a sense of the main focus of his scholarly work.
‘Practically all the names of Tolkien’s hobbits are listed in my Lexington phone book’, Davenport writes, ‘and those that aren’t can be found over in Shelbyville.’ He concludes: ‘I despaired of trying to tell Barnett what his talk of Kentucky folk became in Tolkien’s imagination. I urged him to read The Lord of the Rings but as our paths have never crossed again, I don’t know that he did. Nor if he knew that he created by an Oxford fire and in walks along the Cherwell and Isis the Bagginses, Boffins, Tooks, Brandybucks, Grubbs, Burrowses, Goodbodies, and Proudfoots (or Proudfeet, as a branch of the family will have it) who were, we are told, the special study of Gandalf the Grey, the only wizard who was interested in their bashful and countrified ways.’
J. R. R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam, edited by Mary Salu and Robert T. Farrell (Cornell University Press, 9780801478871, 325pp, paperback).
 ‘Hobbitry’, in The Guy Davenport Reader, edited by Erik Reese (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2013), 273.
Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), I, 287. I’ve lifted several details of Davenport’s biography from this superb edition.
 As Erik Reece, who knew Davenport well and is his literary executor, wrote, ‘And though he reviewed books for right-wing National Review, he did so simply because Hugh Kenner got him the job, not because he felt any allegiance to William F. Buckley or the conservative movement’: ‘Afterword, Remembering Guy Davenport’, Reader, 440.