Happy Birthday, Mr Ford

ford-joyce-pound-quinn

(Messrs Ford, Joyce, Pound and Quinn: Paris, 1923)

Today is the birthday of Ford Madox Ford, born Ford Madox Hueffer in Merton, Surrey, 17th December 1873. Even excluding the several pseudonyms he used, there are plenty of other versions of his name, many of them—such as ‘Forty-Mad-Dogs Hueffer’—traceable to the always inventive Ezra Pound.[1]

I tend to mention Ford a lot because he comes easily to mind, my mind anyway (among an increasing number of other minds). But then anyone interested in modern literature will probably have read his The Good Soldier; anyone really interested in modern literature will probably have read, or intended to read, or at least know something about, Parade’s End, his superb tetralogy about England before, during and after the Great War. ‘About England’—that is to say, about landscape, class, gender, love, sex, history, politics, social conventions, religion, psychological breakdown—and other things.

Ford was always attentive to anniversaries, birthdays—and Saints’ days. According to the dates given at the back of the book, he began writing When the Wicked Man—not one of his best novels, by a country mile—in Paris, on his birthday, 17 December 1928 (he went on with it in New York and finished it aboard R.M.S. Mauretania, off the Scillies, 1 December 1930.) More famously, we find this claim in the ‘Dedicatory Letter’, addressed to Stella Bowen, which first appeared in the 1927 Albert & Charles Boni edition of The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion:

‘Until I sat down to write this book—on the 17th December 1913—I had never attempted to extend myself, to use a phrase of race-horse training. Partly because I had always entertained very fixedly the idea that—whatever may be the case with other writers—I at least should not be able to write a novel by which I should care to stand before reaching the age of forty; partly because I very definitely did not want to come into competition with other writers whose claim or whose need for recognition and what recognitions bring were greater than my own. I had never really tried to put into any novel of mine all that I knew about writing. I had written rather desultorily a number of books—a great number—but they had all been in the nature of pastiches, of pieces of rather precious writing, or of tours de force. But I have always been mad about writing—about the way writing should be done and partly alone, partly with the companionship of Conrad, I had even at that date made exhaustive studies into how words should be handled and novels constructed.
‘So, on the day I was forty I sat down to show what I could do—and The Good Soldier resulted.’[2]

FMF_SB_Corr

In his lifetime, Ford published almost eighty books: say seventy-eight if we don’t count The Panel and its slight revision for American publication, Ring for Nancy, as separate items. For numerologists, 2017 has been the seventy-eighth year since his death. (Ford studies take many forms, some of them a little worrying. Mais passons.)

And I see that I read my first Ford book – good grief! – forty years ago. (Acutely numerate Ford scholars might narrow their eyes at this point, suspecting a massaging of the figures—‘Really? Exactly forty?’—but you can trust me on this.)

People occasionally ask, ‘Are there any others that are really good?’ I try to be scrupulous in separating the ones that I think are ‘really good’, say a dozen or so, maybe more, from those that have points of interest for the Ford specialist (just about all of them). Keeping it tight: if historical novels, particularly set in the Tudor period, are your thing, you may already have come across The Fifth Queen trilogy. It centres on Katharine Howard and on a chap called Thomas Cromwell, not an unfamiliar name these days. Then I’ve always had a fondness for The Young Lovell, set in 1486, concerning magic and a belle dame sans merci; and Ladies Whose Bright Eye, set in the fourteenth century (though with one foot in the twentieth), which might just edge it, because of its high spirits.

FMF_EE

Then England and the English, which is cheating slightly since this is another trilogy, comprising The Soul of London, The Heart of the Country and The Spirit of the People. Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance was written at speed in the months following Conrad’s death. Ford refers to it as a novel but it gives a much more vivid sense of how Conrad actually was than many scrupulous biographies of him. No Enemy, written mostly in 1919, was published in America ten years later (and first published in the UK seventy-three years after that). Dancing along the border between fiction and autobiography, it has folded into it many of Ford’s experiences and perceptions of the recent war: suffering from shell-shock, he had, in effect, to learn to write again.

From Ford’s final decade, I’d probably pick It Was the Nightingale just ahead of the outrageously enjoyable Return to Yesterday; and Provence would just edge out the slightly more eccentric Great Trade Route, so Ford’s beloved adopted home rather than the embodied idea and the sometimes uneasy grappling with the American South.

That, of course, leaves out of account entirely the poetry, the critical essays, the letters, the fairy tales, the art criticism. . . Still, it’s a start.

And of the two heavyweights? People sometimes ask: Coleridge or Wordsworth? Eliot or Pound? Lennon or McCartney? The Good Soldier or Parade’s End? I say: both, though acknowledging that, on the quiet, one leans this way or that.

Val-Christopher

(Adelaide Clemens as Valentine Wannop, Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens
in the BBC/HBO adaptation of Parade’s End)

‘The day of her long interview with Tietjens, amongst the amassed beauties of Macmaster furnishings, she marked in the calendar of her mind as her great love scene. That had been two years ago: he had been going into the army. Now he was going out again. From that she knew what a love scene was. It passed without any mention of the word “love”; it passed in impulses; warmths; rigors of the skin. Yet with every word they had said to each other they had confessed their love; in that way, when you listen to the nightingale you hear the expressed craving of your lover beating upon your heart.’[3]

Yes.

References

[1] This one crops up in Pound’s interview with D. G. Bridson, in New Directions 17, edited by James Laughlin (New York: New Directions, 1961), 166. Another version was ‘Freiherr von Grumpus ZU und VON Bieberstein’: Brita Lindberg-Seyersted, editor, Pound/Ford: The Story of a Literary Friendship (London: Faber & Faber 1982), 141.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915; edited by Max Saunders (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 3.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), 322.

 

‘A large expensive audience’; or Charity begins at Lady Sibyl’s home

Eliot  aldous-huxley

 

Exactly one hundred years ago today, there was a poetry reading, in aid of charity, held at the home of Lady Sibyl Colefax, later a highly successful interior decorator. Those taking part included Aldous Huxley, the actress and later playwright Viola Tree (daughter of Herbert Beerbohm Tree), Robert Nichols, T. S. Eliot and the Sitwells.

In a letter to his mother, some ten days later, Eliot told her: ‘I assisted in a poetry reading last week at the house of some rich person for the benefit of something. A hundred and fifty people were induced to pay 10/6 each, so it was rather a rich audience. Edmund Gosse presided, and a number of “young poets” of whom I believe I was the oldest, read. It was rather amusing, as the audience and most of the poets were very solemn, and I read some light satirical stuff, and some of them didn’t know what to make of it.’[1]

The broad-backed hippopotamus
Rests on his belly in the mud;
Although he seems so firm to us
He is merely flesh and blood.

Flesh and blood is weak and frail,
Susceptible to nervous shock;
While the True Church can never fail
For it is based upon a rock.

Forty years later, reading at Columbia, Eliot remarked: ‘This is a poem which I originally read, I remember, at a poetry reading for the benefit of some Red Cross affair with Sir Edmund Gosse in the chair, and he was profoundly shocked. On the other hand, the late Arnold Bennett liked it better than anything I’d written up to the time of his death, and kept asking me to write “another Hippopotamus.”. . . it’s the only poem of mine which I’ve any reason to suppose that James Joyce ever read.’ Eliot also read ‘A Cooking Egg’ at the charity event and, as Richard Aldington mentions in his autobiography, the poem’s  mention of Sir Alfred Mond provoked ‘a rumpus in the audience’, as Lady Mond ‘sailed indignantly out of the room’.[2]  (In fact, Joyce parodied The Waste Land in a letter to Harriet Weaver; and also wrote of it  in a notebook, ‘T. S. Eliot ends idea of poetry for ladies.’)[3]

Viola-Tree
(Viola Tree)

Aldous Huxley was a little more expansive about the evening, in a letter of 13 December 1917 to his brother Julian. ‘I spent a strange day yesterday in town—being a performing poet for the sake of charity or something before a large expensive audience of the BEST PEOPLE. Gosse in the chair—the bloodiest little old man I have ever seen—dear Robbie Ross stage-managing, Bob Nichols thrusting himself to the fore as the leader of us young bards (bards was the sort of thing Gosse called us)—then myself, Viola Tree, a girl called McLeod and troops of Shufflebottoms, alias Sitwells bringing up the rear: last and best, Eliot. But oh—what a performance: Eliot and I were the only people who had any dignity: Bob Nichols raved and screamed and hooted and moaned his filthy war poems like a Lyceum villain who hasn’t learnt how to act: Viola Tree declaimed in a voice so syrupy and fruity and rich, that one felt quite cloyed and sick by two lines: the Shufflebottoms were respectable but terribly nervous: the Macleod became quite intoxicated by her own verses: Gosse was like a reciter at a penny reading. The best part of the whole affair was dinner at the Sitwells’ afterwards’.[4]

Nichols was one of the earliest war poets to achieve significant success. He was friends with both Graves and Sassoon—and Huxley, subsequently—and was close at hand when D. H. Lawrence died in March 1930 (Sybille Bedford prints his long letter to Dr Henry Head in her biography of Huxley).[5] Nichols’ poetry hasn’t lasted too well, unable as he was to evade the grip of the poetic conventions of the period even under the unprecedented pressures of the war.

They are bringing him down,
He looks at me wanly.
The bandages are brown,
Brown with mud, red only—
But how deep a red! in the breast of the shirt,
Deepening red too, as each whistling breath
Is drawn with the suck of a slow-filling squirt
While waxen cheeks waste to the pallor of death.
O my comrade![6]

Nichols

(Robert Nichols)

Aldous Huxley, on the other hand, is barely known as a poet even to those familiar with his novels and essays, though his first four published books were all volumes of poetry. While at Oxford, Robert Graves commented in a letter to Siegfried Sassoon, he had seen ‘a lot of the Garsington people [Lady Ottoline Morrell’s house] who were charming to me, and of the young Oxford poets, Aldous Huxley, Wilfred Childe and Thomas Earp – exceptionally nice people but a trifle decayed, as you might say.’[7]

In the previous year’s The Burning Wheel, Huxley—albeit a trifle decayed—had written ‘A Canal’:

No dip and dart of swallows wakes the black
Slumber of the canal: —a mirror dead
For lack of loveliness remembered
From ancient azures and green trees, for lack
of some white beauty given and flung back,
Secret, to her that gave: no sun has bled
To wake an echo here of answering red;
The surface stirs to no leaf’s wind-blown track. . .[8]

Garsington would loom larger for Sassoon a few months later when he went to consult Philip and Ottoline Morrell and ask their advice about his intended protest. Sassoon’s famous statement followed soon after his meeting in London with Bertrand Russell and Middleton Murry. Psychiatric treatment with W. H. R. Rivers at Craiglockhart—and a meeting with the young Wilfred Owen—beckoned.

References

[1] Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton, editors, The Letters of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: 1898–1922, revised edition (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), 240-241.

[2] The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 43, 521, 510. Aldington, Life for Life’s Sake (London: Cassell, 1968), 204.

[3] Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, new and revised edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 572, 495.

[4] Aldous Huxley, Letters of Aldous Huxley, edited by Grover Smith (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969), 141.

[5] Sybille Bedford, Aldous Huxley: A Biography (London: Pan Macmillan, 1993), 225-228.

[6] Robert Nichols, ‘Casualty’, in Robert Giddings, The War Poets (London: Bloomsbury, 2000), 84.

[7] Letter of 26 March 1917: In Broken Images: Selected Letters of Robert Graves, 1914-1946, edited by Paul O’Prey (London: Hutchinson, 1982), 66-67.

[8] See Bedford, Aldous Huxley, 67.

Snow’s up

Rackham-WindWillows-Snow

(Arthur Rackham, illustration to The Wind in the Willows)

‘What’s up, Ratty?’ asked the Mole.
Snow is up,’ replied the Rat briefly; ‘or rather, down. It’s snowing hard.’

Looking out of the upstairs window of the flat in which we’re staying for the weekend, I remark that it seems to be snowing.
‘It just looks like it’, the Librarian calls from the bedroom, ‘It’s the light.’
I peer through the glass again, ‘No. I think it’s definitely snowing. Have a look for yourself.’
She looks. ‘It’s snowing!’
I say, ‘Yes, that’s what—’
‘It’s snowing!’

And it is. In Bristol, we see snow almost as rarely as we see responsible national governance. Here in Walthamstow, apparently, the weather has no such inhibitions.

‘We have to walk to the station’, I point out to the snow-loving Librarian. ‘In these shoes.’ My shoes are perfectly comfortable but, in the event of slippery surfaces, they laugh weakly and surrender me to the elements without a qualm.
The Librarian regards me patiently before explaining: ‘It’s snowing! It’s snowing!’

It is.

To the north, even in parts of Gloucestershire, snow has been falling meaningfully. Gloucestershire often catches what Bristol doesn’t (though Bristol has, in the past, been classified as part of Gloucestershire, then Avon, and now as both city and county):

The day fails, sky drags with unfallen snow;
the hours, already, of the plough and of the crow.
All we can do here is say nothing and move on.[1]

Great for kids, less good for travellers, for livestock, for the transport business. Very good for photographers, artists, poets.

It is this we learn after so many failures,
The building of castles in sand, of queens in snow,
That we cannot make any corner in life or in life’s beauty,
That no river is a river which does not flow.[2]

As a symbol, snows knocks a lot of other natural phenomena into a cocked hat. Hugh Kenner mentions the lines in the Iliad which rhyme snow with ‘hurtling missiles’ and notes that passage’s ‘rhyme’ with the snowfall at the end of James Joyce’s story, ‘The Dead’.[3] Alice Oswald, in her brilliant ‘excavation’ of the Iliad, has this:

Like snow falling like snow
When the living winds shake the clouds into pieces
Like flutters of silence hurrying down
To put a stop to the earth at her leafwork[4]

Snowprints

But then, remembering reports from friends in Wisconsin, Illinois and Pennsylvania over the years, our snow tends to be comparatively puny, apart from in the Scottish highlands and a handful of other—mainly upland—areas. As Alexandra Harris mentions, Wyndham Lewis, in the first Blast manifesto, cursed ‘the flabby sky that can manufacture no snow, but / can only drop the sea on us in a drizzle like a poem by Mr Robert Bridges’. The Bridges poem, ‘London Snow’, with its large flakes ‘Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying, / Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town’, just wouldn’t have cut the explosive mustard for The Enemy.[5]

In The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot famously wrote that

Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

Interestingly, in a 1936 letter to Ottoline Morrell, he commented that ‘the winter is to me a warm and anaesthetic season’.[6]

En route to Walthamstow Central, the snow is still falling, so fresh and relatively easy to walk on, even for those with slyly treacherous shoes. I trudge steadily, maintaining momentum. The Librarian is somewhere behind me, taking photographs. Of snow, yes. Photographs of snow.

References

[1] Josephine Balmer, ‘Malvern Road Station, Cheltenham’, in The Word for Sorrow (Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2009), 8.

[2] Louis MacNeice, ‘Autumn Journal’, in Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 102.

[3] Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 92, citing Philip Damon’s 1961 book, Modes of Analogy in Ancient and Mediaeval Verse.

[4] Alice Oswald, Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad (London: Faber, 2011), 18.

[5] Wyndham Lewis, editor, Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex (London: John Lane, 1914), 12; Alexandra Harris, Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015), 331.

[6] The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 55, 604.

 

Slouching towards Bedlam

JOAN DIDION

Joan Didion via The Paris Review. The Review‘s 1978 interview with Didion is available here: https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3439/joan-didion-the-art-of-fiction-no-71-joan-didion

I was struck by an exchange in the recently printed Guardian interview with the BBC journalist and news presenter Clive Myrie:

You’ve worked all over the world. Which posting do you have the fondest memories of?
Being based in Los Angeles during the Clinton years. The USA, pre-9/11, was a much more carefree place and the Clinton White House was incredible to cover. Because I was based in Los Angeles, I wasn’t just covering hard news; I covered Central America, hurricanes in Honduras, the Oscars, three times, so there was a breadth of story-telling. Strangely enough, I would say America is the most alien place I have ever reported from. I think we have far more in common with northern Europeans than we will ever have with Americans.
https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/dec/03/clive-myrie-bbc-should-be-treasured-interview-bbc-yemen

Yes, that, ‘strangely enough’ and ‘the most alien place’. Recently, in the wake of President Trump’s offensive response to Theresa May’s characteristically restrained criticism of his irresponsible re-tweeting of extremist videos, a number of British politicians and commentators are finally interrogating the lazy platitudes surrounding ‘the special relationship’. It has dawned on some people that the relationship was always rather more ‘special’ in one direction than in the other.

In the United Kingdom, we watch a great deal of American film and television; some of us read a lot of American literature; and the language we speak is, in some regards, broadly similar. And yes, apart from my US cultural consumption, I have American friends and acquaintances. I even follow, with increasingly appalled fascination, American politics. But I also never quite lose that sense of distance, of strangeness, of great stretches of material never touched on, better left aside and not embarked upon. Two continents separated by divergent categories of insupportable weirdness, perhaps.

I recall Guy Davenport recounting a visit to Ezra Pound, when the latter was confined in St Elizabeths Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Washington. Pound had given Davenport a book by Leo Frobenius and asked how he was travelling. Learning that he was returning home by train, Pound reversed the dust jacket so that the title would be invisible to those likely to be ‘driven to fury that learning was being freely transported about the Republic.’ Having himself been born in Anderson, South Carolina, Davenport merely commented that ‘Southerners take a certain amount of unhinged reality for granted’.[1] And ‘unhinged’, yes, seems to be le mot juste, a fracturing of defences, a throwing open of doors to disorder and worse—much worse, as we see now.

(Leo Frobenius; Ezra Pound)

I’ve unsettled myself in an American context several times this year—I mean, apart from reading or watching the news in stark disbelief that such behaviour and such pronouncements can be tolerated in a Western democracy. What else has unsettled me? The Raoul Peck documentary, centring on James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, for one, mostly in the yawning space of time between now and then set against the—in many ways—pitiful progress made since the events that the film deals with. Then the ten-part documentary series on The Vietnam War, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: the political duplicity and deceitfulness, the casualness of the decision-making that doomed hundreds of thousands to unnecessary deaths, decisions in which the Vietnamese civilians weighed nothing at all, a blueprint for much that followed.

Tallent

On the printed page, in various ways and to varying degrees: rereading Flannery O’Connor, though I note her comment that, ‘of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.’[2] Catching up on other titles, I finally read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which I was already embarked upon when O’Brien cropped up in the Burns/Novick series; and A. M. Homes’ Music for Torching. Of newer books, Mary Gaitskill’s book of stories, Don’t Cry, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and, perhaps in particular, Gabriel Tallent’s risky, brave and disturbing novel, My Absolute Darling.

And then, noting that today is Joan Didion’s eighty-third birthday, I should mention South and West: From a Notebook, dating to the summer of 1970 and largely comprising material for a piece on the South that was never written. I’ve just read this book, and also watched the documentary, The Center Cannot Hold, directed by Didion’s nephew, Griffin Dunne, currently available on Netflix, a film which will, of course, send me back to reread Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album.

Didion has long been admired for her prose style and her ability to write the history of her time through the medium of the essay, as David Hare remarks in Dunne’s documentary. I know people who have always resisted her work, largely on political grounds—a child of conservative Republicans parents, she apparently voted for Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election but would subsequently describe, in Political Fictions, ‘the abduction of American democracy’.[3] The political pieces that she gravitated towards, with the encouragement of Robert Silvers at The New York Review of Books, including Salvador, ‘Sentimental Journeys’, about the notorious trial and conviction of the five black boys accused of the rape of a white woman jogging through Central Park, and ‘Cheney: The Fatal Touch’, complicate that picture.

South-and-West

There are details and comments in South and West that seem to connect with the present time with startling directness, as if by underground cable. In Biloxi, Didion noted: ‘[t]he isolation of these people from the currents of American life in 1970 was startling and bewildering to behold. All their information was fifth-hand, and mythicized in the handing down.’ And, ‘[i]t occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken. Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody?’[4]

In Alabama, she sees signs supporting George Wallace’s campaign: he would serve two consecutive terms as governor from 1971-1979. The thought occurs to Didion that ‘the reason Wallace has never troubled me is that he is a totally explicable phenomenon.’[5] That question of explicability came up several times in Naomi Klein’s recent book. Looking back at some of the destructive trends that she’d researched over many years, she observed that, as she began to research Donald Trump, ‘he started to seem like Frankenstein’s monster, sewn together out the body parts of all these and many other dangerous trends.’ She added that, though Trump ‘breaks the mold in some ways, his shock tactics follow a script, one familiar from other countries that have had rapid changes imposed under the cover of crisis.’[6]

Joan Didion was also struck by ‘[t]he time warp: the Civil War was yesterday, but 1960 is spoken of as if it were about three hundred years ago.’[7] As Nathaniel Rich observes, ‘An unquestioned premise among those who live in American cities with international airports has been, for more than half a century now, that Enlightenment values would in time become conventional wisdom. Some fought for this future to come sooner. Others waited patiently. But nobody seemed to believe that it would never arrive.’ In such a view, he adds, ‘the past’ can in many ways be relegated to the ‘aesthetic realm’.[8] But, evidently, it is not safely dead: in fact, a great many people have never left it.

Not, of course, that such symptoms are confined to the United States. Alas.

References

[1] Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 174-175.

[2] Flannery O’Connor, ‘The Grotesque in Southern Fiction’, in Collected Works, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Library of America, 1988), 815.

[3] John Leonard, ‘Introduction’ to Joan Didion, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction (New York: Knopf, 2006), vx.

[4] Didion, South and West: From a Notebook, foreword by Nathaniel Rich (London: 4th Estate, 2017), 34, 55.

[5] South and West, 71.

[6] Naomi Klein, No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics (London: Allen Lane, 2017), 2.

[7] South and West, 104.

[8] Rich, ‘Foreword’, South and West, xviii.

 

 

 

 

Reckoning with David Jones

DJ-Books

The David Jones reckoning cannot be long postponed. I was reliably informed that, preparatory to a serious grappling with Jones’s second great long poem The Anathémata, there were tremendously useful essays, collected in The Dying Gaul, published in 1978 and long out of print. I no longer remember which essays they were: perhaps ‘Use and Sign’? Or ‘Art in Relation to War?’

I seem to recall a conversation with Dr Cornelius van Muchey (lately of Sumatra):

Have you read In Parenthesis?

I have, yes. Twice.

Okay with that?

I think. . . yes, pretty much.

Watched the films? Read the biography?

Yes. Yes.

And have you read The Anathémata?

Sort of.

What does that mean?

It means that In Parenthesis is like Ulysses while The Anathémata is more like Finnegans Wake.

Ah. Have you read Finnegans Wake?

Sort of.

Ah.

Dying-Gaul

I now have a copy of The Dying Gaul.*

‘It was a dark and stormy night, we sat by the calcined wall; it was said to the tale-teller, tell us a tale, and the tale ran thus: it was a dark and stormy night . . . ‘

* And I belatedly see that Faber, presumably taking advantage of the publication of Thomas Dilworth’s biography from Cape, have reprinted in paperback both The Dying Gaul and the wonderful Dai Greatcoat: a self-portrait of David Jones in his letters.

Carrington and the Quangle-Wangle

Brett_Carrington_Hiles

Carrington, Barbara Hiles, Dorothy Brett, 1911: http://spartacus-educational.com/ARTbrett.htm

To Dorothy Brett, 1 December 1918, Aldous Huxley wrote: ‘I saw Carrington not long ago, just after the armistice, and thought her enchanting; which indeed I always do whenever I see her, losing my heart completely as long as she is on the spot, but recovering it as soon as she is no longer there. We went to see the show at the Omega, where there was what I thought an admirable Gertler and a good Duncan Grant and a rather jolly Vanessa Bell. Carrington and I had a long argument on the fruitful subject of virginity: I may say it was she who provoked it by saying that she intended to remain a vestal for the rest of her life. All expostulations on my part were vain.’[1]

Aldous Huxley and Dora Carrington spent time together at Lady Ottoline Morrell’s Garsington Manor, sleeping on the roof when the heat indoors became unbearable. ‘Strange adventures with birds, and peacocks, and hordes of bees. Shooting stars, other things.’[2] There’s little doubt that Huxley made use of Carrington when creating the character of Mary Bracegirdle in Crome Yellow. To Gerald Brenan in December 1921, Carrington remarked on the character, adding: ‘But it’s a book which makes one feel very very ill. I don’t advise you [to] read it.’[3]

Huxley-Dorothy-Wilding-NPG

Aldous Huxley by Dorothy Wilding, © National Portrait Gallery, London. Probably not the right hat, then: ‘In later years he wore no hat—except occasionally a French beret—but then he still sported a black hat with a very large brim indeed, to all effects a sombrero. “Here”, the St John Hutchinson’s young children would cry when they saw his long form ambling up their garden path, “Here comes the Quangle-Wangle!”’[7]

In January 1919, Carrington experienced what her biographer terms ‘a disturbing dream about a furtive encounter with the creator of the virginal “Mary Bracegirdle” which took place in her mother’s house, only weeks after her father’s death’.[4] Carrington wrote to Strachey: ‘Such a nightmare last night, with Aldous in bed. Everything went wrong, I couldn’t lock the door; all the bolts were crooked. At last, I chained it with a watch chain to two nails. Then I had a new pair of thick pyjamas on and he got so cross because I wouldn’t take them off and they were all scratchy. Everything got in a mess, and he got so angry, and kept trying to find me in the bed by peering with his eye-glass, and I thought all the time how I could account to my mother for the mess on my pyjamas!’[5] 

Carrington, Dora, 1893-1932; Spanish Boy, the Accordion Player

Carrington, Spanish Boy, the Accordion Player, c.1924. (Photo credit: The Higgins Art Gallery & Museum, Bedford)

Carrington’s tendency to make such vivid impressions on those she met meant that confronting fictional versions of herself was a not infrequent ordeal. Gilbert Cannan’s Mendel: A Story of Youth (1916), dedicated to ‘D. C.’, had been a rather more brazen affair, drawing with little disguise on Carrington’s relationship with Mark Gertler: ‘How angry I am over Gilbert’s book! Everywhere this confounded gossip, and servant-like curiosity. It’s ugly, and so damned vulgar. People cannot be vulgar over a work of art, so it is Gilbert’s fault for writing as he did. . . . ’[6]

Carrington-Letters

Lively stuff. The new collection of Carrington’s letters, edited by Anne Chisholm, biographer of Nancy Cunard and Frances Partridge, came out last week. We should finally get to the bookshop in the next few days and secure a copy. Somebody in the house is expecting it for Christmas. Apparently.

References

[1]  Letters of Aldous Huxley, edited by Grover Smith (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969), 172.

[2] To Lytton Strachey, August 1916, Carrington: Letters and Extracts from her Diaries, chosen and with an Introduction by David Garnett (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), 35.

[3] Carrington: Letters and Extracts from her Diaries, 200.

[4] Gretchen Gerzina, Carrington: A Life of Dora Carrington, 1893-1932 (London: John Murray, 1989), 141.

[5] Carrington: Letters and Extracts from her Diaries, 127.

[6] Carrington to Gertler, 1 November 1916, in Mark Gertler, Selected Letters, edited by Noel Carrington (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1965), 254.

[7] Sybille Bedford, Aldous Huxley: A Biography (London: Pan Macmillan, 1993), 127.

 

The Last of England; or London; Sinclair, Sebald, Ford

Morning-West-Bay

I was sitting at the dining table of a rented holiday cottage in West Bay, idly totting up the senses in which the title of Iain Sinclair’s chapter might be read: ‘After Sebald’ is the title of chapter four of The Last London: True Fictions from an Unreal City. Grant Gee’s 2012 film Patience is subtitled (parenthetically) After Sebald; and Sinclair follows in Sebald’s footsteps, to an extent, in company with the poet Stephen Watts, a friend of Sebald’s, who sometimes walked with him. Chronologically, Sinclair is, of course, after—later than—Sebald; he is also pursuing him, or an image of him. Much of his writing draws on similar tropes of memory and deep autobiography to those of Sebald: again, this is, in a sense, ‘after’ him. He also touches on the Sebaldian afterlife of conference, festschrift, memorial, tribute: and the influence of Sebald, as man, walker and writer, as presence, as image of ‘writer’, on others, including the writer Rachel Lichtenstein, with whom Sinclair has collaborated in the past. And the afterworld is an abiding concern in Sinclair’s fictional or metafictional world, not least here in the moving elegiac conjuring of Martin Stone. ‘Slow down. Lose yourself among walks laid out with sufficient complexity to confuse the dead. To keep them to allocated spaces. To the chipped ballast of memorial slabs holding them in the ground.’[1]

Post-lunch, convalescing from such mental exertions, I trip over Sinclair’s mention of a book called The Last of England (2004) by Randall Swingler. Now, to a close reader of Ford Madox Ford, that title, The Last of England, sets dogs barking and bell ringers swinging on their ropes.

Brown, Ford Madox, 1821-1893; The Last of England

(Ford Madox Brown, The Last of England: Birmingham Museums Trust)

By way of brief explanation, for those immune to such infections, The Last of England is a famous painting by Ford Madox Brown, maternal grandfather of Ford Madox Ford. It exists in two versions—or three, counting the watercolour replica in the Tate—the oil on panel of 1855 (Birmingham Museums Trust) and the 1860 version (oil on canvas: The Fitzwilliam Museum), which seems entirely suitable in the context of any discussion of a writer whose name, nationality and status are far from stable and are strongly marked by doubleness, trebleness—or more. (Sentences like that sometimes appear to be occupational hazards for those with ambitions to write about Ford.)

As well as his several unsurprising references to the picture’s title in his 1896 biography of grandfather Brown, Ford used the phrase in his great postwar tetralogy, Parade’s End, twice in the opening volume and once in the final one. There is a finer symmetry than is at first apparent: the single mention in the closing volume is balanced by the fact that Last Post is itself ‘the last of England’ for Ford in several senses. The whole of the tetralogy had been written abroad but constituted his most searching fictional analysis of this country, while Last Post moved on from recent history to glance at possible futures. Thereafter, the material of his fiction lay elsewhere, in France and the United States. And, arguably, Last Post, his last ‘English’ novel, was the last of his books to be aimed at a primarily British audience.

FMF_IWN

Ford used the phrase twice more, in It Was the Nightingale, the autobiographical volume most closely related in its themes and treatment to his great novel. Once, because of the restrictions that were being brought in against immigration:

‘What then was to become of England of the glorious traditions? It had been political fugitives and martyrs that had given England her place among the nations. It had been the Flemish weavers, the Anabaptists, the Huguenots, the ceaseless tide of the discontented from every nation that had given England, not alone her tradition of freedom, but her crafts, her system of merchanting, her sense of probity, her very security. . . . This then was the last of England, the last of London. . . . ’

(Cue two minutes’ silence here, looking around us, as we must.)

The second instance concerns Ford’s leaving England for France in November 1922: ‘There was, as I passed through Trafalgar Square, a dense fog and the results of a general election coming in. . . . an immense shouting mob in a muffled and vast obscurity. The roars made the fog sway in vast curtains over the baffled light-standard. That for me was the last of England.’[2]

So, for a moment, familiar with the poet Ted Walker’s memoir and Derek Jarman’s film, plus a couple of other uses of the phrase in book titles, I paused, breathing a little heavily. Had I missed something really significant? I’d heard of Randall Swingler, come across him in a couple of literary histories, in memoirs by several figures, including E. P. Thompson and Julian Symons, which appeared in PN Review—which had also published George Barker’s ‘Elegy’ (‘Randall Swingler, that most honest man’)—and especially in Swingler’s ‘The Right to Free Expression’, published in Polemic, with annotations by George Orwell.[3] As a committed Communist, Swingler was never going to hit it off with Orwell: taking such exception to Orwell’s ‘The Prevention of Literature’ and referring to its author as ‘singularly independent of factual evidence’ made sure of that.

The 2004 publication date Sinclair mentioned made me pause, even within my pausing, though reprints or revised editions of Swingler, who died in 1967, were plausible. Then I suddenly registered the reference to J. H. Prynne, which pointed pretty definitely to Randall Stevenson’s volume in The Oxford English Literary History, Volume 12: 1960-2000: The Last of England?

Last-London
Not to suggest for a moment that Sinclair’s bracing, exhilarating and often extremely funny book should be defined by a tiny error—but while some errors are merely errors, others exist for just such occasions, to connect with, and stimulate, those ready for such connection. In the past, I’ve commented to others about books particularly poorly proofread who turn out not to have noticed any errors at all; on the other hand, often having read a book I then see a review of it which points in tones of thunder to outrageous shortcomings, blunders and misrepresentations that completely passed me by. Swingler for Stevenson would be puzzling or a speck of grit in the eye for a minority of Sinclair’s readers, I suspect. Even if they noticed, would it really matter to them? Not unless they too had a selection of phrases like ‘the last of England’ wired up to the alarm system of their memory banks.

Besides, that ‘error’ (which already seems to need the qualification of quotation marks) seems quite at home in Sinclair’s chronicle of complex networks of connection and affiliation, all of a piece with a universe of chance encounters, names slightly misheard, images glimpsed through the interstices of blurry weather. ‘We impose connections in a futile attempt to find meaning in a maelstrom of possibilities.’ Elsewhere, he writes: ‘In the state that manifests itself when projects are launched, and when they dictate their terms by way of coincidences and excited discoveries, unexpected phone calls, emails from strangers, I found it difficult to sleep. The streets had become a displacement dream.’ And one more: ‘What I was groping towards was the conviction that different writers, laying down different maps of the same place, enlarge the potentialities of the city. Geography shifts. Individuals dissolve. Place is burnished and dissolved.’[4]

There’s a fascinating video on the London Review of Books website at the moment: Stewart Lee interviewing Iain Sinclair. The fact that Lee several times refers to Sinclair’s book as The Last of London seems to fit as well. . .

https://www.lrb.co.uk/audio-and-video

 

References

[1]
Iain Sinclair, The Last London: True Fictions from an Unreal City (London: Oneworld, 2017), 58.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 86, 137. One of the book’s later editors describes it, in fact, as ‘a companion volume to Parade’s End, reiterating the concerns of the tetralogy with renewed urgency’. See John Coyle, editor, Ford Madox Ford, It Was the Nightingale (1934; Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2007), xiv.

[3] George Orwell, Smothered Under Journalism: 1946, edited by Peter Davison, revised and updated edition (London: Secker and Warburg, 2001), 432-443. Davison’s footnote (443) mentions Swingler’s volumes of poetry and his editorial involvement with several journals in the 1930s and 1940s. Barker’s poem is in PN Review 27, volume 9, number 1 (September-October 1982).

[4] Sinclair, The Last London, 18 (I see I’ve quoted this once before but think it’s earned a repeat), 42, 54.