Receding tide


The tide was out at Lyme Regis: more, it had receded further than I ever remember seeing. In the harbour, some of the boats leaned drunkenly, almost on their sides; chunks of exposed wood left on its floor looked like huge fish, even fossils, probably unsurprising in this location, home to Mary Anning, palaeontologist and fossil collector. We sat in the shelter, high up in the Jane Austen garden, ate Portuguese custard tarts and watched the tide.

I recalled the strenuous efforts I’d made, thirty years back, to commit to memory the whole of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’, which I wrote out at the top of my paper, confident that it would impress the examiners.

Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

They probably thought: ‘God, what an insufferable smartarse!’—but passed me anyway.

The day before the trip to Lyme, we’d walked on the common where the Librarian’s parents walk every day, the signs of Storm Eunice (or was it Franklin?) still visible. It occurs to me, hardly for the first time and with marked unoriginality, that there are trees one thousand, two thousand, perhaps five thousand years old, that can be brought down in minutes. Now ‘once in a decade’ and even ‘once in a lifetime’ events are happening with increasing frequency – but there is no irrefutable sign that we, as a country, a continent, a species, are fully awake to it yet.


The day after war began again in Europe, and serious questions were being asked once again about the mental state of a Russian dictator, I walked to the storage unit in brilliant sunshine.

The park was quiet as I laboured uphill: the white-bearded man with the spaniels, his companion with hers, a few children with their parents in the play area, figures on benches, well-wrapped against the cold air. It occurred to me, descending the steps on the far side of the hill, that I’d avoided this route for months since it’s hardly wide enough for two people to give each other room as they pass. I’ve become more relaxed in the open air but indoor spaces—shops, public transport, after the government’s latest blunder—remain hugely unappealing.

The storage unit site was deserted. I heard an engine running for a few minutes while I was groping through boxes, but there was nothing in sight when I came out again. I’d visited so rarely in the past two years —and then just to check that the unit’s secure and there’s no sign of damp—that everything was as it had been in 2019, the boxes and bags still in their same configuration. A time capsule in its way, perhaps an example of that ‘normal’ that so many people seemingly wish to get back to, and believe possible.

Since that visit – a week of barbarism, war crimes, civilians targeted, schools and hospitals bombed and struck by missiles, children murdered. A week, too, of extraordinary courage, everywhere in Ukraine but also among protesters on the streets of Russian cities. And, though at least fifteen hundred miles from Kyiv, some of us jump a little when we hear a siren, a plane going over, a distant unexplained roaring. Those who lived through the 1980s remember that instinctive, momentary reaction well enough, a barely perceptible but constant tension that went on for years. That at least is a ‘normal’ we were all hoping not to get back to.

Storm warnings

Rousseau, Theodore, 1812-1867; Landscape with a Stormy Sky

(Theodore Rousseau, Landscape with a Stormy Sky: Victoria and Albert Museum)

Walking in the park, the Librarian remarks on how beautiful the light is: lying on the trees, the mosque glimpsed between buildings on the facing hill and the lines of colourful housefronts. The light is, yes, extraordinary—but not least because of the violent mixing of colours on the sky’s palette. Above the trees behind us, there’s a great stretch of glowering darkness, which collides at one point with a patch of pure brilliance, untouched by any shadow or streak of darker colour. Above another clump of trees, a cloud of deep grey seemingly squats among the branches.

As with sky, of course, so with a great deal else. Those with the good fortune to be readers of Louis MacNeice think often of ‘Snow’, which reads in part:

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.[1]

‘Incorrigibly plural’, yes. There are simplicities, to be sure, but not always where our contemporary ‘culture warriors’ believe—or pretend to believe—they are. Elsewhere, MacNeice writes:

‘We are not changing ground to escape from facts
But rather to find them. This complex world exacts
Hard work of simplifying; to get its focus
You have to stand outside the crowd and caucus.’[2]

Now we are watching the trees bend; the door propped carefully open when the cat insists on fresh air; one brief and bitter squall of rain earlier; the wind yesterday afternoon and evening irritable, confidently predicted to be furious today. The worst storm in three decades, one forecast reads.

unknown artist; View of the Cobb and the Bay, Lyme Regis, Dorset

(Unknown artist: View of the Cobb and the Bay, Lyme Regis, Dorset: Lyme Regis Museum)

Novelist John Fowles wrote of the famous Cobb at Lyme Regis that it was not only a harbour but ‘a gigantic breakwater protecting the town from the great storms out of the south-west.’[3] That’s the quarter from which this storm is coming, as often before. Francis Kilvert wrote in his diary of a visit to Claremont House: ‘When the S.W. gales blew and rattled the windows Lord Clive used to get up in the night to wedge them tight and guineas being more plentiful with him than anything else he always used them. The housemaids used to transfer these guineas to their own pockets in the morning and prayed with reason for a S.W. storm.’[4]

Little wonder and plenty of reason, with an annual salary of around £20.

 Before the great storm of October 1987—an extreme depression in the Bay of Biscay moving north-eastwards—there were tough UK winters in 1962-63 and another drifting out of my lifetime, 1946-47. A few years before that, Rosamond Lehmann wrote in her story, ‘When the Waters Came’: ‘The wind was a steel attack; sharp knobs of ice came whirling off the elms and struck her in the face’, while the news at the post office was that: ‘The peacock at the farm had been brought in sheathed totally in ice: that was the most impressive item.’[5] This was, presumably, the wave of freezing weather in January 1940. The River Thames froze then for the first time since 1888 and there was a terrific ice storm across the country late in the month.

Hondius, Abraham, c.1625-1691; The Frozen Thames, Looking Eastwards towards Old London Bridge, London

(Abraham Hondius, The Frozen Thames, Looking Eastwards towards Old London Bridge, London: Museum of London)

In a diary entry of Sunday 8 December 1872, Kilvert wrote: ‘The morning had been lovely, but during our singing practice after evening church at about half past four began the Great Storm of 1872.’[6] In the eighteenth century, Gilbert White noted the  punishing winter of 1767-8: some days, he remarked, were more severe than any since 1739-40. But top billing was given to the ‘amazing tempest’, the great storm of November 1703.[7]

‘From the middle of the month there were gales’, Alexandra Harris writes, ‘and then on the evening of the 26th the wind grew unnerving. By midnight a hurricane was blasting across England, and there was no let-up until dawn. Fatalities were eventually calculated at about eight thousand. The greatest terror of the night was out in the Channel, where thirteen Royal Navy ships and their crews were drowned. On land barely a building survived intact. It remains the most violent storm recorded in England.’[8]

Up until ten this morning, the wind was fitful but not too severe. Predictably, some people were already dismissing the forecasts—‘Nothing’s happening!’—but footage of seafronts in south Wales and south-west England bore them out and I don’t plan to be walking under any trees today. I like this calm space, within easy reach of the kettle and the cooker. Eye of the storm. In Patrick White’s great novel of that name, Elizabeth Hunter’s daughter Dorothy, on the way to Australia, sits next to a Dutchman who tells her about a storm he experienced, being at sea when a typhoon struck. ‘For several hours we were thrown and battered – till suddenly calm fell – the calmest calm I have ever experienced at sea. God had willed us to enter the eye – you know about it? the still centre of the storm – where we lay at rest – surrounded by hundreds of seabirds, also resting on the water.’[9]

White-Eye-Storm

In a letter to Ingmar Björkstén (21 January 1973), who had asked about which of his novels felt closest to him, White confessed his difficulty. ‘I tend to feel close to The Aunt’s Story because in the beginning it was either ignored, or, in Australia, considered a freak. My feeling has been much as I imagine parents would feel towards a child who is not quite normal: they have to protect it. I also feel very close to The Solid Mandala because it conveys a certain nightmarish quality of life which I have experienced, though the incidents in the novel are hardly parallel to anything in my actual life. But at the moment I am obsessed by my latest book The Eye of the Storm, because in it I think I have come closer to giving the final answer.’[10]

David Marr, White’s biographer, remarked that: ‘The Eye of the Storm has the fundamental plot of all the books White wrote after falling in the storm at Castle Hill: the erratic, often unconscious search for God.’[11]

In his story centred on the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, killed at Neuville-Saint-Vaast in 1915, Guy Davenport wrote: ‘But our knowledge, which must come from contemplation and careful inspection, has collided with a storm, a vortex of stupidity and idiocy.’[12]

At least we don’t have to contend with anything like that, do we? To be sure, the storm is really getting into its stride now but it’s just the weather we have to worry about, no?

Notes

[1] Louis MacNeice, Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 24.

[2] Louis MacNeice, ‘Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard’, Letters from Iceland, W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice (London: Faber & Faber, 1937), 31.

[3] John Fowles, A Short History of Lyme Regis (Stanbridge: The Dovecote Press, 2004), 10.

[4] Francis Kilvert, Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969), I, 297.

[5] Rosamond Lehmann, The Gypsy’s Baby and Other Stories (1946; London: Virago Press, 1982), 94.

[6] Kilvert’s Diary, II, 288-289.

[7] Gilbert White, The Illustrated History of Selborne (London: Macmillan, 1984), 46, 19-20.

[8] Alexandra Harris, Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English  Skies (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015), 170.

[9] Patrick White, The Eye of the Storm (London: Penguin Books, 1975), 69.

[10] Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 410.

[11] David Marr, Letters, 354; on the fall, see  Patrick White: A Life (London: Vintage, 1992), 281ff.

[12] Guy Davenport, ‘The Bowmen of Shu’, in Twelve Stories (Washington: Counterpoint, 1997), 140.

Tapping the glass


(Ernest Board, ‘The discovery of the barometer: Torricelli experimenting in the Alps’, 1643: Wellcome Collection.)

Alluding to the still-controversial matter of Edward Jenner’s experiments, Lord Byron in 1818 observed:

But vaccination certainly has been
    A kind antithesis to Congreve’s rockets,
With which the Doctor paid off an old pox,
By borrowing a new one from an ox.

The Congreve rocket, the editors note, was used at the Battle of Leipzig (1813), producing sufficient noise and glare to frighten and confuse the French.[1]

Fright and confusion have been much in evidence lately, not least in connection with vaccination rather than the Congreve rocket. But then Jenner’s use of cowpox germs led to resistance on religious grounds, people refusing to be treated with ‘substances originating from God’s lowlier creatures’ and when vaccination was made compulsory in 1853, this ‘led to protest marches and vehement opposition from those who demanded freedom of choice.’[2]

The rain, currently exercising its freedom of choice, appears to positively enjoy being rain and doing the things rain does. ‘How dark/ seems the whole country we enter’, the poet Keith Douglas wrote, ‘Now it rains,/ the trees like ominous old men are shaking.’[3] In her novel set in late 15th century Somerset, Samantha Harvey’s narrator observes that: ‘In the village at this time of year we had only one way of telling the weather: if you can see the ridge, you know it’s going to rain; if you can’t, it’s already raining.’[4]

Wet or dry, the last week or two has seen me out for the most part on my own, sticking mainly to the lower paths in the park because my back was noticeably resentful of hills and acutely keen to tell me so. The Librarian has been walking later and alone, for longer and on an altogether higher plane. Aware that I was missing some lines from the handful of poems committed to memory, I’ve taken to carrying a paperback in my pocket so I can prompt myself. My memory seems more and more to resemble the version proposed by Mr Sherlock Holmes to a sceptical Dr John Watson early in A Study in Scarlet, the brain as a kind of attic with limited space, so that: ‘“Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before.”’[5]


I’m reasonably discreet but a woman with a child in a pushchair may have flinched a little to hear as she passed me that ‘John Macdonald found a corpse, put it under the sofa,/ Waited till it came to life, and hit it with a poker’. Describing the same circular route as myself, though in the contrary direction, she may have been in time to catch the last run through: ‘It’s no go the Herring Board, it’s no go the Bible,/ All we want is a packet of fags when our hands are idle.’ The last lines of MacNeice’s poem seem painfully apt: ‘The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall for ever,/ But if you break the bloody glass you won’t hold up the weather.’[6]

In my sunnier moments, it also prompts the thought of how many houses used to have barometers—I must have come across dozens—and how relatively few do so now. It’s hardly surprising: they were for use not ornament and the Met Office forecasts are increasingly accurate. There’s also this new-fangled thing called the internet.


(North east view of Selbourne, from The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne by Gilbert White © The British Library Board)

The naturalist Gilbert White, at whose house barometers and thermometers ‘were much-prized members of the household’—and who was ‘assiduous’ in his readings and recordings—wrote of house-crickets that: ‘Whatever is moist they affect; and therefore often gnaw holes in wet woollen stockings and aprons that are hung to the fire: they are the housewife’s barometer, foretelling her when it will rain; and are prognostic sometimes, she thinks, of ill or good luck; of the death of a near relation, or the approach of an absent lover. By being the constant companions of her solitary hours they naturally become the objects of her superstition.’[7]

Pressure rising, pressure falling. We don’t, I suppose, really need to tap the glass of a barometer these days. Farce or tragedy or tragicomedy, it’s being played out before our eyes—quite enlightening, no doubt, for those in the habit of thinking that we had only the one plague to contend with.

Writing little more than a year before his death, Byron had a word about barometers:

The London winter’s ended in July,
    Sometimes a little later. I don’t err
In this: whatever other blunders lie
    Upon my shoulders, here I must aver
My Muse a glass of weatherology;
    For Parliament is our barometer:
Let radicals its other acts attack,
Its sessions form our only almanac.[8]

If Parliament is our barometer now, I think it’s safe to say that the weather prospects are not encouraging.


Notes

[1] Lord Byron, ‘Canto I’, Don Juan, edited by T. G. Steffan, E. Steffan and W. W. Pratt (London: Penguin Books, 1996), 78, 580n. On the proof, Byron’s friend, John Cam Hobhouse wrote: ‘Mon cher ne touchez pas à la petite Verole [smallpox]’: ‘Appendix’, 757.

[2] See: https://www.jenner.ac.uk/about/edward-jenner (accessed 8 January 2022)

[3] Keith Douglas, last lines of ‘Soissons’ (1940): The Complete Poems of Keith Douglas, edited by Desmond Graham (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 47. Soissons is a commune in Hauts-de-France, roughly 100 kilometres north-east of Paris.

[4] Samantha Harvey, The Western Wind (London: Jonathan Cape, 2018), 91.

[5] Arthur Conan Doyle, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels, edited with notes by Leslie S. Klinger (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company 2006), 34.

[6] Louis MacNeice, ‘Bagpipe Music’, Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 95, 96.

[7] Alexandra Harris, Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English  Skies (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015), 209; Gilbert White, The Illustrated History of Selborne (London: Macmillan, 1984), 210.

[8] Byron, ‘Canto XIII’, Don Juan 453.

Backing the inevitable


(Henri Rousseau, Surprised!, National Gallery)

As the Chinese Year of the Ox prepares to shuffle off in favour of the Year of the Tiger, more locally I have the Year of the Back – or no, that’s too downbeat, even for me. Say: the Month of the Back. Or, as I noted in my sporadically-kept diary, ‘The Back is back.’ Following in what has, unfortunately, become an irregular traditional practice—2013, 2015, 2019 and 2020—I am devoting twenty minutes each morning to putting my socks on. A schooling in patience, so to speak.

Initially, the cat looked suspicious and a little bewildered to have the Librarian preparing and serving his food—that bowl on the floor being just too far away for me—but is becoming reconciled. As is she. Probably. Perhaps.

When it comes to the serious work, though, the problem is that, like a bad toothache, a wrecked back tends to occupy the mind and resents any incursions by such brittle beasts as research or writing. But I can read more rovingly, so I do that: Mary Gaitskill, C. L. R. James, Annie Ernaux, Jane Gardam – and Byron’s Don Juan. Writing to poet-publisher James Laughlin in 1993, Guy Davenport told him: ‘I’ve been rereading (for the whatevereth time) Don Juan, which may be the funniest poem in English—certainly the greatest stylistic tour de force. It’s proof enough that God doesn’t read our books that Byron didn’t get to finish it. Juan was to have become a ranting Methodist in Yorkshire.’[1] Nearly sixty years earlier, W. H. Auden had, at the age of twenty-nine:

Just read Don Juan and I found it fine.
I read it on the boat to Reykjavik
Except when eating or asleep or sick.[2]

I remembered a brief exchange with the poet and artist David Jones that William Blissett recorded:

 ‘“Bugger old age.” 
“Is that your final word today?” 
“Yes.”’[3]

Jones lived to—almost—seventy-nine. In the half-century since his death, of course, our expectations are a little greater. (Or were, until the recent downturn, often the sign of governments with fatally wrong priorities.)

Still, physically at least, deterioration is written into everybody’s contract. A quotation was long lodged in my head from Henry Miller, which I had trouble finding, not least because, it transpires, I had the word order slightly wrong. I’m reminded now that ‘We resist only what is inevitable’ is from Miller’s 1957 Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, one of those statements that seems to shunt the reader or listener straight to the opposite or corollary statement, here, that we don’t resist what is not inevitable—and which, arguably, might be changed or averted through resistance. That would accord with the view of Miller famously presented by George Orwell in ‘Inside the Whale’, which begins and ends with Miller, to whom Orwell ascribes ‘a sort of mystical acceptance of thing-as-it-is.’ Orwell then runs through just what such acceptance includes in the mid-twentieth century—concentration camps, Hitler, Stalin, press censorship, political murders and the rest—but argues that Miller’s general attitude, nevertheless, is ‘“Let’s swallow it whole”’.[4]


(David Jones, from The Book of Jonah
https://www.artwales.com/exhibition-mtg-en.php?locationID=184 )

Inevitability, then, most famously that of death and taxes, according to Benjamin Franklin, though my Oxford Dictionary of Quotations points to Daniel Defoe as precedent, more or less. For the rich, of course, in this country and surely many others, paying tax seems to be optional if you have that sort of moral threshold, that sort of accountant and offshore accounts already set up – but no government, however supine or conflicted, has yet managed to legislate against the Grim Reaper or to arrange loopholes for its friends.

Endings, anyway. As Annie Ernaux has it, ‘The time that lies ahead of me grows shorter. There will inevitably be a last book, as there is always a last lover, a last spring, but no sign by which to know them.’[5] And D. H. Lawrence wrote to Catherine Carswell, ‘One can tell what will happen, more or less. Some things one knows inwardly, and infallibly. But the how and the why are left to the conjunction of circumstances.’[6]

Lawrence, in fact, dwelt often on inevitability. ‘This is England. One meaning blots out another. So the mines were blotting out the halls. It was inevitable. When the great landowners started the mines, and made new fortunes, they started also their own obliteration from the English countryside. One meaning blots out another.’ And: ‘It had taken Constance a long time to accept the inevitable. The old England was doomed to be blotted out, with a terrifying absoluteness, by a new and gruesome England. It was inevitable.’[7]

This, perhaps, has a distant relative in Aldous Huxley’s pronouncement in a letter to his brother Julian a few months before the Armistice in 1918: ‘Whatever happens, we may be sure it will be for the worst. I dread the inevitable acceleration of American world domination which will be the ultimate result of it all. It was a thing that had got to come in time, but this will hasten its arrival by a century.’[8]

Patrick White’s Voss remarks that: ‘Human behaviour is a series of lunges, of which, it is sometimes sensed, the direction is inevitable.’[9] A little more positively, perhaps, ‘And yes’, Katherine Mansfield wrote to William Gerhardi in March 1922, ‘that is what I tried to convey in The Garden Party. The diversity of life and how we try to fit in everything, Death included. That is bewildering for a person of Laura’s age. She feels things ought to happen differently. First one and then another. But life isn’t like that. We haven’t the ordering of it. Laura says, “But all these things must not happen at once.” And Life answers, “Why not? How are they divided from each other?” And they do all happen, it is inevitable. And it seems to me there is beauty in that inevitability.’[10]


(Ferdinand Brütt, Gartenfest (1900)

There is, lastly—or firstly—the consciously literary. Ford Madox Ford wrote, in a piece on Joseph Conrad, of ‘the great faculty of this author – that he can make an end seem inevitable, in every instance, the only possible end.’[11]

More than a decade later, and returning to the subject—and the writer—at greater length, Ford wrote of ‘all that is behind the mystic word “justification.” Before everything a story must convey a sense of inevitability: that which happens in it must seem to be the only thing that could have happened. Of course a character may cry, “If I had then acted differently how different everything would now be.” The problem of the author is to make his then action the only action that character could have taken. It must be inevitable, because of his character, because of his ancestry, because of past illness or on account of the gradual coming together of the thousand small circumstances by which Destiny, who is inscrutable and august, will push us into one certain predicament.’[12]

‘One certain predicament.’ There’s a neat summary. My current predicament is, though, gradually easing. Of course, that’s a subjective assessment. Subjective? ‘This word has made considerable progress in England during the year you have been away’, Edward Fitzgerald wrote to his friend Frederick Tennyson (7 June 1840), ‘so that people begin to fancy they understand what it means.’[13]

I fancy it means that I no longer have to read Don Juan while lying on the bedroom floor.


Notes

[1] W. C. Bamberger, editor, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 146.

[2] Letter to Lord Byron, in W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, Letters from Iceland (London: Faber and Faber, 1937), 18.

[3] William Blissett, The Long Conversation: A Memoir of David Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 108.

[4] George Orwell, A Patriot After All: 1940-1941, edited by Peter Davison, revised and updated edition (London: Secker and Warburg, 2000), 86-115.

[5] Annie Ernaux, A Girl’s Story, translated by Alison L. Strayer (London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020), 17.

[6] Letters of D. H. Lawrence III, October 1916–June 1921, edited by James T. Boulton and Andrew Robertson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 24.

[7] D. H. Lawrence, The First and Second Lady Chatterley Novels, edited by Dieter Mehl and Christa Jansohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 366.

[8] Aldous Huxley, Letters of Aldous Huxley, edited by Grover Smith (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969), 160.

[9] Patrick White, Voss (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1957), 16-17.

[10] Katherine Mansfield, Selected Letters, edited by Vincent O’Sullivan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 250.

[11] Ford Madox Ford, ‘Joseph Conrad’, English Review (December 1911), 82.

[12] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (London: Duckworth, 1924), 204.

[13] The Letters of Edward Fitzgerald, edited by Alfred McKinley Terhune and Annabelle Burdick Terhune, four volumes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), I, 250.

Bells, books, Brussels sprouts

(Frank Spenlove-Spenlove, Vespers, New Year’s Eve in the Low Country, Glasgow Museums Resource Centre)
Ours is not a low country, of course – not in that sense, at least

The year has little to show, will leave a heavy
Overdraft to its heir;
Shall we try to meet the deficit or passing
By on the other side continue laissez-faire?[1]


New Year’s Eve, though—strictly speaking—that’s not until later on today. Hogmanay, north of the border: though it seems from news reports that Scots will be streaming over that border to celebrate more freely than in their home country, this government having opted once again to make sure that English citizens take the blame themselves for any increased harm they come to in their revels. In Spain and a lot of Latin American countries, I gather, the habit of eating twelve grapes, one on each stroke of the midnight clock, is well-established. And in Japan, on Ōmisoka – I’ve seen it translated as ‘Grand Last Day’, which manages to sound simultaneously splendid and a touch apocalyptic[2] – there is joyanokane, the ringing of the temple bells 108 times, a number linked to the prayer beads used by most Japanese Buddhists, signifying the totality of the world and the heavens, and now the number of sins or negative forces to be expelled from the self in order to enter the New Year cleanly.

(Via http://www.japanstyle.info/ )

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, pinned his hopes on the bells (the bells! the bells!), several stanzas seeming particularly relevant now—or are they always relevant, alas?

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of true and right,
Ring in the common love of good.[3]

I see that the Chinese New Year, which falls on 1 February, will usher in the Year of the Tiger. My birth year was also of that same stripe, which is, I suspect—and hope—a good omen. We could all do with a few of those.

So those that are able to—and who also wish to—can hibernate for a while longer, probably with less regret in the current weather. I must settle down to some real work. Then, too, if I run out of my own books to read, I can cast my eye again over the Librarian’s combined birthday and Christmas hoard and purloin something on the sly.


Halfway to Twelfth Night, the Christmas tree is lasting well and Harry the cat is settled back into his routines after a few days in Somerset, where he spent some time on the stairs, a useful vantage point, which surprisingly resulted in no fatalities or serious injuries. In common with a great many other people, we passed a few hours in the company of the Beatles—the Peter Jackson documentary, the book edited by John Harris, reminiscences, the Librarian’s dad working out several tunes on his guitar and the final triumphant group rendering of ‘Get Back’. There were, too, important conversations, sometimes in the kitchen with the Librarian’s mum:

‘Do you use butter or olive oil?’
‘Both, usually. A bit of each.’
‘Blanch them, then whizz them round the pan in a bit of oil and butter with chopped garlic.’
‘Yes.’

That’s how we cook Brussels sprouts these days. . . I could never warm to them simply boiled – perhaps I’d suffered too much from the Christmas meals of my childhood, in the days when grandparents knew for a fact that, if you were dining at one o’clock, you started cooking the vegetables about three hours earlier. What vegetable could survive such an ordeal? Brassica oleracea: known in French and English gardens from the late 18th century, and in the United States not long afterwards, when Thomas Jefferson planted some in his garden in 1812.[4] That was the year, of course, that saw the beginning of the war between Britain and the United States, arising from British violations of American maritime rights – which may remind some of us of the current disputes between France and the United Kingdom over fishing rights. Jefferson, as noted Francophile (as well as noted slaveholder), trade commissioner in France, then US minister, succeeding Benjamin Franklin, would likely have sided with the French.


Still, I was never as hostile to that particular vegetable as Ford Madox Ford, who declared in Provence that ‘what Eve ate sinfully was not an apple but a dish of brussels sprouts boiled in water that lacked the salt of the Mediterranean’, adding, judiciously: ‘Let that at least serve for a symbol.’ And, on the plus side: ‘somewhere between Vienne and Valence, below Lyons on the Rhone the sun is shining and, south of Valence, Provincia Romana, the Roman Province lies beneath the sun. There there is no more any evil for there the apple will not flourish and the Brussels sprout will not grow at all.’[5] The sprout as root of all evil – exaggeration from Ford Madox Ford. Who’d have thought it?

Without exaggeration, then, perhaps a little warily, I raise a glass to everyone that happens by here: 2022, ready or not, here we come. Apparently.


Notes

[1] Louis MacNeice, Autumn Journal in Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 146.

[2] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 540.

[3] Tennyson: A Selected Edition, edited by Christopher Ricks (Harlow: Longman Group, 1989), 453-454.

[4] Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food, Second Edition by Tom Jaine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 110.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Provence (London: Allen & Unwin, 1938), 79, 80.

Communicable experience: words begin again


Sitting down to write the handful of Christmas cards we sent this year, I found myself oddly inhibited when it came to the notes I’d meant to add—mainly rallying cries or apologies for silences, distances and disappearances. Last year, so much still felt relatively new, baffling, a strangeness that could be conveyed in simple language, with an expectation of a shared response, a reciprocity. To say the same things twelve months later seemed somehow absurd; in fact, any phrase that came to mind appeared wholly banal, quite pointless. Then, too, it required too many assumptions, some quite hazardous, about people’s recent history and present circumstances. So, either a five-page letter or nothing at all – beyond best wishes for next year – hardly, when it came to it, a difficult choice.

I thought of the famous observation of Walter Benjamin, ‘Was it not noticeable at the end of the [First World] war that men returned from the battlefield grown silent—not richer, but poorer in communicable experience?’ He has been discussing the loss of ‘the ability to exchange experiences’, one reason for this being that ‘experience has fallen in value.’ Our picture of both the external world and the moral world have undergone ‘changes which were never thought possible.’ He goes on:

A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.[1]

It’s very easy to look at this and think ah, yes, mechanized warfare, dramatic scientific and technological changes, transport and communications revolutions, all very historical, all very back then. Despite the massive volume of commentary—largely because of it, perhaps—we find it harder to grasp the speed and impact of some of the changes occurring in our own historical period, in part because as things develop and change increasingly quickly, we accommodate, allow for and absorb those changes increasingly quickly too. The internet—we fret if it takes more than a few seconds to respond to a search term. And if we should actually draw a complete blank? ‘If it’s not on the internet it doesn’t exist’—I remember an American librarian ascribing this assumption to college students who frequented the library, some ten or fifteen years ago now. We see many programmes, essays, articles devoted to the phenomenon of social media, especially the aggressive and destructive aspects of it. Were there always this many repellent people? Have they been created or merely enabled by the internet, because before it existed they would have had to write a letter, address an envelope and stick a stamp on it? Incredible advances in medicine: why do so many people reject them out of hand? Questions pretty simple, answers less so.


But Benjamin’s ‘communicable experience’? Men returned from the battlefield, even had they wished to, could rarely find the vocabulary to convey the enormity, intensity and sheer unprecedented nature of what some of them had seen, heard and suffered. That surely differs fundamentally from our situation now. These last two years, there has been a good deal of shared, or at least common, experience. Not as common as it was originally represented as being: the—sometimes literally—murderous inequalities that obtain in this country (among others) meant that, while some glided, many others crashed and burned. Still, there were elements of a society under siege which were at least recognised by most of us.

Helen Macdonald recently articulated with her usual lucidity some familiar if often inchoate thoughts, firstly about the dual speed of time, passing ‘far more slowly than it did before’ but also ‘running far too fast’, secondly with the unvarnished statement that: ‘Most of us began this pandemic thinking that life would return to normal. We all now know that this is a fiction; nothing will return to what it was before.’[2] And I nod, yes, though I’d baulk at that ‘all now know’. A lot of New Statesman readers, maybe. More broadly, I suspect the rule of division still holds sway. I see I wrote a little earlier of ‘our situation’. But once more particularised than ‘the human animal’, that ‘our’ is a little shaky.

We’re told, on an almost daily basis, that we live now in a divided country, a fractured society. The nation splits along fault lines of class or age or education or information sources. Brexit showed up the real cracks and some of the reactions to the pandemic, or measures intended to combat that pandemic, have revealed some more, frequently new pressures on earlier, still suppurating wounds—which are often, in fact, the most troubling.

(Cherry-Garrard and pony: https://www.coolantarctica.com/Antarctica%20fact%20file/History/biography/cherry-gearrard_apsley.php

The biographer of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a member of the Terrra Nova expedition, travelling with Scott on that doomed journey to the Antarctic in 1910, and author of The Worst Journey in the World, observes that:

Many of those who had served felt, after the war, that the world had been everlastingly divided into those who had been there, and those who had not. To Cherry that binary vision had been cast before 1914, and the war only served to polarise it further: those who had been south, and those who had not. His psyche never fully engaged with the war. It was still in the Antarctic.[3]

In a way, things were simpler in the ancient world. Herodotus lived in a world divided into Greeks and barbarians, that is to say, ‘hoi barbaroi’, the non-Greeks.[4] In more recent times, Penelope Fitzgerald’s memorable categories occur in The Bookshop: ‘She blinded herself, in short, by pretending for a while that human beings are not divided into exterminators and exterminatees, with the former, at any given moment, predominating.’[5] And predominate they do, as so much of the twentieth century and, alas, this one too, can testify. Primo Levi, who survived the death camps, later wrote: ‘Those who experienced imprisonment (and, more generally, all persons who have gone through harsh experiences) are divided into two distinct categories, with rare intermediate shadings: those who remain silent and those who speak.’[6]

Personal, temporal. A time to keep silence, and a time to speak, as Ecclesiastes has it. Anne Carson, as ever, has her own take: ‘After a story is told there are some moments of silence. Then words begin again. Because you would always like to know a little more. Not exactly more story. Not necessarily, on the other hand, an exegesis. Just something to go on with. After all, stories end but you have to proceed with the rest of the day. You have to shift your weight, raise your eyes, notice the sound of traffic again, maybe go out for cigarettes.’[7]


In the teeth of it all, we—we?—proceed with the rest of the day, and the words that accompany it. The rain has cleared, the sky has brightened a little. And Fat Santa has not left the building.


Notes


[1] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’ (1936), Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, edited and with an introduction by Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1985), 83-84.

[2] Helen Macdonald, ‘The lure of hibernation’, New Statesman (10 December 2021 – 6 January 2022), 44.

[3] Sara Wheeler, Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard (London: Jonathan Cape, 2001), 189.

[4] Herodotus, The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt, revised by John Marincola (London: Penguin Books, 1996), 3.

[5] Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop (1978; London: Everyman, 2001), 29.

[6] Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, translated by Raymond Rosenthal (London: Abacus, 1989), 121.

[7] Anne Carson, ‘Afterword’, in  Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (New York: Vintage, 2000), 88.

Small pleasures, wary smiles, beautiful trees

(Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy)

Tramping through the park, I mention to the Librarian that small pleasures are underrated. Her sideways glance says—or do I misread it?—‘Why then Ile fit you/ Hieronymo’s mad againe.’ I explain that I’m thinking of the scheme of the Cantos that Ezra Pound conveyed to his father in a letter of April 1927, which begins: ‘A. A. Live man goes down into world of Dead’.[1]

I’d seen this for, what, the twentieth time, more? when rereading an essay by Walter Baumann,[2] that same sentence having turned up in volumes of letters and who knows how many commentaries on the Cantos, beginnings of, progress of, schema of. ‘In another place’, I said, ‘he talks about Odysseus as a live man among duds.’[3] She eyes me warily, though she’s fairly used to this stuff. ‘It finally occurred to me’, I say, ‘the aural closeness of “dead” and “duds”. I’m just wondering if there’s any etymological connection.’ (If it were really of any interest, dozens of Pound scholars would already have noted this, of course: they probably have but I just missed it; they certainly seem to have noticed everything else. But – small pleasures. . . )
She nods. ‘The trees are looking really beautiful at the moment.’
So they are, so they are.

At home, naturally enough, I look up ‘dud’ – and the first dictionary to which I turn offers: ‘Origin unknown’; the second, ‘Middle English, of unknown origin’. Clearly, this won’t do. But here is the blessed Eric Partridge:[4] ‘dud’ is probably influenced by the 17th-20th century dialect term ‘dudman’, a scarecrow – ah, ‘but the word may derive ultimately ex Dutch dood, dead.’ His entry points to Ernest Weekley’s Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. And yes, rather wonderfully, it is that Weekley, Professor of Modern Languages at the University of Nottingham for forty years and husband of Frieda Weekley until a chap called D. H. Lawrence happened by. Weekley was compiler of this often-referred to dictionary plus many other works and lived until 1954, almost a quarter of a century after the death of the man who decamped with his wife.

(https://picturenottingham.co.uk/image-library/image-details/poster/ntgm007755/posterid/ntgm007755.html)

Small pleasures– or pleasures generally. As Emma Woodhouse explains to her puzzled father: ‘“That is the case with us all, papa. One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.”’[5]

Three calendar months too late, I remember the words of ‘the Compiler’, in Ford Madox Ford’s No Enemy: ‘And, truly, in all the gardening year – which is all pleasure except for such lets and hindrances as God decrees to you in order that you may remember that you are human – there is no pleasure to equal the pleasures of a mid-September day.’[6] Looking back in 1924 to the far side of the war, further, to the period of collaboration with Joseph Conrad, Ford wrote: ‘one got in those days those small, cheerful pleasures out of life.’[7] And, two years later: ‘there is a really sensuous pleasure in uttering a correct French sentence, as there is in eating good French cookery, the pleasures being very nearly akin.’[8] A man who took his pleasures seriously and knew their precise nature. . .

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Flannery O’Connor’s view of pleasures had, let’s say, a slightly different angle. In a 1952 letter to Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, she wrote: ‘I had to go have my picture taken for the purposes of Harcourt Brace. They were all bad. (The Pictures.) The one I sent looked as if I had just bitten my grandmother and that this was one of my few pleasures, but all the rest were worse.’[9]

(Flannery O’Connor: via https://ugapress.wordpress.com/ )

This was a woman who knew precisely where – on the scale of pleasures – biting your grandmother should be placed.

The other morning, I woke around 04:30, was joined by the cat shortly afterwards and didn’t really get back to sleep before 06:00 arrived, with Harry’s well-established expectations of breakfast. The ninety-minute interlude occasionally strayed into that area of semi-doze in which nonsense confidently presents itself as insight. And yet, and yet, somewhere there is the border, on the other side of which insight and rationality wait with bottled water, sandwiches and encouragement. Which side are you on?

DA, I found myself thinking—as in Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata—why, those are the initials of Dante Alighieri, who is quoted on The Waste Land‘s very next page.[10]

It hardly needs saying that this is either of world-shattering importance or mere evidence of a man having trouble getting back to sleep. Obviously, I haven’t mentioned it just yet. I am waiting for the next walk – ideally, while the trees are still looking extravagantly beautiful.


Notes

[1] Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907-1941, edited by D. D. Paige (London: Faber and Faber, 1951), 285.

[2] Walter Baumann, ‘Ezra Pound and Magic: Old World Tricks in a New World Poem’, in Roses from the Steel Dust: Collected Essays on Ezra Pound (Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 2000), 29.

[3] Ezra Pound, ‘Hell’, a review of Laurence Binyon’s translation of Dante’s Inferno: Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 212.

[4] Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 8th edition, edited by Paul Beale (London: Routledge, 1984).

[5] Jane Austen, Emma (1816; edited by James Kinsley, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 74.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, No Enemy (1929; edited by Paul Skinner Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 116-117.

[7] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (London: Duckworth, 1924), 39.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, A Mirror to France (London: Duckworth, 1926), 250.

[9] Flannery O’Connor, Collected Works, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Library of America, 1988), 895.

[10] T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, lines 400ff and 427, The Complete Poems and Plays (London: Faber and Faber, 1969), 74-75.

Definite and indefinite gardeners


The man standing at the front door of the house we were renting in East Devon said: ‘I’m the gardener.’ We’d seen him from the living-room window a few days earlier, standing amidst the sea of fallen leaves, spending a while raking up enough of them to fill a couple of wheelbarrows. Now he wanted to do about fifteen minutes’ strimming: pretty noisy but not for long. Was that okay? Of course, I said.

I was reading a Maigret novel that day, Georges Simenon’s 1947 Maigret se fâche, translated by Ros Schwartz as Maigret Gets Angry. Maigret, in retirement with his wife at their house in Meung-sur-Loire, is fighting a battle against the Colorado beetle in defence of his aubergines: in the hot sun, he is ‘barefoot in his wooden clogs, his blue linen trousers riding down his hips, making them look like an elephant’s hindquarters, and a farmer’s shirt with an intricate pattern that was open at the neck, revealing his hairy chest.’ The formidable Madame Bernadette Amorelle marches in through the ‘little green door in the garden wall that led on to the lane and was used only by people they knew’ and, straight away, has ‘mistaken Maigret for the gardener.’[1]

(Georges Simenon: Photograph, Bettmann/CORBIS via The Guardian)

Maigret does, then, look a likely candidate for the role of gardener, at least in Madame Amorelle’s eyes; and, of course, he is a gardener – but not only that. What does a – or the – gardener look like? In Kipling’s story of that title, which has generated a remarkable quantity of commentary, criticism and speculation, the reader isn’t told. The gardener here is defined by what he does rather than how he looks or how he’s dressed: ‘A man knelt behind a line of headstones – evidently a gardener, for he was firming a young plant in the soft earth.’ When Helen Turrell leaves the war cemetery—still in the making but with more than twenty thousand dead already—she sees. in the distance ‘the man bending over his young plants; and she went away, supposing him to be the gardener.’[2]

The last half dozen words echo John 20:15, where Mary Magdalene, discovering that the body of Christ has gone from the sepulchre, finds him standing behind her, though she doesn’t immediately recognise that it is him. He asks why she’s weeping and she, ‘supposing him to be the gardener’, asks where the body has been taken. Are we to take Kipling’s gardener to represent Christ? A lot of readings do precisely that but there’s no real need to do so. Just as Helen Turrell and the people around her in the village will believe what they wish to believe and structure their lives around their chosen stories while leaving some things open or unsaid, the reader does also – or can do. He’s gardening, then – but we have moved from ‘evidently’ to ‘supposing’, so is he the gardener?

Here is one version of the meeting between Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad, who would collaborate on three books in the next decade:

Conrad stood looking at the view. His hands were in the pockets of his reefer-coat, the thumbs sticking out. His black, torpedo beard pointed at the horizon. He placed a monocle in his eye. Then he caught sight of me.
I was very untidy, in my working clothes. He started back a little. I said: ‘I’m Hueffer.’ He had taken me for the gardener.[3]

Untidy; working clothes; but again, Ford is a gardener and odd-jobman. He just happens to be also—even by 1898—poet, novelist, biographer, art critic and writer of fairy tales.


Kipling’s story was first published in April 1925 and collected in 1926; this autobiographical volume of Ford’s in 1931. An earlier account of the initial meeting between the two writers occurs in Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance. There, Conrad is carrying a child—his son Borys had been born eight months earlier—and, while the word ‘gardener’ is not specifically mentioned, Ford recalls that he had been ‘overcome by one of those fits of agricultural enthusiasm that have overwhelmed him every few years, so that such descriptive writers as have attended to him have given you his picture in a startling alternation as a Piccadilly dude in top hat, morning coat and spats, and as an extremely dirty agricultural labourer.’ At the time of his meeting with Conrad, he was ‘trying to make ten lettuces grow where before had been ten thousand nettles and was writing articles for the Outlook on the usage of the potato as an extirpator of thistles, in sand.’[4]

Does ‘extremely dirty’ trump ‘very untidy’? The point is that he’s getting stuck in, as he would do for much of his life: irrigating, planting, growing things, pruning. What might have been ‘experiments’ in 1898 became, at times during the 1930s in Provence, a rather more critical affair: feeding himself and his partner Janice Biala, keeping them alive in those periods when they had, quite literally, no money at all.

We might be prompted to remember the discussions that Ford would recall a quarter of a century later than that first meeting, as he crafted his memoir of Conrad:

Then we would debate: What is the practical, literary difference between ‘Penniless’ and ‘Without a penny’? You wish to give the effect, with the severest economy of words, that the disappearance of the Tremolino had ruined them, permanently, for many years…. Do you say then, penniless, or without a penny? … You say Sans le sou: that is fairly permanent. Un sans le sou is a fellow with no money in the bank, not merely temporarily penniless. But ‘without a penny’ almost always carries with it, ‘in our pockets.’ If we say then ‘without a penny’, that connoting the other, ‘We arrived in Marseilles without a penny in our pockets.’ . . . Well, that would be rather a joke: as if at the end of a continental tour you had got back to town with only enough just to pay your cab-fare home. Then you would go to the bank. So it had better be ‘penniless.’ That indicates more a state than a temporary condition. . . . Or would it be better to spend a word or two more on the exposition? That would make the paragraph rather long and so dull the edge of the story. . . .  (Joseph Conrad 85-86)

 (Stevie Smith, via the BBC)

‘Penniless’ or ‘without a penny’? A garden in which you grow the food to keep your family this side of starvation—it helps if you’re a good cook, which Ford certainly was—or a garden to be maintained, tidied, to please the aesthetic sense and lift the spirits. Stevie Smith’s Pompey Casmilus needs cheering up much of the time; and can appreciate the positive effect of work done: ‘Yesterday the gardener was here, and now the garden, newly prinked and tidied, the paths as neat and formal as a parade, shines beneath this early morning sun that has broken through to break the rain and storm clouds of past months. How very spry the garden looks, like a good child that has a washed face and a clean pinafore.’[5]


We don’t grow our food here, though we did manage some tomatoes a year or two back. We have one gardener; and two other residents that benefit from her efforts. Still, she’s a gardener, rather than the gardener, while Harry is the cat and I – am something other. . .


Notes

[1] Georges Simenon, Maigret Gets Angry (Maigret se fâche, 1947), translated by Ros Schwartz (London: Penguin Books, 2015), 3, 4, 9.

[2] Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Gardener’, in Debits and Credits, (1926; edited by Sandra Kemp, London: Penguin Books, 1987), 287.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 52.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (London: Duckworth, 1924), 15-16. Conrad would later confirm that ‘The first time I set eyes on you was in your potato-patch’: letter of 15 December 1921, quoted by Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), I, 521n4.

[5] Stevie Smith, Over the Frontier (1938; London: Virago Press, 1980), 115.

Perversity, perhaps

(Francis Carco; Jean Rhys)

In ‘A Feeling for Ice’, Jenny Diski describes the moment in her trip to Antarctica when the ship approaches St Andrew’s Bay, ‘the great penguin treat of the trip.’ She notes the ‘legion of black faces and orange beaks pointed out to sea facing in our direction, seeming to observe our arrival.’

‘One day, once a year or so, black rubber dinghies approach, and a handful of people come to the Bay, believing that the penguins are watching them arrive. For the penguins, it’s just another day of standing and staring. They parted slightly to make way for us, but they still stood looking out to sea.’[1]

Looking out to sea, looking in to see. Out there, of course, the days go by, sometimes galloping, sometimes on hands and knees – but generally not hanging around. ‘Time is different at different times in one’s life’, Doris Lessing observed. ‘A year in your thirties is much shorter than a child’s year – which is almost endless – but long compared with a year in your forties; whereas a year in your seventies is a mere blink.’[2]

(Photography by Edward Curtis)

Yes, those earlier days are denser, more numerous. There was a time in the United States when the buffalo numbered tens of millions; by the late nineteenth century, they could be counted in hundreds. In 1849, Francis Parkman had observed of the Western Dakota that the buffalo ‘supplies them with almost all the necessaries of life’, adding: ‘When the buffalo are extinct, they too must dwindle away.’[3] Peter Benson’s Isabel’s Skin is not upbeat on the matter of days— ‘Days come and days pass, and it is too easy to think you know what happened. People change and you think you knew who they were, who you were and how you reached the place you find yourself in, but you know nothing’—but more so when it comes to books, which ‘sleep, awake, open, and sometimes even change a life. They move like herds of animals across dust plains and leave clouds in the sky.’[4]

Red letter days, black letter days, some anonymous, some named. Last Friday was my mother’s one hundredth birthday – or would have been had she hung on just seven more years. When she had trouble recalling which day of the week it was, we hung a calendar on her wall. Now, since I retired, I can usually answer a query of that kind correctly – as long as I don’t have to give too snappy a response.

Named days. On All Hallows’ Eve, and on All Saints’ Day—I suspect that they won’t be marching in, and certainly not here—we walked between the showers, often accompanied by a furious wind as we began the long circuit of the cemetery. Then a few days of wetter weather, the grass of the park beginning to feel spongy, never quite drying out. And this morning a misleading blaze of blue through almost leafless branches at the back of the house where the tortoiseshell cat high-steps along our fence.


‘How odd Memory is – in her sorting arrangements’, the narrator of Walter de la Mare’s unsettling story ‘All Hallows’ remarks, ‘How perverse her pigeon-holes.’[5]

Perverse! The very word is like a bell, tolling me back. . . Well, here’s Guy Davenport, admirer of—and expert on—Ezra Pound’s poetry: ‘Pound’s strategy in choosing the materia and dynamics for The Cantos is at least consistent: reduced to a law it is this: In every subject to be treated, choose the matter which most perversely exemplifies it.’ He adds that it’s a good rule for a poet determined to be original. ‘When, however, the rule tyrannizes its manipulator, its perversity ceases to be strategic, and much in the poem that rings false can be traced to this simple rule.’[6]

Patrick White has a character resolving a theological dispute: ‘Then the old man, who had been cornered long enough [by the young evangelist], saw, through perversity perhaps, but with his own eyes. He was illuminated.  
‘He pointed with his stick at the gob of spittle.  
‘“That is God,” he said.’[7]

Still, the word’s primary nudge, for a Ford Madox Ford reader, is towards Perversité by Francis Carco or, rather, the vexed history of its translation. Carco was a poet, dramatist and novelist, and a pilot during the First World War, when he had an affair with Katherine Mansfield, who stayed with him in the spring of 1915 and drew on that time for at least two of her stories, one of them Je ne parle pas français.

Ford’s affair with Jean Rhys had various consequences for both parties: one of them was his securing for Rhys the job of translating Carco’s novel. As Carole Angier records, ‘This last kindness Ford had done her ended no better than the others: for when Perversity was published in 1928, the translation was credited not to Jean but to Ford. She was angry and upset about this for a long time, convinced that once again he had deliberately exploited and betrayed her. In fact, in this affair she hadn’t been Ford’s victim but that of the publisher, Pascal Covici. Ford had clearly named her as translator from the start, both to Covici and to others; but Covici had evidently decided that the book would sell better with Ford’s name on it.’[8]

Rhys’s own version, nearly forty years after its publication, emerged in a letter to Francis Wyndham, to whom she mentioned that she’d received a letter from Arthur Mizener, asking if she had any letters from Ford—which Cornell University would willingly buy—and also about the translation of Perversité. ‘I did that ages ago’, Rhys wrote to Wyndham, ‘and when it appeared my agent wrote to ask about it, for I hadn’t been told that I was “ghosting”. It was Covici the publisher’s fault, and I know Ford did his best to put things right. Then the book was banned and I heard no more about it. Mr Mizener said that a lot of ink had been spilled, which surprised me, for several people knew I was doing it at the time. I wasn’t very pleased with the translation for it had to be done in a hurry and there was a good deal of slang.’[9]


Arthur Mizener—not in person but by way of his biography of Ford—cropped up in a recent walk. Conversation with the Librarian in parks and cemeteries tends to begin with—or recur to—those perennial themes and questions: is this the worst government that either of us can remember? Yes. How was it news to so many people that the present administration is thoroughly corrupt? Don’t know. Can the country ever recover from the damage they’ve done, are doing, will continue to do to it? Probably not. But then there are trees, birds, other people, weather, food, wine and books.

On this occasion, I rambled on for a while about Arthur Mizener’s biography of Ford, which I’d been re-reading. Although frequently assailed by anecdotes, alleged insights, snippets of research and the like, the Librarian’s interest in Ford is primarily, let’s say, by association, though she was getting along swimmingly with Parade’s End until she reached the final volume, Last Post – the one I edited, of course. Still, the fresh air, the surroundings, the rhythm of walking, together fostered a tolerant attention, so I rattled on.

Fordians tend to have a problem with Mizener. He did a lot of research and produced a great deal of valuable information – but ended up not liking Ford very much, often put the worst possible construction on his actions and reactions, and rarely believed a word he said. But what had struck me on reading the book again after a long hiatus was that Mizener seemed unfamiliar with what a novelist actually does—and, in fact, what anybody does to a greater or lesser degree. When he pointed out, rather censoriously, Ford’s recasting of experiences, rearranging the elements of a story, lightening or darkening materials, retelling an anecdote with variations, I found myself pencilling in the margins ‘But – Art!’ or ‘Fiction! Fiction!’ or silently shouting: That’s his job! or He’s a writer! or even (appallingly appropriative, I know) Me too!

None of which, obviously, will prevent my snaffling whatever useful details I can glean for my own purposes from his—or, indeed, anybody else’s—endnotes.

Not to do so would be sheer perversité.


Notes

[1] Jenny Diski, Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? (London: Bloomsbury, 2020), 103, 104. The essay was first published in January 1997.

[2] Doris Lessing, Walking in the Shade (1997; London: Fourth Estate, 2013), 32-33.

[3] Francis Parkman, The Oregon Trail (1849; edited by David Levin, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982), 199.

[4] Peter Benson, Isabel’s Skin (Richmond: Alma Books, 2013), 19, 123.

[5] Walter de la Mare, Short Stories, 1895-1926, edited by Giles de la Mare (London: Giles de la Mare Publishers Limited, 1996), 339.

[6] Guy Davenport, Cities on Hills: A Study of I–XXX of Ezra Pound’s Cantos (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1983), 257. The book was a revision of Davenport’s 1961 PhD thesis.

[7] Patrick White, The Tree of Man (1955; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961), 476.

[8] Carole Angier, Jean Rhys: Life and Work (London: Andre Deutsch, 1990), 164.

[9] Rhys to Wyndham, 28 January [1966]: Jean Rhys: Letters, 1931-1966, edited by Francis Wyndham and Diana Melly (London: André Deutsch, 1984), 294-295.

Funerary matters, mutters, meters


In a letter of 19 October 1972 to William Maxwell, following the death of his stepmother, Sylvia Townsend Warner asked: ‘Did you quarrel at the funeral? I rather wish you had, for I’m sure that when you quarrel you do, you quarrel like a tarantula. Nothing can make a funeral satisfactory: the person one wants to meet at it is underground.’[1]

What a resource funerals are to the writer! Leopold Bloom at Paddy Dignam’s in Joyce’s Ulysses, Hamlet at Ophelia’s, Beowulf, the ancient Greeks. Weddings are too, of course, but the central business there is proleptic rather than retrospective. Funerals, though: a collision or at least a gathering of memories, regrets, resentments, fragments of conversation, a blurring and slurring of times, places, still and moving images, words thought or spoken, intended or achieved, compliments and curses, intimacies, betrayals.

William Faulkner spends most of As I Lay Dying’s fifty-nine chapters on the hazardous business of actually getting Addie Bundren’s body to Jefferson, where she wanted to be buried. That forced hiatus has its effects, not least olfactory ones. William the Conqueror’s funeral was so delayed, Peter Vansittart reports, that ‘his over-corpulent body suddenly exploded’.[2]

‘How convenient a good old traditional funeral is!’ Simone de Beauvoir reflects in the closing pages of The Prime of Life. ‘The dead man vanishes into the grave, and his death goes with him. You drop earth on him, you walk away, and that’s the end of it; if you like, you can return from time to time and shed tears over the spot where death is pinned down. You know where to find it.’ She was thinking of her young friend Bourla, a victim of the Nazis, and of two young women she knew who also vanished without trace into the camps, their faces ‘never erased from my memory: they symbolized millions of others besides.’[3]


As for funeral-related stories – Guy Davenport told of the funeral of Charles Olson, a poet of famously large stature. Allen Ginsberg, then, intoning kaddish but apparently unsure of some of the words, ‘stepped in his confusion on the pedal that would lower the outsized coffin into the grave. A soft whirr, the coffin tilted, lurched, and stuck before Ginsberg could leap away from the pedal.’ It transpired that the coffin was wedged ‘neither in nor out of the grave.’ Splendidly, Davenport’s footnote reads: ‘This account, I’m told, is not wholly accurate. I had it from Stan Brakhage, who had it secondhand. I leave it as an example of the kind of folklore about himself that Olson inspired and encouraged.’[4] In fact, a letter from William Corbett, published in the minutes of the Charles Olson Society in June 1998, recalled Corbett’s own attendance at the funeral and Ginsberg’s rendition of kaddish, but continued: ‘The officiating minister who strode up to conduct the burial seemed spooked by the congregation of long hairs some of whom were bearded. He hurriedly waved his silver instruments over the coffin. In doing so, he stumbled and hit the pedal that was to lower the coffin. He quickly took his foot away, and the coffin lurched, tilted sideways and stuck.’[5]

Arthur Ransome remembered the funeral of Peter Kropotkin, whom he had last seen some three years earlier. ‘Then, as now, my attention was caught by his nose, so finely cut, so proud, the very index of the old fighter’s character.’ And of the disciples, he wrote: ‘There were some who had imitated his hair, some who had grown beards like his, but not one had a nose worth looking at.’[6] Clearly, a man with an eye for a nose.

And after the funeral? The wake, the celebrations, the drinks, snacks, exchanges, jokes, stories, occasional tactful silences. Or:

            mule praises, brays,
Windshake of sailshaped ears, muffle-toed tap
Tap happily of one peg in the thick
Grave’s foot, blinds down the lids, the teeth in black,
The spittled eyes, the salt ponds in the sleeves,
Morning smack of the spade that wakes up sleep[7]

And after Harry Lime’s second funeral, in the closing sequence of Carol Reed’s The Third Man, there is that celebrated, sustained shot of Anna’s long walk past the waiting Holly Martins, favouring him with neither glance nor pause, all to the plangent soundtrack of Anton Karas’s zither.

(The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed, written by Graham Greene)

At the end of William Faulkner’s ‘A Justice’, a story (containing a story told by Sam Fathers) told by Quentin Compson looking back at his young self, the children are riding back from the farm with their grandfather. Caddy and Jason have been fishing down at the creek. ‘Caddy had one fish, about the size of a chip, and she was wet to the waist.’ So there is a strong connection with what Faulkner described as the initial image of Caddy with wet and muddy drawers climbing the peach tree to look in through the window at her grandmother’s funeral, the germ of The Sound and the Fury – which began as a story, centred on Caddy, with the working title of ‘Twilight’. ‘A Justice’ too employs ‘one of the most persistent images’ in the writer’s mind, as Joseph Blotner explains: Quentin recognising his lack of sufficient knowledge to penetrate fully the mystery of what he sees and hears, comparing it to twilight. ‘I was just twelve then, and I would have to wait until I had passed on and through and beyond the suspension of twilight. Then I knew that I would know. But then Sam Fathers would be dead.’[8]

As for looking forward rather than back, try T. H. White, author of The Goshawk and The Once and Future King among many others, writing to his friend David Garnett on 19 December 1938 (the year in which The Sword in the Stone appeared), from The New Inn, Holbeach St Marks, Lincolnshire. ‘I don’t know the marsh a bit, and only have the tides in my head, but I go alone. Will you arrange the funeral when I am washed ashore? Stick some goose feathers up my arse and I will fly to my heavenly mansion. There, there. Enough.’[9]

Goose feathers, yes. He did enjoy his outdoor pursuits.


Notes

[1] Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 242. See 44-45 for her account of T. F. Powys’s funeral.

[2] Peter Vansittart, In Memory of England: A Novelist’s View of History (London: John Murray, 1998), 44.

[3] Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life, translated by Peter Green (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965), 605, 535.

[4] Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 80, 81.

[5] http://charlesolson.org/Files/Corbett.htm (accessed 18 October 2021)

[6] The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome, edited with prologue and epilogue by Rupert Hart-Davis (London: Jonathan Cape, 1976), 299.

[7] ‘After the Funeral (In Memory of Ann Jones’: Dylan Thomas, The Poems, edited and introduced by Daniel Jones (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1971), 136.

[8] William Faulkner, ‘A Justice’, in Collected Stories of William Faulkner (New York: Random House, 1950), 343-360; Joseph Blotner, William Faulkner: A Biography, two volumes (London: Chatto & Windus, 1974), I, 566-569.

[9] David Garnett, editor, The White/ Garnett Letters (London: Jonathan Cape, 1968), 37.