Past presents, present pasts

Reading Daisy Hay’s Dinner With Joseph Johnson: Books & Friendship in a Revolutionary Age, I came to the pages dealing with the contortions of William Pitt’s increasingly repressive administration in its attempts to shut down protest in the 1790s, particularly the recasting of the 1351 Act, which had made it a crime to ‘compass and imagine’ the death of the King, that is, to intend the death of the king, as it was commonly understood. ‘Pitt’s lawyers redefined it, so that an act of imagining alone became a crime. To commit treason one needed merely to have imagined the King’s death, not to have acted to advance it. Writing and speaking thus became treasonable.’ Since the government was appointed in the King’s name, any action which threatened ‘the security and stability of government legally constituted an attempt to “levy war” on the King himself. Political protest thus became treasonable by its very nature.’[1]

I was reminded, unsurprisingly, of a very much more recent decline and fall—but reminded  also of the first undergraduate essay I wrote on my History course, about the French Revolution or, rather, the domestic effects in this country of the dramatic events in France. The marker’s comments included the suggestion, I recall, that I try to refrain from running before I could walk (but also queried my use of the word ‘climactic’, about which I was right and they were wrong, not that I ever dwell on that at all). I’d read fairly widely, and, I suspect not unusually, the book I found most stimulating—and exciting—was E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. I didn’t make a habit of reading 900-page history books but made an exception for this one. At that time, Margaret Thatcher’s government tended to behave as though anything that couldn’t be measured, weighed and, ideally, made a profit from, didn’t exist, so I was strongly drawn to such sentiments as followed Thompson’s assertion that definitive answers to such a controversy as that over the effect on standards of living of the Industrial Revolution still evaded us. ‘For beneath the word “standard” we must always find judgements of value as well as questions of fact. Values, we hope to have shown, are not “imponderables” which the historian may safely dismiss with the reflection that, since they are not amenable to measurement, anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s. They are, on the contrary, those questions of human satisfaction, and of the direction of social change, which the historian ought to ponder if history is to claim a position among the significant humanities.’

Still, the quotation most familiar to readers of the book, certainly the last few words of it, is the intention stated in the ‘Preface’: ‘I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.’ That last phrase is often quoted and recalled but sometimes as if it simply refers to the assumption that, coming later, we simply know and understand more. As Thompson notes further on, though, ‘for those who live through it, history is neither “early” nor “late”. “Forerunners” are also the inheritors of another past.’[2]

(James Longenbach, poet, teacher and fine scholar, died 29 July this year)

Tricky business, the past. That familiar quotation briefly conjured up another, William Faulkner’s ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’, which he puts into the mouth of one of his recurring characters, the lawyer (and occasional amateur sleuth), Gavin Stevens, in Requiem for a Nun. I noticed a few days ago how many literary anniversaries cropped up on 19 December: Constance Garnett’s ‘heroic life’ began at 11 a.m. on that day in 1861;[3] the French writer Colette was married to Henry de Jouvenel in 1912, a simple civil ceremony in the mairie of the sixteenth arrondissement: ‘Madame Colette Willy, woman of letters, notorious lesbian, bare-breasted music-hall star, and social pariah, was now the baroness de Jouvenel des Ursins, and the wife of one of Paris’s most influential political journalists.’[4] From Coleman’s Hatch the following year, Ezra Pound wrote to William Carlos Williams, in a letter that reads with great poignancy now: ‘I am very placid and happy and busy. Dorothy is learning Chinese. I’ve all old Fenollosa’s treasures in mss.’ And: ‘Have just bought two statuettes from the coming sculptor, Gaudier-Brzeska. I like him very much [ . . . ] We are getting our little gang together after five years of waiting.’[5] A little over seven months before German forces cross the Belgian frontier near a place called Gemmenich. . .

But I was thinking, particularly, of David Jones: poet, painter and, for a while, soldier, enlisted in the 15th (London Welsh) Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. For two weeks, his battalion was billeted in farm outbuildings in Warne, a mile south of Rocquetoire, ‘all this time the cold rain continuing, more rain than in any December for 39 years.’ On 19 December they boarded ‘grey-painted London buses for La Gorgue, near Estaires.’ They were headed for the front line at Neuve Chapelle.

(David Jones via The Spectator)

‘In the trenches’, Thomas Dilworth wrote of Jones, ‘he became convinced that any distinction between past and present was superficial, accidental, largely unreal. History had not ended; it continued.’[6] In his  ‘Autobiographical Talk’ (1954), Jones said: ‘You see by what close shaves some of us are what we are, and you see how accidents of long past history can be of importance to us in the most intimate sense, and can determine integral things about us.’[7] Like other literary soldiers—Blunden, Sassoon, Ford, Graves among them—the war haunted his later life and writing, perhaps to a greater extent than most of the others. ‘Decades afterwards, a door slamming or a car backfiring would startle him back to the trenches. In distant thunder, he heard artillery.’[8]

Close shaves and roads not taken. Year’s end, year’s turning: there’s a strong tendency to look both forward and back, reviewing what’s past and anticipating, hoping or—increasingly, these days—dreading what’s to come. For some, such reviews have a tendency to ripple outwards, to include peripheral as well as central figures, the gone as well as the present, not only the dead but the lost, the ghosts of those still living, somewhere, but in places either no longer known to us or just inaccessible, for varied reasons: neglect, forgetfulness, estrangement – or those unexceptional divergences in the trajectories of all individuals’ lives. There in their hundreds, perhaps thousands: friends, colleagues, acquaintances, fellow students, fellow teachers, lovers, almost-lovers, antagonists, the watchers and the watched, the lives that touched us, held us, struck us, changed us, missed us by inches—or by a country mile. ‘If I thought I was not thinking about the past’, Deborah Levy wrote, ‘the past was thinking about me.’[9]

Yes. We are not only subjects but objects, not only observers but observed. That’s the sort of thing that can easily slip a person’s mind as they look about themselves, so much to see, so much to learn, so much to talk about, read about, write about, think about. Recounting his work on an illustrated history of exploration, an impossibly huge task, the contributions sent to his publishers routinely thousands of words too long, Eric Newby comments: ‘I had, and still have, the conviction that I must let the reader know if I discover anything interesting, and unfortunately so many things are interesting. At least they are to me.’[10]

Things certainly look grim just now – and have done this past year, three years, decade, steadily worsening. And not only individuals get lost. The things we—some of us—care about are under threat and under attack, some are already gone and we won’t be getting them back. But after all it isn’t after all, not yet all, anyway. We are still here, still there, the more energetic actively resisting while others, on occasion, discover something interesting, at least to us – and let others know.

So: a wave from the bunker to any passer-by. And, to various friends who, in Auden’s phrase, ‘show an affirming flame’: Joyeux Noël, Buon Natale, Feliz Navidad, Nadolig Llawen – and Happy Holidays.


[1] Daisy Hay, Dinner With Joseph Johnson: Books and Friendship in a Revolutionary Age (London: Chatto & Windus, 2022),

[2] E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963; revised edition with new preface, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1980), 485, 12, 648.

[3] Richard Garnett, Constance Garnett: A Heroic Life (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1991), 11.

[4] Judith Thurman, Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2000), 247.

[5] Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907-1941, edited by D. D. Paige (London: Faber and Faber, 1951), 65.

[6] Thomas Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War (London: Enitharmon Press, 2012), 62, 63, 93.

[7] In Epoch and Artist (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 25.

[8] Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), 54

[9] Deborah Levy, Things I Don’t Want to Know (London: Penguin Books, 2018), 162.

[10] Eric Newby, ‘Walking the Plank’, in Departures and Arrivals (London: Harper Collins, 1999), 39.

Seventy years and more

Thinking of Queens, as you do on some weekends, I couldn’t help recalling the story of Dylan Thomas taking part in a public reading during the Second World War. The Queen Mother, who’d been in the audience, expressed a wish to meet the performers. Dylan’s wife Caitlin was at a nearby pub with friends, growing fretful at Dylan’s non-appearance. ‘Somebody explained to her that he was talking to the Queen. Caitlin said, morosely, that she did not approve of Dylan spending so much time with all these old queens. “But it’s the English Queen,” the friend explained. “English queens,” she grumbled, “Irish queens, American queens, it’s all the same. They’re bad for Dylan. They upset him.”’[1]

Indeed, Thomas was hardly unusual among male writers in feeling uncomfortable around gay men: individual ambivalences or smokescreens aside, it was surely sometimes connected with the history of English suspicion that writing was somehow ‘unmanly’ (long list of candidates: the French, the Aesthetic Movement, Decadents, Oscar Wilde, Edward Carpenter). ‘It was [W. E.] Henley and his friends’, Ford Madox Ford asserted, ‘who introduced into the English writing mind the idea that a man of action was something fine and a man of letters a sort of castrato.’[2]

There have been official celebrations in this country, anyway, Elizabeth II having acceded to the throne seventy years ago. I’d guess that a minority of people hated all the razzamatazz, a larger minority revelled in it, more people dipped in for a programme, a party, a bit of social media – and, for another large group, it really didn’t register much at all. A couple of days off? Okay!

My knowledge of royal history is patchy, stronger on some incumbents than others but still largely a series of notes and scraps. I see that fifty-five years back from that accession, the great jubilee pageant of 1897 turned London into the imperial metropolis, according to G. R. Searle. ‘The refronting of Buckingham Palace, the widening of the Mall, the construction of Admiralty Arch, and the building of the Victoria Memorial outside Buckingham Palace were similarly intended to create a theatrical setting suitable for monarchical pageantry and imperial celebrations’, he observed, adding that, ‘in the music halls the irreverently Radical tone commonly found in the 1870s and early 1880s had been largely replaced by the end of the century by open displays of patriotism.’[3]

A bit further on – royally speaking – and King George and Queen Mary were present at the wedding, in the Chapel Royal, 11 May 1920, of Oswald Mosley and Cynthia Curzon, ‘as were the King and Queen of the Belgians, who had been flown across the channel in two two-seater aeroplanes specially for the occasion.’[4] Then, on 4 April 1924, the royal couple opened the ‘most striking imperial spectacle of the period’, the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium, where ‘[t]he material and symbolic aspects of Empire were neatly blended by a life-size model of the Prince of Wales sculpted in Canadian butter.’[5] Apparently, he was on horseback (and in a refrigerated case, luckily).

In my lifetime, there have been jubilees of various precious stones and metals: sapphires, rubies, gold. The silver jubilee year will still be vivid in a great many current memories, with its mugs for schoolchildren, street parties and a great deal of bunting, though, as Lavinia Greenlaw observed of June 1977, ‘England was no longer England, at least not the England it persisted in believing itself to be.’[6] Multiply that now by, what, ten? A hundred?

But lately I have the Virgin Queen rather more in mind, having just read Alan Judd’s splendid novel, A Fine Madness, inspired, as it announces at the outset, by the life and death of Christopher Marlowe—‘“Reality lacks reality,” he said more than once in later years, “until it is imagined.”’[7] Though the book’s present is nearly thirty years after Marlowe’s death, it looks back to Thomas Phelippes’ work with Sir Francis Walsingham, the queen’s spymaster-general. Phelippes, who narrates the novel from confinement in the Tower, in the course of his questioning by an emissary from James I, was indeed a linguist and cryptographer, instrumental in deciphering the coded letters involved in the Babington plot, a breakthrough which led to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (mother of the present king, not an ideal situation for Phelippes).

Sir Walter Ralegh crops up in the novel because of his association with freethinkers and Marlowe’s possible connections with that group through his acquaintance with Ralegh. In the year of Marlowe’s death, 1593, soon after his own release from prison, Ralegh entered his new home, Sherborne Castle, on the banks of the River Yeo, a 99-year lease at £200 per annum. This was a gift from the queen and, as Charles Nicholl remarks, ‘The transaction was finally signed by her in July 1592, shortly before his despatch to the Tower. She did not withdraw this last favour, one infers, because she meant Sherborne to be his place of exile.’ Elsewhere, Nicholl comments that such motifs as the ‘golden world’, the idea of ‘chaste’ colonizing, the idea of ‘virgin territory’ as related to the ‘Virgin Queen cult – spring in general from [John] Dee’s occultist musings on the new British Empire (as he was the first to call it).’[8]

(British School; c.1594; Ashmolean, Oxford)

One of my favourite Dr Dee snippets is that the only one of his astrological interpretations ‘of any length that survives concerns his pupil’, Sir Philip Sidney. It was a 62-page nativity ‘which made several tentative predictions. He foretold that Sidney would enjoy a wonderful career between the ages of fifteen and thirty-one. Then he faced mortal danger from a sword or gunshot injury which, if survived, would inaugurate even greater glories and a long life. Sidney was killed in battle in the Low Countries on 17 October 1586, aged thirty-one.’[9]

There is always a temptation to compare historical periods, not always resisted even by those that can reliably distinguish apples from oranges. The first Elizabethan age glitters extraordinarily brightly yet it was not, as Henry James might say, all gas and gingerbread. The cryptographers, spies, torturers and executioners were kept as busy as the explorers, playwrights and privateers. And, as Stephen Alford observed, ‘the heightened vigilance of Queen Elizabeth’s advisers was in fact potentially corrosive of the security they craved. It is a cruel but perhaps a common historical paradox. The more obsessively a state watches, the greater the dangers it perceives. Suspicions of enemies at home and abroad become more extreme, even self-fulfilling. Balance and perspective are lost. Indeed such a state is likely as a consequence to misconceive or misunderstand the scale of any real threat it faces.’[10]

No historical parallels there, to be sure, and ‘“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,” the Queen remarked.’ But that, of course, was through the looking-glass.[11]


[1] Constantine FitzGibbon, The Life of Dylan Thomas  (London: J. M. Dent, 1965), 97.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911), 241-242.

[3] G. R. Searle, A New England? Peace and War 1886-1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 39.

[4] Nicholas Mosley, Rules of the Game: 1896-1933; Beyond the Pale: Memoirs of Sir Oswald Mosley and Family (London: Pimlico, 1994), 24.

[5] Martin Pugh, ‘We Danced All Night’: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars (London: The Bodley Head, 2008), 400, 401.

[6] Lavinia Greenlaw, The Importance of Music to Girls (London: Faber & Faber, 2017), 114. Ford wrote a piece entitled ‘A Jubilee’ but that was a review of Some Imagist Poets: Outlook, XXXVI (10 July 1915), 46-48.

[7] Alan Judd, A Fine Madness (London: Simon & Schuster, 2022), 62.

[8] Charles Nicholl, The Creature in the Map: Sir Walter Ralegh’s Quest for El Dorado (London: Vintage, 1996), 45, 311-312.

[9] Benjamin Woolley, The Queen’s Conjuror: The Life and Magic of Dr Dee (London: Flamingo, 2002), 9.

[10] Stephen Alford, The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I (London:  Penguin, 2013), 11-12.

[11] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, in The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, edited by Martin Gardner (London: Allen Lane, 2000), 206.

Archiving the opposites

I was thinking about opposites: or no—‘I would meet you upon this honestly’—for some reason, remembering the opening of Easy Rider, which I saw twice soon after its release, once straight and once. . . not, probably recklessly taking advice from a friend of that time (‘You have to see it stoned, man, otherwise you’re just wasting time and money’). The opening sequence has the soundtrack of a Steppenwolf song, its refrain being: ‘God damn the pusher’. I was reminded of it only because of its opposite, not curse but benediction, since I was thinking, after an exchange of emails yesterday and this morning: ‘God bless the archivist.’

That sentiment is common enough among researchers, I know. There is darkness; an archivist fiddles with the solar system and – there’s light. Accept the miracle, send the lavishly grateful email, know your place in an ordered universe. . .But I was thinking about opposites.

‘I reacted violently against him at first on the grounds that he was a militarist. But I soon found that if he was a militarist, he was at the same time the exact opposite.’ This is the Australian painter Stella Bowen writing, not long after his death, of her partner of ten years and father of her child, Ford Madox Ford.[1] When she met him in 1917, he was in uniform, as almost all Stella’s other friends and acquaintances at that time—poets, painters, dancers, musicians, translators—were not. The least likely candidate for an organisation such as the British Army, one might think, yet, when he was given a commission, he wrote to Lucy Masterman, ‘I can assure you, for what it is worth, that it is as if the peace of God had descended on me—that sounds absurd—but there it is! Man is a curious animal.’[2] Indeed.

(Stella Bowen, ‘Ford Playing Solitaire’)

Opposites are routinely employed or deployed in all manner of writers’ work and are integral to some. F. O. Matthiessen wrote of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ‘inveterate habit of stating things in opposites’, while Guy Davenport noted of John Ruskin that he ‘quite early began to use the digression as a major device of style, and later saw in his infinitely branching digressions (Fors Clavigera is a long work of nothing but) “Gothic generosity” – the polar opposite of classical restraint.’[3] Of Penelope Fitzgerald, fellow-novelist Julian Barnes wrote: ‘Many writers start by inventing away from their lives, and then, when their material runs out, turn back to more familiar sources. Fitzgerald did the opposite, and by writing away from her own life she liberated herself into greatness.’[4] Reflecting on her Booker Prize winning novel, Offshore, Fitzgerald remarked: ‘It was a pity that the title was translated into various European languages with words meaning “far away” or “far from the shore,” which meant the exact opposite of what I intended. By “offshore” I meant to suggest the boats at anchor, still in touch with the land, and also the emotional restlessness of my characters, halfway between the need for security and the doubtful attraction of danger. Their indecision is a kind of reflection of the rising and falling tide, which the craft at anchor must, of course, follow.’[5]

(Thomas Rowlandson cartoon , ‘Walking up the High Street’: Messrs Johnson and Boswell in Edinburgh)

The idea of the opposite is indispensable to the firm contradiction of a prevailing trend or assumption, as essential a tool in the biographer’s or historian’s bag as a plunger in a plumber’s. Adam Sisman’s absorbing book on James Boswell observes of the famous trip to the Hebrides that this was, for most Britons, ‘still a wild and exotic region, one of the least explored in Europe. The Grand Tour was very much the fashion in the mid-eighteenth century, but the route directed the sons of the aristocracy to the sites of classical European civilization. Johnson and Boswell, by heading for the barbarian North, were going in the opposite direction.’[6] (The story-board for the animated short, ‘Sam and Jim Go Up Not Down’, is currently in draft form.) The great historian Fernand Braudel was also in a contradictory mood when he stated that, between 1350 and 1550, Europe ‘probably experienced a favourable period as far as individual living standards were concerned.’ Manpower was relatively scarce after the ravages of the Black Death. ‘Real salaries have never been as high as they were then.’ And he adds: ‘The paradox must be emphasized since it is often thought that hardship increases the farther back towards the middle ages one goes In fact the opposite is true of the standard of living of the common people – the majority.’[7] Moving on (chronologically), Alexandra Harris suggested that ‘The Georgian revival was in important ways precisely the opposite of Little Englandism: it was an investigation of England’s cultural relations with Europe and an effort to promote an audaciously international version of Englishness.’[8] If that’s the case, we clearly need another one.

The saying that ‘opposites attract’ will be true enough, no doubt, in many instances; but so too will the assertion that ‘opposites repel’, more so than ever at the current juncture when societies and nations seem to have cracked down the middle or lost their collective minds. Some ideals are being held so fiercely that they are breathlessly expiring; but then, as Robert Musil wrote: ‘Ideals have curious properties, and one of them is that they turn into their opposites when one tries to live up to them.’[9]

Sometimes. Still, God bless the archivist: that statement will brook no opposition.


[1] Stella Bowen, Drawn From Life (London: Collins, 1941), 62.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 61.

[3] F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941; New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 3; Guy Davenport, ‘Ruskin According to Proust’, in The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996), 334.

[4] Julian Barnes, ‘The Deceptiveness of Penelope Fitzgerald’, Through the Window: Seventeen Essays (And One Short Story) (London: Vintage, 2012), 4.

[5] Penelope Fitzgerald, ‘Curriculum Vitae’, in A House of Air: Selected Writings, edited by Terence Dooley with Mandy Kirkby and Chris Carduff (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 478.

[6] Adam Sisman, Boswell’s Presumptuous Task (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2000), 89.

[7] Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, 15th – 18th Century. Volume I: The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible, translated from the French; revised by Sîan Reynolds (London: Fontana Books 1985), 193, 194.

[8] Alexandra Harris, Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (London, Thames & Hudson 2010), 70.

[9] Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike (London: Picador, 1997), 247.