Sirens and syrens

(Herbert James Draper, Ulysses and the Sirens: Ferens Art Gallery)

—I know you think I’m obsessed with sirens.
—But there were three at once just now. And at least a dozen or more, so far today.
—Think of where we are.
—Arterial junction on this side of the city. But still . . .

But still. Sirens. Or Syrens? The meaning of which, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary sternly pronounces, is ‘chiefly British spelling of siren’. Elsewhere, ‘syren’ is simply termed ‘old-fashioned’.

‘What song the sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions, are not beyond conjecture’, Sir Thomas Browne wrote in chapter 5 of his Urn Burial.[1] His editor points out that those questions had been put by the emperor Tiberius to test the grammarians. Or, according to Suetonius, in his life of that strikingly unpleasant Roman, ‘his greatest passion was for mythology, to the extent that he made himself seem foolish and absurd; for he used to make trial of scholars, a class of men on whom [ . . . ] he was especially keen: “Who was Hecuba’s mother? What was Achilles’ name when he was among the virgins? What songs used the Sirens to sing?”’[2]

Sleight of hand, yes, siren to siren: but both rub shoulders under the one dictionary heading. A beckoning and a warning; a come-on and a note of caution. The mythological nymphs whose singing required Homer’s hero to be bound to his ship’s mast while his crew had their ears stuffed with beeswax; but also a signalling or warning instrument, as well as an American genus of eel-like amphibians (typically living in muddy pools). The proposed derivation is suitably tortuous: Middle English from Old French from Late Latin from Greek (Seirēn).

‘I imagine’, Ford Madox Ford wrote, ‘that I should prefer to be where Christobel low-lieth and to listen to the song the syrens sang. But I am in London of the nineteen tens, and I am content to endure the rattles and the bangs—and I hope to see them rendered.’[3] He had used the phrase—‘what songs the Sirens sang’—a year earlier; and would use it, or a variant of it, on several later occasions.[4]  In 1931, reporting fierce storms in the South of France to the novelist Caroline Gordon, one of which had drowned seventeen men, he added: ‘the Mediterranean being a treacherous syren’.[5]

Ford also recalled, from his days of editing the English Review, a piece by Norman Douglas called Syrens, ‘which was, I think, the most beautiful thing we printed.’ That Douglas essay begins: ‘It was the Emperor Tiberius who startled his grammarians with the question, what songs the Sirens sang.’[6]

Not that Ford and Douglas were the only ones with Sirens on their mind. E. M. Forster was at it too. In his ‘The Story of the Siren’, a Sicilian boatman tells the English narrator the story of his brother’s sighting of the Siren, when he dives for silver coins. Permanently changed, he marries a woman similarly bewitched, who is murdered by a priest while pregnant, religion and popular superstition having conspired to produce the conviction among the villagers that the couple’s child would empower the Siren, that the Pope would then die and the world be turned upside down.[7]

Also in 1920, the writer John Rodker’s recently created Ovid Press issued an edition of 200 copies of Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, with initials and colophon by Edward Wadsworth, who had been briefly associated with the Omega Workshops, then with the Vorticists, contributing five illustrations and a review of Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art to the first issue of Blast.

The third stanza of Mauberley:

ἴδμεν γάρ τοι πάνθ᾽ ὅσ᾽ ἐνὶ Τροίῃ εὐρείῃ
Caught in the unstopped ear;
Giving the rocks small lee-way
The chopped seas held him, therefore, that year.

The first line, from Homer’s Odyssey (Bk.XII, 189), ‘For we know all the toils that are in wide Troy’, is, precisely, from the Sirens’ song, its transmission unimpeded by that ‘unstopped ear’ (while ‘lee-way’ is Pound’s bilingual rhyme with Τροίῃ, and those choppy seas or, rather, that ‘therefore’, suitably disturbs the rhythm of the final line).[8]

Richard Buxton notes that the Sirens are ‘depicted by post-Homeric sources as women above the waist and birds below it’ and prints the image of an Attic vase, which the British Museum dates to c.480-470 BC, one of the Sirens having thrown herself off a cliff onto the ship, ‘perhaps because the safe passage of Odysseus’ vessel marks a defeat for the Sirens’ power’. [9]

In May 1940, after the Nazi invasion of the Lowlands, Mollie Panter-Downes noted that ‘the bus changing gear at the corner sounds ridiculously like a siren for a second, as it used to do in the first edgy days of the war.’[10] But even those of us (now most of us) not old enough to recall the originals have been made familiar with the sound of air raid sirens by film and television dramas.

Things were a little more makeshift in the earlier war. When the Gothas, heavy wide-spanned biplanes, virtually took over from Zeppelins the attacks on London in the summer of 1917, E. S. Turner wrote: ‘Belatedly the Government introduced a proper warning system of maroons [fireworks used as signals or warnings]; one of the earlier methods had been to send out a fast open car with a bugler (sometimes a Boy Scout) standing in the back, or a policeman hard-pedalling a cycle with a ‘Take Cover’ notice. Engine drivers had their own way of sounding “All Clear”; they blew a cock-a-doodle-do on their whistles.’[11] Hard luck if your attention was elsewhere when that policeman cycled by.

Dropping off the car on returning from Somerset, we are almost deafened by a rush and cacophony of wailing vehicles, both ambulance and police. I suspect I know what song those sirens sing.


[1] Browne, Selected Writings, edited by Claire Preston (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1995), 105. Thetis sent her son Achilles to the court of King Lycomedes on Skyros to avoid his being sent to war with Troy, where he was destined to die. He disguised himself as a girl under the name of Pyrrha but was tracked down by Odysseus.

[2] Suetonius, Live of the Caesars, edited and translated by Catharine Edwards (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 132.

[3] Ford, ‘On a Notice of “Blast”’, Outlook, XXXVI (31 July 1915), 144. Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’ may have wantonly embraced Tennyson’s 1830 poem ‘Claribel’ (‘Where Claribel low-lieth’) here.

[4] Ford, ‘Literary Portraits XXVIII—Mr Morley Roberts and Time and Thomas Waring’, Outlook, XXXIII (21 March 1914), 390; Thus to Revisit (London: Chapman & Hall, 1921), 7; The Marsden Case (London: Duckworth, 1923), 44; and ‘Somewhere the sirens smiled’, in The Rash Act (1933; Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1982), 187.

[5] Brita Lindbergh-Seyersted, A Literary Friendship: Correspondence Between Caroline Gordon & Ford Madox Ford (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1999), 11-12.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, Return to Yesterday (London: Gollancz, 1931), 408-409; Norman Douglas, ‘Sirens’, English Review, II, ii (May 1909), 202-214.

[7] Forster’s story was ‘hand-printed by the Woolfs’ and published in a limited edition in July 1920: The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume 2: 1920-24, edited by Anne Olivier Bell, assisted by Andrew McNeillie (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), 51-52 and n.; E. M. Forster, Collected Short Stories (London: Penguin Books, 1954), 179-187.

[8] Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, in Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 549.

[9] Richard Buxton, The Complete World of Greek Mythology (London: Thames & Hudson, 2004), 142.

[10] Mollie Panter-Downes, London War Notes (1971; edited by William Shawn, new preface by David Kynaston, London: Persephone Books, 2014), 64.

[11] E. S. Turner, Dear Old Blighty (London: Michael Joseph 1980), 123.

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.

Parrot or Bevan; or, wagging the beards

(D. H. Lawrence)

‘Please compress your last dozen unwritten—or unpublished—blog posts, into a single phrase.’

I think I’d be tempted to go with what are often referred to as D. H. Lawrence’s last words, (which they weren’t, though pretty close to the end): ’This place no good.’[1] He was referring to the Ad Astra sanatorium in Vence, of course. And he was referring to something much wider, of course. I would be referring, not to this house—last refuge of common sense and sweet reasonableness that I can truly rely on—but to the wider world that is being laid waste, particularly this country, where we live and love among the ruins that these dreadful people have reduced us to, are reducing us to. Here, at any rate, we are. Where is that? Phrases like ‘post-apocalypse’ and, yes, ‘among the ruins’ occur more often that they should, possibly because I’ve been reading Lara Feigel’s hugely impressive book on D. H. Lawrence,[2] possibly because I keep getting glimpses of the daily news.

I was reminded somehow (somehow) of Hugh Kenner’s letter to Guy Davenport (13 October 1967). They’d been discussing the name of the couple in whose house Ludwig Wittgenstein had died: was it Parrot or Bevan? Davenport was quoting the 1958 memoir by Norman Malcolm, Kenner citing the viva voce testimony of artist and writer Michael Ayrton. Kenner wrote: ‘Ayrton is in Chicago for 10 days (opening a show) but on his return I shall press him re discrepancies between Parrot and Bevan. Maybe, being English, they spell it Bevan but pronounce it Parrot. He did confirm Parrot the other day.’[3]

(For those not familiar with some of the oddities of English pronunciation of names, try Featherstonehaugh, Auchinlech, Marjoribanks, Woolfhardisworthy or Cholmondley.)[4]

(The Reverend Francis Kilvert – including beard)

But I digress – old joke, shared among Fordians, Ford’s ‘digressions’ generally being anything but – yes, of course. Yesterday I was thinking of the Reverend Francis Kilvert, writing in October 1873: ‘This morning I went to Bath with my Father and Mother to attend the Church Congress Service at the Abbey at 11. When I got to the West door a stream of fools rushed out crying, “No room, you can’t get in!” I knew they were liars by the way they wagged their beards and as this crew of asses rushed out we rushed in and after waiting awhile worked our way up the north aisle till we reached the open transept and got an excellent place near the pulpit.’[5]

He shows here an impressive confidence in discerning the purveyors of untruths. He himself was undeniably bearded, and there was, clearly, an illegitimate manner in which beards were wagged. ‘But’, as Olive Schreiner once remarked, ‘there is another method.’ Kilvert, no doubt, had the key to it. Or perhaps God—conventionally assumed, certainly then, to resemble a man with a beard—sympathised and  helped out a little.

Schreiner had discussed the two methods by which ‘[h]uman life may be painted’, ‘the stage method’ in which characters were ‘duly marshalled at first and ticketed; we know with an immutable certainty that at the right crises each one will reappear and act his part, and, when the curtain falls, all will stand before it bowing.’ And there is, she admits, ‘a sense of satisfaction in this, and of completeness.’ Then: ‘But there is another method—the method of the life we all lead. Here nothing can be prophesied’ and ‘[w]hen the curtain falls no one is ready.’[6]

(Olive Schreiner, via the Irish Times)

It’s an argument for a greater realism, for a narrative reflecting more recognisably the ordinary human experience, echoed, if only in part, by a great many writers subsequently. Perhaps it leans far enough towards ‘mere life’ that the conscious artist might wonder where he or she actually comes in; but, in any case, the talk of stages and footlights and curtains certainly imply that she has in mind Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-8), which begins ‘Before the Curtain’ and ends: ‘Come children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.’[7]

The attitude to fiction exemplified by that beginning and that conclusion also exercised Ford Madox Ford – on more than one occasion and over some thirty years. He wrote in his ‘Dedicatory Letter’ to Last Post: ‘I have always jeered at authors who sentimentalised over their characters, and after finishing a book exclaim like, say, Thackeray: “Roll up the curtains; put the puppets in their boxes; quench the tallow footlights” . . . something like that.’[8] The following year, in his book on the English novel, he remarked of Thackeray that he ‘must needs write his epilogue as to the showman rolling up his marionettes in green baize and the rest of it’.[9] His final book had a final jab: ‘But what must Mr. Thackeray do but begin or end up his books with paragraphs running: “Reader, the puppet play is ended; let down the curtain; put the puppets back into their boxes. . . ”’[10]

(James Elder Christie, Vanity Fair: Glasgow Museums Resource Centre)

Ford’s main criticisms of Thackeray (and other English novelists) were, firstly, that they were always interpolating moral apothegms or making sly comments about their characters; and secondly, that they committed these, and other misdemeanours while eschewing serious consideration of literary techniques because those were foreign, in short, because they were often too concerned with demonstrating that they were, in the first and most important place, English gentlemen.

I sometimes suspect a bastard version of this in the current, and recent, political situation. Anybody who offers intelligent, knowledgeable or insightful criticism of government policies on the economy, defence, immigration, education, health, social care or, indeed, just about anything else, is termed, by Conservative politicians, commentators, right-wing media hacks, opaquely-funded think tanks and the rest as ‘unpatriotic’ or ‘un-English’ or ‘doing the country down’. Irony-hunters – look no further.

Most of these characters—‘this crew of asses’—are, of course, clean-shaven – but, I suspect, would not have fooled the Reverend Kilvert for a moment.


[1] At the end of a letter to Maria Huxley [21 February 1930], in The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Volume VII: November 1928-February 1930, edited by Keith Sagar and James Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 651.

[2] Lara Feigel, Look! We Have Come Through!: Living with D. H. Lawrence (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022).

[3] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 948. It was in fact at the home of Dr Edward Bevan and his wife Joan, as detailed in Ray Monk’s Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (London: Vintage, 1991), 576ff.

[4] Examples from the often invaluable Schott’s Original Miscellany, by Ben Schott ((London: Bloomsbury, 2002), 17.

[5] Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, Three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969). Volume Two (23 August 1871–13 May 1874), 381.

[6] The Story of an African Farm (1883, under the name Ralph Iron; new edition, Chapman & Hall, 1892), vii-viii.

[7] William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero (1848; edited by John Carey, London: Penguin Books, 2003), 5, 809.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, Last Post (1928; edited by Paul Skinner, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 4-5.

[9] Ford Madox Ford, The English Novel (London: Constable, 1930), 7 (with its slight amendments, this followed the American edition of the previous year).

[10] Ford Madox Ford, The March of Literature: From Confucius to Modern Times (London: Allen & Unwin, 1939), 587.

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.


(George Cattermole, The Scribe, Cooper Gallery)

I am working on a footnote. It’s a note to a Ford Madox Ford letter, one that was previously published but which needs a few emendations – and some footnotes. Lots of footnotes. I realise that not everybody loves footnotes: if you do, there is no possibility of excuse or explanation – it simply means that the rest of the world is out of kilter, is missing out on a huge expanse of the world’s fascination, beauty, richness. A section headed, austerely, ‘References’ – that’s a man on a barstool, guarding his pint; a heading of ‘Notes’ holds out at least the promise of a welcome, offers of drinks, snacks and stimulating conversation.

My footnotes to this long letter are, necessarily, extensive. Some were worked out weeks or even months ago, added to the typed draft before the working notes, scraps and scribbles were discarded. I’m on the last footnote, a complicated one involving—as well as Ford, Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis—at least two serial publications, a couple of published volumes, a couple of other letters cross-referenced and some explanatory background. With a note like this, you could pack a picnic and set off for a day’s walk; you could write about it to friends in distant countries to whom you have, these days, too little to say. Armed with such a note, you could set out to seduce the man or woman of your dreams, your fingers resting lightly on their wrist as you murmur: ‘Listen to this. . .’

I’ve almost finished it but momentarily glance away in contemplation – you know that moment when the film script reads: ‘He [or, more likely, she] glances away, thoughtful, rapt, absorbed.’ When I look back at the screen – something has happened, yes, Something has Happened and my notes – all of them – have gone, have been inexplicably replaced by 1s and 2s, some bloody binary code that laughs – that jeers, maniacally and electronically – at my painfully crafted footnotes, that says, in effect: ‘Nothing lasts. Transience! All that was solid melts into air. Do it all over again. Begin again.’

So I begin again. There is no moral lesson here. Back it up? I was sure I had. No doubt there were positive things to do, steps to take. I found none of them. When I looked online, it told me to press keys and open menus that the latest version of Word might have allowed me to open. I had that version on my laptop – but the file was open on my desktop upstairs, with an earlier version. Save or not save? Copy, revise, delete? What are you thinking? I think we are in rats’ alley where the dead men left their bones. . . .

(Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Umbrellas, National Gallery)

In fact, by way of contrast, I’m now thinking about mackintoshes, naturally enough, since I was reading Evelyn Waugh, who writes of Lucy Simmonds and her friend Muriel Meikeljohn: ‘They had shared a passion for a leading tenor, and had once got into his dressing-room at the Opera House by wearing mackintoshes and pretending to be reporters sent to interview him.’[1] That set me wondering about how often literary mackintoshes signal comedy, absurdity or general strangeness, something slightly off (and this without so much as an explicit lingering over Dylan Thomas’s imagined press interview in which he would claim to have come to America to continue his ‘lifelong search for naked women in wet mackintoshes’).[2] When Enid Bagnold went to Marburg for three months, she recalled that: ‘There was something called a “Bummel”. I have stored the word and perhaps it doesn’t exist. It seemed to mean men walking up and down the street in the evening, wearing mackintoshes and looking for girls.’[3] The word did indeed exist. Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men on the Bummel had appeared in 1900 but the ten-year-old Miss Bagnold might well have missed it, then and later. German for ‘a ramble’, the word is enlarged upon by the narrator in the final paragraph: ‘“a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started. Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours and sometimes for a few days. But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are ever on the running of the sand. We nod and smile to many as we pass; with some we stop and talk awhile; and with a few we walk a little way. We have been much interested, and often a little tired. But on the whole we have a pleasant time, and are sorry when ’tis over.”’[4] Which, yes, sounds very like the outline of an entire life of a certain kind, while still in close contact with the comic mode.

Women, mackintoshes. Less than fifty years after Charles Macintosh had patented his process of waterproofing cloth with rubber, the Reverend Francis Kilvert, who certainly liked girls—on occasion quite young ones, in that particular nineteenth-century way—and wrote of them often, arrived at the Chapel on Septuagesima Sunday, St Valentine’s Eve, 13 February 1870, in ‘the hardest frost we have had yet’, and recalled that ‘my beard moustaches and whiskers were so stiff with ice that I could hardly open my mouth and my beard was frozen on to my mackintosh.’[5] Plenty of ice; plenty of facial hair.

Footnote: There’s a neat metafictional touch towards the end of Waugh’s ‘Scott-King’s Modern Europe’ where the author reflects on the genre of the story he is writing: ‘This is the story of a summer holiday; a light tale. It treats, at the worst, with solid discomfort and intellectual doubt. It would be inappropriate to speak here of those depths of the human spirit, the agony and despair, of the next few days of Scott-King’s life. To even the Comic Muse, the gadabout, the adventurous one of those heavenly sisters, to whom so little that is human comes amiss, who can mix in almost any company and find a welcome at almost every door – even to her there are forbidden places’ (387-388).

In The Heart of the Country, Ford Madox Ford considers ‘an English country-house party’ on ‘a really torrential day’. Think, he says, ‘of the intolerable boredom of it. There is absolutely nothing to be done.’ If you’re not in the mood for a mechanical piano, more letter-writing or flirting in the drawing-room, there is just the persistent rain. ‘At last something really exciting occurs. Two self-sacrificing persons, the son of the house and his fiancée, having in desperation put on shiny mackintoshes and sou’-westers, stand, wind-blown and laughing figures, putting at clock-golf on the lawn just beneath the billiard-room window.’[6]

(‘Joyce’s Dublin’ via The Irish Times)

In a less privileged setting—1904 Dublin—we might hear this voice: ‘Golly, whatten tunket’s yon guy in the mackintosh? Dusty Rhodes. Peep at his wearables. By mighty! What’s he got? Jubilee mutton. Bovril, by James. Wants it real bad. D’ye ken bare socks? Seedy cuss in the Richmond? Rawthere! Thought he had a deposit of lead in his penis. Trumpery insanity. Bartle the Bread we calls him. That, sir, was once a prosperous cit. Man all tattered and torn that married a maiden all forlorn. Slung her hook, she did. Here see lost love. Walking Mackintosh of lonely canyon.’[7]

Back at the kitchen table, work proceeds on those other footnotes, on a grander scale and in a more determined vein. As for that final note: when it’s done you’ll be able to charter a boat with it . . .


[1] ‘Work Suspended: Two Chapters of an Unfinished Novel’, in Evelyn Waugh, The Complete Short Stories (London: Penguin Books, 2011), 281.

[2] John Malcolm Brinnin, Dylan Thomas in America (1955; New York: Paragon Press, 1989), 14-15.

[3] Enid Bagnold’s Autobiography (from 1889) (London: Century, 1989), 33.

[4] Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat; Three Men on the Bummel (1889, 1900; edited by Geoffrey Harvey, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), xx-xxi, 324. The book was published in late Spring; Bagnold was born in 1889 but her birthday was in October, so ten not eleven. . .

[5] Francis Kilvert, Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, Three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969). Volume One (1 January 1870—19 August 1871), 34.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, The Heart of the Country, in England and the English, edited by Sara Haslam (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2003), 204-205.

[7] James Joyce, Ulysses (1922; London: The Bodley Head, revised edition, 1969), 560.

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.

Bowling mangel-wurzels across the lawn

(James Eckford Lauder, The Parable of Forgiveness: Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool)

‘It was Janet’s view’, Elspeth Barker wrote of her stubbornly individual young heroine, ‘that forgetting was the only possible way of forgiving. She did not believe in forgiveness; the word had no meaning.’[1] Janet has, you might say, a lot to put up with – and the Calvinist harangues of Mr McConochie are hardly designed to stimulate the more generous Christian virtues in the bosoms of his flock. Still, other approaches are, as they say, available.

‘After such knowledge, what forgiveness?’, T. S. Eliot wrote.[2] It’s a question that’s cropped up several times in the news just lately. In Ukraine, unsurprisingly, they ask if they can ever forgive Russia, though that question often focuses more specifically on Putin. Some Russians are themselves wondering whether they can ever forgive their President for what he has done to their country, its neighbours, its standing in the world. In England, many of the relatives of those who died in hospitals and care homes in the earlier stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, unvisited, isolated from their families because of the rules made by a government that itself habitually failed to keep them, have stated that they will not forgive the man ultimately responsible for the whole lethal mess: the Prime Minister.

Forgiveness can also be given, or withheld, on a rather smaller scale. Of their gardener—until the family moved to another house—Henry Green wrote: ‘Poole, so they say, could never forgive my mother when soon after marriage she made him bowl mangel wurzels across one lawn for her to shoot at.’[3] Smaller or more frequent, up to that final point, as Ali Smith observed: ‘many things get forgiven in the course of a life: nothing is finished or unchangeable except death and even death will bend a little if what you tell of it is told right’.[4]

The news at the moment—none of it good—is of large events on a large canvas. But those events, whatever their size and nature, began elsewhere: in a room, in a bed, on a screen, in a garden, in a bar, in a grave. The direction of travel may vary. In Ezra Pound’s Confucius, he has this:

The men of old wanting to clarify and diffuse throughout the empire that light which comes from looking straight into the heart and then acting, first set up good government in their own states; wanting good government in their states, they first established order in their own families; wanting order in the home, they first disciplined themselves; desiring self-discipline, they rectified their own hearts; and wanting to rectify their hearts, they sought precise verbal definitions of their inarticulate thoughts [the tones given off by the heart]; wishing to attain precise verbal definitions, they set to extend their knowledge to the utmost. This completion of knowledge is rooted in sorting things into organic categories.[5]

In the bath with Elizabeth Bowen (so to speak), I read about Jefferies listening to Jameson as he declaims about the New Jerusalem to the aunt and the young mother, as they wait for the young husband who will not, perhaps, come home. ‘After all, it all came back to this – individual outlook; the emotional factors of environment; houses that were homes; living-rooms; people going out and coming in again; people not coming in; other people waiting for them in rooms that were little guarded squares of light walled in carefully against the hungry darkness, the ultimately all-devouring darkness. After all, here was the stage of every drama.’[6]

Walking briefly on the main road before turning off again into quieter places, at seven o’clock in the morning, I watch car after car go by, each containing one person, and am reminded of the final question that the New Statesman asks of its interviewee on the Q & A page each week: ‘Are we all doomed?’ The answers are sometimes considered, sometimes flippant. Here, now, the world presents itself as a peculiar version of, say, a golf course produced by a team of deranged designers or architects: they create some hazards, to make the course a little more difficult or challenging or exciting or unpredictable – bunkers, some cunning slopes, water (ideally a lake deep enough to drown in), a few awkward corners where many players will slice or hook into undergrowth or trees. Then they take away all those smooth greens and fairways, leaving only the hazards. No, wait, they put back a couple of greens and call them, what, foreign holidays or television streaming services or barbecues on somebody’s terrace. Then tee off. Fore! Playing is, of course, mandatory. As Pascal didn’t quite say: you must bet; you are in the game. But you might get lucky. So – you have to ask yourself – do you feel lucky? Well, do you?[7]

(Charles Lees, ‘A Golf Match’: National Galleries of Scotland, Scottish National Portrait Gallery)

It’s often, as they say, relative. The conduct of the present English government generally disgusts me – but I live in a wealthy country which is privileged by position, climate, history and the rest. So I hold the country and its government to high standards, with correspondingly high expectations of liberal, enlightened, equitable governance – and they fall woefully short. By almost every measure of a civilized nation, the current state of the country is a disgrace. Yet I’m still hugely – relatively – lucky by many measures. I would far rather be here, an angry and disappointed Englishman, than in a score of countries that come only too swiftly to mind, where having the wrong religion, skin colour, racial heritage or gender can all too easily leave you dead in a ditch.

‘Darknesse and light divide the course of time’, Sir Thomas Browne wrote, ‘and oblivion shares with memory a great part even of our living beings; we slightly remember our felicities, and the smartest stroaks of affliction leave but short smart upon us.’[8] I don’t know. We have machines and social media to help us remember our grievances now and those strokes of affliction leave long-lasting scars, while slightly remembered felicities probably reside on Instagram or crop up as random and unprompted ‘memories’.

‘The uncritical mind is a prey to credulity’, Guy Davenport commented, ‘and without skepticism there can be no democracy.’[9] Yes, there’s that, the gullibility which people seem oddly reluctant to admit to, retrospectively. But there comes a point, certainly in those countries that have any pretensions to a democratic system, when voters can no longer claim ignorance since they know now the nature of the ones they opted for last time. And it comes to this, that huge numbers of citizens, in many countries, say, in effect: yes, these people are corrupt, hypocritical, untruthful bastards but we’re giving them our support, so they can continue to wage war against democratic freedoms or public services or immigrants or women or universities or the poor. . .

After such knowledge, what forgiveness?


[1] Elspeth Barker, O Caledonia (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2021), 116.

[2] T. S. Eliot, ‘Gerontion’, The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 32.

[3] Henry Green, Pack My Bag: A Self-Portrait (1940; London: The Hogarth Press, 1992), 3.

[4] Ali Smith, How to be both (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2014), 95.

[5] Ezra Pound, Confucius. The Unwobbling Pivot; The Great Digest; The Analects (New York: New Directions, 1969), 29-31.

[6] Elizabeth Bowen, ‘Human Habitation’, in The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, with an introduction by Angus Wilson (London: Vintage, 1999), 166.

[7] Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, translated by Honor Levi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 154; as rendered, or polished, by John Fowles, in The Aristos (London: Pan Books, 1968), 220.

[8] Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia, or Urn-Buriall, in Selected Writings, edited by Geoffrey Keynes (London: Faber  and Faber, 1970), 152.

[9] Guy Davenport, ‘Wheel Ruts’, in The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996), 133.

Roses (almost) all the way

‘What a lovely thing a rose is’, Sherlock Holmes remarks, adverting to the necessity of deduction in religion – and goes on to add that: ‘Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers.’ Client and client’s fiancée view this demonstration ‘with surprise and a good deal of disappointment’ but Holmes, with the moss-rose between his fingers, has fallen into a reverie. Not unusually, all turns out well in the end.[1] Oddly, I see that, in the language of flowers, the moss-rose was associated with ‘voluptuous love’, not the first thing that comes to mind in Holmes’s case.

It’s that time of the morning when there are no workmen yet hammering, drilling or sawing, and the park and the cemetery are peaceful enough even for me. The Librarian photographs a good many flowers and trees while I stand gazing into middle distances, though I succumb to the orange specimen in the park on the way back home.

Reading Rebecca Solnit earlier, I was reminded again of how much George Orwell’s short life (forty-six and a half years) was hampered by respiratory disease: bronchitis, pneumonia, tuberculosis.[2] Set against that are the plump volumes of Peter Davison’s scholarly edition of Orwell’s work: twenty of them in all. Of the ones I have, the 600-page extent of the first volume is not unrepresentative. But then Orwell’s productivity, given his state of health and his honest confrontation of it, the long-held knowledge that his life would not be a long one, is not itself unique: the example that comes quickest to mind is D. H. Lawrence, also hugely prolific, his letters alone filling eight fat volumes, his life two years shorter than Orwell’s.

‘If war has an opposite’, Solnit writes, ‘gardens might sometimes be it, and people have found a particular kind of peace in forests, meadows, parks and gardens’ (5). Orwell’s life was, as she says, shot through with wars. The German writer Ernst Jünger, born almost a decade before Orwell and in a markedly different cultural tradition, recalled that: ‘Grown up in an age of security, we shared a yearning for danger, for the experience of the extraordinary. We were enraptured by war, We had set out in a rain of flowers, in a drunken atmosphere of blood and roses. Surely the war had to supply us with what we wanted: the great, the overwhelming, the hallowed experience.’[3]

This theme of roses conjured up for me not Ruskin, Pound, Gertrude Stein, Sappho, Shakespeare or Sir John Mandeville but, not for the first time, Patrick White, a young child in the First World War, an intelligence officer in the Second, serving in Egypt, Palestine, Greece. His books are dense with roses. A dozen references, more, in The Tree of Man, as motif, symbol, marker of passing time, from the moment when Stan and Amy Parker arrive at the house after the wedding:

‘Once I saw a house’, she said, in the even dreamlike voice of inspiration, ‘that had a white rosebush growing beside it, and I always said that if I had a house I would plant a white rose. It was a tobacco rose, the lady said.’
‘Well’, he said, laughing up at her, ‘you have the house.’[4]

The black rose on Theodora Goodman’s hat in The Aunt’s Story; Waldo and Arthur talking of the white rose in The Solid Mandala; and, in Riders in the Chariot: ‘Where Himmelfarb was at last put down, roses met him, and led him all the way. Had he been blind, he could have walked by holding on to ropes of roses.’[5] Among the stories, ‘Dead Roses’ calls attention to itself while ‘The Letters’, another  mother-son relationship leading to mental disintegration, has some lovely flowers but, alas, ‘this morning something was eating the roses.’ In ‘A Cheery Soul’, the dreadful Miss Docker doesn’t care for the rector’s wife, who ‘accused her of pruning Crimson Glory to death. “I only did it as a gesture,” Miss Docker had defended herself, “and nobody knows for certain the rose did not die a natural death.”’[6] Most poignantly, perhaps, in Voss, Laura picks roses while the pregnant Rose Portion holds the basket: ‘But the girl was dazed by roses.’ Laura will later find Rose dead in her bed: ‘the girl who had arrived breathless, blooming with expectation and the roses she had pinned at her throat, was herself turned yellow by the hot wind of death.’[7]

White had met Manoly Lascaris, with whom he would live for the rest of his life, in the apartment of Charles de Menasce in Alexandria, in July 1941.[8] They would spend a good deal of time in Greece and, appropriately, White remembered, decades later, Athens after the German occupation: ‘The smell of those days remains with me – the perfume of stocks in the Maroussi fields, chestnuts roasting at street corners, Kokkoretsi turning on spits in open doorways. And the roses, the crimson roses. . . ’[9]

Maxfield Parrish, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, Colliers (1912)

No rose without a thorn, the saying goes – unless you’re that lucky. Or perhaps in the right sort of story, say ‘Briar Rose’, where, the hundred years of the curse having expired precisely on the day that the prince comes breezing along, the briar hedge is transformed into beautiful flowers. The bride is won with minimal effort—no giants or dragons—just impeccable timing, ‘illustrating’, as Maria Tatar observes, ‘how good fortune often trumps heroic feats in fairy tales.’[10]

Remembering the appearance of the early romances of H. G. Wells, Ford Madox Ford wrote: ‘Fairy tales are a prime necessity of the world’.[11] So they are, so they are.


[1] Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Naval Treaty’, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, 2 volumes, edited with notes by Leslie S. Klinger (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company 2005), I, 686, 687.

[2] Rebecca Solnit, Orwell’s Roses (London: Granta Books, 2021), 25-26.

[3] Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel, translated by Michael Hofmann (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004), 5.

[4] Patrick White, The Tree of Man, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961), 28.

[5] Patrick White, Riders in the Chariot (Harmondsworth: Penguins Books, 1964), 383.

[6] Patrick White, The Burnt Ones (1964; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968), 231, 180.

[7] Patrick White, Voss (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1957), 170, 250.

[8] David Marr, Patrick White: A Life (London: Vintage, 1992), 213.

[9] ‘Greece – My Other Country’ (1983), in Patrick White Speaks, edited by Paul Brennan and Christine Flynn (London: Jonathan Cape, 1990), 134.

[10] Maria Tatar, editor, The Annotated Brothers Grimm (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), 238.

[11] Ford Madox Ford, Portraits from Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937), 109.

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. . .


[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.

In search of stars


(Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night: )

Walking part-way to the station with the Librarian, who’s catching a painfully early train to London, I’m reminded how hard it is to see stars in the night sky now in a city awash with lights: streetlamps, headlights, office buildings, traffic lights and illuminated road signs. There was an occasion, years back, when I lay on my back on the grass of the Downs along with several colleagues, all of us slightly the worse for wear, marvelling at the number and brilliance of visible stars, all making over again the usual discovery that the longer you look the greater the number you can see. Now, just once, on the yellow bridge spanning our tidal river, swiftly running just now, in a brief oasis of relative darkness, I could glimpse a mere handful of stars above me.

‘Goodbye, my dears, and bless you all, and again thank you for your cheering letters, like stars in a dark night’, the poet and composer Ivor Gurney wrote from Park House Camp on Salisbury Plain, where his battalion arrived in February 1916.[1] And elsewhere: ‘Dewy are the stars against their dark cloth/ And infinitely far that star Capella/ That calls to poetry.’[2]

Gurney was a walker, by day and by night, under sun, rain or stars. Sixty years later, Charles Tomlinson wrote:

Driving north, I catch the hillshapes, Gurney,
Whose drops and rises – Cotswold and Malvern
In their cantilena above the plains –
Sustained your melody: your melody sustains
Them, now – Edens that lay
Either side of this interminable roadway.
You would recognize them still, but the lanes
Of lights that fill the lowlands, brim
To the Severn and glow into the heights.
You can regain the gate: the angel with the sword
Illuminates the paths to let you see
That night is never to be restored
To Eden and England spangled in bright chains.[3]


(Ivor Gurney via Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

In Ford Madox Ford’s 1933 novel The Rash Act, Henry Martin ‘imagined that it was like that when you are dead. You were motionless in black space. There would of course be great stars. Wherever it was perfectly black the light of the stars pierced the blackness. From the bottom of a deep, dry well in Indiana he had once seen the constellation of Cassiopeia though the sun was torrid above between the well-head and the sky.’[4]

Seven years earlier, Ford had made a similar point, though in a rather different context: ‘Twice he had stood up on a rifleman’s step enforced by a bullybeef case to look over—in the last few minutes. Each time, on stepping down again, he had been struck by that phenomenon: the light seen from the trench seemed if not brighter, then more definite. So, from the bottom of a pit-shaft in broad day you can see the stars.’[5]

Literature and painting seethe with stars: stars for distance, for coldness, for brightness, for fate, for navigation, for glory, for innumerability, deities and signals and portents. Bacchus flung Ariadne’s crown into the heavens where it became the constellation Corona Borealis and Titian paints those brilliant stars above her head.

Titian, c.1488-1576; Bacchus and Ariadne

(Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne: National Gallery)

More than once, I’ve thought of James Joyce’s famous phrase, ‘The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit’,[6] as epitomising style – style capitalised or italicised, perhaps even in block capitals. Though I’ve seen this linked to the end of Dante’s Inferno, all three volumes of his Divine Comedy end with ‘stelle’ and both translations I have at home end with ‘stars’: the prose translation by John D. Sinclair and the verse translation, in terza rima, triple rhyme, by Laurence Binyon.

William Blissett recorded of a 1971 conversation that the poet and painter David Jones ‘was staying with Laurence Binyon when he was translating Dante, and one day a letter came from Ezra Pound. Binyon was puzzled, but David could see at a glance that
meant “jolly good” or “jolly bad”, and
meant “I wonder”. He drew these slowly on a cigarette packet.’[7]


(Harry gazing: star-seekers come in all shapes and sizes)

Stellar: of the stars. I’m sure I’ve quoted before Richard Holmes’ recounting of the poet Thomas Campbell meeting the great astronomer William Herschel in Brighton in 1813, perplexed by Herschel’s saying that many distant stars had probably ceased to exist ‘millions of years ago’, ‘and that looking up into the night sky we were seeing a stellar landscape that was not really there at all. The sky was full of ghosts.’[8] So too in Helen DeWitt’s novel, The Last Samurai, it’s said of George Sorabji: ‘He was obsessed with distance. He had read of stars whose light had left them millions of years ago, and he had read that the light we see may come from stars now dead. He would look up and think that all the stars might now be dead; he thought that they were so far away there would be no way to know.
‘It was as if everything might really already be over.’[9]


(Emma Hardy)

Thomas Hardy’s first wife, Emma Lavinia Gifford, in the City of Light on her honeymoon trip in 1874, wrote excitedly in her travel diary: ‘“Place de la Concorde first seen by moonlight! . . . Stars quite put out by Parisian lamps.”’[10]

Nearly forty years later, when she herself was eclipsed, her husband, in one of the remarkable poems of 1912-1913, wrote:

Soon will be growing
Green blades from the mound,
And daisies be showing
Like stars on the ground,
Till she form part of them[11]

Still, it seems that, as well as those dedicated journeys to experience true darkness and to breathe clean air, we must now add one more: expeditions in search of stars.




[1] Stars in a Dark Night: The Letters of Ivor Gurney to the Chapman Family, edited by Anthony Boden (Gloucester: Alan Sutton, 1986), 50.

[2] Ivor Gurney, ‘Fragment’, in Collected Poems, edited with an introduction by P. J. Kavanagh, revised edition (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2004), 90.

[3] ‘To Ivor Gurney’, in Charles Tomlinson, New Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2009), 380-381.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, The Rash Act (1933; Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1982), 157.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, A Man Could Stand Up— (1926; edited by Sara Haslam, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 59-60.

[6] James Joyce, Ulysses (1922; London: The Bodley Head, revised edition, 1969), 819.

[7] William Blissett, The Long Conversation: A Memoir of David Jones, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 72. Pound corresponded with Binyon over many years and published a complimentary review of his Inferno: ‘Hell’, in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 201-213.

[8] Richard Holmes. The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (London: Harper Collins, 2008), 210.

[9] Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai (London: Vintage, 2001), 349.

[10] Emma’s diary quoted by Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man (London: Viking, 2006), 143.

[11] ‘Rain on a Grave’, Thomas Hardy, The Complete Poems, edited by James Gibson (London: Macmillan, 1976), 341.