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]


Notes

[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.

Noted

(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 . . .


Notes

[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.


Notes

[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?


Notes

[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.


Notes

[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. . .


Notes

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

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

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

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

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

In search of stars

van-gogh-starry_night

(Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night: https://www.vangoghgallery.com/painting/starry-night.html )

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]

Gurney-ODNB

(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-Night-Sky

(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_Lavinia_Gifford

(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.

 

 

Notes

[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.

 

Golden lads and girls

Bishop

On Wednesday afternoon, 5 September 1929, the eighteen-year-old Elizabeth Bishop was writing to Frani Blough, whom she’d met at the Walnut Hill boarding school in Massachusetts: they became lifelong friends. Bishop was, she said, halfway through Cymbeline: ‘I had no idea it was so good—I never thought of Shakespeare except in terms of Macbeth and Hamlet, but don’t you like this?’ And she quoted:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.[1]

Don’t you like this? Yes, we do. We also like the passage in Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, discussing those lines. ‘“Golden,” magical word, irradiates the stanza so that we barely think to ask how Shakespeare may have found it.’ Kenner thinks to ask – or rather, puts to good use what a friend has passed on to him: ‘Yet a good guess at how he found it is feasible, for in the mid-20th century a visitor to Shakespeare’s Warwickshire met a countryman blowing the grey head off a dandelion: “We call these golden boys chimney-sweepers when they go to seed.”’[2]

But yes, ‘golden’, certainly a word magical enough to fascinate and gravitate to many title pages. Before Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Golden Child, David Garnett’s The Golden Echo or Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye, Kenneth Grahame wrote The Golden Age, a phrase that would later resound in Raymond Williams’ The Country and the City as he explored the ‘myth’ of the golden age, pointing out that, as early as Hesiod, ‘at the beginning of country literature, it is already far in the past.’ He sees the ‘escalator of golden ages’ always moving backwards in time, always receding.[3] Every generation, in fact, or a proportion of it, looks back to that supposed idyllic period.

Frida_Uhl

(Frida Strindberg, née Uhl)
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17944741

Then, as Ronald Blythe recalls, ‘One of the first night-clubs was opened in 1913 by Strindberg’s second wife, a beautiful ex-actress with a Viennese reputation. It was called the Cave of the Golden Calf and Epstein and Wyndham Lewis decorated its walls and columns. It was haunted by artists, the demi-monde, and guardsmen who went there, so they said, to listen to the accordions of Galician gypsies and hear Lilian Shelly singing “Popsie-wopsie”.’[4]

‘Popsie-wopsie’? It seems so, though I’ve seen it mentioned as ‘My Little Popsy-Wopsy’. She was born in Bristol and apparently posed for both Jacob Epstein and Augustus John.

Eric Gill carved a bas-relief of the golden calf – obviously the central motif – which was hung up beside the entrance (and reproduced on membership cards) ‘and finally carved in three dimensions in Hoptonwood stone and erected on a pedestal’. Madame Strindberg being unable to pay for it, Gill then lent it to Roger Fry for the second Post-Impressionist show at the Grafton Gallery.[5]

And then: The Golden Bowl by Mr Henry James. Writing to his aunt Laura from Alexandria in 1916, E. M. Forster wrote: ‘Work here is quieter again, which leaves me time for reading, and while you were at H. J.’s Portrait of a Lady I was tackling his latter and tougher end in the person of What Maisie Knew. I haven’t quite got through her yet, but I think I shall: she is my very limit—beyond her lies The Golden Bowl, The Ambassadors and similar impossibles. I don’t think James could have helped his later manner—is a natural development, not a pose. All that one can understand of him seems so genuine, that what one can’t understand is likely to be genuine also.’[6] A careful cloud of unknowing.

Warlight

Three years later, in John Buchan’s Mr Standfast, the chapter entitled ‘‘I take the Wings of a Dove’ includes the phrase ‘golden bowl’.[7] But my favourite recent reference is in Michael Ondaatje’s fine novel Warlight (‘The Moth’ is a name conferred by the narrator and his sister): ‘One night when Rachel had been unable to sleep, he pulled a book called The Golden Bowl from my mother’s shelf and began reading to us. The manner of the paragraphs, as the sentences strolled a maze-like path towards evaporation was, to the two of us, similar to The Moth’s when he was being drunkenly magisterial. It was as if language had been separated from his body in a courteous way.’[8]

 

 

References

[1] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 5. Cymbeline, IV, ii, 258-263.

[2] Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 122. His endnote (570) reads: ‘A visitor to Warwickshire: W. Arrowsmith, reported by Guy Davenport.’ Further elucidated in Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), I, 639, 641, 643.

[3] Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 14, 10.

[4] Ronald Blythe, The Age of Illusion: England in the Twenties and Thirties 1919-40 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1964), 28.

[5] Fiona MacCarthy, Eric Gill (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), 108-109.

[6] Selected Letters of E. M. Forster, Volume One: 1879-1920, edited by Mary Lago and P. N. Furbank (London: Collins, 1983), 240.

[7] John Buchan, Mr Standfast (1919; edited by William Buchan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 133.

[8] Michael Ondaatje, Warlight (London: Jonathan Cape, 2018), 61.

 

Following up

Where-Shall-we-run-to . Boneland

I’ve recently bought—but am not yet reading—the new book by Alan Garner, called Where Shall We Run To? – A Memoir. I’m not reading it yet because my epic revisiting of the Patrick White canon is only now nearing its close; then, too, some major deadlines are approaching for the first issue of the new Ford Madox Ford Journal; and in any case, I was just in time to glimpse the Librarian carrying the book away to some other part of the house. First dibs, as they say.

The publication of this new Garner recalled for me the previous one, Boneland, a novel which appeared in 2012. It’s short, powerful and cryptic, as much of Garner’s work tends to be, not through obfuscation but compression. Some of his readers are extraordinarily knowledgeable not only about Garner’s entire oeuvre but also the mythologies and belief systems that underlie so much of his writing; and I remember that the medieval text, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, was mentioned and cited several times in online comments about the book. So I followed up.

 sir-gawain-green-knight-decapitated-head-f94v

(Via The British Library)

I’d certainly read Gawain at some stage over the years. I’d never taken the kind of course of study that included it, though the University of Bristol had the supreme good fortune to have on its staff John Burrow, a brilliant critic and editor of medieval literature (and one of the most delightful people I’ve ever come across). He published a classic study of the poem in 1965, and an edition of it for Penguin in 1982. Following up, though, the edition I read was the one at hand in the office, a modern English version with a critical introduction by John Gardner from the University of Chicago Press, reissued in 2011. Ninety pages of introduction and commentary allow for a fair bit of jousting with other critics and commentators, while demonstrating an impressive familiarity with the relevant secondary literature as well as the poem itself. The alliterative verse rollicks along at a pleasing lick:

Now comes the season of summer; soft are the winds;
The spirit of Zephyrus whispers to seeds and green shoots.
Joyful enough is that herb rising up out of earth,
When the dampening dew has dropped from all her leaves,
To bask in the blissful gaze of the bright sun.

John-Gardner-Paris-Review

(John Gardner, via The Paris Review)

John Champlin Gardner Jr. died nearly forty years ago in a motorcycle accident at the early age of 49. He’d published more than a dozen works of fiction, half a dozen critical works, children’s books, and translations of the Alliterative Morte d’Arthur and Other Middle English Poems as well as the complete works of the Gawain poet. He’s probably still best-known for his novel Grendel, a retelling of the Beowulf story from the monster’s point of view.

That phrase, ‘following up’, I always associate with an essay by Guy Davenport on the extraordinary photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard (in The Geography of the Imagination):

He was an unfailing follower-up, which is why I think of him as the best educated man I have ever known. As a professor I must work with people for whom indifference is both a creed and a defense of their fantastic narrowness of mind, but Gene knew nothing of this. When he met Louis and Celia Zukofsky at my house, he went away and read Zukofsky. Not that he was an enthusiast. He simply had a curiosity that went all the way, and a deep sense of courtesy whereby if a man were a writer he would read what he had written, if a man were a painter he would look at his paintings.

Davenport was himself a follower-up of impressive proportions. He remembered a walking trip in Italy and France with Christopher Middleton, the two of them armed only with a collected John Donne and Pound’s Cantos, ‘a rich, barely comprehensible poem’, Davenport commented. He continues: ‘My first response was to learn Italian and Provençal, and to paint in the quattrocento manner. All real education’, he adds, ‘is such unconscious seduction.’

That’s quite a response; quite a follow-up.

 

 

 

Gilbert White of Selborne

Skylark

(Skylark: https://findingnature.co.uk/animal/skylark/ )

In Great Trade Route, Ford Madox Ford, recalling a visit to a New Jersey truck farm in the company of William Carlos Williams, commented on the behaviour of a snipe which was distracting the men from the nest to protect its young, an example of what Gilbert White famously termed storgé, using the Greek word for familial or ‘natural’ affection, one of the four Greek terms for ‘love’, along with philia, agape and eros: all were discussed in C. S. Lewis’s book, The Four Loves (1960).[1]

Ford often mentioned Gilbert White of Selborne (born 18 July 1720), the ‘parson-naturalist’, in both fictional and non-fictional contexts. In Parade’s End, White crops up in the first volume, Some Do Not. . .  as Christopher Tietjens spars with Valentine Wannop on their night-ride.

Gilbert-White

(Gilbert White)

‘He said:
“Where do you get your absurd Latin nomenclature from? Isn’t it phalæna …
She had answered:
“From White . . . The Natural History of Selborne is the only natural history I ever read….
“He’s the last English writer that could write,” said Tietjens.
“He calls the downs ‘those majestic and amusing mountains,’” she said. “Where do you get your dreadful Latin pronunciation from? Phal i i na! To rhyme with Dinah!”
“It’s ‘sublime and amusing mountains,’ not ‘majestic and amusing,’” Tietjens said. “I got my Latin pronunciation, like all public schoolboys of to-day, from the German.”’[2]

Later, in the third volume, A Man Could Stand Up—, Tietjens is in the trenches, where his Sergeant enthusiastically praises the skylark’s ‘Won’erful trust in yumanity! Won’erful hinstinck set in the fethered brest by the Halmighty!’

Tietjens says ‘mildly’ that he thinks the Sergeant has ‘got his natural history wrong. He must divide the males from the females. The females sat on the nest through obstinate attachment to their eggs; the males obstinately soared above the nests in order to pour out abuse at other male skylarks in the vicinity.’

‘“Gilbert White of Selbourne,” he said to the Sergeant, “called the behaviour of the female STORGE: a good word for it.” But, as for trust in humanity, the Sergeant might take it that larks never gave us a thought. We were part of the landscape and if what destroyed their nests whilst they sat on them was a bit of H[igh].E[xplosive]. shell or the coulter of a plough it was all one to them.’

The sergeant is highly sceptical of such sentiments:

‘“Ju ’eer what the orfcer said, Corporal,” the one said to the other. Wottever’ll ’e say next! Skylarks not trust ’uman beens in battles! Cor!”
The other grunted and, mournfully, the voices died out.’

Later in the same volume, Ford recurs to White in Valentine’s own reflections – Ford uses the image or allusion echoed in the thoughts of multiple characters to frequently brilliant effect:

‘Her mother was too cunning for them. With the cunning that makes the mother wild-duck tumble apparently broken-winged just under your feet to decoy you away from her little things. STORGE, Gilbert White calls it!’[3]

White-The-Wakes

(The Wakes, Gilbert White’s house:
http://gilbertwhiteshouse.org.uk/?venue=gilbert-whites-house)

In The Farther Shore: A Natural History of Perception, 1798-1984, a superb, rich study of how technological developments since the eighteenth century have affected the ways in which we interpret the world, Don Gifford wrote of how, for Samuel Johnson and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the ambition to be generally well read, that is, to have a reasonable grasp of all that was being published and made available, ‘was within reach’, and that a community of those sharing that distinction or at least that ambition was ‘at least imagined to be a given among educated men and women.’ His footnote mentions the assumption evident in Gilbert White’s letters that his correspondents shared his acquaintance with Dryden, Pope, Addison, Swift, Gray, Johnson, Hume, Gibbon, Sterne – as well as with the Bible, Virgil, Homer, Horace, the Koran, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton. By the mid-80s (when he was writing this book), Gifford adds, ‘the idea of being well read and of belonging to such a community is a joke we have politely learned not to mention except with a shrug of self-deprecation.’

Of course, White’s acquaintance with Pope was not only with the man’s work: he was presented with a copy of Pope’s six-volume translation of the Iliad by the poet himself, when graduating with distinction from Oriel College, Oxford, in 1743.[4]

White’s fascinating and deceptively simple work has embedded itself in English culture in numerous contexts. His genius, as Ronald Blythe remarks, was ‘to revolutionise the study of natural history by noting what exactly lay outside his own back-door.’[5] In his first letter to the Honourable Daines Barrington in June 1769, White wrote, ‘I see you are a gentleman of great candour, and one that will make allowances; especially where the writer professes to be an out-door naturalist, one that takes his observations from the subject itself, and not from the writings of others’ (Selborne 104). He produced hundreds of pages, records of looking and listening and remembering and wondering. Birds, plants, insects, weather, animals, not least the human. ‘My musical friend, at whose house I am now visiting, has tried all the owls that are his near neighbours with a pitch-pipe set at concert-pitch, and finds they all hoot in B flat. He will examine the nightingales next spring’ (Selborne 127).

White's_Selborne_1813_title_page

The local as the universal. A hundred and eighty years after White’s death, William Carlos Williams would note that the poet’s business was ‘to write particularly, as a physician works, upon a patient, in the particular to discover the universal.’ He quoted the line of John Dewey’s that he had come upon by chance, ‘The local is the only universal, upon that all else builds’, commenting elsewhere that, ‘in proportion as a man has bestirred himself to become awake to his own locality he will perceive more and more of what is disclosed and find himself in a position to make the necessary translations.’[6] Williams in Rutherford; Thoreau in Concord; White in Selborne.

Don Gifford points out that, ‘In effect, White’s perspective differs radically from our own because he had no a priori basis for distinguishing between trivial and significant things.’ So, in addition to seeing with his own eyes, White ‘had to see cumulatively, a second order of seeing’. He tells the story of Henry Thoreau reducing Ellery Channing to tears when the two men went out into the woods together: Channing knew so little about what to record that he returned with an empty notebook, desperate and frustrated.[7]

White’s journals were published in 1931 and, Alexandra Harris comments, ‘his work was tirelessly reissued over the next decade.’ But then, in addition to being valued for his ‘timeless qualities’, White was ‘also being used as someone relevant to the present time precisely because the world he knew was disappearing.’[8]

When we read those writers detailing the current decline or disappearance of so much British wildlife, through environmental damage, farming practices and government policies, the parallels hardly need stressing.

On the matter of White’s journals, let your fingers do the running, to this superb resource:
http://naturalhistoryofselborne.com/

House and garden, café and shop?
http://www.gilbertwhiteshouse.org.uk/

 

 
References

[1] Ford Madox Ford, Great Trade Route (London: Allen & Unwin, 1937), 184; Gilbert White, The Illustrated History of Selborne (London: Macmillan, 1984), 114, 133-134.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), 163-164.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, A Man Could Stand Up— (1926; edited by Sara Haslam, Manchester: Carcanet, 2011), 63, 64, 65, 201.

[4] Don Gifford, The Farther Shore: A Natural History of Perception (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), 158 and n., 5.

[5] Ronald Blythe, Aftermath: Selected Writings 1960-2010, edited by Peter Tolhurst (Norwich: Black Dog Books, 2010), 226.

[6] William Carlos Williams, The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams (New York: New Directions, 1967), 391; Selected Essays (New York: New Directions, 1969), 28.

[7] Gifford, Farther Shore, 10, 11.

[8] Alexandra Harris, Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (London: Thames & Hudson 2010), 171, 173.