Going to the polls (greenly, liberally or laboriously)

Our English Coasts, 1852 ('Strayed Sheep') 1852 by William Holman Hunt 1827-1910

(William Holman Hunt Our English Coasts, also known as Strayed Sheep)

We go to the polls tomorrow; I mean that Europe does and, for now at least, the United Kingdom, if we’re sticking with that title, is on the list. The high anxiety for some Labour supporters has, though, been simplified by Mr Corbyn’s continuing to teeter on the fence, not unlike the grey cat that frequently passes, insecurely and unconvincingly, along the back of our garden.

As to the result, the predictions may be awry in some cases but no doubt right enough in one, that the Brexit Party will come out ahead. It’s simple arithmetic: Stayers will split their votes among three or four parties, Quitters will vote for one party. That reflects at least one aspect of the case: the world can be made to appear very simple; or it’s a complicated place where nuances and complexities abound. Louis MacNeice wrote, in ‘Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard’:

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

Still, this is where we are, in a tight spot. ‘My God’, the Librarian says, ‘the news is bleak.’ As it is. The United States national security advisor threatens war with Iran while, domestically, America wages war on women. The recent Australian election seems not to have been particularly good news for women either. On the European continent, there’s a struggle taking place that we’re likely to end up on the wrong side of; as with the environmental crisis, it seems extraordinary that the response to warnings that the building is on fire is so often to yawn and turn over in bed. Nancy Cunard recalled her friend Brian Howard’s bafflement over the lack of interest in the rise of Nazism in Germany. ‘How was it that, each time he returned to England, or even to France, not enough people cared nor wanted to be made aware of the hideous import of these facts, these obviously lucid indications? Why, save for a minimum of really politically minded people, were they, seemingly, not even interested? Must one be politically minded to be concerned at the appalling things going on? What about being merely human?’

tight-spot-Valloton
(Felix Vallotton, ‘A Tight Spot’)

What indeed? Ernest Hemingway famously remarked to George Plimpton: ‘The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector.’ And for non-writers? ‘The road from appearance to reality is often very hard and long, and many people make only very poor travellers’, Franz Kafka once said. ‘We must forgive them when they stagger against us as if against a brick wall.’ He was a forgiving sort of person. Still, given the events of the past few years, not least in the United Kingdom and the United States, the most obviously essential tool for the voter, the citizen, is a built-in bullshit detector; and it’s clear that—to put it mildly—not everybody has one.

It was said after the EU Referendum in this country that, if it showed nothing else, it showed that a great many people didn’t mind being lied to as long as they liked the lie they were being told – and there have always been, in the phrase Pound used in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, ‘liars in public places’. But as Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit and many related books since have suggested, there’s a distinction to be made between lies and bullshit, even though overlap often occurs. While liars tend to know when they’re lying and also to accept that truth matters, even if they’re deliberately deviating from it, bullshitters often don’t even know what’s true and they certainly don’t care. The examples often cited here are Messrs Trump, Johnson and Farage ­– and the main reason why they’re able not to care appears to be that those they are speaking most directly to don’t care either.

Ah, well. As the excellent Marina Hyde concluded a recent column, ‘The UK remains in toxic stasis, presided over by a necrotic government, but now with a gathering sense that much worse could be in the post.’

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/may/17/tory-boris-johnson-leadership-candidate

A gathering sense. Yes. Watch that space.

 

 

Oompah and High-Wind: Dylan Thomas, Richard Hughes

Dylan-Caitlin

(Dylan and Caitlin Thomas)

On 16 May 1938, Dylan Thomas updated Henry Treece, the poet and novelist to whom he was writing regularly for a time – they later fell out over Dylan’s refusal to identify himself as an adherent of The New Apocalypse, a movement co-founded by Treece:

‘I’ve been moving house. That is, I’ve left, with trunks and disappointment, one charitable institution after another and have found and am now occupying, to the peril of my inside and out, my rheumatic joints, my fallen chest, my modern nerves, my fluttering knutted pocket, a small, damp fisherman’s furnished cottage—green rot sprouts through the florid scarlet forests of the wallpaper, sneeze and the chairs crack, the double-bed is a swing-band with coffin, oompah, slush-pump, gob-stick and almost wakes the deaf, syphilitic neighbours—by the side of an estuary in a remote village.’

I, the first named, am the ghost of this sir and Christian friend
Who writes these words I write in a still room in a spellsoaked house:
I am the ghost in this house that is filled with the tongue and eyes
Of a lack-a-head ghost I fear to the anonymous end.

Laugharne_Castle_2015

The remote village was of course Laugharne: not yet the Boat House but the cottage in Gosport Street found for Dylan and his wife Caitlin by the novelist Richard Hughes. In the same letter, Dylan wrote: ‘The village also contains bearded Richard High-Wind Hughes, but we move, in five hundred yards, in two or more different worlds: he owns the local castle, no roof and all, and lives in a grand mansion by its side and has a palace in Morocco.’

‘High-Wind’ refers to Hughes’ most famous novel, A High Wind in Jamaica, originally called The Innocent Voyage, a tale of pirates and children: you’d feel safer with the pirates. He was the author of the world’s first radio play, Danger, broadcast in 1924. After In Hazard (1938), there was a gap of over twenty years before he published The Fox in the Attic (1961), the first part of his unfinished trilogy, The Human Predicament, tracing the history of the years following the Great War and the rise of Nazism. The Wooden Shepherdess followed in 1973 but Hughes died three years later.

I read them about ten years ago, in old orange Penguins but then acquired the New York Review Books editions, with introductions by Hilary Mantel. They’re so damned attractive that you could go for a walk with one of them on your arm or, indeed, one on each arm (not literally, perhaps). Their edition of The Wooden Shepherdess includes the twelve chapters that Hughes completed of the planned third volume before his death.

Fox-in-the-Attic

The two volumes we have are a really impressive achievement, a brave tackling of the near-impossible task of weighting both individual and collective histories in a novel so that the balance is held: the context not skimped but the individuals still not pressed like flowers between the pages. The central character, Augustine, is certainly unobservant enough in some instances to be believable and Hughes has a good grasp of the sleight of hand by which great gaps can be left which are satisfactorily filled in by the pressure exerted on either side by existing material rather than needing the writer to shovel in ballast for dear life before the structure cracks. Still, the murky world of the rising Nazi party perhaps convinces even more – because it is less familiar (to the British reader, anyway), and because Hughes is so obviously thoroughly conversant with the historical sources, to an extent that renders it unnecessary for him to labour the fact.

Do we now need to labour the unsettling echoes of that time in this? Probably not: anyone likely to be able to hear them has probably already done so. Martin Kettle certainly has:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/may/16/brexit-britain-weimar-germany-far-right-democracy-contempt-politicians

Also on this day in 1791, in an edition of 1750 copies (two volumes quarto, price two guineas), James Boswell’s Life of Johnson was published. Many of Johnson’s remarks, so faithfully recorded by Boswell, are specific to his time, to his social, cultural and political context. Others are applicable to other times too:

‘Where a great proportion of the people (said he,) are suffered to languish in helpless misery, that country must be ill policed, and wretchedly governed: a decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.—Gentlemen of education, he observed, were pretty much the same in all countries; the condition of the lower orders, the poor especially, was the true mark of national discrimination.’

Making Hay: a visit to The Poetry Bookshop

Hawthorn

Midway through our week in the Anglo-Welsh border country—wonderful setting, indifferent weather—we take advantage of the fact that we are less than twenty miles from Hay-on-Wye (‘the Book Town of Wales’) where we stayed a couple of years ago and brought home an alarming number of secondhand volumes needing shelf space.

The main event is going back to The Poetry Bookshop. I say ‘back’ but since we were last there, the shop has moved, to a more central position in Hay. The owners, Christopher and Melanie Prince, now stock new titles as well as secondhand. Theirs is the only specialist poetry bookshop in the country. There may be others elsewhere in the world, I don’t know, nor do I feel any need to since the stock here is astonishingly good, ranging from the obscure contemporary to the major classic and modern—I think books by and about William Blake, for instance, take up three shelves. But, not having planned this or prepared for it, I fidget, exhale noisily, pick up and put down a dozen volumes, from George Barker to Alun Lewis, browse the Pound shelves and lapse into staring blankness. Then I remember James Merrill.

A while ago, in the course of an unearthing, I turned up an old stray copy of The Hudson Review, dating back to 1972. It led off with poems by Octavio Paz, included four translations of Osip Mandelstam by W. S. Merwin and Clarence Brown and, the reason for its being in my possession in the first place, a twenty-page essay by Richard Pevear, ‘Notes on the Cantos of Ezra Pound’. I had no clear memory of it—my reading must have coincided with thesis research—but my pencil marks are in evidence: ‘Pound’s poetry has its source in “the noblest of the senses,”, the eyes’, ‘The Greek word for truth, aletheia, means unveiling’, ‘there is nothing fictional, nothing mythological, nothing allegorical in the Cantos’, and the remark that, while Homer makes use of the devices of oral poetry (as have many writers of literary epics since), Pound, ‘on the other hand, makes use of the devices of print, not only in the lay-out of the page, but in his basic technique of the suppression of narrative links, which presupposes a fixed text.’ This looked back, I suspect, to an earlier statement that, ‘There is a feeling of wholeness in the Cantos that is very hard to explain.’ I must have frowned over some of this a good deal at the time but the item that struck me when I brought the journal back into the light of day was Merrill’s ‘Days of 1935—a long poem’. The narrator remembers himself as a child, the news on the radio about the Lindberghs’ kidnapped and murdered baby—Richard Hauptmann’s trial took place in early 1935—and imagining his own kidnapping in a long, detailed narrative:

On the Lindbergh baby’s small
Cold features lay a spell, a swoon.
It seemed entirely plausible
For my turn to come soon,

For a masked and crouching form
Lithe as tiger, light as moth,
To glide towards me, clap a firm
Hand across my mouth,

Then sheer imagination ride
Off with us in its old jalopy,
Trailing bedclothes like a bride
Timorous but happy.

HR

Elegant, accomplished, the form seeming very traditional—regular and capitalised lines, rhymes!—in contrast with most of the stuff I was reading at the time. Then too, the main influences or affinities – Henry James, Proust, even Stevens – were not quite the usual suspects for my favoured poets then either. Reviewing Merrill’s Selected Poems in the New York Times (7 November 2008), August Kleinzahler observed: ‘Many readers will find the poetry mannered. It is, by design. The poet is an aesthete, a dandy in the Baudelairean sense, unabashedly so.’ He added that Merrill ‘enjoys creating the sorts of atmospheres found more often in novels than in poetry, and a number of his poems are narratives in miniature, tiny blank verse novels of manners.’

Your village touched us by not knowing how.
Even as we outdrove its clear stormlight
A shower of self-belittling brilliants fell.
Miles later, hours away, here are rooms full
Of things you would have known: pump organ, hymnal,
Small-as-life desks, old farm tools, charter, deed,
Schoolbooks (Greek Grammar, A Canadian Reader),
Queen Mary in oleograph, a whole wall hung
With women’s black straw hats, some rather smart
—All circa 1915, like the manners
Of the fair, soft-spoken girl who shows us through.
Although till now she hasn’t heard of you
She knows these things you would have known by heart
And we, by knowing you by heart, foreknew.

Merrill-CP

Merrill cropped up several times in the course of other reading: in the letters of Elizabeth Bishop and a biography of her—the lines above are the opening of one of the poems that Merrill wrote to her, the elegiac ‘Overdue Pilgrimage to Nova Scotia’—and in Timothy Materer’s Modernist Alchemy, picked up for the sake of Yeats and Pound but which also pays attention to Merrill because of the famous use of an Ouija board in the making of his enormous poem, The Changing Light at Sandover. And I came across other poems of his, mainly in anthologies, which showed a wide range of styles and forms. So a few relevant facts had lodged in my mind: he’d written a lot, some of it very impressive – and I didn’t have any of his books. Until now.

So, the Librarian having snagged a couple of posters by Jackie Morris—and a few Virago titles in Addyman Books later—I was also pretty restrained, limiting myself to the Peter Russell collection of essays on Pound, read decades ago but not previously owned – and the Merrill Collected Poems, a modest volume of a little under 900 pages. Even so, it still excludes The Changing Light at Sandover. Another time, perhaps. . .

 

 

Cooking, cleaning, washing the pig

; Chinese People Washing Three Large, White Elephants

(Unknown artist, ‘Chinese people washing three large, white elephants’: Wellcome Collection)

07:30 and my Spelt loaf is underway. But I actually enjoy bread making so can this count as housework? Cooking, fine, washing up and vacuuming, okay; ironing, less so; cleaning, much less so.

When Rudyard Kipling moved into Bateman’s in September in 1902, the house and thirty-three acres costing £9300, he was, Andrew Lycett notes, looking forward to washing his 335 apple trees ‘with oil, limewash, salt and soap’ as recommended in the agricultural textbooks.[1] Would that count as housework? Probably not. Gardening or perhaps, on that scale, farming—‘We began with tenants – two or three small farmers on our very few acres – from whom we learned that farming was a mixture of farce, fraud, and philanthropy that stole the heart out of the land’—and would Kipling have done that work himself? He certainly had views on domestic service – of some of the people he met on his return from India to England: ‘They derided my poor little Gods of the East, and asserted that the British in India spent violent lives “oppressing” the Native. (This in a land where white girls of sixteen, at twelve or fourteen pounds per annum, hauled thirty and forty pounds weight of bath-water at a time up four flights of stairs!)’[2]

Batemans

http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/batemans.htm

D. H. Lawrence might turn his hand to sweeping floors and baking bread—and the Skeptic philosopher Pyrrhon of Elis was, apparently, ‘known to dust the house and sweep the floors for his sister, and was once seen washing the pig’[3]—but the real (male) literary demon when it comes to housework is Patrick White, whose letters are littered with references to the daily tasks. ‘I seem to spend all my time washing up and preparing for the next meal’, he wrote to Frederick Glover and, on the eve of a long trip to Europe, remarked to Mollie McKie: ‘Still, it will be a change not to do the washing up for a few months. I did go away for a few days recently. but found myself washing up in self-defence as my hosts were so bad at the sink.’ To Geoffrey Dutton, he confided that: ‘My rheumatics only left after house-cleaning days: I suppose all the stooping and stretching drove them out; so you can tell Max [Harris] that is another good reason not to keep a “char”.’ Later, furious at a review of one of his plays which asked what Patrick White knew about suburbia since he was brought up ‘in a mansion’, he told Mary Benson: ‘I had lived in suburbia for twelve years, between sink and stove, and scrubbing my own floors, before writing that play.’ Again to Dutton, describing a call from a friend, he noted in passing that ‘I was labouring at the house-cleaning when the telephone went’.[4]

White-Letters

When White and Manoly Lascaris moved to the house in Martin Road in October 1964, White’s biographer records, they had a cleaning woman for a short time but White stated that, ‘after doing everything in the way of house-cleaning ourselves over the last fifteen years, I find it a great strain having somebody else about, and I am always relieved when those mornings are over.’ She didn’t last and, ‘Once again, he took up the broom and Hoover himself.’[5]

How long does all this stuff take? How long should it take? Judith Flanders writes that most Victorian houses (above a certain social level, of course) ‘operated a system that ran more or less as follows:

Monday: laundry

Tuesday: servant’s room [if time was allowed for it at all, her note adds], one bedroom

Wednesday: remaining bedrooms

Thursday: drawing room, breakfast room, morning room

Friday: dining room and polishing the silver

Saturday: hall, stairs, kitchen, passageways

Sunday: collect, sort and soak laundry ready for Monday’[6]

Edwardian-maids

http://www.edwardianpromenade.com/occupations/general-servants-time-table/

Lucy Lethbridge, writing of the Edwardian period, notes that ‘Cotton, woven in the great textile factories of the industrial Midlands, needed mangling, starching, bleaching and pressing to keep its appearance. For the working-class housewife, washing her own family’s clothes took up two full days of the week.’ Midway through the twentieth century, ‘In 1950 a survey of full-time housewives showed that they spent an average of seventy hours a week on housework; in a survey in 1970 that average had risen to seventy-seven hours.’[7]

Leaving aside the fact that ‘labour-saving devices’ are assumed to do precisely that—and surely they became more widely available in those twenty years—seventy-seven hours? Really? Eleven hours a day every day of the week? Madness. I shall continue to cook, wash up, hoover and sweep a bit – and make bread. As for the bathroom and shower. . . the Librarian and I will draw lots.

 
References

[1] Harry Ricketts, The Unforgiving Minute: A Life of Rudyard Kipling (London: Chatto and Windus, 1999), 278; Andrew Lycett, Rudyard Kipling (London: Weidenfeld, 1999), 347.

[2] Rudyard Kipling, Something of Myself: For My Friends Known and Unknown, (1936; edited by Robert Hampson, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987), 146, 87.

[3] ‘Pyrrhon of Elis’, in The Jules Verne Steam Balloon: Nine Stories by Guy Davenport (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987), 25.

[4] Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 123, 125, 352, 436-437, 493.

[5] David Marr, Patrick White: A Life (London: Vintage, 1992), 447.

[6] Judith Flanders, The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbed to Deathbed (London: Harper Collins, 2003), 106-107.

[7] Lucy Lethbridge, Servants: A Downstairs View of Twentieth-century Britain (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 76, 308.

 

Betwixt and between

Tart

‘A perfect tart to weave together spring and summer’, Anna Jones wrote of her roast tomato and asparagus tart with rosemary.

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/may/28/anna-jones-vegetable-tart-recipes

And so it is. While asparagus is available (so long as it’s not flown thousands of miles), I make it every week or so, the cherry tomatoes slowly roasting, the eggs coming slowly to room temperature, the lemons warily eyeing the zester and the Librarian sometimes bringing home the crème fraîche that I’ve forgotten to replace.

Meteorologically speaking, we are a little over halfway through our British Spring. The bright sky lures and the brisk wind bites; today is briefly alluring in between the showers, though yesterday the wind repeatedly lurched into explosive rages, scattering recycling bins along the street and wrecking the Librarian’s mini-greenhouse, spilled plant pots slewing soil across the gravel.

Wind breaking, then, rather breaking wind. Alluding to national habits of hat-tipping in a letter to James Laughlin, Guy Davenport noted that, ‘The French removed the chapeau and swept the air with it. The Elizabethan English swept the ground, after three twirls while making a leg.’ He added: ‘It is told of a provincial mayor that whilst so saluting Elizabeth I, he broke wind. He was thrown into confusion and slunk away. He later received a gracious note from his sovereign, saying, “I have forgot the fart.”’[1]

Salome-Rilke

Seasonally, then, we’re betwixt and between, as Ford Madox Ford wrote to his agent James Pinker about the genre of the manuscript that became No Enemy. ‘For what is going on here, heaven knows, has for three or four days not been spring any more, has been dense, young summer’, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to Lou Andreas-Salomé from Rome in April 1904:

The hyacinths in my little bed, which have long been hesitating, are flinging open their blossom eyes like one hammered awake by an alarm-clock, and have already been standing there quite long and straight. The elms and oaks by my house are full, the Judas tree has shed its blossoms, and all its leaves will be ready overnight; and a syringa tree that stretched out its clusters only three days ago is already in process of fading and scorching. The nights are scarcely cool any more, and the busy clamor of frogs is their voice. The owls call less often, and the nightingale still hasn’t begun. Will she still sing now that it is summer?[2]

Winter

Yes, good question. What is that song we hear so indistinctly – nightingale or Siren? Nationally, we are, along with a good many other countries suffering political rupture, very much between: in our case, divergent forces wrenched between Little Britain and the wider world. I sense in myself, on some days, that ‘armchair reformist’ Louis MacNeice wrote of, who ‘sits between two dangers–wishful thinking and self-indulgent gloom.’[3] Things are, in some senses, quieter at the moment but the building is still subsiding, the body still nearing the ground at a troubling speed.

As for Ford Madox Ford’s phrase, ‘betwixt and between’: does that imply movement or simply the state of being stranded, neither one thing nor t’other? Ford himself had identified an historical moment when, ‘The old order, in fact, is changing; the new has hardly visibly arrived.’[4]

ER1

Ford was writing towards the end of the reign of Edward VII—you might say ‘Edwardian’ but things get complicated around then, not helped by some of the connotations of the word ‘Georgian’—a juncture anyway to which critics and literary historians are prone to referring as ‘transitional’. Of Ford’s journal The English Review, Malcolm Bradbury once observed: ‘the magazine marks a moment of strong literary transition.’[5] Well, yes: December 1908 to February1910, that phrase seems reasonable enough, so it may be unsurprising—and I’m not sure how ironic—that the word, certainly the idea, of transition, is applied to Ford himself with remarkable frequency. I confess to doing it myself all the time.

Of a slightly later period—a decade or so—Laurence Rainey wrote that ‘by now it should be clear that the publication of The Waste Land marked the crucial moment in the transition of modernism from a minority culture to one supported by an important institutional and financial apparatus.’[6] The avant-garde journal Transition was founded by Eugene Jolas and Maria McDonald in 1927 and ran for a decade; English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, began in 1957 and remains one of the leading literary journals today.

Macaulay-Told-Idiot

Critics and literary historians, then, find ‘transition’ everywhere, though Stephen Kern sternly declares that, ‘One of the greatest fallacies of historical reconstruction is the characterization of events as transitional.’[7] In her 1923 novel, Told by an Idiot, Rose Macaulay writes ‘Stanley always reflected her time and it was, people said, a time of transition. For that matter, times always are, and one year is always rather different from the last.’ And later in the same book: ‘A queer time! Perhaps a transition time; for that matter, this is one of the things times always are.’[8]

Safe to say, then, that we are probably betwixt and between – and almost certainly in a time of transition.

 
References

[1] W. C. Bamberger, editor, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 165.

[2] Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1892-1910, translated by Jane Bannard Greene and M. D. Herter Norton (New York: Norton, 1969), 148.

[3] Louis MacNeice, The Strings are False: An Unfinished Autobiography, edited E. R. Dodds (Faber paperback 1996), 134.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, The Critical Attitude (London: Duckworth, 1911), 128-129.

[5] Malcolm Bradbury, The Modern British Novel (London: Penguin Books, 1994), 81.

[6] Lawrence Rainey, Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Cultures (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998), 91.

[7] Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918 (Harvard University Press, 1983), 142.

[8] Rose Macaulay, Told by an Idiot (1923; Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1940), 55, 150.

Gunmen and bowmen: Don McCullin at Tate Britain

McCullin

The Don McCullin exhibition at Tate Britain has been receiving five-star reviews in the press. Would we quarrel with this? Hell, no. The photography—together with the magical arts practised in the darkroom—sits perfectly on a level with much of the art that, in the broadest context, surrounds it. The subject matter is often appalling, the quality of construction and composition superb, the result frequently unnervingly beautiful. A large chunk of the second half of the twentieth century, its public history and its private grief, is here. And what a hell of a century that was for so many people.

Part of the way round the exhibition, I was conscious of several strong but distinct strands of feeling. One was a recognisable impulse to weep, at the sheer unstoppable waves of slaughter, suffering, grief, loss and despair, in Biafra, in East Beirut, in Vietnam, in London’s East End, in Cyprus, in Northern Ireland, in Kurdistan, the Congo, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Iraq. I was also getting flashbacks to my reaction to Raoul Peck’s superb 2016 documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, based on a James Baldwin manuscript, when I was struck by how little progress had actually been made in the intervening years and how much of what had been so appalling then remained appalling now. On the walls of the McCullin exhibition were images from the 1970s not only of the many bloody, vicious and pointless conflicts but of homeless and destitute people, house interiors in foul condition because of exploitative landlords, anti-fascist demonstrations in London, vile racist graffiti on exterior walls. Forty years ago, fifty years ago—and those huge stretches of time simply fall away or dissipate like smoke when you open a newspaper or turn on the news now.

Waterloo-Bridge

We’d walked along Waterloo Bridge, where a great many people were demonstrating to draw attention to climate emergency here in our last chance saloon, most of them young, since my generation and the one before it have proved themselves so utterly useless in this regard, trashing the planet while wasting twenty or thirty years after a good number of the relevant facts were already known, so the response at this absurdly late stage must necessarily be more radical, more comprehensive, more disruptive, than if intelligently conceived, planned and executed policies had existed before now.

GD-GB

The other response I recognised was a recurrent desire to shout obscenities at the top of my voice, remembering then a moment in a Guy Davenport story, typically highly allusive, sometimes cryptic, culturally wide-ranging, stylistically elegant, which abruptly and shockingly lurches into quite another register. ‘The Bowmen of Shu’ centres on the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, killed at Neuville-St.-Vaast on 5 June 1915 at the age of twenty-three, and consists of 42 sections, varying from a single line to several pages, interspersed—in the version included in Apples and Pears—with thirteen drawings, two by Gaudier and the others by Davenport. Section 10 reads: ‘THE SOLDAT’S REMARK TO GENERAL APPLAUSE / Fuck all starters of war up the arse with a handspike dipped in tetanus.’ And yes, I think, yes, I second that emotion. And please include all the suppliers of arms and the political and financial shysters that actively or passively facilitate such slaughters.

Men with guns. Always a particular cause, a particular locality, particular grievances, occasions, pretexts, justifications. But that particularity leaks away, blurs, dilutes, leaving only men with guns. Dead children, grieving parents—and men with guns.

It is, in any case, one of the very best exhibitions, if also one of the most harrowing, I can remember seeing.

Letting in water

Durer-ill-ShipFools

(Albrecht Dürer, illustration to The Ship of Fools)

There was a piece in The Guardian a few days back, which rounded up some foreign views of the state the United Kingdom is in, reminding us, if we needed reminding, that to many people outside this country, such a spectacle must seem extraordinary.

The Washington Post had a piece called ‘Brexit will mark the end of Britain’s role as a great power’, which observed that the UK, ‘famous for its prudence, propriety and punctuality, is suddenly looking like a banana republic’. Here was a country ‘determined to commit economic suicide but unable even to agree on how to kill itself’, led by ‘a ship of fools’ unwilling to ‘compromise with one another and with reality’. The result was an ‘epic failure of political leadership’, Friedman said: scary stuff, but ‘you can’t fix stupid’.

‘Ship of fools.’ That was an adaptation (1509) by the poet Alexander Barclay of a 1494 allegory by the German satirist Sebastian Brant; also the title of an allegorical novel by Katherine Anne Porter, published in 1962. The nautical theme recurs, not only in the header illustration by the Guardian design team, showing the HMS Britain steeply angled in an unfriendly-looking sea, but in one or two other comments. Sreeram Chaulia, dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs, said many Indians saw Brexit as the latest chapter in a ‘sharp decline in the place Britain commands as a great power’. The UK ‘is not a gold standard to look up to’, he said. ‘We get a feeling of a sinking ship, and everybody wants to leave a sinking ship.’

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/apr/06/a-shambles-on-which-the-sun-never-sets-how-the-world-sees-brexit

I was reminded of that stout phrase, ‘the Ship of State’, which I see is traced back to Book Six of Plato’s The Republic. In the old Jowett translation, one section caught my eye: ‘The sailors are quarrelling with one another about the steering—every one is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary.’

No contemporary parallel there, obviously. Precisely in the middle of the nineteenth century, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow waxed optimistic:

‘Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O UNION, strong and great!’

And:

‘In spite of rock and tempest’s roar,
In spite of false lights on the shore,
Sail on, nor fear to breast the sea!’[1]

Traffic-Hole-Shoe

That of course, was another Union, which, eleven years later, didn’t seem so solid; while ours is certainly lower-case and seems to be letting in water. In another lifetime, Traffic had a hit with a Dave Mason song, ‘Hole in My Shoe’ (‘And all that I knew/ The hole in my shoe/ Was letting in water’) – only a shoe then, so the situation’s clearly deteriorated.

I’ve never been in a shipwreck before—certainly not one caused by the crew and passengers together scuttling the ship—so, while the joy is hardly unconfined, there is at least an element of novelty.

I remembered poor Owen Chase, first mate of the Essex, sunk by a sperm whale in 1820.[2] The survivors in their small boats were finally reduced to eating the bodies of the dead; the next stage, once those supplies were exhausted, was the drawing of lots and the shooting of those who lost. In Captain Pollard’s boat, the man shot was the captain’s own nephew, named Owen Coffin. In later life, Chase apparently developed an obsessive fear of starvation, ‘never wasting a morsel at the dinner table, and frequenting the market to buy supplies that he larded [stuffed] in his attic.’[3] We can perhaps glimpse certain elements of his story in our own too likely future—but not, we hope, all of them.

Turner, Joseph Mallord William, 1775-1851; The Shipwreck

(J. M. W. Turner, The Shipwreck: Tate Britain)

More relevant, perhaps, is Declan Kiberd’s comment on Homer’s epic: ‘The logic of the Odyssey is that of many tales involving shipwreck – the answers to problems will be found only after the act of destruction. The catastrophe must precede clarification.’

And he adds a little later that resurgences, such as modern Ireland’s, ‘often come after a period of trauma – what Gaelic poets called longbhriseadh (shipwreck), a terrible but challenging disaster which becomes the precondition of a change to a new future.’[4] ‘Resurgence’: rising again, basically resurrection which, as I recall, requires death as a precondition. So that’s another cheering thought.

Thoreau queried the sort of impulses that have been driving a number of political developments lately: ‘Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. It is not important that he should mature as soon as an apple-tree or an oak. Shall he turn his spring into summer? If the condition of things which we were made for is not yet, what were any reality which we can substitute? We will not be shipwrecked on a vain reality. Shall we with pains erect a heaven of blue glass over ourselves, though when it is done we shall be sure to gaze still at the true ethereal heavens far above, as if the former were not?’[5]

Walden_1854_cover_image

Elsewhere, he suggests that ‘A book should contain pure discoveries, glimpses of terra firma, though by shipwrecked mariners, and not the art of navigation by those who have never been out of sight of land.’[6]

‘In our time’, Guy Davenport’s Dutch philosopher Adriaan van Hovendaal writes in his notebook, ‘we long not for a lost past but for a lost future.’[7] Thirty-five years on, that is true of some of us—but clearly not of others, which at least partly explains how we got here. Wherever here might be.

 
References

[1] ‘The Building of the Ship’, The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (London: Ward, Lock: n.d.), 103.

[2] His account was published in 1821. Herman Melville saw him, though not to speak to, in 1841; he did meet Chase’s son, who gave him a copy of his father’s Narrative: Melville, Moby Dick (1851; edited by Harold Beaver, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972), 17; and ‘Appendix: The Earliest Sources’, 971-979.

[3] Paul Lyons, introduction to Owen Chase, Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex (London: Pimlico, 2000), xxvii.

[4] Declan Kiberd, Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), 283, 307.

[5] Henry David Thoreau, Walden, edited by J. Lyndon Shanley (Princeton University Press: Princeton and London, 1974), 326.

[6] Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (New York: Library of America, 1985), 80.

[7] Guy Davenport, Apples and Pears (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), 63.