Apocalyptic shopping

The Great Day of His Wrath 1851-3 by John Martin 1789-1854

(John Martin, The Great Day of his Wrath: Tate)

The university strike is on again for lecturers, librarians, technicians and support staff. More pickets, rallies, marches and earlier mornings. What are the issues? Pensions, workloads, declining salaries in real terms, pay disparities (gender and ethnicity), reliance on staff who are on insecure, short-term contracts, the increased marketisation of higher education. Ah, the joys of late capitalism, set in the context of its abiding question: why do the bastards always win?

The shopping arrives and it occurs to me that the Librarian is planning for the apocalypse, though she mentions snow and epidemics as rational bases for such precautions. There is at least plenty of cat food and strong bread flour, toilet rolls, pasta, rice. We have a lot of tins, wine, cheese and vegetables. I think we’re covered.

After a brief pause here yesterday, the rain once again seems to want to fall forever, bringing further misery to a lot of places and perhaps demonstrating to those not already apprised of the fact just how much the current government, particularly the Prime Minister, cares. (The Greek apokalypsis, I see, means ‘an uncovering’.) Some days have been so dark at times that I had to turn on both overhead lights in the kitchen before I could glimpse the Bara Brith that I was trying to make (and, by the way, Anna Jones, excellent recipe but some detail must be wrong: either the duration of cooking or the oven temperature or the dish should be covered in foil for all or part of the time. If I simply follow the directions given – it burns). And the coronavirus, whatever the arguments over terminology, has very obvious pandemic ambitions – ‘You self-isolate almost all the time already, don’t you?’ the Librarian remarks.

Alexandra Harris, in Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies, has a quotation from William Cowper’s 5000-line poem, The Task (1785) which seems startlingly apposite to our current situation:

Is it a time to wrangle, when the props
And pillars of our planet seem to fail,
And Nature with a dim and sickly eye
To wait the close of all?[1]

For now, given the state of the game and the players engaged in it – stack the tins higher.

 

 

Note

[1] Alexandra Harris, Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015), 214; the Cowper quote is from book 2, lines 62-65.

 

Adding a few Maigrets

Davies-Maigret-Sunday-Times

(Rupert Davies as Jules Maigret: via Sunday Times)

I read my first Simenon in translation more than forty years ago – and that wasn’t actually a Maigret but The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By. In the 1990s, particularly, I did read a lot of the Maigrets, between thirty and forty, usually in batches of five or six, some of them Penguins but probably at least as many Harcourt Brace paperbacks when the Penguins were out of print. Whenever the bookshop needed to order titles through our American wholesaler, I would add a few Maigrets.

In 2013, Penguin Books, Simenon’s long-time British paperback publisher, began producing a complete edition of the seventy-five Maigret titles, in new translations – and featuring some of the leading contemporary translators. Early volumes in the series are by David Bellos, Anthea Bell, Linda Coverdale, David Coward and Linda Asher.

These new translations, or the ones I’ve seen, are fresh, clean, brisk: these are qualities often ascribed to Simenon anyway, the shaving off of adjectives, of ‘every word which is there just to make an effect’, of anything ‘literary’, that lesson learned early from Colette, then literary editor of Le Matin: ‘“Pas de littérature!” she said. “Supprimez toute la littérature et ça ira!”’

The first Maigret (not, originally, the first in book-form, since it had appeared as a serial), Pietr the Latvian is, as Julian Barnes observes in a TLS piece of May 2014, reprinted in Maigret and the Penguin Books (London: Penguin Collectors Society, 2015), ‘the most hectic and the most anxiously complicated’, but he adds that the template is established as early as the opening paragraph of the second book. And yes, there are many of the details and much of the texture that readers recognise and rely upon: the office stove, the characteristic exchanges with telephone operators, the endless sandwiches and beer—the endless food and drink in fact (if Maigret hasn’t eaten for a while, that is always commented on), Maigret’s physical characteristics, his height and weight (‘a good hundred kilos’), his solidity, his imperturbability. He can and does talk to anyone, focusing often on those who have felt the rough edge of life. In the series’ first novel, we read that Maigret, ‘worked like any other policeman. [ . . . ] But what he sought, what he waited and watched out for, was the crack in the wall. In other words, the instant when the human being comes out from behind the opponent.’

Maigret-Yellow-Dog

The Yellow Dog has some enlightening exchanges between Maigret and Inspector Leroy (with whom he hasn’t worked before, since he usually teams up with Lucas): ‘But I don’t go in for deductions.’ When Leroy comments that he doesn’t quite understand Maigret’s methods but is beginning to see, Maigret replies: ‘You’re lucky, my friend. Especially in this case, in which my method has actually been not to have one . . . ’

Most readers find a few authors, or series of books, which they’ll happily return to repeatedly. Those resources can seem, and often are, priceless. Mine are hardly controversial: the Sherlock Holmes stories of Conan Doyle; the novels of P. G. Wodehouse; and Georges Simenon, particularly the Maigret stories.

So, when the series of new translations was nearing completion, I ordered half a dozen and asked for a few more for Christmas, so that I had a reasonable store against the time when winter really kicked in – or the world was unarguably going to hell. I dip into the news a little warily these days but the runes aren’t hard to read: Trump’s America, Modi’s India, my own unfortunate country; Australian bushfires illuminating flat-earthers; coronavirus in China – and in how many other countries by now?

Six Maigrets read in as many days is not so surprising then. But I should probably pause now and keep some in reserve – just on the off-chance that there are still dark days ahead. . .

 

 

 

Notes in the margins

Walden-Cramer

‘I love a broad margin to my life’, Henry Thoreau wrote in Walden, describing days when he ‘could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands.’ Trees, birdsong, sunlight. In his fully annotated edition of Thoreau’s work, Jeffrey Cramer points to the journal entry for 31 March 1842: ‘The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure. There will be a wide margin for relaxation to his day. He is only earnest to secure the kernels of time, and does not exaggerate the value of the husk.’[1]

(Many readers trapped in debilitating jobs might be yearning for any width of margin at this point – but have no Ralph Waldo Emerson to buy more than a dozen acres of land and grant them permission to live there. We did end up with Walden, though.)

I’ve been thinking about margins lately: less marginalisation (based on class or gender or colour) than marginalia. And not in the sense, say, of Matthew Hollis on Edward Thomas when he remarks of early 1915 that Thomas ‘would write many poems over the next two years in which the events of the war took place obliquely in the margins of the page: the missing cast of characters who had been killed in France, the unattended garden tools, the rusty harrow, the older men missing their mates, the bereft wives.’[2] I mean it rather more literally.

H. J. Jackson’s well-known Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books examined thousands of volumes annotated by both famous and obscure readers. I recall too William H. Sherman’s Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England, from those glory days when I was professionally engaged with the University of Pennsylvania Press and more related titles have turned up in the last few years. William Blake famously—and productively for his modern critics—annotated the Works of Joshua Reynolds, but books by Lavater, Swedenborg, Wordsworth, Berkeley, Francis Bacon and others as well. Also famously, or notoriously, the playwright Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell altered the cover art and publishers’ blurbs of more than seventy books from public libraries, were found guilty of malicious damage and theft, and served several months in prison. Five years later, Halliwell battered Orton to death with a hammer and then killed himself, though I don’t suggest that the one thing invariably follows the other.

Lavater-Blakes-Marginalia

(Blake on Lavater’s Aphorisms on Man)
https://blog.blakearchive.org/2016/07/20/some-promising-forays-into-transcribing-blakes-marginalia/

It happens in fiction too. In Lawrence Durrell’s Sebastian or Ruling Passions, he writes of Constance that, ‘In the margin of a book she had borrowed from Sutcliffe she had found the scribbled words: “The same people are also others without realising it.”’[3] (A sentence which neatly encapsulates a fair proportion of that long work, come to think of it.)

For sure, one man’s marginalia is another man’s malicious damage, as one woman’s graffiti is another woman’s street art. In some contexts, to some tastes, yes, such details can be fascinating. Robert Phelps remarked, in a letter to James Salter: ‘Scrapbooks, footnotes, almanacs, letters, diaries, questionnaires, marginalia, memos, alphabets . . . how I love them. Pasolini once called himself a “pasticheur.” I think I am an annotator. The story exists for the scribbled notes in the margin.’[4]

Scribbled notes. Well. . . A few weeks ago, reading Osip Mandelstam, I took out from the university library the ground-breaking 1973 book on Mandelstam by Clarence Brown, strongly recommended by Guy Davenport (a decisive factor in my case). A little way in and the unwanted markings and annotations—frequently in ink—which started as a distraction, steadily developed into annoyance and passed on into the higher state of insuperable obstacle. I abandoned it and looked for secondhand copies online, finally settling on one, its condition described as ‘Very Good’, for sale in the United States. Prepared for a longish wait, I was happy enough with the four weeks it took. When I opened the package, though, I found that it was an ex-library copy, which hadn’t been mentioned in the description. Worse, some noodle or juggins or muggins had scribbled on more than eighty pages – that hadn’t been mentioned either. ‘Very Good’? Hah.

Brown-Mandelstam

The only saving graces were, firstly, that all the annotations, underlinings, question marks and circlings seemed to be in pencil; secondly, that Cambridge University Press books from the early 1970s—this one, at least—had good quality paper and print, so wielding an eraser only removes the scribble, not the text underneath it. And then sending it back would be a nuisance – it’s a long way from here to Indiana.

I’ve made plenty of pencilled markings in books myself: some of the older ones that survived are pretty embarrassing to revisit – the brief definitions of words perfectly familiar now or reminders to check facts that seem painfully obvious. The point is, I suppose, that I make notes in my own books, not anybody else’s; and certainly not in a library book which is a shared resource, available to all the library’s users – and that availability is rather diminished if half of it’s unreadable because of someone else’s scrawl.

Still, on the upside, my general ignorance to date of Mandelstam’s work and its context will substantially lessen any temptation to pencil notes in the margins, gesturing to various points of the cultural compass. It has to be said that the state of some of my Ford Madox Ford and Ezra Pound books is a disgrace. . .

 
Notes

[1] Henry David Thoreau, Walden, edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004), 108; he quotes Thoreau’s Journal, I, 356. The Journal and a great deal more is accessible on the superb website https://www.walden.org/

[2] Matthew Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas (London: Faber and Faber, 2012), 201.

[3] Lawrence Durrell, Avignon Quintet, one-volume edition (London: Faber and Faber, 2004), 978.

[4] Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps, edited by John McIntyre (Berkeley, California: Counterpoint, 2010), 38.

 

That parting

Shriek

31 January 2020. A pretty dark day here for the most part, not a lot of light. At midnight we become—officially now—a small, resentful, disunited island, moored off the coast of Europe. So that should make some people happy.

For the rest of us—not so good. Not a question of money though I expect things to get worse, particularly for those already struggling. There were endless, often pointless, arguments about trade, finance, various economic factors. But it was never really about that.

I was thinking of Ezra Pound’s ‘Exile’s Letter’ by ‘Rihaku’ (Li Po):

And if you ask how I regret that parting:
It is like the flowers falling at Spring’s end
Confused, whirled in a tangle.
What is the use of talking, and there is no end of talking,
There is no end of things in the heart.

But thinking also of Robert Creeley’s short poem, ‘Myself’:

I want, if older,
still to know
why, human, men
and women are

so torn, so lost, why hopes cannot
find better world
than this.

 

 

 

On not getting all the words back

Chimborazo-Guardian

(Chimborazo, Ecuador, via The Guardian)

In July 1919, Robert Graves wrote to Edmund Blunden, having been shown some of his published work by Siegfried Sassoon. Did Blunden have anything to offer for the Owl, the quarterly Graves was co-editing with W. J. Turner? Turner was the Australian-born poet and critic, best-remembered now, perhaps, for his poem ‘Romance’ (it begins: ‘When I was but thirteen or so/ I went into a golden land,/ Chimborazo, Cotopaxi/ Took me by the hand’).

Blunden sent several poems which Graves then forwarded to Turner to look at. ‘“Pan Grown Old” is my favourite’, Graves commented. ‘May I presume for a moment? Titles aren’t your strong suit. All this Pan business is played out anyway. Why not call it “A Country God” and remove that rather Unenglish “complex” from the reader’s eye?’[1]

‘All this Pan business’ had certainly been a significant cultural feature of the period before the First World War, in the work of E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, Arthur Machen, Saki, Edgar Jepson, and in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, among others.[2] Blunden accepted the suggested change of title. The revised version of the poem published in the Owl was included in The Waggoner and other poems (1920). It begins:

When groping farms are lanterned up
And stolchy ploughlands hid in grief,
And glimmering byroads catch the drop
That weeps from sprawling twig and leaf,
And heavy-hearted spins the wind
Among the tattered flags of Mirth,—
Then who but I flit to and fro,
With shuddering speech, with mope and mow,
And glass the eyes of Earth?[3]

Longmuir, Alexander Davidson, c.1843-1891; Ploughing after a Shower

(Alexander Davidson Longmuir, Ploughing after a Shower: Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums)

My eye is caught by ‘mope and mow’ mainly because it’s not ‘mop and mow’—Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable has ‘grimaces’, with a sidelong glance at the Dutch moppen, ‘to pout’—familiar to me from Ford Madox Ford’s books. ‘Mopping and mowing’ crops up in Violet Hunt’s The Last Ditch and a couple of times in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts. It occurs twice in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette too, and the note in my Oxford World’s Classics edition points to Shakespeare’s King Lear, though there (IV, i) it’s ‘mocking and mowing’ – as it is in Blunden’s ‘De Bello Germanico’.[4] Ford, and probably Violet Hunt, most likely took it from Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market—‘Puffing and blowing,/ Chuckling, clapping, crowing,/ Clucking and gobbling,/ Mopping and mowing’—Rossetti being the nineteenth-century poet whom Ford most admired.[5]

Rossetti_goblin_market

My other eye is fixed on ‘stolchy’. In a remarkably detailed compendium of notes on The Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters, George Lyttelton is quoted (1 March 1956) as having mentioned that the Oxford English Dictionary didn’t know about ‘stolchy’. Lyttelton copied the opening lines of Blunden’s poem into his commonplace book.
https://lyttelton-hart-davis.site123.me/

Elsewhere, a discussion of W. H. Auden’s habit of roaming through the OED for material has an example: “‘A Bad Night”, subtitled “A Lexical Exercise”, is an obvious example of a dictionary-inspired poem. It is crammed with words lifted from OED which, out of context, are virtually unintelligible: hirple, blouts, pirries, stolchy, glunch, sloomy, snudge, snoachy, scaddle etc.’
https://oed.hertford.ox.ac.uk/literary-sources/writers-and-dictionaries/auden-and-the-oed/

So ‘stolchy’ is there now, in the constantly-updated Oxford English Dictionary? I go online and look. Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary has it as a verb, ‘to tread down, trample, to walk in the dirt’; and a 1772 manual of husbandry, Ellis’s Practical Agriculture, Volume II, has the adjective. But no, it isn’t in the OED. Still, Wright, whose six-volume work appeared between 1898 and 1905, already has it as ‘obsolete’ then.

99t/47/huty/14061/41

(Robert Bridges via History Today)

Robert Bridges—then Poet Laureate and, famously, editor of the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins—in a 1921 tract for the Society of Pure English, The Dialectical Words in Blunden’s Poems, remarked: ‘“Stolchy” is so good a word that it does not need a dictionary.’ Perhaps, to the modern ear, it’s close enough to ‘squelchy’ not to require further explanation but Blunden evidently felt that it had a quite specific application: perhaps ground not only wet but trodden down, usually by cattle, then subjected to still more rain. On the way back from seeing Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, the ground in the park was, hmm, stolchy; and there was, too, a bit in the film about dialect, usually humorous, and mainly in the mouth of James Steerforth.

Dialect—variations in speech peculiar to place or social group—is not archaism—language fallen out of current use—though the one can become the other. Ezra Pound remembered that, ‘when I was just trying to find and use modern speech, old Bridges carefully went through Personae and Exultations and commended every archaism (to my horror), exclaiming “We’ll git ’em all back; we’ll git ’em all back.”’[6]

He is there again in the Pisan Cantos:

“forloyn” said Mr Bridges (Robert)
“we’ll get ’em all back”
meaning archaic words (80/507)

Pound’s attitude towards such words, and those who used them, tended to fluctuate. Against his praise of Gabriele D’Annunzio, one might set Ford’s comments, as he traced what he saw as the decline of English poetry (while ‘what is wanted of a poet is that he should express his own thoughts in the language of his own time’): ‘The other day I was listening to an excellent Italian conférencier who assured an impressed audience that Signor D’Annunzio is the greatest Italian stylist there has ever been, since in his last book he has used over 2,017 obsolete words which cannot be understood by a modern Italian without the help of a medieval glossary.’[7]

Let’s not get them all back.

 
Notes

[1] Letter of 12 July 1919: Robert Graves, In Broken Images: Selected Letters of Robert Graves, 1914-1946, edited by Paul O’Prey (London: Hutchinson, 1982), 112, 113; Barry Webb, Edmund Blunden: A Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 114.

[2] See W. R. Irwin, ‘The Survival of Pan’, in PMLA, LXXVI, 3 (June 1961), 159-167.

[3] Edmund Blunden, ‘A Country God’, in Selected Poems, edited by Robyn Marsack (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1993), 32-33.

[4] Charlotte Brontë, Villette, edited by Margaret Smith and Herbert Rosengarten (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 195, 300, 633n; Blunden, Fall In, Ghosts: Selected Prose, edited by Robyn Marsack (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2014), 12.

[5] Though Ford also used ‘minced and mowed’ in The Fifth Queen (London: Penguin Books, 1999), 101; ‘mopped and mowed’ in A Man Could Stand Up— (1926; edited by Sara Haslam, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 68 and n., where other usages are detailed; and ‘miching and mowing’ in Provence (London: Allen & Unwin, 1938), 87 and Mightier Than the Sword (London: Allen and Unwin, 1938), 264, 265, 266.

[6] Ezra Pound, Selected Letters, 1907-1941, edited by D. D. Paige (New York: New Directions, 1971), 179.

[7] Ford Madox Ford, Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911), 52, 53.

 

Futures imagined or misplaced

Boccioni-elasticity-1912

(A touch of Futurism: Umberto Boccioni, Elasticity (1912): Palazzo Brera, Milan, Italy)

‘What interest have all men in common?’ Ezra Pound asked in January 1912. ‘What forces play upon them all? Money and sex and tomorrow.’ Of the last, he remarked further: ‘And tomorrow? We none of us agree about.’[1] We can at least agree about that non-agreement: even the meaning of ‘tomorrow’ is uncertain in a lot of contexts – literally ‘ tomorrow’, the very next day (though tomorrow, they say, never comes)? Or more along the lines of Macbeth’s ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’?

The first version of tomorrow is the seventieth anniversary of the death of George Orwell and I notice I don’t have a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the house; nor am I sure how or when that disappearance happened. I remember bits of it quite well (as do most of its readers, I suspect), including the cheery suggestion that a feasible image of the future is of a face being stamped on forever; and the Party slogan, ‘Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’

I noticed too that Steven Poole’s ‘Word of the Week’ was ‘xenobot’—that prefix from the Greek, xenos: strange foreign—from the recent announcement that scientists had ‘created the first living robots by building machines using stem cells taken from African frogs’:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jan/16/xenobot-word-of-the-week

In Jeanette Winterson’s novel, Frankissstein: A Love Story, Dr Stein ‘goes to the window, watches the buses up and down Oxford Road, carrying their cargo of people who aren’t thinking about the future beyond teatime or tomorrow or their next holiday or whatever fear is the fear that waits for them in the dark. It’s raining. That’s what most people are thinking about. The size of our lives hems us in but protects us too. Our little lives, small enough to make it through the gap under the door as it closes.’[2]

Mary-Shelley

(Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell © National Portrait Gallery, London)

Thinking about the future—and thinking about the past’s thinking about the future—is the mainspring of Winterson’s novel (though it contains much else): looking back to Mary Shelley’s conception and writing of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818), looking at the present’s—and the likely future’s—relationship with artificial intelligence, robotics and cryonics. But for most of those not actively engaged in futures—more than I first thought: financial, political, medical, urban planning, electronics, writers of science fiction and how many more?—Dr Stein is probably not far off. Not always the fear that waits for us in the dark but mainly pretty small, and likely short-term too. Longer term, death and taxes are said to be the only certainties. In latter years, unless you have a pretty hefty pension package, you may not pay much tax at all. Death you can’t outwit, outlast or buy off—although, needless to say, this is not a truth universally acknowledged.

Imagined-Futures

It’s hard enough to think about the present just now, and increasingly difficult to remember parts of the past; it must surely take a particular sort of mind to open itself to possible future trends and developments and make constructive guesses or predictions. The doyen of Ford Madox Ford scholarship, Professor Max Saunders, has just published a new book called Imagined Futures: Writing, Science, and Modernity in the To-Day and To-Morrow Book Series, 1923-31 (Oxford University Press). That series ran to more than one and fifty titles and the list of its authors boasted some very celebrated names, J. B. S. Haldane, Robert Graves, André Maurois, Vera Brittain among them. Saunders has written informative pieces about the series on the Oxford University Press blog and The Conversation website:

https://blog.oup.com/2019/11/to-day-and-to-morrow-series-shows-how-imagine-future/

https://theconversation.com/futurology-how-a-group-of-visionaries-looked-beyond-the-possible-a-century-ago-and-predicted-todays-world-118134

Now the crowdfunding publisher Unbound plans to produce a new series, the first five of which will be: The Future of Serious Art by Bidisha, The Future of British Politics by Frankie Boyle, The Future of Men by Grace Campbell, The Future of Stuff by Vinay Gupta and The Future of Antiquity by Sir Richard Lambert. If you want to pledge your support, there are various options, from £40 (plus shipping) for all five paperbacks to more expensive signed or limited editions.
https://unbound.com/books/futures/

Futures

Where might one begin to define, predict or even locate the future? ‘Home is where one starts from’, T. S. Eliot remarks, reasonably enough in East Coker—but earlier, at the very outset of Burnt Norton, plunges straight in: ‘Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future/ And time future contained in time past.’[3] Julia Blackburn writes, of the small party held to celebrate the completion of her book: ‘I say that I hope everyone will like the book if it is eventually translated into Italian and that being here in the valley has made me think that time past and time present and time future is like a vast landscape and we are walking through it on a tracery of thin paths.’[4] The scholar Roger Lewis wrote in an introduction to Rudyard Kipling’s Rewards and Fairies that Kipling ‘has seen the future, and it is the past in masquerade.’[5] Joseph Conrad, in Heart of Darkness, has his master mariner Marlow observe that: ‘The mind of man is capable of anything – because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.’[6]

Does our understanding of the past or our grasp of the present better equip us for a stab at the future? ‘Strange how, when you are young, you owe no duty to the future; but when you are old, you owe a duty to the past. To the one thing you can’t change.’ So the narrator in Julian Barnes’ The Only Story.[7] But of course, in one sense, we change the past all the time, rewriting, revising, editing. We augment, elide, censor and, increasingly, bits fall out. And, if we sometimes mourn the past, the losses, disappearances, things never repeated which were meant to be—sometimes we also mourn the future, what we, as individuals, as a country, as a species, will not have or see or know again. ‘In our time’, Guy Davenport’s Adriaan van Hovendaal writes in his journal, ‘we long not for a lost past but for a lost future.’[8]

I have a faint memory of reading, or reading about, a fiction concerned with precisely that: a sort of lost property office stacked not with packages, umbrellas and raincoats but with futures that became unmoored. But I may have imagined it.

 

 

Notes

[1] Ezra Pound, ‘I Gather the Limbs of Osiris. IX: On Technique’, Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 32.

[2] Jeanette Winterson, Frankissstein: A Love Story (London: Jonathan Cape, 2019), 160.

[3] T. S. Eliot, ’Four Quartets’, in The Complete Poems and Plays (London: Faber and Faber, 1969), 182, 171.

[4] Julia Blackburn, Thin Paths: Journeys In and Around an Italian Mountain Village (London: Jonathan Cape, 2011), 248.

[5] Roger Lewis, ‘Introduction’, Rudyard Kipling, Rewards and Fairies (1910; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1987), 10.

[6] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness with The Congo Diary, edited by Robert Hampson (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 63.

[7] Julian Barnes, The Only Story (London: Jonathan Cape, 2018), 168.

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

 

A slight pricking of the thumbs

petworth reynolds macbeth & the witches

(Joshua Reynolds, Macbeth and the Witches
National Trust Collections: Petworth House and Park, West Sussex)

‘You’re not very safe around sharp things,’ the Librarian observes, watching me wrestle with sheets of kitchen roll. ‘Put some pressure on it.’

‘Everyone has little accidents in the kitchen,’ I say.

‘Not as often as you do.’

‘dear hemingway’, Ford Madox Ford began a letter in November 1932, ‘(I have cut off the top of my left thumb with a sickle and so cannot put down the capital stop)’. He had conveyed the same news to Ezra Pound, probably a little earlier: ‘i have cut off the top of my left thumb in a gardenin operation and writing is difficult to me’.[1]

No, not that: on this occasion, I merely sliced off several layers of skin from my forefinger, leaving a relatively small wound which, nevertheless, had only one ambition, one aim in life: to bleed. It took quite a while to stop it.

Ford’s letter, though. The first point of interest is that he’s still writing to Ernest Hemingway, with whom he’d fallen out in Paris during the brief life of the transatlantic review. Hemingway included unflattering portraits of Ford and Stella Bowen in The Sun Also Rises (1926) and generally wrote disparagingly about Ford in letters to various correspondents in the intervening years but there was some direct contact in 1932, partly because Ford wrote round to a good many writers, Hemingway among them, soliciting testimonials for a pamphlet issued to accompany the 1933 trade publication of Ezra Pound’s A Draft of XXX Cantos.

Cantos-Testimonials

(Via Peter Harrington Books: https://www.peterharrington.co.uk/authors/p/ezra-pound )

There was also the hugely admiring introduction (dated January 1932) that Ford had written for the Modern Library’s reissue of A Farewell to Arms.[2] Ford’s November 1932 letter acknowledges the copy of Death in the Afternoon that Hemingway has sent him: ‘i have been absorbing instruction from it ever since last night when i got it and shall shortly be able to talk like any aficionado’ (Letters 216). In 1935, Ford published a report for the New York Times on the trial of Bruno Hauptmann for the kidnapping and murder  of the young son of Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne. The report was headed ‘Trial is Likened to a Bullfight’ and, in Great Trade Route, Ford described how, to his companion Janice Biala, the painter with whom he lived during his last decade, the people she met ‘were of unexampled vindictiveness and ferocity’ toward the defendant. ‘For her it was as if she were in a bull-fight crowd, every member of which would have spat on, if it could, and have tortured, the bull . . . which is not, of course, the attitude of any bull-fight crowd’.[3]

More than thirty years would elapse before the publication of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, with its cheerful defamation of several of his contemporaries, including Scott Fitzgerald, Wyndham Lewis, Gertrude Stein and Ford.

Ernst Jünger, in his classic First World War book Storm of Steel, wrote of finding the split thumb of a driver more sickening than wholesale slaughter and mutilation: ‘It’s an example of the way in which one’s response to an experience is actually largely determined by its context.’[4] Another contemporary of Ford’s, C. E. Montague, with a sly nod to the second witch in Shakespeare’s Macbeth—‘By the pricking of my thumbs,/ Something wicked this way comes’ (IV, i)—had the narrator of one of his stories remark: ‘Besides, I had felt a slight pricking in my thumbs, such as usually visits me when I come near an intellectual, even one who is not a burglar.’[5]

NPG 2752; Benjamin Jonson by Abraham van Blyenberch

(Abraham Blyenberch, Ben Jonson: National Portrait Gallery)

The poet and dramatist Ben Jonson presumably experienced something more than ‘a slight pricking’. When he killed the actor Gabriel Spencer in 1598, Jonson pleaded self-defence but also claimed ‘benefit of clergy’, the advantage of literacy being that he was able to read Psalm 51 (in the King James Bible) in Latin. The implication was that, since only members of the clergy could do so, it was inappropriate for them to be tried in a secular court rather than a (more lenient) ecclesiastical one. Possessing the power to save you from an undesirable rendezvous with the public hangman, the Psalm came to be known as the ‘neck verse’. In this instance, Jonson was only (only!) branded on the thumb.[6]

At least the skin on my forefinger will grow back. Probably.

 
Notes

[1] Ford Madox Ford, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 216; Brita Lindberg-Seyersted, editor, Pound/Ford: The Story of a Literary Friendship (London: Faber & Faber 1982), 112.

[2] Reprinted in Ford Madox Ford, Critical Writings, edited by Frank MacShane (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964), 127-136.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, Great Trade Route (London: Allen & Unwin, 1937), 198.

[4] Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel, translated by Michael Hofmann (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004), 91.

[5] C. E. Montague, ‘A Fatalist’, in Action (1928; London: Chatto & Windus, Phoenix Library, 1936), 164.

[6] Peter Vansittart, In Memory of England: A Novelist’s View of History (London: John Murray, 1998), 48.