Autumn harvest

Sargent-gassed

(John Singer Sargent, Gassed, Imperial War Museums)

September. Originally the seventh month of the year. The Welsh name, ‘Medi’, is the word for reaping; the Irish, ‘Meán Fómhair’ means ‘mid-autumn’; and the Scots Gaelic, an t-Sutltuine, refers to the abundance and cheerfulness of harvest.[1] It hardly feels like mid-autumn here yet, early mornings aside; and while the ‘astronomical’ autumn begins on 23 September, the date of the autumn equinox, the ‘meteorological’ autumn began on 1 September (mine too).

The ‘abundance of harvest’. Yes, I’m currently closely engaged with a handsome festschrift for poet and publisher (and much else) Jonathan Williams, which I intend to write about in the very near future. Jeffery Beam, one of the book’s editors, closes his introduction with the observation that, ‘One might call Jonathan’s life a poetics of gathering, and this book is a first harvest.’[2] Then too, harvest looms very large indeed in a superb recent novel, All Among the Barley, by Melissa Harrison.[3] She took part in a Festival of Ideas event last night with Tim Pears, ‘The Pastoral Novel and Lessons of History’, held at the main Waterstones branch in Bristol, both of them very impressive, articulate and engaged (the moderator was good too). Melissa Harrison, asked to read an extract from her book, recited from memory, as Alice Oswald does her poetry. With prose, it’s rarer, though I recall an event years ago at which Iain Sinclair read and then Stewart Home recited or, possibly, improvised, talking very quickly and for a good fifteen minutes.

Harrison-Barley

I read Melissa Harrison’s novel on the train to and from Manchester. Set in the 1930s, it doesn’t need to spell out or even point towards the painful resonances with our current situation. The narrator dreams of the countryside in which she grew up. ‘Awake, I would picture in loving detail the valley’s fields and farms, its winding lanes and villages, conjuring up a vision of a lost Eden to which I longed to return. But at last I came to see that there is a danger in such thinking; for you can never go back, and to make an idol of the past only disfigures the present, and makes the future harder to attain’ (324).

Wave-IWMN

The Imperial War Museum North is exhibiting Wave, initially conceived for the installation at the Tower of London in 2014, designed by Tom Piper and sculpted by Paul Cummins. Poppies as symbols of remembrance (the history, the controversies, the disparate opinions) featured in the current exhibition, Lest We Forget? As well as some fascinating photographs, film footage, documents and commissioned war paintings—Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer, Wyndham Lewis—there was the huge John Singer Sargent picture, Gassed, which I’d been trying to show to the Librarian for quite a while: when we asked in London it had been lent to Washington but now we’d finally caught up with it.

Whitworth

Once checked-out of the hotel, we walked to the refurbished Whitworth Gallery, a stunning success, every detail a real class act, now one of the Librarian’s favourite places (and mine). To walk into a huge and elegant space—the exhibition is called In the Land—a Terry Frost canvas on either side of the threshold, past a Peter Lanyon, a Bryan Wynter, a Roger Hilton, then a Barbara Hepworth and John Milne’s aluminium Icarus, to the end wall’s pairing of a John Piper and a beautiful Ben Nicholson—it’s a damned fine walk. Prints of Darkness: Goya and Hogarth in a Time of European Turmoil was wonderful and terrifying, reminding me again how precisely Goya’s ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’ provides the default text for our times. Textiles from the Islamic World included some breathtaking exhibits and Bodies of Colour—yes, wallpaper—was diverting too.

Goya-sleep-of-reason

(Goya, ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’)

Then the City Gallery—remarkable—with the wonderful cards that people fill in: ‘What did you enjoy most about your visit?’ One read: ‘I saw it with my wife’. Another: ‘The Ancient Arts were decent. Thank you.’ Then the Central Library. Bloody hell. Fantastic. The Wolfson Reading Room. The rows of intent and silent readers. The Henry Watson Music Library. The kids picking out tunes on the piano, working out songs together. Democratic. Non-judgemental. Free. This stuff matters. I think of all the Tories and privatisation fetishists who say: ‘We don’t need libraries’ or ‘Nobody uses libraries’. They know nothing; they display such shameful ignorance that they should never pronounce on this or any other issue again. Never ever again.
References

[1] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 355.

[2] Jonathan Williams: The Lord of Orchards, edited by Jeffery Beam and Richard Owens (Westport and New York: Prospecta Press, 2017), xiv.

[3] Melissa Harrison, All Among the Barley (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018).

Memory, photographs, life

Ginzburg-via-TLS

(Natalia Ginzburg via the TLS)

Recently, reading a novella by Natalia Ginzburg, I came across this passage, a memory of Carmine Donati, an architect, forty years old.

‘He remembered one occasion when he was very tiny, still in his mother’s arms, and they were in town, at the station. It was night time and pouring with rain. There were crowds of people with umbrellas waiting for the train, and mud was running between the tracks. Why on earth his memory should have squandered and destroyed so many events, and yet preserved that moment so accurately, bringing it safely through the years, tempests and ruins, he did not know. At that point, he could not remember anything about himself, what clothes and shoes he had worn, what wonder and curiosity had woven and unwoven itself in his thoughts at the time. His memory had thrown all that out as useless. Instead, he had retained a whole pile of random detailed impressions, that were hazy, but light as a feather. He had kept the memory of voices, mud, umbrellas, people, the night.’[1]

BSMCricket794

(Rohan Kanhai, via The Cricket Monthly)

Memory, the eternal object of fascination, certainly for a reader of Ford Madox Ford and an occasional, though rather short-winded, visitor to the Marcel Proust estate. Why, years after I stopped following test cricket (and reading Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack) could I recall the exact scores made by the Guyanese batsman Rohan Kanhai in Adelaide in 1960-61? Or the first paragraph of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, not having read it for forty years? Or the exact shape and feel of the gates of our house in Gillingham, Kent, when I was two or three years old? All these against the important—sometimes crucial—information that fell out of my head the moment it arrived there. Arbitrary, unreliable, disordered, beloved memory.

Up in the loft, surrounded by books—as I would be practically anywhere else in the house save for the bathroom—and distracted by misreading the maker’s name on the iron as ‘Russell Hoban’ (literary tunnel vision) as I attempt to subdue a clean shirt, I catch sight of an old photograph of myself, unearthed by the Librarian in her recent excavations, clearing and culling.

I have a few other photographs of similar vintage but buried in boxes or an old album given to me by my mother and misplaced since, of course. This recent rediscovery would probably prompt remarks similar to those elicited by others of its kind. ‘Nice-looking chap. What happened?’ To which the standard rejoinder is: ‘Life’.

PS-c1970

Bad haircut; cigarette hanging out of mouth; good grief, thin tie tucked into trousers. I was, I think, working at a garage at the time: it was primarily a Fiat dealership but also sold used cars, specialising in Rovers. I was the accounting troubleshooter, brought in because not all the mechanics’ hours were being charged and I was to track them down. The owner—father of a close friend, who also worked there as a salesman—paid for my driving lessons until I passed my test and became more generally useful, able occasionally to collect and deliver new cars when I wasn’t hunched over an adding-machine, telling bad jokes to the foreman or flirting with the forecourt attendant.

Such recollections seem stable enough—are they also static, black and white, like my photographs of the time, because of my photographs of the time? ‘Like history, memory is inherently revisionist and never more chameleon than when it appears to stay the same.’[2] The novelist Patrick White wrote that, ‘although memory is the glacier in which the past is preserved, memory is also licensed to improve on life.’[3]

Photographs of oneself. I’m reminded of Marie Darrieussecq’s discussion of Paula Modersohn-Becker’s pregnancy in her 1907 self-portrait. Darrieussecq writes that the only photograph of herself on the walls of her home, a portrait by Kate Barry, was taken when she was six months pregnant. ‘At the time, I often offered it to journalists when they asked me for an author photo. It was rejected every time. The answer was always the same: “We’d like a normal photo.”’[4]

Ah yes, the widely-known abnormality of a woman being pregnant.

With memory in mind, Eric Ormsby wrote:

‘Somehow I had assumed
That the past stood still, in perfected effigies of itself,
And that what we had once possessed remained our possession
Forever, and that at least the past, our past, our child-
Hood, waited, always available, at the touch of a nerve,
Did not deteriorate like the untended house of an
Aging mother, but stood in pristine perfection, as in
Our remembrance. I see that this isn’t so, that
Memory decays like the rest, is unstable in its essence,
Flits, occludes, is variable, sidesteps, bleeds away, eludes
All recovery; worse, is not what it seemed once, alters
Unfairly, is not the intact garden we remember but,
Instead, speeds away from us backward terrifically
Until when we pause to touch that sun-remembered
Wall the stones are friable, crack and sift down,
And we could cry at the fierceness of that velocity
If our astonished eyes had time.’[5]

Blackburn-Emperors

In a Julia Blackburn book, I came across this: ‘I recently read an article about a retired accountant who uses a metal coat-hanger as a dowsing rod with which he can locate the exact position of the walls, windows and doorways of churches that fell down long ago and are now covered by grass and earth and forgetfulness. Sometimes he might sketch out an area where stones and bricks should be lying but when the archaeologists come to dig they find nothing there. This can be simply because he has made a mistake, but often it has turned out that he was locating a part of a building that had lain there concealed and undisturbed but was then dug up and removed many years ago. This phenomenon, of finding the memory of something that has vanished and left no trace of itself, is called by dowsers “remanence”.’[6]

Under ‘remanent’, my dictionary offers ‘remaining’ and, for the noun, ‘a remainder, a remnant’. My other dictionary, though, suggests for the adjective, ‘(of magnetism) remaining after the magnetizing field has been removed’.

The magnetizing field of memory; and the memory of ‘something that has vanished and left no trace of itself’. Elusive, allusive, illusive stuff. As for that photograph, the script will read: ‘Who’s this?’ ‘No idea. Looks vaguely familiar but. . . can’t quite place it.’

 
References

[1] Natalia Ginzburg, Family and Borghesia: Two Novellas, translated by Beryl Stockman (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1992), 68.

[2] Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory (London: Verso, 1996), 15.

[3] Patrick White, The Solid Mandala (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969), 192.

[4] Marie Darrieussecq, Being Here: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker, translated by Penny Hueston (Melbourne, Australia: Text Publishing, 2017), 131.

[5] From ‘Childhood House’ by Eric Ormsby, in For a Modest God: New and Selected Poems (New York: Grove Press, 1997), 117. I believe I first saw this poem on the Anecdotal Evidence website years ago: http://evidenceanecdotal.blogspot.com/

[6] Julia Blackburn, The Emperor’s Last Island: A Journey to St Helena (London: Vintage, 1997), 176-177.

Sleep and his brother Death

Turner, Joseph Mallord William, 1775-1851; Death on a Pale Horse (?)

(Turner, Death on a Pale Horse (?): Tate Britain)

On 28 August 1967, after hearing the news of her friend Alyse Gregory’s death, Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote in her diary, ‘As for me, I think sadly that my store of congenial minds is running very low. Never mind, so am I. And she is safe at least. Sleep and his brother Death have seen to that.’[1]

‘Sleep and his brother Death’. That sibling naming, though not the sentiments, recall David Jones’ In Parenthesis: ‘But sweet sister death has gone debauched today and stalks on this high ground with strumpet confidence, makes no coy veiling of her appetite but leers from you to me with all her parts discovered.’[2]

Allyson Booth writes of the etymological relationship between sleep and death—‘bed’ derived from the word meaning ‘to bury’, ‘cemetery’ derived from a word meaning ‘a place to sleep’, and of how the First World War literally undermined ‘a soldier’s confidence in the stability of death and a corpse’s embodiment of death’ in the churned-up ground of the Western Front as men walked and slipped and fought on the bodies of the fallen.[3]

But this is, so they say, a time of peace; and the fact is that, certainly once we reach a certain age, we are increasingly likely to witness or commemorate the death that is viewed as relief rather than tragedy. Some deaths, seeming to occur absurdly early, can still fall into that category – though some, of course, are simply an affront, a spitting in the eye of the universe and an insult to nature.

Only with the 18th century did the number of births gain over that of deaths; and this became the pattern regularly thereafter.[4] It was in 1918 that deaths overtook births again. ‘Coffins that had been stockpiled during the war, as there were no bodies to put in them, were suddenly in short supply. The Leicester railway workshops turned to coffin manufacturing and Red Cross ambulances were employed as hearses.’[5]

Self-Portrait 1914 by Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959

(Stanley Spencer, Self-Portrait: Tate Gallery)

Sometimes, death constitutes no serious interruption to a process possessing its own rules and impetus. Stanley Spencer’s correspondence with his former wife Hilda continued after her death, beginning with a December 1950 letter and continuing until his own death nine years later. There was never any reference to her being dead and some of his letters ran to scores of pages.[6]

And the approach of death is sometimes neither feared nor unwelcome. In Patrick White’s novel The Riders in the Chariot, though Himmelfarb is near death in Mrs Godbold’s house, ‘He was as content by now as he would ever have allowed himself to be in life. Children and chairs conversed with him intimately.’[7] The importance of chairs – and tables – as solid, honest, real is a recurrent motif in White’s work.

Walter Savage Landor does a nice line in stoic acceptance of the inevitable ending:

To my ninth decad I have tottered on,
And no soft arm bends now my steps to steady;
She, who once led me where she would, is gone,
So when he calls me, Death shall find me ready.

Landor

And perhaps one more:

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife;
Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of life;
It sinks, and I am ready depart.[8]

And Ali Smith writes of how ‘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’.[9]

That’s something to aim for: bend death a little. Tell it right.

 
References

[1] Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner, edited by Claire Harman (London: Virago Press, 1995), 312.

[2] David Jones, In Parenthesis (1937; London: Faber and Faber, 1963), 162.

[3] Allyson Booth, Postcards From the Trenches: Negotiating the Space Between Modernism and the First World War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 59-63

[4] Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, 15th – 18th Century. Volume I: The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible, translated from the French and revised by Sîan Reynolds. (London: Fontana Books 1985), 73.

[5] Juliet Nicolson, The Great Silence, 1918-1920 (London: John Murray, 2009), 94.

[6] Maurice Collis, Stanley Spencer: A Biography (London: Harvill Press, 1962), 214.

[7] Patrick White, Riders in the Chariot (1961; Harmondsworth: Penguins Books, 1964), 432.

[8] Nick Rennison and Michael Schmidt, editors, Poets on Poets (Manchester: Carcanet Press, in association with Waterstones, 1997), 231; Daniel Karlin, editor, The Penguin Book of Victorian Verse (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 18.

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

Thin crusts, modern girls: John Buchan

JB_Buchan_in_library

John Buchan in the library
https://archives.queensu.ca/exhibits/buchan/family

‘You may say that everyone who had taken physical part in the war was then mad’, Ford Madox Ford wrote a dozen years after the Armistice. Objects that ‘the earlier mind labelled as houses’, that had seemed to be ‘cubic and solid permanences’, had been revealed as thin shells that could be crushed like walnuts, he went on. ‘Nay, it had been revealed to you that beneath Ordered Life itself was stretched, the merest film with, beneath it, the abysses of Chaos. One had come from the frail shelters of the Line to a world that was more frail than any canvas hut.’[1]

In John Buchan’s Huntingtower (1922), the poet John Heritage remarks to Dickson McCunn, ‘I learned in the war that civilization anywhere is a very thin crust.’[2] And here is Andrew Lumley in The Power-House: ‘“You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilisation from barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass. A touch here, a push there, and you bring back the reign of Saturn.”’[3]

On the face of it, the two novelists could hardly appear less alike, one a modernist with a markedly artistic background, whose work sold poorly for most of his life; the other a hugely successful writer of popular fiction, keen sportsman, son of a minister of the Free Church of Scotland, very traditional, a seemingly paradigmatic establishment figure: Lord Tweedsmuir, Governor General of Canada, born in Perth on this day, 26 August, 1875. Still, they were almost exact contemporaries: Buchan published his first book at the age of nineteen—Ford’s was published shortly before his eighteenth birthday—and produced more than a hundred in total (as against Ford’s eighty). I’ve read around a quarter of Buchan’s titles, ten of them more than once, I see. The ‘shockers’ like The Thirty-Nine Steps are by far the best-known but those made up a relatively small part of Buchan’s huge output: even fiction comprises barely one-third of it.

Walton

(Izaak Walton: Dean & Co © National Portrait Gallery, London)

In a more detailed sense, even confining the matter to Huntingtower, a reader infected with the Ford Madox Ford virus might be pencilling faint marks in the margin against such lines as ‘Finally he selected Izaak Walton’ and ‘the seeing eye’ (16), ‘Poetry’s everywhere, and the real thing is commoner among drabs and pot-houses and rubbish-heaps than in your Sunday parlours’ (26)[4] and ‘a white cottage in a green nook’ (31), as well as the editor’s citing of a passage in Buchan’s autobiography dealing with his feelings about the war (xx). Buchan writes there, ‘I acquired a bitter detestation of war, less for its horrors than for its boredom and futility, and a contempt for its panache. To speak of glory seemed a horrid impiety.’[5]

Before all else, Buchan writes a rattling good yarn and I enjoy his books enormously for themselves. Those thrillers and adventure stories and romances largely achieve exactly what they set out to do, while their limitations are fairly obvious, not least to Buchan himself. Writing to his sister Anna about her second novel The Setons (she wrote under the name of O. Douglas), Buchan remarked: ‘In Elizabeth you draw a wonderful picture of a woman (a thing I could about as much do as fly to the moon).’[6]

The_39_Steps_1935_British_poster

Oh Carroll! (character added by Hitchcock) https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38053736

Of course, hundreds of other writers have written rattling good yarns, made a living and duly faded from view; but many of Buchan’s books have not only survived but seem to be in a state of constantly improving health. They certainly possess qualities or contain features, often hard to pin down and specify, which have enabled that continued vitality. David Daniell refers to Buchan’s writing novels ‘with a mixture of surface pace of action and a deeper density of content which have a timeless quality’.[7]

For me, one of the pleasures is noticing the many ways in which a writer superficially so different from the usual modernist cast list overlaps with them, inhabits a recognisably similar world. His writing may be aimed at an audience quite unlike those aimed at by Joyce or Woolf or Ford; and he may not be fragmenting narratives or operating tricky timeframes or incorporating extra-literary discourses or multilingual puns but the overlap is certainly there for me.

This is largely because much of his work is set in and around the First World War, particularly in the years following it, perhaps my main area of interest. And although Buchan himself inhabited a world of prominent political and diplomatic figures, there remained a touch of the outsider, not least because of the war. Rejected for the army on grounds of both age and health, he visited France and Flanders as correspondent for The Times and took increasingly senior roles in information and intelligence but, as Andrew Lownie writes, Buchan ‘emerged from the First World War physically and emotionally shattered. Many of his closest friends had been killed and this loss of his immediate circle reinforced his sense of being displaced.’[8]

A good deal of his writing, then, is concerned with the terrain that most engages me: with the effects of the war both on individuals who were actively engaged in the fighting and those who were not, with shifting perceptions and understanding of shell-shock, with radical jolts in social relations, the rising threat of fascism, the ‘new Vienna doctrine’ and shifts in fashion and femininity, as the Edwardian ‘hourglass’ shape was replaced with the ‘tubular look’.[9]

Flapper
https://www.collectorsweekly.com/

This last is an example of the fascinating detail that can be followed for a short stretch or for many, many miles. While there is never (to my mind) any convincing strain of homoeroticism, here in Huntingtower is Saskia: ‘her slim figure in its odd clothes was curiously like that of a boy in a school blazer’ (70); in Mr Standfast, Mary is described as moving ‘with the free grace of an athletic boy’.[10] In John Macnab, Janet’s face ‘had a fine hard finish which gave it a brilliancy like an eager boy’s’ and later she looks to Sir Archie ‘like an adorable boy.’[11] Finally, in The Dancing Floor, Mollie Nantley says of Koré that she is ‘utterly sexless – more like a wild boy’, while Leithen reflects that, ‘These children [both youths and girls] looked alert and vital like pleasant boys, and I have always preferred Artemis to Aphrodite.’[12]

Artemis: virginal, eternally young, independent of men, athletic, the huntress. In C. E. Montague’s Rough Justice, Molly, ‘the young Artemis’, has a job as ‘games mistress’,[13] as does Valentine Wannop in Ford’s A Man Could Stand Up–, though a good many other male novelists and poets of the period would far rather, I think, have embraced Aphrodite. Trudi Tate mentions Lawrence and Faulkner as seeming ‘to disapprove of these androgynous figures’,[14] and one would immediately add Joyce. All non-combatants, I notice, which is either irrelevant or a thought for another time.

Catherine Carswell

Writing of her single meeting with Buchan in the summer of 1932, Catherine Carswell, novelist and friend (and biographer) of D. H. Lawrence, observed that, ‘A traditionalist in so many respects, he was yet a champion of the modern girl, delighting in her independences, even in her defiances, frowning neither upon her sometimes extravagant make-up nor upon her occasions for wearing trousers. As among the goddesses, his preference was for Artemis.’[15]

Ah, the modern girl. In The Dancing Floor (213), Buchan writes: ‘Virginity meant nothing unless it was mailed, and I wondered whether we were not coming to a better understanding of it. The modern girl, with all her harshness, had the gallantry of a free woman. She was a crude Artemis, but her feet were on the hills. Was the blushing, sheltered maid of our grandmother’s days no more than an untempted Aphrodite?’

Buchan is not a modernist novelist and not a part of any literary movement, though he doesn’t seem as wholly removed from the literary world as Kipling, who sometimes seems not to have known any writers other than Rider Haggard. Buchan and his wife knew Elizabeth Bowen, Rose Macaulay, Hugh MacDiarmid, Walter de la Mare, Robert Graves, T. E. Lawrence – and Virginia Woolf, whose novels Buchan admired. Woolf had known Buchan’s wife Susan for many years and one of her last letters was written to Susan, though unposted: Leonard Woolf sent it on in the month following Virginia’s death.[16]

There have, naturally, been recurrent complaints about Buchan as racist, anti-Semitic, sexist: the usual fare. There have been equally recurrent rebuttals and, indeed, what a lot of it comes down to seems to be complaints that people a hundred years ago didn’t wholly share the social attitudes that we – that most of us, we hope – share today. Still, one clue to his books lasting is, I suspect, the way that certain artists fall out of fashion because of their content or attitudes or language but then, after a further period of time has elapsed, come into focus again, far enough back now to be viewed objectively and enjoyed without fretting about ‘relevance’ or current orthodoxies. Here’s Graham Greene, looking back to the 1930s:

‘An early hero of mine was John Buchan, but when I re-opened his books I found I could no longer get the same pleasure from the adventures of Richard Hannay. More than the dialogue and the situation had dated: the moral climate was no longer that of my boyhood. Patriotism had lost its appeal, even for a schoolboy, at Passchendaele, and the Empire brought first to mind the Beaverbrook Crusader, while it was difficult, during the years of the Depression, to believe in the high purposes of the City of London or of the British Constitution. The hunger-marchers seemed more real than the politicians. It was no longer a Buchan world.’[17]

Not a Buchan world; yet, although the attitudes towards the threats may have changed over the years, some of the current threats themselves—the threat of fascism, attempts to subvert democracy, ‘fake news’ (that blood relation of propaganda)—seem worryingly familiar. But, alas, Richard Hannay, Edward Leithen, Sandy Arbuthnot and Archie Roylance will not be saving us this time around.
References

[1] Ford Madox Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 48, 49.

[2] John Buchan, Huntingtower (1922; edited by Ann Stonehouse, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 116.

[3] John Buchan, The Power-House (1916; Edinburgh: B&W Publishing, 1993), 38.

[4] See Ford Madox Ford on ‘the portable zinc dustbin’, in the ‘Preface’ to Collected Poems (London: Max Goschen, 1913 [dated 1914]), 16-17.

[5] John Buchan, Memory Hold-the-Door (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1940), 167.

[6] Quoted by Janet Adam Smith, John Buchan: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 284.

[7] David Daniell, The Interpreter’s House: A Critical Assessment of the Work of John Buchan (London: Thomas Nelson, 1975), 209.

[8] Andrew Lownie, John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier (London: Constable, 1995), 297.

[9] Martin Pugh, ‘We Danced All Night’: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars (London: The Bodley Head, 2008), 171.

[10] John Buchan, Mr Standfast (1919; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993, edited by William Buchan), 11.

[11] John Buchan, John Macnab (1925; edited with an introduction by David Daniell, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 125, 182.

[12] John Buchan, The Dancing Floor (1926; edited with an introduction by Marilyn Deegan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 57, 51.

[13] C. E. Montague, Rough Justice (London: Chatto & Windus 1926), 171.

[14] Trudi Tate, Modernism, History and the First World War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), 115n.

[15] Catherine Carswell, ‘John Buchan: A Perspective’, in John Buchan by His Wife and Friends (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1947), 160.

[16] Virginia Woolf, Leave the Letters Till We’re Dead: Collected Letters VI, 1936-41, edited by Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann Banks (London: The Hogarth Press, 1994), 483 and n.

[17] Graham Greene, Ways of Escape (London: Vintage, 1999), 69.

Temperature normal – sometimes

Borogroves-toves-raths

(Sir John Tenniel, ‘Borogroves, toves, raths’)

‘Delirium would seem to be the fate of all societies which become content in secured wealth and gradually forget the conditions of labour and service upon which alone that security can be maintained.’[1]

 
Writing to Eudora Welty in 1996, William Maxwell told her that he was sending ‘a lifetime of correspondence’ to the University of Illinois Library but couldn’t bear to dispose of his letters from Charles and Susan Shattuck without rereading them.

‘Reading the letters has plunged me into such a fit of remembering, not only of them but of almost everything else, that I couldn’t sleep because my mind was racing so. It made me realize that remembering can be a kind of illness, and perhaps I have it.’[2]

It can be; I may have it too. But if it’s the other way around, I’ve had a touch of that too lately, encountering people I’ve not seen for years, some of them dead, of course, but also with the tendency to turn into others or, indeed, into narrow staircases or resistant thickets or animals—among them, white rabbits, though not, to my recollection, Grace Slick.

Even though I’ve been luckier than a great many other people in the matter of general health, I’ve still had far more serious medical conditions than this in my life—‘I want you to go to hospital’, my doctor said once, years ago and, when I mumbled vaguely about dates and appointments, he said, ‘I mean now. Immediately.’ So peritonitis was happily avoided—but I can’t remember feeling so generally ill. And yes, the nights have been the worst but I’m still frustrated by the sheer physical effort involved in such major undertakings as putting on clothes or lifting a dropped spoon from the floor. (For the most part, the Librarian, visibly puzzled by the circumstances which have landed her with this most unnatural role, buckles to and tends.)

‘Space the doses evenly throughout the day.’

We all experience illness; some are never free of it; a part of ordinary life, it also offers the means of luring or urging the poet, the painter, the storyteller into strange and often arresting terrain. Illness is so various, involves its own related places, its own rituals, its own company. If we are not ill now, we have been and we will be.

The Centurion's Servant 1914 by Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959

Stanley Spencer, The Centurion’s Servant: Tate Gallery
© Estate of Stanley Spencer

Discussing Stanley Spencer’s The Centurion’s Servant —‘a person walking only it is lying down’, the painter remarked— Kenneth Pople notes that, in Spencer’s childhood Cookham, it was the custom to pray round the sickbed. Family recollections included an episode in which one of the older Spencer boys developed pneumonia. The illness reached a stage at which the anxiously watching women dispatched young Sydney Spencer to run to his father, then working across the Thames at Hedsor, ‘to tell him that “the crisis has come”; a message which reached Pa’s ears as ‘“Christ has come.”’[3]

Alethea Hayter quotes Coleridge—‘“I appear to myself like a sick physician, feeling the pang acutely, yet deriving a wonted pleasure from examining its process and developing its causes”’—and comments that, ‘He was speaking metaphorically, but illness, like anything else for him, could become an allegory and was interesting for that reason. Anything, however intrinsically repugnant, could be used as a symbol which would make a poem.’[4]

The warring elements of my recent nights have been the sleeplessness for hours at a time but, on the other hand, a seething and feverish onslaught of images tap-dancing on the insides of my eyelids. Lying still can, of course, be a quite exhausting business.

‘This medicine may colour your urine. This is harmless.’

Kipling-via-BBC

Edmund Wilson’s assertion that ‘[t]he theme of inescapable illness dominates the whole later Kipling’ is a reminder of just how many impressive stories this applies to, when postwar trauma is included, as it must be.[5] Yet, as J. M. S. Tompkins points out, the theme of healing predates the war, emerging in Actions and Reactions (1909), with its opening story ‘An Habitation Enforced’ and its concluding one, ‘The House Surgeon’.[6] In later stories, it is sometimes the ritual and fellowship of the masonic lodge that is the healing power: ‘In the Interests of the Brethren’, ’Fairy-Kist’, ‘The Janeites’.

‘Ah!’ Conrad’s Marlow says, ‘but it was something to have at least a choice of nightmares.’ (I think we can all wholeheartedly second that.) And: ‘I admit my behaviour was inexcusable, but then my temperature was seldom normal in these days.’[7]

My own temperature promises to be—and, importantly, to stay—normal, any day now. Yes. I think so. Any day now.

 

References

[1] C. F. G. Masterman, The Condition of England (London: Methuen, 1911), 34.

[2] Suzanne Marrs, editor, What There Is to Say, We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 441.

[3] Kenneth Pople. Stanley Spencer: A Biography (London: Harper Collins, 1991), 63.

[4] Alethea Hayter, Voyage in Vain: Coleridge’s Journey to Malta in 1804 (1973; London: Robin Clark, 1993), 152.

[5] Edmund Wilson, ‘The Kipling That Nobody Read’, in Andrew Rutherford, editor, Kipling’s Mind and Art (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1964), 67.

[6] J. M. S. Tompkins, The Art of Rudyard Kipling, second edition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), Chapter Six, ‘Healing’.

[7] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness with The Congo Diary, edited by Robert Hampson (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 103, 114.

 

An ethical dimension/ unethical dementia

Robin-Cook-Guardian

(Robin Cook via The Guardian)

I’m old enough to remember Robin Cook’s ‘mission statement’, more than twenty years ago now. Of course, we know how things worked out there but still, but still. ‘Our foreign policy must have an ethical dimension and must support the demands of other peoples for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves.’ And, towards the close: ‘Today’s Mission Statement sets out new directions in foreign policy. It makes the business of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office delivery of a long-term strategy, not just managing crisis intervention. It supplies an ethical content to foreign policy and recognises that the national interest cannot be defined only by narrow realpolitik. It aims to make Britain a leading partner in a world community of nations, and reverses the Tory trend towards not so splendid isolation.’
https://www.theguardian.com/world/1997/may/12/indonesia.ethicalforeignpolicy

Goodbye to all that, then. In Yemen, where war has been raging for several years, the latest atrocity is the dozens of deaths and injuries in a Saudi-led coalition attack on a bus full of children. An official Saudi press agency statement termed this ‘a legitimate military action’.
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/09/dozens-dead-in-yemen-as-bus-carrying-children-hit-by-airstrike-icrc

Of an earlier offensive, the Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell observed that, ‘The problem for Britain is that we are complicit in this attack. It is part of the coalition that supports Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen.’
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/13/britain-complicit-saudi-arabia-war-yemen-hodeidah

You could say that. You could, indeed, say more than that. Several months ago, David Mepham, UK Director of Human Rights Watch, remarked that the British government ‘has been one of the strongest backers of the Saudis and their Gulf-led coalition. It has provided largely uncritical support for Saudi’s role in the war, as well as selling the Saudis £4.6 billion of military equipment over this period, seemingly ignoring its own rules about not selling arms when they are likely to be used unlawfully.’ As for British ministers, they ‘insist that staying close to the Saudis and offering advice privately is the most effective way to influence Saudi actions, alongside military advice and practical support through arms sales.’
https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/03/23/britains-policy-saudi-arabia-has-worsened-suffering-yemen

Well, well. Try this. ‘For many civilians, the realisation that one’s nation might be immoral or duplicitous was profoundly disturbing’, Trudi Tate writes, discussing Rudyard Kipling’s story, ‘Mary Postgate’, having commented a little earlier that, ‘Widespread literacy made it easier to spread lies.’ Yup. And she cited an essay by Sigmund Freud, ‘The Disillusionment of the War’, dating from 1915.[1]

Freud begins by writing that, ‘In the confusion of wartime in which we are caught up, relying as we must on one-sided information, standing too close to the great changes that have already taken place or are beginning to, and without a glimmering of the future that is being shaped, we ourselves are at a loss as to the significance of the impressions which press in upon us and as to the value of the judgements which we form.’

Take away ‘of wartime’ from his opening sentence and the essay could have been written this week.

sigmund-freud

Sigmund Freud
(‘when they were yung and easily freudened’—James Joyce, Finnegans Wake
Sometimes a psychoanalyst is just a psychoanalyst)

I see I marked another, later passage, about how, when a village grows into a town or a child into an adult, the earlier forms become lost in the later; but that it’s ‘otherwise with the development of the mind’. Succession, Freud writes, also involves co-existence and every earlier stage of development persists alongside the later stages. It may well happen, he suggests, that ‘a later and higher stage of development, once abandoned, cannot be reached again. But the primitive stages can always be re-established; the primitive mind is, in the fullest meaning of the word, imperishable.’[2]

So this is where we’ve got to. Our current, carefully selective and discriminating arms trade policy appears to boil down to this: ‘If they have the money, we’ll sell to anyone that asks.’ Appendix 1, no doubt, reads: ‘when, as is bound to happen, you use the weapons we’ve supplied to slaughter civilians, with a particular appetite for children, we agree to say nothing whatever about it. So long as your cheque is in the post.’

 
References

[1] Trudi Tate, Modernism, History and the First World War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), 39, 5.

[2] Sigmund Freud, ‘Thoughts for the Times on War and Death’, Civilization, Society and Religion, Penguin Freud Library Volume 12, edited by Albert Dickson (London: Penguin Books, 1991), 61, 73.

 

Bees, tea towels, staying at home

tolpuddle-martyrs

With a new tea towel to prompt me, I should at least finally commit to memory the names of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. It was a part of, let’s call it, a bulk purchase of Radical Tea Towels, made by the Librarian on our recent trip to Manchester. With limited time at our disposal, we hared off to the People’s History Museum – or intended to. Twenty-minute walk, my note said. Perhaps, if you’re a champion athlete, know the city like the back of your hand and don’t start off by coming out on the wrong side of Manchester Piccadilly station. After fifteen minutes, we made our way back to where we’d begun and climbed into a taxi.

Match-Girls

We might have stayed the night in Manchester had the Librarian not already been committed to a professional trip to London and Oxford the next day. So we arrived back in Bristol around midnight in order that, on Finland’s National Sleepy Head Day, I might roll out of bed at five o’clock, an hour earlier than usual.

Suffragette-Teatowel

’We went to Europe’, Flannery O’Connor wrote to Elizabeth Bishop in 1958, ‘and I lived through it but my capacity for staying at home has now been perfected, sealed & is going to last me the rest of my life.’ Yes. I recalled the painter Hurtle Duffield’s initial reaction as his Greek lover persuades him onto a flying boat for the first leg of their journey, in Patrick White’s The Vivisector: ‘In the air he huddled in his overcoat and longed for his abandoned house; nobody would coax him out of it again. In any case after childhood, or at most, youth, experience breeds more fruitfully in a room.’

We are home now, anyway, in the resurgent hot weather. The bees are entranced by African blue basil, lavender, roses and Skylover. The gabbiest magpie of the four regulars perches on the fence and sounds off. The neighbour’s cat is still digesting the news that the recent arrivals in the house beyond our back wall have rabbits in a hutch by their kitchen door. We, in turn, are digesting the news that, after several years of quiet, those recent arrivals subscribe to the new twenty-first century conventions: make as much noise as you can. Still, the hot weather will pass; windows will close; the novelty of careering loudly around a shared house and garden will wear off.

Birds

So we are left with the recent news items which have—certainly not comforted but, perhaps, diverted—such as Government ministers drawing up plans to investigate whether the government’s own policies are to blame for the sharp rise in the use of food banks.
https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/aug/01/revealed-ministers-plan-to-research-effect-of-policies-on-food-bank-use

Could they possibly be connected? As has already been pointed out several times, this is something of an ‘is the Pope Catholic?’ query. I remember thinking the same thing when, two or three months ago, after the deaths of many unarmed protesters, there was a headline on the BBC website: ‘Did Israel use excessive force at Gaza protests?’

And one which has caused extreme discomfort: the assault on Bookmarks, the Bloomsbury Street shop.
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/aug/05/far-right-protesters-ransack-socialist-bookshop-bookmarks-in-london

There have been a good many recent attempts to suggest that we are seeing a rerun of the 1930s and, usually, I find the differences far outweigh the similarities. But masked thugs attacking a radical bookshop? That brings us a little closer, I think.