August and blackberrying

Orpen, William, 1878-1931; Harvest

William Orpen, Harvest (1918), © Imperial War Museum.
The ambiguities of autumn enlarged: war and peace, life and death.

August. High summer, though you’d hardly know it as the rainclouds roll over the house and the showers come and go. The first day of August, in fact. Lammas, hlafmaesse, ‘loaf-mass’. First fruits, harvest. Hurry into your local church with the bread and the wheat.[1] ‘After Lammas corn ripens as much by night as by day.’[2]

The harvest (a word related in origin to ‘autumn’) has been, is still, quite literally a matter of life and death for a great many people. It’s been a rich source for the horror genre too, both on the screen and on the page (Stephen King, Thomas Tryon, The Harvest, Dark Harvest, Blood Harvest, and more, no doubt). And it has its visionary or mystical moments. Poet and playwright Ronald Duncan, a pacifist, ran a co-operative farm in Devon during the Second World War. He recalled of an August day in 1940 that, ‘Binding up these sheaves of oats, I am certain I believe in oats. The stalks falling behind the cutter which we draw behind an old car, the monk binding methodically, the new members binding enthusiastically, women with coloured scarves round their heads are gleaning and one cannot glean ungracefully. If one cannot see God in an oatfield one will never see. For, here is the whole of it.’[3]

West-Mill-Welcombe-Devon

West Mill, Welcombe, Devon: http://www.literaryplaces.co.uk/?p=147

‘Standing there in the morning happiness,’ T. H. White recalled, ‘with a saffron sky in the east and the moon in the south-west still lemon yellow, beside a field where the harvest had already begun, one saw in the mind’s eye the imaginary lines all over England: the roads coming up macadamized to the invisible threads, and going on as stone, the ditches suddenly changing from cut to uncut, the parishes and territories and neighbours’ landmarks: all slept at peace now, all this beautiful achievement of cooperation and forethought among our fathers who were at peace also, in dust.’[4]

Light-in-August-US-1932

Over the years, William Faulkner’s 1932 novel, Light in August provoked a good deal of discussion over the meaning of its title. Lena Grove is heavily pregnant at the novel’s opening and Faulkner was once asked at the University of Virginia whether his title did indeed refer to a ‘colloquialism for the completion of a pregnancy’. He said no, it was to do with the peculiar quality of light in that month.[5] In his biography of Faulkner, Joseph Blotner tells of the novelist sitting with his wife Estelle in the late afternoon. ‘“Bill,” she said, “does it ever seem to you that the light in August is different from any other time of the year?”’ In this account, Faulkner goes directly to his worktable, crosses out his working title for the novel, ‘Dark House’ and replaces it with ‘Light in August’. It has to be said, though, that Faulkner was largely responsible for the later uncertainty over the ‘meaning’ of his title.[6]

This morning, I noticed a tiny stain on the shoulder of the shirt I wore yesterday: blackberry juice. We’d been wading in among the brambles and nettles for the second time in a few days. Blackberrying is ‘the one almost universal act of foraging to survive in our industrialised island’, Richard Mabey writes.[7] The country in the city, so to speak. We pick them on a path which certainly isn’t hidden. There’s a fair amount of traffic but only by foot and bicycle—there’s no motor traffic nearby which is the main consideration, since we object to being poisoned. Still, it’s odd that quite a few passers-by seem baffled by what we’re doing and hurry their children past. (‘What are they doing, mummy?’ ‘Picking delicious free food, dear, I’ve no idea why.’) Blackberry and apple crumble: even the words taste good.

Gash, Walter Bonner, 1869-1928; Two Girls Picking Blackberries*

Walter Bonner Gash, Two Girls Picking Blackberries
© Alfred East Art Gallery Permanent Collection

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking.

The speaker in Heaney’s poem recalls how quickly the blackberries would rot. ‘Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.’[8]

Blackberries

And we have thorn pricks, nettle stings, stained hands. Still—two and a half kilos of blackberries in the freezer. Kilos! What am I saying? That may be a little too foreign for these troubled time. Say five and a half pounds, avoirdupois—but there I go again. . .

I have, though, called to mind a story that Ford Madox Ford told, which seems to me to hint at why some people chose the option that they did in last year’s referendum (and perhaps in more than one election since). Ford was, for a brief time, working on a small farm on the outskirts of Philadelphia. His employer eventually hired another worker, which released Ford from his labours. He was stopping up a wasp’s nest one day, while the hired man was on the roof, fixing the shingles.

I heard him call:
“I’m coming down now.”
I said: “Wait while I fetch a ladder.” When I came back he was lying on the ground.
He said: “I’ve bruck me leg.”
I said: “What did you jump for?”
He answered: “Wal, I thought I’d see.”[9]

 

References

[1] Steve Roud, The English Year: A Month-by-Month Guide to the Nation’s Customs and Festivals, from May Day to Mischief Night (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 260-261.

[2] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 315.

[3] Ronald Duncan, Journal of a Husbandman (London: Faber and Faber, 1944), 52-53.

[4] T. H. White, The Goshawk (1951; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975), 39.

[5] Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), 375.

[6] Joseph Blotner, William Faulkner : A Biography, two volumes (London: Chatto & Windus, 1974), I, 702 and ‘Notes’, 102.

[7] Richard Mabey, Flora Britannica (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996), 183.

[8] Seamus Heaney, ‘Blackberry-Picking’, Death of a Naturalist (1966; London: Faber and Faber, 2006), 8.

[9] Ford, Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 166-167.

Making Hay

Hay-Castle-2

Hay-on-Wye, a small town in the Welsh Marches, has a couple of dozen bookshops—and, curiously, that’s more or less the number of books that we bought during our stay there.

There are probably two useful guidelines in such a situation: firstly, if you’re trying to cull the absurd quantity of books in your house, don’t choose a place famous as ‘the town of books’ in which to spend a few days; secondly, if you do go anyway, don’t pretend that you’re not going to buy books while you’re there. Take a list rather than scrabble around to produce one, on a creased half-sheet of paper, while moaning ‘I can’t think, I’ve gone blank’, in the face of acres of packed shelving.

Firbank

We simply needed—one of us rather more than the other—a change of scene and a chance to relax. It was certainly a change; and she did relax. Hay was a good choice: the right size, the right location, the right atmosphere; a couple of good places to eat; some fine walks within easy reach. The rented apartment was ideally placed and pleasant to be in: unfussily but well furnished and equipped. Looking out on a castle, its high wall often lined with jackdaws, suited me pretty well.

Imagists-1930

There are some indifferent, and a few very good, bookshops among Hay’s two dozen. Richard Booth’s Bookshop (and café and cinema) is extraordinary but our best haul was probably in the Hay Cinema Bookshop—and the laurel wreath, appropriately, must go to the wonderful Poetry Bookshop.

Poetry_Bkshp_via_Biblio.com

(Poetry Bookshop via biblio.com)

 

Sociable introverts, unite!

Maxwell

Photo: Brookie Maxwell, via http://bookhaven.stanford.edu/

William Maxwell once wrote to Sylvia Townsend Warner about Lady Ottoline Morrell, whose memoirs he was reading: ‘she is a sociable introvert, like me, and life is not easy for such but it is bound to be interesting’.[1] Though less sociable than his wife Emily, Maxwell had ‘a genius for intimacy, a genius for making one feel singular and worthy and interesting, even [ . . . ] in rooms full of other people.’[2] It’s hardly exceptional, of course, for artists to be most comfortable in small groups or with individuals, a preference often intimately connected with their desire to practice that art in the first place.

Birmingham_Uni

I’ve been taking my own model of sociable introversion out into the world: firstly, to Birmingham University on Friday, to listen to three very interesting papers primarily on Ford Madox Ford; and then to take part in a panel presentation, also concerned with Ford, unsurprisingly. I was impressed by the other panellists and mildly dissatisfied with myself, which seems, on balance, the right way round.

Then, on Saturday evening, to At-Bristol, where a large crowd gave an enthusiastic welcome to Naomi Klein in conversation with Andrew Kelly, Bristol Festival of Ideas director, and then answering questions from the audience. Very impressive and articulate, she discussed the issues addressed in her new book, No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, written in a few months, contrary to her usual practice. It’s ‘a guide to resistance in the age of Trump, grounded in the idea that simply resisting oppression is insufficient. We must decide as a society, Klein argues, not merely what atrocities we will not tolerate, but what we are prepared to build instead.’[3]

NaomiKlein

http://www.ideasfestival.co.uk/events/naomi-klein/

So, at Saturday’s event, Klein was concerned to contextualise Donald Trump, ‘not an aberration but the logical extension of the worst and most dangerous trends of the past half-century’, and to identify the ways in which those trends use political and economic crises as pretexts for forcing through policies damaging to the welfare state, regulatory safeguards and environmental controls. She then moved beyond critique to measures for resistance and the importance of envisioning the society we actually want to live in.

Nemesia

Sunday was to be no more than a trip to the garden centre because, apparently, we needed more compost. A large sack, better make it two. A couple more pots and yes, some Nemesia. And a trellis for the clematis. One large or – better, two small ones, I think. Before that, though, the Andrew Marr Show came on to the BBC: always likely to provoke my wife into noisy heckling, as on this occasion. Yesterday’s blameworthy inanities emanated from Michael Gove, busily asserting that those who don’t benefit from a university education shouldn’t have to contribute to the costs of higher education, an argument that may go down well with some people for up to five seconds unless they apply some intelligent thought to it.

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jul/02/michael-gove-mounts-defence-of-university-tuition-fees

There are two basic arguments here: firstly, that nearly everyone that pays tax at all will contribute to some services or sectors from which they don’t directly benefit: those who don’t have children will pay a portion of their taxes to the schools budget and people who always go by train will pay a portion of their taxes towards the building and maintenance of motorways and other road systems. It’s called, yes, general taxation. Secondly, every time you go to the doctor, take a prescription, drive through a tunnel or over a bridge, go into an office block or a hotel or step into a lift, you benefit from the doctor, the pharmacist, the microbiologist, the engineer, the architect, the chemist who went to university and studied and acquired expertise. If they get a higher-paid job as a result of that university education, they pay more tax – to the benefit of everyone (if you have responsible and equitable governance). Who would seriously argue that a nation does not benefit, as a whole, from having as great a proportion as possible of its citizens well-informed, capable of critical analysis, trained in problem-solving, educated?

We urgently need to change some narratives: around welfare, around tax, around housing, around education, around transport, around public provision. And we need to get well clear of the assumption that things are as they are because there’s no alternative. There is always an alternative: things are as they are because someone made a choice, someone prioritised one thing over another, someone signed the paper.

The hand that signed the paper felled a city;
Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,
Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;
These five kings did a king to death.[4]

References

[1] In a letter of 8 April, 1964: Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 139. Maxwell must have been reading Ottoline: The Early Memoirs of Lady Ottoline Morrell, edited by Robert Gathorne-Hardy (London: Faber, 1963).

[2] Paul Fox, ‘A Story in the Dark’, in A William Maxwell Portrait: Memories and Appreciations, edited by Charles Baxter, Michael Collier and Edward Hirsch (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), 48-52 (49). See also, in the same volume, Donna Tartt’s ‘Mr Maxwell’, 19-33.

[3] Laurie Penny, ‘Take Back the Power’, an interview with Naomi Klein, New Statesman (30 June—6 July 2017), 35.

[4] Dylan Thomas, ‘The Hand That Signed the Paper’, The Poems, edited by Daniel Jones (London: Dent, 1971), 66.

Remembering ‘Adlestrop’

Adlestrop-station

(Via http://www.urban75.org/blog)

On 24 June 1914, a train drew up at a country station on the main Great Western Railway line which ran from London to Oxford, Worcester and Malvern (the station finally closed in 1966, a victim of the Beeching report, more suitably termed ‘the Beeching axe’, which brought about the closure of a great many railways and the loss of local services on a huge scale). Among the passengers were Edward Thomas and his wife Helen, on their way to visit Robert Frost and his wife Elinor in Ledbury.

Thomas wrote in his field notebook for that day: ‘Then we stopped at Adlestrop, through the willows could be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 12.45 and one thrush and no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam.’

When the poem was written around six months later, he commented in a later notebook: ‘Train stopping outside station at Adlestrop June 1914.’[1] A memory refreshed.

Yes. I remember Adlestrop –
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.[2]

Four stanzas; four lines in each, rhyming abcb. This must be one of the most familiar poems in English, certainly among British readers. Voted number twenty in one survey I saw, it emerged as joint third in the most-requested poems on Radio 4’s Poetry Please programme over some thirty-five years, beside Dylan Thomas’s ‘Fern Hill’ and behind Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet, ‘How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways’.

The first stanza of ‘Adlestrop’ strikes me as a delicious example of lines that you’ve looked at a dozen times and never really seen. It begins with ‘Yes.’ A question has been asked but it’s one we don’t hear. Does the poet interrogate himself or is it an unseen and unidentified interlocutor or is the reader the implied questioner? And then: the speaker remembers Adlestrop but not, apparently, the place; only the name. He remembers, in fact, the sign, ‘Adlestrop’ because the express train drew up there ‘unwontedly’. That last word was, in an earlier draft, ‘unexpectedly’; at another stage, ‘Against the custom’ or ‘against its custom’.[3] William Cooke links the close of the poem with a passage in a prose work by Thomas, Beautiful Wales, published ten years earlier.[4] Jean Moorcroft Wilson sees the ‘germ’ of the poem in the first chapter of The Heart of England (1906).[5] Thomas ‘conflated details from different stops’.[6] Does it matter? Frankly, no. The abiding mystery is: how does it work? This short, apparently simple poem, composed of unremarkable language, no striking rhymes, that clings to the memory like a burr. How is it done? It’s a question asked, of course, of all effective art. One item of interest is precisely that ‘unwontedly’: ‘exactly the word he wanted’, Matthew Hollis remarks.[7] Yes. I had thought, vaguely, that it meant ‘unwillingly’, against one’s instincts or inclinations but ‘unwonted’ means only unaccustomed or unusual. The train drawing up there ‘unwontedly’ was something distinctive, marking the occasion out. He ‘emphasizes the unusual nature of the stop, which in turn creates a slight sense of unease.’[8]

edward thomas 1913_14_small

(Thomas in 1913-1914, via Edward Thomas Fellowship:
http://www.edward-thomas-fellowship.org.uk/home.html)

I noted earlier that the poem begins with ‘Yes’. But, in fact, like Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’ or several poems by Marianne Moore, it begins quite definitely with the title. ‘Adlestrop’. The name occurs three times: title, opening line and eighth line (‘Adlestrop – only the name’). Thomas ‘wrings from the name “Adlestrop”, by suspending it at the line-end, a series of unspoken associations with ideal rural communities.’ But ‘when he returns halfway through the poem to repeat that “What I saw / Was Adlestrop – only the name”, it is a signal for those associations to accelerate away from his reach.’[9] Ideal rural communities? Another critic suggests that, in the poem, ‘a scene glimpsed in a brief moment from a stationary train seems to open upon an ever-widening prospect of England’s central counties. These are common sights of the English countryside, but the moment is visionary’. It is, he adds, ‘an ideal England mirrored in the stillness and solitude of the poet’s mind’.[10] Elsewhere, it’s described as ‘the definitive English idyll.’[11]

Only a poem of permanent interest and value could, I suppose, generate such a wealth of interpretation and exegesis. The apparent simplicity is, of course, central to the challenge that so many readers find there. But one thing that strikes me and that seems often to be  absent from discussions of the poem is that, while, in June 1914, this country was not at war with Germany, in January 1915 it was. Thomas enlisted in July 1915, after an intense struggle, influenced to some extent by Robert Frost’s poem, ‘The Road Not Taken’, itself prompted in part by Frost’s experience of Thomas’s indecisiveness.[12] And if ‘Adlestrop’ was ‘an idyll’ or concerned to present ‘an ideal England’, it was in direct and active response to the forces that threatened it. Asked what it was that he was fighting for, Thomas famously ‘picked up a pinch of earth and answered: “Literally, for this”’.[13]

Farjeon

(Eleanor Farjeon)

So Ford Madox Ford’s persona, the poet Gringoire, voices similar concerns in No Enemy: ‘“I wonder,” Gringoire asked again that evening, “if other people had, like myself, that feeling that what one feared for was the land – not the people but the menaced earth with its familiar aspect.”’[14] In her notes to another Thomas poem, ‘The Manor Farm’, Edna Longley quotes Thomas’s essay ‘England’: ‘I believe . . . that all ideas of England are developed, spun out, from such a centre into something large or infinite, solid or aëry . . . that England is a system of vast circumferences circling round the minute neighbouring points of home’.[15] This is a conviction—a crucial one—that crops up in many literary contexts: that the national or universal, the abstract, the grandiose, must begin from the local, the concrete, the known.

That fifth line, ‘The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat’, may conjure memories of the climactic scene of the film of The Railway Children, whereby Jenny Agutter reduced grown men to tears, but given our wealth of retrospective images, I think also of battlefields wreathed in smoke or mist, poor visibility, an image real enough but itself a metaphor for the blindness or at least uncertain vision of those directing, prosecuting and suffering the Great War.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round hum, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

(Yes. I remember ‘Adlestrop’.)

 

References

[1] Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems, edited by Edna Longley (Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2008), 176.

[2] Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems, 51. This was one of sixteen poems that Thomas wrote between 4 January and 23 January 1915: Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Edward Thomas: From Adlestrop to Arras (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 310.

[3] See Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 177, on ‘unwontedly’.

[4] William Cooke, Edward Thomas: A Critical Biography (London: Faber & Faber, 1970), 121-122.

[5] Wilson, Edward Thomas: From Adlestrop to Arras, 151.

[6] The Annotated Collected Poems, 176.

[7] Matthew Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas (London: Faber, 2012), 204.

[8] Wilson, Edward Thomas: From Adlestrop to Arras, 314.

[9] Andrew Motion, The Poetry of Edward Thomas (London: The Hogarth Press, 1991), 4.

[10] Michael Kirkham, The Imagination of Edward Thomas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 116.

[11] Stan Smith, Edward Thomas (London: Faber & Faber, 1986), 11.

[12] Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France, 232-236.

[13] Eleanor Farjeon, Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1997), 154.

[14] Ford, No Enemy: A Tale of Reconstruction (1929; edited by Paul Skinner, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 26.

[15] The Annotated Collected Poems, 165: the essay is in The Last Sheaf (London: Jonathan Cape, 1928).

Another day, another dolour

Punch_via_archive.org

(Punch via archive.org)

The weather has broken—or relented, at least. Ten degrees Celsius, a fresh breeze, and the world shifts, just a little. I set off on a shopping trip, taking my life in my hands to cross the road beyond the supermarket car park, reflecting not for the first time that, were the official driving examination to include a rigorous intelligence test component, and were drivers re-tested every five or ten years, as they should be, the roads would be virtually empty—which would be nice. Ah, the automobile: ‘the machine that stole the city’s rationale for being, and made us all gypsies and barbarians camping in the ruins of the one unit of civilization which man has thus far evolved.’[1]

In the wider world, the days, as Charles Bukowski once wrote, run away like wild horses over the hills. Never more so than just lately, when the landscape is violently altered every time we look—and rarely for the better. (Bukowski also wrote: ‘I am not out to destroy all the white race— / only a small part of it: / myself’. Always look on the bright side of life, as the song goes).[2]

Dylan_Blonde_on_Blonde

‘Now people just get uglier/ And I have no sense of time’, as Bob Dylan phrased it in another song, though he did offer a logical reason for that development:

Now the rainman gave me two cures
Then he said, “Jump right in”
The one was Texas medicine
The other was just railroad gin
And like a fool I mixed them
And it strangled up my mind[3]

Mixed drinks: strangled mind. Easy enough to remember, although, casting about for explanations recently, we can’t always be citing mixed drinks, alas.

Just two weeks since the General Election. A lot of posters are still up in the windows of houses that I pass and I’ve been struck again by the fact that, though walking in several different areas around the city over the past few weeks, I’ve never seen a single Conservative poster. Shy Tories indeed. Of the rest, I’ve spotted a few Liberal Democrat posters, a few Green Party posters, a lot of Labour ones and even a Rosa Luxemburg quotation: ‘Before a revolution happens, it is perceived as impossible; after it happens, it is seen as having been inevitable.’

Goya_The_sleep_of_reason

(Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, 1799: Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY)

We sit and watch the news. The lethal disgrace of social housing. The looming catastrophe of Brexit. The ‘risky and expensive’ Hinkley Point.[4] The glaring results of cuts to local services, to police forces, to safety inspectors. The fatal obsession with ‘red tape’. These things are often viewed and discussed as single, discrete elements but, once they are perceived to be parts of a pattern, the colossal scale of error and misdirection, the weakening and near-disappearance of responsible governance, over a period of years, becomes painfully evident.

As the editorial in the New Statesman sums up: ‘For too long, Britain has been defined by grotesque inequality and a political culture that venerates deregulation, deep cuts to public spending, a shrinking state and untrammelled free markets.’ And again: ‘Where austerity does not threaten life, it impairs its quality: unrepaired roads, uncollected bins and closed libraries, gyms and children’s centres. Private wealth and public squalor.’[5]

NS

Most city dwellers now, not even in the poorer parts of the city, have only to walk out of their front doors and look around to see the truth of this.

 

References

[1] Guy Davenport, ‘The Symbol of the Archaic’, in The Geography of the Imagination (London: Picador, 1984), 19. See Davenport’s letter ‘To the Drivers of Lexington’ held at the Harry Ransom Center, via The Paris Review: https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/02/24/from-the-guy-davenport-collection/

[2] In the title poem of The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1969), 116.

[3] ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’ (Blonde on Blonde, 1966).

[4] The National Audit Office: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-40372613

[5] ‘After Grenfell’, New Statesman (23–29 June, 2017), 3.

On learning something new: bakers, pepper, striving and abiding

Apsley_Cherry-Garrard

(Apsley Cherry-Garrard: photography by Herbert Ponting via Wikipedia)

Working on the principle of learning something new—ideally something useful—every day or so, I now know that the two bakers nearest to me both shut on a Monday. I found this out, of course, not before walking to them (in opposite directions) but afterwards. Still, once returned from a third baker (located in a third direction), I felt that the daily exercise requirement had been achieved.

Now a new insight: remarkably, in temperatures of 30° (86° in American money) or more, even reading about Antarctic explorers living—and dying—in terrifyingly low temperatures doesn’t actually make me feel any cooler.[1] By ‘terrifyingly low’, I mean, say, minus 76° Fahrenheit.[2] Still I sweltered. Nevertheless, there were many details that I was glad to learn: for example, that, before leaving home, Herbert Ponting, the expedition’s photographer, ‘had been told that pepper was a great thing to keep your feet warm, and he had brought a case of cayenne to put in his boots.’ I also found out that Apsley Cherry-Garrard (‘Cherry), author of The Worst Journey in the World, had chosen, for the inscription to go on the commemorative cross erected on Observation Hill, near Hut Point, the final line of Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’: ‘To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’ When the bodies of Scott, Bowers and Wilson were found in their tent, Wilson still had with him the copy of Tennyson’s poems, in a green leather binding, that Cherry had lent him. Wilson’s widow, Oriana, later offered to return the book to Cherry but he insisted she keep it.[3]


As a vast number of movie watchers will recognise, this is also the last line of the extract that Judi Dench as ‘M’ quotes at the Intelligence and Security Committee hearing in Skyfall, the 2012 James Bond film directed by Sam Mendes:

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.[4]

In ‘Ulysses’, the lines she quotes are preceded by the speaker’s assertion that, ‘Though much is taken, much abides’. Painfully apposite, you might say: rather too much has been taken of late—yet, still, much abides.

References

[1] This was Robert Falcon Scott’s second—and for five men, including Scott himself, fatal—expedition, on Terra Nova, 1910-1913.

[2] Apsley Cherry-Gerrard, The Worst Journey in the World (1922; London: Picador, 1994), 253: ‘The day lives in my memory as that on which I found out that records are not worth making.’

[3] Sara Wheeler, Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Gerrard (London: Jonathan Cape, 2001), 81, 149, 142, 159, quoting Cherry’s journal. In his published volume, Cherry mentions ‘a book which I had lent Bill for the journey’, without specifying it: The Worst Journey in the World, 498.

[4] Tennyson: A Selected Edition, edited by Christopher Ricks (Harlow: Longman Group, 1989), 145.

An Unfinished Woman?

Lillian-Hellman

(Lillian Hellman: CPL Archive/Everett/Rex Features via The Guardian)

Cynthia Nixon recently won the 2017 Tony Award for ‘Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play’ for The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman, whose birthday it is today (20 June 1905 – 30 June 1984).

Hellman’s reputation has taken a ferocious hammering since her death (it was fairly ferocious before), focusing mainly on her veracity, questions which were brought starkly into view by her feud with Mary McCarthy and the multi-million dollar lawsuit she brought against McCarthy: it was dropped by her heirs after Hellman died a month before the case came to court.

‘Everyone’s memory is tricky,’ Hellman commented once, ‘and mine’s a little trickier than most.’[1]

See Sarah Churchwell’s piece (about the revival of The Children’s Hour and about Hellman’s ‘legendarily unreliable’ memoirs) here:
http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2011/jan/22/lillian-hellman-childrens-hour-sarah-churchwell

There’s been a good deal of discussion about where memoir ends and autobiography begins, about lies and fabrications, about selecting, concealing or exaggerating facts. For instance, Hellman claimed that she didn’t join the Communist Party but she did (that was an easy one to check, as it turned out). Her spat with McCarthy was as much about their respective political histories—and personalities—as anything else.

Fiction, history, memory, truth: who could ever get tired of this stuff? Raphael Samuel wrote that ‘Like history, memory is inherently revisionist and never more chameleon than when it appears to stay the same.’[2] Lawrence Durrell wrote in Prospero’s Cell of a past seen through ‘the transforming lens of memory’.[3] John Fowles’ biographer wrote that his ‘factual memory was poor as an adult, while his associative memory was abundantly fertile and plastic’ and, in her preface, comments: ‘Although I suspect that Fowles sometimes does lie to interviewers, particularly when he is bored or the interviewer is especially irritating, I learned to regard his interview narratives as different from deliberate lying. They were the product of what I call fertile forgetting. The personal past is forgotten or suppressed but returns through imagination in the writer’s fiction, often in a different shape.’[4] And Julian Barnes observed that ‘Memory is identity.’[5] Two such solid and stable things conjoined there, to be sure. And after all, Hellmann’s memoirs are so entertaining and often so very funny, that I can’t work up the apparently required volume of indignation.

Dorothy Parker

One of my favourite Hellman stories (quite a popular choice, I suspect) is one that she retells of Dorothy Parker in An Unfinished Woman. The story was related to her by Peter Feibleman, who was with Dorothy at the funeral of her husband, Alan Campbell (they married each other twice).

‘Among the friends who stood with Dottie on those California steps was Mrs Jones, a woman who had liked Alan, had pretended to like Dottie, and who had always loved all forms of meddling in other people’s troubles. Mrs. Jones said, “Dottie, tell me, dear, what I can do for you.”
Dottie said, “Get me a new husband,”
There was a silence, but before those who would have laughed could laugh, Mrs. Jones said, “I think that is the most callous and disgusting remark I ever heard in my life.”
Dottie turned to look at her, sighed, and said gently, “So sorry. Then run down to the corner and get me a ham and cheese on rye and tell them to hold the mayo.”’[6]

 

References
[1] Conversations with Lillian Hellman, edited by Jackson R. Bryer (Jackson & London: University Press of Mississippi, 1986), 195.
[2] Samuel, Theatres of Memory (London: Verso, 1996), x.
[3] Durrell, Prospero’s Cell (1945; Faber 1962), 133. Cf. ‘A Landmark Gone’, in Orientations, I, 1, Forces Quarterly edited by G. S. Fraser, Cairo (n.d. but war years), reprinted in Alan G. Thomas, editor, Lawrence Durrell, Spirit of Place: Mediterranean Writings (1969; London : Faber and Faber, 1988), 189.
[4] Eileen Warburton, John Fowles : A Life in Two Worlds (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), 17, xii.
[5] Barnes, Nothing to be Frightened of (London: Jonathan Cape, 2008), 140.
[6]  Lillian Hellman, Three: An Unfinished Woman; Pentimento; Scoundrel Time (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1979), 248.