Ending up or ending down

Crows

Do the crows know something that we don’t? Maybe –­ or perhaps we all know the same damned thing.

‘Family customs should not be kept up after they decompose.’—Sylvia Townsend Warner to William Maxwell, 31 December 1975.

Almost there – and yet there’s no great feeling of relief as there often has been in the past when we’re finally shot of a dreadful year. It’s as if, when Philippides arrived at the assembly with news of the Battle of Marathon, he wasn’t even given time to collapse and die but told: ‘Sorry, mate, didn’t we tell you? You have to turn round and run all the way back again now.’

As for the next one, there’s little likelihood of it being any better, a strong chance of it being measurably worse, given the levels of mendacity and cowardice among our leading politicians. I suspect that the recent case of the lucrative ferry contract given to a company that has never run a ferry service and has, in fact, no ships is accurately representative of the levels of intelligence and competence among the governmental ranks.
https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/dec/30/no-deal-brexit-ferry-company-owns-no-ships-and-has-never-run-ferry-service

I was reading about Anniversaries by Uwe Johnson, finally translated – by Damion Searls – in its entirety, two volumes totalling 2000 pages.
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/dec/30/uwe-johnson-anniversaries-review

The only book by Johnson that I’ve read, forty years ago, is An Absence, which was a novella, short enough, I think, to appear in the small, pocket-sized Cape editions. Anniversaries sounds fascinating but I’ve not yet finished navigating my current two-volume, 2000-page opus, Questioning Minds, Edward Burns’ superb edition of the Kenner-Davenport letters, let alone two or three other colossi, longer-term tenants, combining to crowd Johnson out of my particular landscape.

HighlandSteer copy

(Highland Steer by Walter G. Poole)

I seem to be constitutionally opposed to the whole idea of New Year resolutions – if it’s really worth doing or changing, you’ll probably do it or change it anyway – but I do entertain reading intentions, probably because I just like making booklists. More poetry for sure, now that I have the books up on shelves and can actually see what we have. The Patrick White and Penelope Fitzgerald re-reads were such a blast that I’ll have a couple more next year: Henry Green definitely; Eudora Welty and Olivia Manning are certainly in the frame; and, of course, I have some Ford Madox Fords to revisit. Then too, some history—a more widespread ability to distinguish history from myth might have saved us all some pain—and particularly local history, this city. Read, walk, ask, listen.

2019’s pleasures, positives and signs of intelligent life will, I think, be firmly located in private, personal spaces. But – always – there just might turn out to be cracks in the wall. O optimist!

The hunter hunted, or: hounded by Diana

Rubens-Diana-and-Actaeon

(Peter Paul Rubens, Diana and Actaeon)

Over two days at the home of the Librarian’s parents in Somerset, I find I don’t read much at all, the time slipping pleasantly away in a great deal of conversation, some eating, drinking, the odd quiz, a couple of games – not even much walking this year. Still, we return home on Boxing Day with as many books as we set out with.

Among my new acquisitions are two volumes of poetry, Like by A. E. Stallings and Michael Hofmann’s One Lark, One Horse, poets and translators linked in my mind by Ovid. Stallings is one of the many poets—I hadn’t realised until recently just how many—to have translated, recast or reimagined Ovid’s telling of the story of Actaeon, the hunter who came by chance upon the goddess Diana bathing naked. Outraged, she transformed him into a stag and he was torn to pieces by his own hounds. Stallings’ poem begins:

The hounds, you know them all by name.
You fostered them from purblind whelps
At their dam’s teats, and you have come
To know the music of their yelps[1]

There have been numerous translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses since the sixteenth-century version by Arthur Golding, ‘the most beautiful book in the language’, Ezra Pound called it, ‘from which Shakespeare learned so much of his trade’.[2] Golding’s translation has the goddess conjuring antlers onto Actaeon’s head. Then:

She sharpes his ears, she makes his necke both slender, long and lanke.
She turns his fingers into feete, his arms to spindle shanke.
She wrappes him in a hairie hyde beset with speckled spottes,
And planteth in him fearfulnesse.[3]

Golding-Metamorphoses

Michael Hofmann was one of the editors – with James Lasdun – of the celebrated anthology, After Ovid: New Metamorphoses, which included four pieces (more than fifty pages in total) by Ted Hughes, a milestone on the road to Hughes’ later Tales from Ovid.[4] His ‘Actaeon’ begins:

Destiny, not guilt, was enough
For Actaeon. It is no crime
To lose your way in a dark wood.[5]

Absolving Actaeon of blame (and apparently absolving Dante too in passing, perhaps all of us, come to think of it) aligns Hughes with several other translators and commentators. A. D. Melville’s version, after stating that Actaeon’s hounds were ‘sated with their master’s blood’, goes on:

Though, if you ponder wisely, you will find
The fault was fortune’s and no guilt that day.
For what guilt can it be to lose one’s way?[6]

No crime, no guilt ­ – but was he not at fault at all? There’s a moment in Lisa Halliday’s novel Asymmetry when Amar tells his girlfriend Maddie a story as they skirt around the question of religious belief and she says ‘something about how, once we know the end of an unfortunate story, it’s tempting to ask why its protagonist did not do better to swerve his fate.’[7] It’s certainly easier to ask such questions if it’s not us in the story – or if we believe that we are, unaided, writing our own.

fontainebleau-diana

(Diana the Huntress: École de Fontainebleau, c. 1550-1560)

In Ford Madox Ford’s The Young Lovell, after the battle of Kenchie’s Burn, Lovell is pursuing the Scots and is lost in a great valley between moors where he sleeps on the heather. ‘There he heard many strange sounds, such as a great cry of dogs hunting overhead, which was said by those who had read in books to be the goddess Diana chasing still through the night the miserable shade of the foolish Actaeon.’[8]

Heartless fellow. Ten years after that novel was published, Ford was in Paris, feeling the mounting pressure of people’s expectations upon him to launch what became the transatlantic review: ‘not even Diana herself would preserve me from their fury if I did not provide harbourage for their compositions. I should be torn to pieces as was Actaeon by the hounds of that Goddess’.[9]

A little more sympathy from Ford than from his fictional creation – or at least no disparagement here of the unfortunate Actaeon.

Actaeon also figures in poems by writers as varied as Seamus Heaney, George Szirtes, Wendy Cope, Robin Robertson and Simon Armitage. In March 1915, Poetry published six poems by Ezra Pound, among them ‘The Coming of War: Actaeon’:

An image of Lethe,
and the fields
Full of faint light
but golden,
Gray cliffs,
and beneath them
A sea
Harsher than granite,
unstill, never ceasing;
High forms
with the movement of gods,
Perilous aspect;
And one said:
“This is Actaeon.”
Actaeon of golden greaves!
Over fair meadows,
Over the cool face of that field,
Unstill, ever moving,
Host of an ancient people,
The silent cortège.[10]

It’s not immediately obvious what Actaeon is doing here; or rather, why it’s Actaeon as opposed to any other of the illustrious dead who have crossed into Hades. (He appears in Pound’s Canto IV but in his familiar context of pool, goddess, stag and hounds.) James Longenbach comments that here Pound ‘was able to pull his experience of the war into the private world of the Image’ but points out that ‘the sacrifice was a large one’ since the poem ‘addresses the war only by mythologizing it out of its place in history and ignoring the brutality of the actual experience.’[11]

Titian, c.1488-1576; Diana and Actaeon

(Titian, Diana and Actaeon, National Galleries of Scotland)

The story that Ovid tells is, in any case, a wonderfully suggestive one, presumably accounting for its strong attraction for poets and translators. The hunt is itself a potent idea, especially the sexual politics of the hunter become the hunted, the mortal man doomed by the arbitrary act of the divine woman. Or is it arbitrary, since the intrusion may be seen as not merely a social solecism but a sacrilegious blunder, a subversion of the natural order? As for the metamorphosis, the transformation, every translation – perhaps every work of art – can be seen as a metamorphic act. But another attraction is surely the tumultuous unfurling in Actaeon’s mind, the dizzying terror, the internal screaming as the words come to his lips, the things he would utter ­ – but his power of speech is gone, his human faculties fled.

Here’s a favourite recent telling of the tale, by Lavinia Greenlaw:

He walks his mind as a forest
and sends of himself into dark places
to which he cannot tell the way.
The hunt comes on and he in his nerves
streams ahead – hounds flung after
a scent so violent no matter the path
or what’s let fall.
A burst of clearing.
Water beads and feathers her presence
as she thickens and curves.
He says words to himself not to look
but his eyes are of their own
and she at their centre a dark star
contracted to itself discarding
wave on wave on flare on fountain.
His skull erupting, branching . . .
And his blood is shaken down.
And he is all fours.
And his noise.
And his hounds.[12]

 

References

[1] A. E. Stallings, ‘Actaeon’, published in Poetry (May 2003).

[2] Ezra Pound, The ABC of Reading (London: Faber and Faber, 1961), 127; How to Read (London: Desmond Harmsworth, 1931), 45.

[3] Confucius to Cummings: An Anthology of Poetry, edited by Ezra Pound and Marcella Spann (New York: New Directions, 1964), 37, 40-41.

[4] After Ovid: New Metamorphoses, edited by Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), 3-20, 94-109, 114-117, 245-258.

[5] Ted Hughes, Collected Poems, edited by Paul Keegan (London: Faber and Faber, 2003), 937.

[6] Ovid, Metamorphoses, III, 140-142, translated by A. D. Melville (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 55. In a note (392), Melville suggests that Ovid had his own case in mind here, having insisted that the offence for which he was exiled was an error rather than a crime.

[7] Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry (London: Granta Books, 2018), 188.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, The Young Lovell: A Romance (London: Chatto & Windus, 1913), 27. On Actaeon’s connection to Peire Vidal in The Good Soldier, see my ‘“Speak Up, Fordie!”: How Some People Want to Go to Carcassonne’, in Ford Madox Ford and the City: International Ford Madox Ford Studies 4, edited by Sara Haslam (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005), 204.

[9] Ford Madox Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 262.

[10] Ezra Pound, ‘Actaeon: The Coming of War’, Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 285.

[11] James Longenbach, Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats and Modernism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 124.

[12] Lavinia Greenlaw, ‘Actaeon’, The Casual Perfect (London: Faber & Faber, 2011), 13.

 

Lights and shadows

The Good and Evil Angels 1795-?c. 1805 by William Blake 1757-1827

(William Blake, The Good and Evil Angels, Tate Britain

Hell beckons. The handcart trundles a little closer. Yemen, Syria, the latest dangerous ravings from the White House. ‘End of days’, the Librarian murmurs. ‘The wheels have come off.’ Our increasingly grubby country offers only unparalleled political paralysis and irresponsibility, a housing secretary for whom the shameful rise in homelessness and rough sleeping in this country is nothing to do with government policies at all, a Labour leader inflicting what may be the final disappointment upon a large number of the party’s supporters and a Prime Minister still fixated on immigration. The death of Paddy Ashdown is a painful reminder that, not so long ago, party differences aside, there were politicians concerned about the welfare of the whole country. Following David Runciman’s provocative suggestion that six-year-olds should be given the vote, interviews with children aged six to twelve in today’s Observer, demonstrate—encouragingly or dispiritingly or both—that they frequently have a sounder grasp of the important issues than those supposedly forming and directing policies in this country – and are more humane also.

https://www.theguardian.com/global/2018/dec/23/should-we-give-children-the-vote-voting-at-age-6-politics-interviews

Against the encroaching darkness, the Librarian puts up strings of lights on walls and doorways, bakes, makes quince gin and quince vodka. I take refuge in the usual things. It’s been an unsettling year, yet a not unbalanced one, with its births and beginnings, deaths and disappearances.

Gin-Vodka

‘The Dyings have been too deep for me’, Emily Dickinson, observed in the Fall of 1884, ‘and before I could raise my Heart from one, another has come.’ In the nineteenth and earlier centuries, death was a more frequent caller, certainly among the young. Still, even now the frequency inevitably increases when one reaches a certain age; and one death often recalls another. Oscar Wilde famously said that, ‘Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.’ Perhaps less contentiously, art shadows life—for those who know the shadows are there—but shadows death also.

I remember sitting on an early evening train more than seven years ago, avoiding the quiet carriage in case somebody called. The train was taking me to London – to tell my mother that the hospital staff would be turning off my sister’s life support machine the following morning. I remember too making the ultimate banal observation – that life continues, everywhere, even in – perhaps especially in – the context of death. Or we simply notice it more readily. At the station, there had been two men on a bench across the tracks; one of them, a Sikh, I think, was dancing while still sitting down. His friend laughed. An elderly couple passed, intent and purposeful; young women out for the evening shimmied and twirled. And in the carriage, the usual noisy blathering into mobile phones. But life. Now. Like it or not, in that present moment, life, the undramatic pulse of it, movement, irrefutable and irreversible.

A woman had a long, very audible conversation on her phone about her father’s latest consultation with the specialist and the conditions necessary for his operation. I read; then felt guilty about reading; then stopped; then remembered that if I didn’t read I would only have other voices in my head. It was dusk, with heavy cloud, gradually darkening, but across the valley, there was a single blazing field, still in brilliant sunlight. I was rereading Women in Love and abruptly realised that I’d reached Chapter XIV, ‘Water-Party’, in which Gerald’s sister Diana dies from drowning, while he repeatedly, desperately, futilely dives in search of her.

Water-party-scene-WIL

(Alan Bates and Jennie Linden in Ken Russell’s Women in Love)

A few years further on. We scatter some of my mother’s ashes in a secluded part of the river; I say a few words, it’s all very peaceful and positive and appropriate. More recently, we scattered the rest in the sea. The tide was coming in, faster and more strongly than expected, night was approaching (also faster than expected). A dropped urn, flooded boots, more than a touch of farce, absurdity – but that seemed oddly appropriate too.

There have been other familial deaths this year, mostly expected or at least unsurprising. But only weeks after the funeral of one of my loved aunts, we attend another. One of the closest and oldest friends of the Librarian’s parents: she herself has known him since she was eight. He was prodigiously gifted, as artist and writer and photographer, possessed of a genius for friendship and for making connections of every kind, one of the bright beings on this earth, whose intellectual curiosity and vitality were like a shot into the bloodstream. I am sitting at one end of the dining-table as we finish lunch and he surges down to sit next to me. ‘What are you reading? What have you found?’ I tell him – and he already knows, has bought, has read – but wants more and, eloquently wanting more, gives back far more than that.

Anathemata DJ-Dedication

Probably not many funeral services begin with the beginning of David Jones’s The Anathemata but, that being one of his favourite works, it’s highly fitting. We sit in Sherborne Cathedral and hear:

‘We already and first of all discern him making this thing other. His groping syntax, if we attend, already shapes:
ADSCRIPTAM, RATAM, RATIONABILEM . . . and by pre-application and for them, under modes and patterns altogether theirs, the holy and venerable hands lift up an efficacious sign.’

Elsewhere, Jones wrote: ‘It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for us to see the wood in which we find ourselves for the trees against which we break our heads and in the tangle of which we break our hearts.’

I came across the order of service for that funeral a day or two ago. ‘Where shall I put this?’ We are standing by the bookshelves and the Librarian hands me a volume of William Blake, another writer he admired. I tuck it inside the back cover.

Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know
Thro the World we safely go
Joy & Woe are woven fine
A Clothing for the soul divine
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine

 

 

No one’s reading

Routledge-Companion small  Melmoth

I saw a recent Guardian interview with Robin Robertson, the poet whose The Long Take was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and also won the Goldsmiths prize. Asked, ‘What was the last great book you read?’, he replied: ‘There are so few great books. I don’t suppose I’m allowed to mention one of my authors [Robertson works for the publisher Jonathan Cape], but Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight is extraordinary. I love Patrick White, but no one reads him these days. He’s very politically incorrect.’
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/dec/08/poet-robin-robertson-interview-the-long-take
I too thought Warlight was tremendously good but it was a little odd to see that comment on Patrick White in a year when I read or reread eighteen of White’s books plus a 600-page biography of him. ‘No one reads him’ – I must then be no one, ου τις, ou tis, the name Odysseus gave himself in the Cyclops’ cave, so that Polyphemus, when his neighbours asked why he cried out, answered, ‘No one is hurting me!’ The ghost of Patrick White can now exclaim: ‘No one is reading me!’

I’ve browsed or skipped briskly through at least half a dozen selections of ‘Books of the Year’ already. Geared almost exclusively towards new books—some not even published yet—such lists always used to look utterly unlike my own because I’d often read nothing at all published that year. In 2018 I did actually read titles published in 2018, about a dozen of them. Some have dropped out of my head already, others seem in no particular hurry to leave. But to summarise a whole year’s travelling through books? ‘There is no end to what I have to say’, William Maxwell wrote to Eudora Welty in December 1989, ‘but then you would have to read it.’

SignsForLostChildren

So apart from White – and my other major re-read, the wonderful Penelope Fitzgerald – and a few of the usual suspects that cropped up in many lists, I’d pick out Melissa Harrison, whose novel All Among the Barley, as well as her short book Rain: Four Walks in English Weather, greatly impressed me, and Sarah Moss, whose The Tidal Zone I read last year but whose other books, six of them, I’ve read in the last few months, all novels apart from Names for the Sea, which is about her family’s year in Iceland. She writes beautifully, accurately and inventively about place, about human relations, particularly about young women confronted by prejudices, constraints and barriers, in this and earlier ages, being an expert and seasoned traveller in both time and space. Ghost Wall is the latest novel, a short, concentrated and powerful book. The others, all accomplished and hard to choose between, are Bodies of Light, Cold Earth, Night Waking and, perhaps a personal favourite by a narrow margin, Signs for Lost Children. Then, after the notable sureness and confidence of Sarah Perry’s first two books—After Me Comes the Flood and The Essex Serpent—I am being impressed all over again by her Melmoth. I’m also halfway through the big new Routledge Research Companion to Ford Madox Ford—but it’s hardly surprising that I should be.

 

‘With just the touch of a sigh’: Ford Madox Ford 145 years on

EP-JQ-FMF-JJ

(Ezra Pound, John Quinn, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Paris 1923)

‘Pray pardon my minute examination of such matters. That is my preoccupation in this world.’—Ford Madox Ford, ‘Literary Portraits – VII. Mr. Percival Gibbon and “The Second-Class Passenger”’, Outlook, XXXII (25 October 1913), 572.

Born on 17 December 1873, Ford Madox Ford grew very fond of decades, as markers and aids to memory. The Good Soldier had hatched within him for a decade before he wrote it, he said. In Provence, he remembered a snowstorm in Carcassonne, noting that snowstorms happened there ‘once every forty years or so. That was in 1913, when I was refreshing my memory as to the Albigeois martyrs of that city…’ Every forty years or so. Exactly the span of Ford’s life at that date. In the ‘Dedicatory Letter’ to The Good Soldier, he wrote: ‘I had always entertained the idea that…I at least should not be able to write a novel by which I should care to stand before reaching the age of forty…’ And again: ‘on the day I was forty I sat down to show what I could do—and The Good Soldier resulted’. In 1913, too, he published his fortieth book.

Saunders-FMF1

Let me try some ten-year intervals. 1883 is the date that Ford’s biographer gives as the date of his ‘earliest surviving letter’, sent to his grandfather, the painter Ford Madox Brown: ‘We went on to the rocks yesterday & they were dotted over with sea anemones. We saw a lizard & I caught it & let it go after & then Harri & I lifted a stone up & we saw a snake which seemed to wake up in a strang[e] manner & then went lazily into some grass.’

In 1893, Ford—under the name of ‘Fenil Haig’—published his first book of poems, The Questions at the Well, dedicated to Elsie Martindale, with whom he would soon elope. In October, his beloved grandfather died. Ford would publish his biography of Ford Madox Brown three years later.

‘But now, at the ebb, the river’s flight
Seaward ceases, and in its might
The sea rushes on in smooth delight.
Spray-bright and sparkling from stem to prow
With dripping oars and heaving bow,
The boat holds on’.

1903 saw the publication of the most substantial of the three collaborative works Ford wrote with Joseph Conrad, Romance (Smith, Elder & Co., 6s.).

‘Before then I had not lived. I had only waited—for her and for what she stood for. It was in my blood, in my race, in my tradition, in my training. We, all of us for generations, had made for efficiency, for drill, for restraint. Our Romance was just this very Spanish contrast, this obliquity of vision, this slight tilt of the convex mirror that shaped the same world so differently to onlookers at different points of its circle.’

In 1913, following the trial of The Throne, edited by his friend René Byles, which had referred to Violet Hunt as ‘Mrs Ford Madox Hueffer’, prompting Ford’s wife Elsie (they were never divorced) to sue, Ford and Hunt roamed around the South of France: Montpellier, Carcassonne, Beaucaire, Las Tours, Tarascon, St. Rémy-de-Provence. They went to Corsica for a week. By the close of the year, Ford had begun writing a novel called ‘The Saddest Story’. It became The Good Soldier.

Elsie-Martindale

(Elsie Martindale c. 1895 by Catherine Hueffer – Ford’s mother)

‘So I shall just imagine myself for a fortnight or so at one side of the fireplace of a country cottage, with a sympathetic soul opposite me. And I shall go on talking, in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars. From time to time we shall get up and go to the door and look out at the great moon and say: “Why, it is nearly as bright as in Provence!” And then we shall come back to the fireside, with just the touch of a sigh because we are not in that Provence where even the saddest stories are gay.’

In 1923, he was in France with Stella Bowen, first at the Villa des Oliviers, St. Jean Cap Ferrat, at Ardèche, Saint-Agrève, Tarascon, and Paris. The American printer William Bird, to whom Ford would dedicate No More Parades in 1925, produced Ford’s Women & Men at the Three Mountains Press. By the end of that year, Ford had published The Marsden Case,  Mr Bosphorus and the Muses, was already well-advanced upon his great tetralogy, Parade’s End, and was launching the transatlantic review.

Bosphorus

In the South the sombrero’d poet,
His harlot having gathered the scattered coins,
Rose slothfully and stretching out a hand
White but not overwashed beneath the benevolent moon,
Shouts out his indolent verse, accustomed rhymes
POUR for AMOUR and PURE to match AZURE
And a scratch on the guitar, a diamond flash
In the birchen shadow. Gesture with the hat
And so to bed beside his harlot. . . . Ah!
In the scented azure night.

FMF-EP-Rapallo-1932

(Ford and Pound in Rapallo, c. 1932)

In 1933, now with Janice Biala, he published The Rash Act and one of his finest books, It Was the Nightingale.

‘A social system had crumbled. Recklessness had taken the place of insouciance. In the old days we had seemed to have ourselves and our destinies well in hand. Now we were drifting towards a weir . . . ’

By 1943, Ford was four years dead, one of four major modernists to die within the three years 1939-1941, together with Yeats, Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Sixty-five when he died, he’d published eighty books, several of them among the best the twentieth century has to show. He is buried in Deauville.

 

 

Hugging the alphabetical

Shelves Shelves.2

‘No person with an avocational or professional interest in books seems immune to the joys of developing his or her own classification scheme. Paul Banks reports that on a recent trip to New Orleans, he visited a bookshop which shelved Arnold Toynbee’s Study of History in the Mythology section; while in the section on Skilled Arts and Crafts could be found a book entitled Sex After Sixty. Patricia Flavin was once in a bookshop which shelved a copy of The Voyages of Magellan under Yachting. And Robert Nikirk reminds me that, in touring Dr. Martin Bodmer’s great library in Geneva in the early 1970s, members of the Grolier Club discovered copies of Alice in Wonderland and Das Kapital shelved in close juxtaposition. These books were grouped together, Dr. Bodmer explained, “because they are both fantasies.”’—Terry Belanger, Lunacy and the Arrangement of Books (New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2003), 12-13.

The Librarian’s father is a dab hand at building bookshelves; the Librarian herself a dab hand at painting them. A fervent admirer of those who build and paint them, I’m also well-practised at arranging books on shelves, once they’re ready to receive them. As to their order, radically, they hug the alphabetical in a loving embrace.

 

The persistence of gulls

Herring-Gull

A crisp, cold morning and, walking up through the park, I see two sets each of four magpies but mainly wonder at the unusual number of common gulls, black-headed gulls and herring gulls. I recall, though, a day last year when the Librarian and I saw almost a hundred gulls scattered across the grass on either side of the park. Towards the centre of one large group of them on the left-hand side, a gathering of sparrows; towards the rear and again to one side, two loose groups of wood pigeons. All of them feeding, grazing, pecking, circling. Wet weather, the grass recently cut and still rich green. The upshot: a bad day to be a worm. That note to be scrawled in countless earthy diaries and gardening journals against the date of 16th November: Bad Worm Day.

Yes, we may outnumber the rats by six to one in this country – but there are always the gulls. . . Just a few weeks ago, walking along the front at Lyme Regis, holding tightly shut the box containing fish and chips, I was dive-bombed by a gull, its beak thumping against the lid. At Lyme these days the fish and chips stallholders routinely warn you about the gulls as they hand over your order but I’d naively thought that holding the box closed was a reasonable response to that warning.

Years ago, in my room at the top of an eighteenth-century townhouse in Bath, I would hear the gulls circling and crying outside the window. Later, living in a seaside town where gulls were, unsurprisingly, common, I would be reminded of Bath. Moving again, years later, I would recall the seaside town as a place in which I heard gulls and was reminded of Bath. And so on. On a day when their flight paths seem higher than usual, their calls still sometimes bring back a long ago holiday in Wales, in a cottage set back from the cliff edge above the beach, where gulls would ride the currents of air and be flung high up above the wall at the end of the thin garden, laughing like maniacs.

So immediately and unmistakeably evoking the sea; yet now perhaps even more familiar in urban settings, certainly in parks and on rubbish tips. As a child when I asked about seagulls spotted on pavements or rooftops, I was told: ‘It’s rough at sea.’ That was the assumption: seagulls unable to find food at sea had been driven inland, to try their luck in the cities. Now, of course, there’s so much rubbish in the streets, smeared with sugar and salt and sauces, with chunks of rotting meat and fish, why would they bother to do an honest day’s work out at sea?

Always the gulls. Certainly with the poets, through whose work they wheel and wail endlessly. Jack Bevan’s translations of the Sicilian poet Salvatore Quasimodo, who won the 1959 Nobel Prize for Literature, were published in the Penguin European Poets series in the mid-1960s (my copy’s worn but dourly resilient). Here’s ‘Again I Hear The Sea’

Quasimodo

(Salvatore Quasimodo)

Many nights now I have heard the sound of the sea
once more, lightly rising and falling on smooth beaches.
A voice’s echo shut away in the mind,
rising from time; and, too, this persistent
crying of gulls; perhaps of
tower birds that April
is tempting onto the plains. Once
you, with that voice, were near me;
and I wish now that there could come to you
also an echo memory of me,
like that dark ocean murmur.[1]

There was a period in bookselling when a certain kind of reader would buy a sort of starter pack: this would include Gibran’s The Prophet and Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Then, as their reading muscles toughened, they’d move on to Trout Fishing in America and Siddhartha. And then – did they all train to be therapists or did it only seem so? Perhaps only the more disturbed ones.

Elizabeth-Smart

(Elizabeth Smart)

The poet George Barker published a novel, described somewhere as ‘tortuously symbolic’, called The Dead Seagull, which drew heavily on his relationship with the novelist and poet Elizabeth Smart. A paperback, published by Panther, I believe, with heavier perhaps silk coated paper and line drawings but this could be invention. I lent it to the poet Tony Lopez decades ago and didn’t see it again. That much is not invention. These poets…

A Roman amphitheatre
crumbling in bright sunlight

no christians or lions
only the brittle dried
body of a cat

He sits, halfway up the stalls
listening to the gulls
resting his eyes

listening to the sea, so sleepy
this damned heat and the flies

startled
by the fast train to Figueras
crashing through the arches[2]

William Carlos Williams observed, conscripted or devised some symbolically peaceable gulls:

And the next thing I say is this:
I saw an eagle once circling against the clouds
over one of our principal churches—
Easter, it was—a beautiful day!
three gulls came from above the river
and crossed slowly seaward!
Oh, I know you have your own hymns, I have heard them—
and because I knew they invoked some great protector
I could not be angry with you, no matter
how much they outraged true music—

You see, it is not necessary for us to leap at each other,
and, as I told you, in the end
the gulls moved seaward very quietly.[3]

John Masefield’s Billy had his own notions about them:

‘Goneys an’ gullies an’ all o’ the birds o’ the sea
They ain’t no birds, not really,’ said Billy the Dane.
‘Not mollies, nor gullies, nor goneys at all,’ said he,
‘But simply the sperrits of mariners livin’ again.’

[Goneys: albatrosses.
Gullies: seagulls.
Mollies: mollyhawks or fulmar petrels.][4]

Mariners living again. Some poetic sailors stay dead: like T. S. Eliot’s Phlebas, whose lapse of memory seems entirely reasonable in these circumstances, death having intervened:

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.

Eliot wrote a little gloomily to Ezra Pound, who was editing what began as ‘He Do the Police in Different Voices’ and ended as The Waste Land, cutting out long passages of Eliot’s draft, ‘Perhaps better omit Phlebas also???’ Pound replied: ‘I DO advise keeping Phlebas. In fact I more’n advise. Phlebas is an integral part of the poem; the card pack introduces him, the drowned phoen. sailor. And he is needed ABSOlootly where he is. Must stay in.’[5]

Phlebas stayed in, ten lines salvaged from a great many more. And the forgotten gulls stayed in too. Hardly forgotten now, though, neither gulls nor Phlebas.

 
References

[1] Quasimodo: Selected Poems, translated with an introduction by Jack Bevan (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965), 80.

[2] Antony Lopez, Snapshots (London: Oasis Books, 1976), 22.

[3] William Carlos Williams, ‘Gulls’, The Collected Poems, Volume 1: 1900-1939, edited by A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1987), 67.

[4] John Masefield, ‘Sea-Change’, in The Puffin Book of Salt-Sea Verse, compiled by Charles Causley (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978), 172.

[5] T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land: a facsimile and transcript of the original drafts including the annotations of Ezra Pound, edited by Valerie Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1971), 143, 129.