A little mad about good letters

(Elizabeth Bishop)

On 8 July 1971, Elizabeth Bishop wrote to her friends Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale: ‘I have to get to Cambridge early in September to arrange my new flat—and do some work on my new seminar, on “Letters”!’ She mentioned Jane Carlyle, Anton Chekhov, ‘my Aunt Grace’, John Keats, a letter found in the street, and asked for suggestions, ‘just on the subject of letters, the dying “form of communication.”[1]

‘Dying’ — already, fifty years ago.  My pronounced appetite for reading letters must be nearly as old, from Ackerley to Zukofsky. Is that a clue to why, though? Remnants, often receptacles, of a disappearing world, the attraction of the receding, the vanishing, the casualties of cultural, social and economic history. Prose is often just written – letters are at least always written to, addressed to, someone, an individual, which seems to offer something to grasp, to hang onto. They may appear written with eventual publication in mind, as is sometimes the case with diaries. But they’re often revealing and go to forming the autobiography that the writer may have declined to write, or never got around to writing.

I like, too, the ways in which letters themselves become the subject of letters, or of anecdotes (in letters), strands of biography or criticism. ‘Historians don’t go where sources don’t lead,’ Maya Jasanoff remarks, ‘which means they usually stop at the door to somebody’s mind. Even when diaries or letters seem to “tell all,” historians typically treat what happened as one thing, and what somebody made of it as another. Novelists walk right in and roam freely through a person’s feelings, perceptions and thoughts. What happened is what you make of it. That, Conrad argued, could make fiction the truer record of human experience.’[2] In his preface to Lawrence Durrell’s ‘Mediterranean’ writings, Alan Thomas mentioned that: ‘The debt of future literary scholars to Hugh Gordon Porteous might well have been greater, for he received many letters from fellow poets and accumulated a good deal of material when writing his excellent life of Wyndham Lewis. He sorted all this original material into two groups, important and less important. Unfortunately, he placed the former in a paper bag similar to the kind he used for the disposal of garbage. He returned home one evening to find that his charlady had given this to the dustmen.’[3]

To J. Howard Woolmer (21 March 1997), Penelope Fitzgerald wrote: ‘How nice to get one of your laconic letters which say exactly what you mean and no more – and after all that’s what letters are for.’[4] Twenty years before, she had recorded the rather gloomy scenario of the painter Edward Burne-Jones burning ‘many hundreds of letters, though he hated to lose Swinburne’s.’[5]

One of the earliest bestsellers that I recall when I started in the book trade was The First Cuckoo, an anthology of letters to the Times and Claire Tomalin, in her biography of Thomas Hardy, noted among the Reverend Henry Moule’s many activities that ‘He wrote letters to The Times about the potato.’[6]

(Sylvia Townsend Warner via NYRB editions)

Sylvia Townsend Warner reflected more than once on the value—and the mutual pleasure—of letters. To William Maxwell, she remarked: ‘The people who were attached to me might, however, like a collected volume of my Letters. I love reading Letters myself, and I can imagine enjoying my own.’[7] And, to David Garnett, little more than a week earlier: ‘You enjoy my letters, I enjoy yours. We are like those Etruscan couples who sit conversing on their tomb. We belong to an earlier and more conversational world, and tend to finish our sentences and tie up our shoelaces.’[8]

My favourites volumes would include:
D. H. Lawrence, without a doubt.
Guy Davenport, correspondence with Hugh Kenner and with James Laughlin
Letters between James Salter and Robert Phelps.
Sylvia Townsend, correspondence with William Maxwell, with David Garnett, with anybody.
Patrick White.
Edward Fitzgerald – and Penelope Fitzgerald, come to that.
Eudora Welty, to Maxwell again and to Ross Macdonald.
Nancy Mitford.
Elizabeth Bishop herself.

I am currently spending a great deal of time peering at Ford Madox Ford’s often execrably handwritten letters – or staring at words and phrases in previously published versions that annotation has smoothly sidestepped thus far. What is that? Quotation? Misprint? Misremembering? Joke? And what does that mean? The shocking news—I jest but it would, I suspect, be genuinely shocking to some people—is that not everything exists on the world wide web. Not every book and journal has been digitised—even when they have been, often in fuzzy scans, the original books have misprints, missing pages, wrong pagination, transposed chapters, startling variations between UK and US editions.

Ford, recalling Hokusai, an old man mad about painting, ‘humbly’ wrote himself down as a man ‘a little mad about good letters’.[9] There are certainly some good letters above his signature. So this promises to be endless fun. Almost endless, that is, since a deadline will certainly come calling.

Notes

[1] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 544.

[2] Maya Jasanoff, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World (London: William Collins, 2017), 10-11.

[3] Alan G. Thomas, editor, Spirit of Place: Mediterranean Writings (1969; London : Faber and Faber, 1988), 13.

[4] Penelope Fitzgerald, So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 365.

[5] Penelope Fitzgerald, Edward Burne-Jones (London: Michael Joseph, 1975), 227.

[6] Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man (London: Viking, 2006), 50.

[7] Letter of 23 June 1976, Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 301.

[8] Richard Garnett, editor, Sylvia and David: The Townsend Warner/ Garnett Letters (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994), 213.

[9] Ford Madox Ford, Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911), 296.

Travels, not Keatsian

From 25 June to 6 August 1818, John Keats went walking with his friend Charles Brown, to the Lake District, Scotland, briefly to Northern Ireland and back to Scotland. 42 days, 642 miles. On 29 June, setting off at four in the morning, they climbed Skiddaw, the sixth highest summit in England, just north of Keswick in Cumbria : ‘I have an amazing partiality for mountains in the clouds.’

I myself have an amazing partiality for staying at home of late, walled in by books. Nevertheless we ventured, the Librarian and Harry the cat and I, as far as Somerset (and Dorset and Wiltshire: meandering roads), and stayed the night—actually three nights—in A Different Place, for the first time since Christmas 2019. Not quite a Keatsian trip but quietly impressive on its own terms, I thought.


Once there, we talked, ate, read, walked, drank a little wine. At the Chalke Valley History Festival, the Librarian and I mooched about and necked a salted caramel ice-cream while her parents went to see Tom Stoppard and his biographer, Hermione Lee, discourse before a rapt audience in a large tent. Slightly unsettled by our earlier view of combatants wielding sticks, apparently in their underwear (‘Look! People fighting in their pants!’), we stayed to watch Dan Snow, with a smattering of other historians and willing helpers, re-enact the Battle of Agincourt.

But the main business, apart from the company, was to see the sea, again for the first time in too long. It was a quiet stretch of coast—having no facilities—offering sea, sand, sea cabbage, occasional dog walkers, a distant angler, a wheeling gull or two, pebbles, mysterious flowers, mysterious stone circles.


As for literary connections—Keats aside—there was the village of Broad Chalke, familiar to John Aubrey, author of Brief Lives, and home to historical novelist and poet Maurice Hewlett (1861-1923), who lived in the Old Rectory. In 1904, recovering from a breakdown, Ford Madox Ford spent time at Winterborne Stoke, three miles from Stonehenge. He met and walked with W. H. Hudson, who had recommended that area as one to which Ford might escape from his situation in London. He later remembered standing for half an hour with Hudson watching a rookery near Broad Chalke. He saw a good deal of Hewlett too. At Christmas 1911, Ezra Pound also stayed with Hewlett, an occasion poignantly recalled—ghosts and shadows—as he sat in the military detention centre near Pisa:

and for that Christmas at Maurie Hewlett’s
Going out from Southampton
they passed the car by the dozen
     who would not have shown weight on a scale
               riding, riding
                     for Noel the green holly
     Noel, Noel, the green holly
     A dark night for the holly
          (80/515)

Reading at the kitchen table

June days. The opened back door at breakfast time now my choice as well as the cat’s. The butter in the dish more malleable; the heating never coming on because the temperature doesn’t drop below the thermostat setting. It seems only a short time since the postman emerged from determined rain to deposit a parcel at the front door: beautifully wrapped and containing attractive – ah, books, yes. The whole affair, including the books themselves, such a class act that it could only have been my order from Kate Macdonald’s Handheld Press. Three more then, to be steered firmly past beckoning flat surfaces and upstairs to the front bedroom, where the chest of drawers has three separate piles on top of it: five, ten and twenty-four volumes respectively. Other nearby piles total another thirty-one and there are more on the tops of the bookcases as well as in them. I am losing the battle here, several battles by the look of it, never mind the loft, which the occasional plumber or roofer will survey with odd and slightly strained expressions.

(I once saw a letter quoted from someone who said they never bought a new book unless they’d finished reading all the books they already had. I could see what the words in the letter meant—as defined in a dictionary—but couldn’t make any real sense of them put together in that way.)


The postal delivery coincided with my attempt to clear the kitchen table, finding, among the journals, catalogues, empty envelopes, papers left over from the local and mayoral elections last month, six books, in various stages of being-read: Peter Vansittart’s A Literary Companion to London (I’d been combing through this for any Ford Madox Ford-related details that I’d missed elsewhere); Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water (the sequel to A Time of Gifts); Jim Down’s fine, unsettling Life Support, which the Librarian was reading (I’d read it a couple of months ago); Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia (essays, interviews, letters); Derek Jarman’s Garden (the Librarian again, following up Olivia Laing’s essays); and Deborah Levy’s just-published Real Estate.

Another recent arrival is an expanded—and rather handsome—edition of Greg Gerke’s See What I See: Essays, issued by Zerogram Press of Los Angeles, with a prefatory piece by Steven Moore. There are six new essays, shared among the three sections in proportions commensurate with distribution over the whole volume: three essays in ‘The Writing Life’; two in ‘The Silver Screen’; and one in ‘Real Life’.

Moore’s ‘Foreword’ begins by describing Gerke’s collection as ‘a splendid example of the return of the personal in modern literary criticism’ and ends by terming it ‘a beguiling collection of belletristic essays meant for those of us for whom art is a passion, not a profession or a pastime but a way of life.’

Both of these judgements are well-observed. The reader does indeed get a sense of a mind and body behind the words: the ‘personal’ could easily be misconstrued in this context given that we often seem to be suffering from little else. Opinions batter us from all directions – many of them unimpeded by any knowledge of, or insight into, the things they pronounce upon. But that’s not the case here (indeed, Gerke has his own opinion of opinions paraded as something else).


See What I See: imperative or interrogative? Or collaborative? We are offered, in the main, enthusiasms: writers and painters and directors whom Gerke has thought about and responded to. Some, clearly, are of long standing, some newly discovered, some returned to, seen afresh in the light of changes, not least in the writer’s—or viewer’s—own life.

Moore’s second observation about those ‘for whom art is a passion, not a profession or a pastime but a way of life’, nicely points up the classic distinction between ‘serious’ and ‘solemn’. Gerke, a New York-based fiction writer as well as essayist, does indeed take this stuff seriously. The subjects of his essays—William Gass, Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein, Geoffrey Hill, William Gaddis, Louise Glück, Henry James, Eric Rohmer, Ingmar Bergman—are not lightweights; but Gerke is never po-faced about them. He can be funny, odd, quirky, confiding (I’d say that all these terms can be applied to his short fiction too)—but his focus, for his readers as for himself is, ultimately, pleasure. And it is—for the reader and the viewer—something more thoroughgoing, more engaging of the senses than a quick kiss behind the bike sheds or a caress on the way upstairs: it is, rather, a full-on, grown-up affair.

In ‘On Influence’, he remarks: ‘If one hasn’t read a lot of Shakespeare, why hasn’t one read a lot of Shakespeare? If one doesn’t “get” Henry James, one must ask why one doesn’t “get” Henry James. While licks of love are sweet, little can compare with full immersion.’ Then: ‘And the connection between art and love is not some tenuous, new-age conceit; rather, it is as real as rain. Love takes time because we don’t know what we love until the bloom retires and we are left with a presence not endowed with a glow, but a cast-iron reality.’

I note again, in ‘A Year With Wallace Stevens’: ‘His answers were not easy—they weren’t even answers, but patterns, conquests of thought, of tomfoolery, with music and word motion contained inside swerving ideas both raw and cooked.’ And, in ‘Mr. Turner, Boyhood, and Criticism’, ‘Everyone bellows how life is unfair, but does everyone know life is unfair and beautiful, often at the same time?’

They say—among the things they say—that one test of a writer’s quality is an ability to engage and hold your attention even when they’re discoursing on subjects of which you know little or nothing; and, sometimes, on subjects in which you have no acknowledged interest. Gerke’s knowledge of cinema, his passion for it, outstrips mine within a couple of sentences – but his discussions of Rohmer, Rossellini, Kubrick, Antonioni, are arresting not least because of the intimacy of that knowledge, the closeness of identification between writer and subject— the title of one piece is ‘Does Eric Rohmer Have the All of Me?’ while, in one of the recently added essays, he writes: ‘Yes, I took Antonioni into my life and he affected how I saw the world’, a statement which is immediately anatomised though not retreated from.

Again, some of his chosen writers are not exactly mine but I see one crucial affinity, highlighted in that phrase ‘total immersion’. While I frequently admire single books there’s just no substitute for a corpus—the mot juste—a body (not a limb, not an isolated feature, such eyes! such lips!) with all its imperfections, the failures and near-misses and try-outs that make sense of the triumphs, the personal oddities or traits or weaknesses that go to making the work of interest in the first place. I am not sympathetic to the voices that mutter or shout ‘if only’ – if only Lawrence hadn’t been in love with his mother, if only Pound hadn’t discovered economics or moved to Italy, if only Woolf hadn’t been a snob, if only Yeats hadn’t had those notions of aristocracy and spirit companions, if only James had had a satisfying sex life, if only Emily Dickinson had got out more – my strong conviction being that you would not then have had Lawrence or Pound or Woolf or Yeats or James or Dickinson at all, or rather some version of them rendered so innocuous and uninteresting as to surrender all claim to our attention anyway.

Gerke is certainly drawn to full immersion: ‘A Year with Wallace Stevens’, ‘Going Steady with Gertrude’ (Stein, of course), ‘The Patrick White Experience’, ‘Bergman’s Spell’—which asks, along the way: ‘How is a spiritual life possible in a techno-Gomorrah such as we inhabit?’—and ‘Nearer My Hong Sang-soo to Me’, an essay on the prolific South Korean film director and screenwriter, which ends with the reflection that: ‘As the years go by and Hong’s filmography swells, his biography [ . . . ] lessens. The work stands for the person—the goal for most artists.’

In his introduction, Steven Moore mentions Gerke’s two books of short fiction and also alludes to ‘a lengthy novel in the works’. I shall look out for updates on that news—and go on reading at the (oddly, if temporarily, tidy) kitchen table.

Highlights, lowlifes, old fashions

‘One after another I feel my friends snap off from the old moorings, and become derelict. England herself seems like a ship adrift, entirely without course or anchorage. We must watch out.’— D. H. Lawrence to E. M. Forster, 30 May 1916.

The highlights of the past week probably didn’t include a chunk of one of my teeth breaking off at dinner—that was quite some flatbread—or being almost mown down by a speeding cyclist on the hill. There was a brisk exchange of views: always the master of the witty rejoinder, I finally offered: ‘Well, fuck off anyway.’

Rats, though. A highlight there. The agility and determination of the rat that shinned up the metal pole of the bird table, swung on the half-coconut while furiously gnawing, leapt at the fat ball in its metal cage, missed and almost fell but recovered itself superbly. The cat watched this performance through the glass with a naturalist’s interest but showed no particular desire to intervene..

Elsewhere, reports of the Dominic Cummings testimony to the joint inquiry by the health and science committees was pretty dispiriting, partly because it merely confirmed what anyone paying attention over the past year and a half already knew or strongly suspected; and partly because it won’t make a damn bit of difference to those people who vote for Johnson and his crew in any event. So, to those who say ‘if this doesn’t make any difference, we’re finished’, well, it looks as though we may very well be finished.

The reliably splendid Marina Hyde has discussed the question that increasingly preoccupies commentators:
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/may/28/cult-britain-boris-johnson-prime-minister

It turns out that all the stuff I took as read for most of my adult life—expecting elected representatives to be, or at least to seem, truthful, not markedly corrupt, believers in public service and the rest—is now hopelessly old-fashioned. Even though a good many MPs are still like that, there’s an obvious political advantage for those in government to pretend otherwise.

Old-fashioned! The very phrase is like a bell, to toll me back from thee to my sole self!

Sugar and bitters, sweet and sour. Still, I’m reminded that, of the Walt Whitman exhibition put on in Paris in the 1920s, Sylvia Beach (bookseller and first publisher of Ulysses) recalled: ‘Only Joyce and the French and I were still old-fashioned enough to get along with Whitman.’

And Whitman seems to be doing all right. So maybe even a rational politics will drift back into view at some stage, this fitful optimist murmurs. . .

Going in circles

After a year or more of travelling no further than a couple of miles from home, whatever the shape and length of the walks, on closer nodding terms with the tulips than with other human animals, we broke out of the circle a few days ago and into. . . a circle. It was, though, a stone circle, more than that since Stanton Drew offers the third largest complex of standing stones in England, three circles, ‘the central “Great Circle” consisting almost entirely of fallen stones’, solid blocks of the local dolomitic conglomerate. As with the Rollright Stones in the Cotswolds, near Long Compton, a village on the borders of Oxfordshire and Warwickshire, ‘folklore decrees that the stones are uncountable.’[1]

The Bath antiquary John Wood claimed that he had counted the stones, ‘though the cloudburst that followed was attributed to his folly by the villagers.’[2]


Wood had added that those who did make the attempt ‘proceeded till they were either struck dead upon the spot, or with such an illness as soon carried them off.’ Quoting this, Janet and Colin Bord enlarge a little upon the ‘wedding legend’, the story traditionally associated with the stones, that they were a wedding party turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath. The wedding, on a Saturday, went on until the fiddler stopped at midnight, saying that he couldn’t play on the Sabbath. ‘But then a dark stranger appeared and continued the music, and the merry-makers danced faster and faster and could not stop. At dawn, the music ceased, and they saw that the fiddler was none other than the Devil. They could not run away from him, and he said that one day he would return and play to them again. Until that day comes, they stand, as still as stone, in a field at Stanton Drew.’[3]

The details vary in several versions, as Kingsley Palmer points out, noting that an alternative name for the stones is ‘The Fiddlers and the Maids’. ‘All however agree that it was punishment for breaking the sabbath which caused the tragedy, that it was the bride who insisted on continuing beyond the midnight hour and that the devil himself led the dance in the form of a fiddler. The legend obviously has strong moralistic overtones, and the role of the bride suggests its masculine origin’.[4]


When the famous antiquarian and biographer John Aubrey stayed with his grandmother in Compton Dando, he would visit Stanton Drew, which he referred to as ‘bigger than Stonehenge’. He claimed not to believe the story ‘that on her way to be married, a bride and the company she was with were all turned into these stones, which are grouped together, hard as marble and nine or ten feet high. One is called the bride’s stone, another the parson’s stone, another the cook’s. The stones are a dirty reddish colour and take a good polish. I cannot help wondering how they really came to be there, and why.’

Thirty years later, Aubrey went back ‘to see the stone monument there that I knew as a child. The stones stand in plough land.’ The corn was ready for harvest so his attempts to measure the stones were hampered. He recorded that the villagers broke the stones ‘with sledges because they encumber their fertile land. The stones have been diminishing fast these past few years. I must stop this if I can.’[5]

On a brisk and bright and breezy day, one pound per person entrance fee slipped into the honesty box, and we’re through the gate and into the field, with the River Chew beyond. It’s very atmospheric, or was when we were there, wind fanning through the grass, stones standing, leaning or fallen, some with small pools of rainwater in the shallow depressions, stone weathered into wildly varied colours, shades and textures.


The Great Circle, at 113 metres in diameter, is the second largest after Avebury, and has 26 surviving upright stones. Recent research, outlined on the English Heritage site, states that there were nine concentric rings of wooden posts inside the great circle, each standing several metres tall. Similar timber circles such as Woodhenge are known elsewhere, but this is apparently the largest and most complex timber monument known in the British Isles. There would have been a large, deep circular ditch around the stones, 6 or 7 metres wide and about 135 metres in diameter. The site may date back around 4500 years.

https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/stanton-drew-circles-and-cove/history/

Hardly the ends of the earth for us, but a few miles—and a few thousand years—beyond our own recent circle. Modest progress but progress, after all.


Notes


[1] Images of Prehistory, text by Peter Fowler, photographs by Mick Sharp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 124.

[2] Julian Cope, The Modern Antiquarian: A Pre-Millennial Odyssey through Megalithic Britain (London: Thorson 1998), 222.

[3] Janet & Colin Bord, Mysterious Britain (London: Paladin Books, 1975), 29.

[4] Kingsley Palmer, The Folklore of Somerset (London: Batsford, 1976), 74, 75. The story is also retold in Sybil Marshall, Everyman’s Book of English Folk Tales (London: Dent, 1981).

[5] Ruth Scurr, John Aubrey: My Own Life (London: Chatto & Windus, 2015), 26, 155.

Every book in its season


‘You’re reading Zola now?’ the Librarian asks in a slightly disbelieving tone, one surely coloured by unsettling memories of undergraduate courses in European literature, with beckoning names like ‘Realism’ and ‘Naturalism’. ‘Why would you put yourself through that?’

She sits down to lunch with Modern Nature—Derek Jarman’s 1989-1990 journals—while I consider the question. I felt I needed a novel – to go with the pile of current not-novel reading; I thought I was due a ‘classic’; a quick survey of the fiction titles unread by me that we currently own didn’t throw up one to snag my attention in the right way (yes, there are hundreds of those but many of them sitting in boxes in a storage unit) and this one was close to hand; I haven’t read Monsieur Zola for years; he crops up a lot elsewhere, when you read about Cézanne or Dreyfus or dip into the Goncourt Journals; Ford Madox Ford remembers coming across him in Hyde Park—an anecdote about hairpins—and also riding with him in a hansom cab. So I’m reading Zola.


Though not, as it turns out, for very long. La Bête Humaine (1890), set in the 1860s, is the seventeenth (out of twenty) in the Les Rougon-Macquart series. It’s an odd and uncomfortable mixture, ‘a curious hybrid’ the jacket announces: a railway novel and a story of murder. Less than twenty pages in and Roubaud is attacking his wife with ferocious violence – because she was sexually exploited by her distinguished guardian when a teenager and victim-blaming clearly comes easily—naturally?—to him. ‘In three years he had never laid a finger on her and now he was murdering her’ – surprisingly, he isn’t, quite. But a few pages on and Jacques Lantier, in the company of Flore, is afflicted by some ‘madness’ which ‘seemed to be taking possession of him, some ferocity making him cast his eyes round for a weapon, a stone, anything to kill her with.’ He suffers, it seems from some ‘hereditary taint’, from ‘sudden attacks of instability in his being’. ‘At such times he lost all control of himself and just obeyed his muscles, the wild beast inside him.’ And: ‘He was coming to think that he was paying for others, fathers, grandfathers who had drunk, generations of drunkards, that he had their blood, tainted with a slow poison and a bestiality that dragged him back to the woman-devouring savages in the forests.’

At which point even the translator, Leonard Tancock, notes that the paragraph ‘stretches probability to breaking-point’, though he’s referring to the fact that, since Zola ‘invented Jacques as an afterthought’, he has to pile in the back story and familial connections. Whereas I, still musing over Séverine’s apparent recovery from her husband’s enthusiasm for throwing her across the bed in order to rain ‘blow after blow on her, anywhere’, am now edging away from that ‘tainted’ blood and those ‘woman-devouring savages in the forests’.

(https://powerpop.blog/)

‘To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven’, Ecclesiastes says (3, i-viii)—so too do The Byrds (and I notice in passing the topical  ‘a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing’). Similarly, I’ve always thought there was a right time to read a book, for me to read a book at any rate. My early enthusiasm for Dylan Thomas was strong enough to make it difficult now to get on a sensible footing with him, Henry Miller too (though The Colossus of Maroussi apparently presents no such difficulties). Some books I tossed aside two or even three decades years ago and was glad to find my way back to in the last few years. But what I always thought of as a Protestant reading ethic meant I usually ploughed on, with only a handful of abandoned books. There’ve been quite a few more lately.

When you’re younger, there may not be complete autonomy: reading lists, deadlines, course requirements. Decades later, the real authority is time: age and time, the one increasing, the other decreasing. Then, too, the profusion of box sets and streaming services mean that viewers have developed a sixth sense, not necessarily unerring but a sense they’ve learned to trust, as they sit down before a new series. We have it down to around five minutes in a lot of cases: the sideways glance at the Librarian, sometimes a muttered ‘Anything?’ or ‘What d’you think?’ Occasionally returned by an ‘I’ll watch it on my own’. Something comparable has happened with the reading: it – the click, the connection – has to come sooner. I have five hundred books in my head that I still want to read – plus the ones that haven’t been published yet – and I tend not to set things aside for a couple of decades now. If it’s gone, it’s probably gone. But I also seem to have shaken off that dutiful sense. Nothing now that I must read let alone must finish. The pleasure principle has conquered, it stands with legs astride on a battlefield heaped with the discarded dustjackets of a hundred duty-reads.

In short (or medium?), that particular Zola is returned to the shelf. There might be another one at some stage (a return to Germinal, most likely). For the moment, Patrick Leigh Fermor (and Artemis Cooper’s biography of him), the stellar Stella Bowen, Frank O’Hara and—just arrived—Shirley Hazzard’s stories, will keep me going for a while. Plus, of course, a good many volumes, scans, transcriptions and notes related to a certain Ford Madox Ford.

May Day, jay day


Our local Victorian cemetery is pretty quiet, certainly early on a Saturday—Mayday—morning. Good walking, orchestral birdsong. The sparrows en route are noisy, even clamorous in two or three specific bushes, but it’s chatter, sociability. Some of the cemetery birdsong smacks more of performance.

At one point, the Librarian and I conduct a highly technical ornithological exchange.

—What’s that bird up there?
—Where? Oh, just a pigeon, isn’t it?
—Is it? I thought there was something about the beak.
—Oh yes, looks like a finch.
—I thought perhaps a jay.
Tiring of this, the bird launches itself into space.
—Oh yes! You can see now. Beautiful colours. It is a jay.

In Ford Madox Ford’s 1923 novel, The Marsden Case, the narrator is found ‘gazing through a plate-glass window set in granite at a blue straw hat trimmed with jay’s wings pointing backwards so that it resembled a helmet of Mercury’.[1] ‘The jay, the “British Bird of Paradise”, displaying his vari-coloured feathers at a spring-time gathering’, W. H. Hudson wrote in one of his catalogues of the birds which ‘give most delight to the aesthetic sense’.[2]


(Benjamin Haughton, Jay:  Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services)

Ford was a great admirer of—and well acquainted with—Hudson, who devoted a great deal of time in his later years to combatting the barbaric treatment of birds, which slaughtered hundreds of thousands and drove many species to extinction. ‘Rare visitors were shot on sight. In May 1870 a flock of forty golden orioles, arriving in woods near Penzance, was quickly wiped out: “everyone in the place was up and after them.”’ This ‘spirit of destruction prevailed everywhere’, in town and country and ‘running through all classes.’ Fashionable women wore hats ‘trimmed with gulls’ wings or the plumes of great crested grebes, or a ball dress set off by a spray of goldfinches or robins.’ Hudson was closely involved with the founding in the late 1880s of the Society for the Protection of Birds, which was incorporated by Royal charter in 1904.[3]


‘The wilderness is near as well as dear to every man’, Henry Thoreau wrote, ‘The very uprightness of the pines and maples asserts the ancient rectitude and vigor of nature. Our lives need the relief of such a background, where the pine flourishes and the jay still screams.’[4]

As well it might.



Notes


[1] Ford Madox Ford, The Marsden Case (London: Duckworth, 1923), 22-23.

[2] Hudson, Birds and Man, (1901); see  Ruth Tomalin, W. H. Hudson: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 150.

[3] Tomalin, 144, 145, 146-149; RSPB website: https://www.rspb.org.uk/

[4] Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (New York: Crowell, 1961; Apollo, 1966; Library of America edition, 1985), 138.

Variable speeds


Feeling a little odd is not, it transpires, down to the cat beginning the day by licking my eyebrows; rather, a recurrence of an old trouble, a touch of positional vertigo, a common enough problem of the inner ear but no less unsettling for that. It will, or should, pass off. In the meantime, I try not to look up – or down – or move my head too quickly or stretch my neck or bend or twist. . . Best to sit and read or stand and think about sitting to read. So the morning goes, with exaggerated care taken not to drop the soap in the shower or get too inventive coming downstairs. 

On the plus side, I’m two Pfizer doses in – and, the other morning, took what I believe to have been my first solo walk in more than a year; not the Daily Walk but a brisk sortie to another park – the one with the rosemary bushes, so I could pick a few sprigs for the asparagus, rosemary and tomato tart (Anna Jones’ recipe) I was making for lunch. It was early, the air felt wonderfully fresh, there was barely any noise except birdsong, the distant slamming of a car door and, until I went home by a slightly different route, passing the park at the end of our road, I saw no people at all. Then, scattered across the slopes, there were dog walkers and two or three runners.

So here I am now among the women: Mary Butts and Nathalie Blondel (biographer of Butts and editor of her journals); Olive Garnett; Juliet Soskice, Ford Madox Ford’s sister; Stella Bowen; and Selina Hastings’ biography of Sybille Bedford.

(Mary Butts in 1919)

Just as time, in this pandemic, seems to move at two utterly different speeds—like lightning and barely at all—and the past is both a fingertip away and impossibly remote, so it is with the theoretical sharing of the experience of the pandemic. The early rhetorical booming about how we were all in it together (painfully reminiscent of the early days of Tory austerity policies) was quickly recognised as nonsense, even in the context of England alone. Now we look at the appalling footage from India, the funeral pyres, the staggering numbers of new infections and people dying for want of oxygen. We have all experienced a pandemic but in such widely differing ways and in such wildly differing circumstances that the statement is practically meaningless. And to write about it? Feasible but – very difficult, yes.

A new national poll concludes that 40% of those surveyed thought the Tories were corrupt – presumably the other 60% were either Tories or that very prevalent breed of contemporary voters: the ones who really and truly Don’t Know, and, very often, don’t care either. The Prime Minister may or may not have said ‘no more fucking lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands’. The two points that most struck me were, firstly, how very plausible it was that Johnson would have said it, or something very like it, given what we know of him; and secondly, bodies were already piled in their scores of thousands, many of those deaths directly attributable to his government’s policies, particularly being too damned slow to lock down and too damned quick to come out of lockdown.

Future historians will surely have a whale of a time looking back at the state we’re now in and the last few years that led us here. Will they be able to believe their eyes?

A word about the dromedary

(Thomas Bewick, ‘Dromedary’)

‘Yesterday you awaked very bad’, James Boswell wrote in his journal, Monday 9 April 1764. ‘You got up as dreary as a dromedary. . . . ’[1]

I suspect that—‘dreary as a dromedary’— we’ve all been there. Not to bask in the alliteration but to glimpse the dromedary’s view of a day: plod, plod, plod – then a nosebag at the end of the day, if you’re lucky.

‘Arras’ used to signify a tapestry, a hanging screen, of the sort that Renaissance heroes or villains were forever thrusting swords through or maids or villains were pressing their ears against to overhear crucial intelligence—until I first read about the First World War. Then it became a battle, most famously—for literary historians—the battle in which the poet Edward Thomas was killed, on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917. So too was Tommy Nelson (Thomas Arthur Nelson), to whom John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps is dedicated—they were both partners in the publishing company—while Buchan’s brother Alastair was also fatally wounded there, though not on the same day.[2]

The poet Ivor Gurney was wounded on Good Friday night and sent to the hospital at 55th Infantry Base Depot, Rouen, so two days before Edward Thomas’s death;[3] while Siegfried Sassoon at Basseux on that Easter Monday was close enough to hear the guns at Arras, where Thomas was killed that morning by the blast from a shell.[4]

104 years on, though, I suspect we’re largely back behind the arras: eavesdropping, occasionally subject to Renaissance villains thrusting blades through, tragedies of blood, the old stories. . .


Even in a country still largely in denial about the Brexit fiasco—and many people who predicted exactly how this would turn out are finding that there’s very limited satisfaction in being proved right about a disaster, as we’d already learned from predicting more or less how the invasion of Iraq, lacking legality and hard evidence, would turn out—even given all that, I say, there’s been an extraordinary amount of utter nonsense unleashed on us recently.

A highly suspect report exonerating the measures taken by the Metropolitan Police at Clapham Common—notably, male violence against women peacefully protesting the death of a victim of male violence—followed by a widely-criticised report which concluded that there was no institutional racism in this country, all in the teeth of the evidence or rather, picking the teeth of the evidence and carefully ignoring the bits of expert testimony that didn’t fit the predetermined narrative. Then there was— there is!—the ludicrous business of statues, policemen and policewomen milling around a statue of Winston Churchill. And flags. Lots of flags. Very small politicians, sometimes with very small flags, but sometimes with very large ones.

https://centenariestimeline.com/1912_AHR.html

There was a famous meeting at Balmoral, 9 April 1912, attended by Bonar Law, Walter Long, Sir Edward Carson and other luminaries. In the centre of the show grounds was a signalling tower with a flagstaff ninety feet high. The Union Jack unfurled was forty-eight feet by twenty-five. ‘It was the largest ever woven’, the historian George Dangerfield remarked, adding dryly: ‘Patriotism could do no more.’

A little later, he remarked: ‘There was a method in the Unionist madness. Such was the state of English nerves in those days, that violence made a stronger appeal to the public than any other form of speech and action.’[5]

And here we are. Hard to believe, of course, given what we—what some of us, why not all of us?— know and have known but. . . here we are.

I wonder, sometimes, why my only reliable guides to the current state of things are Devi Sridhar, Marina Hyde and Cold War Steve. But I look at the front pages of the national newspapers every morning on the BBC website — and that reminds me.

Notes


[1] Boswell in Holland, 1763-1764, edited by Frederick A. Pottle (London: William Heinemann, 1952), 205.

[2] John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915; edited by Christopher Harvie, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 112.

[3] Michael Hurd, The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 96.

[4] Harry Ricketts, Strange Meetings: The Poets of the Great War (London: Chatto and Windus, 2010), 101.

[5] George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935; London: Granada Publishing, 1970), 98-99, 106.

Pursuing those projects


In a letter to poet and publisher James Laughlin, on 28 March 1995, Guy Davenport wrote about poet and publisher Jonathan Williams who, when he came to town (Lexington, Kentucky, in Davenport’s case), required a royal court, with about thirty people invited to dinner afterwards. ‘Whereas I am a hermit’, Davenport added. ‘Bonnie Jean [his partner] and I consider more than four people in a room to be a replay of the French Revolution.’[1]

Some people wouldn’t turn a hair at this, of course, whereas I’m thinking: ‘Four people? How could you stand so many in a room?’ Though this might be so even without a pandemic.

I’m wondering now, on average grey days, whether we shall ever be wholly ‘without a pandemic’. I suspect not, though it’s difficult to envisage precisely what that ‘not without’ will look like. Like flu but a little worse? Invisible but some people always keeping their distance, stepping off paths, wearing masks? Some people themselves invisible because they will never – never – reappear in cinemas, theatres, restaurants, shops? People as ghosts, as revenants, as faces glimpsed or voices almost overheard?


In the aftermath of the First World War, Ford Madox Ford asked his friend Isabel Paterson if ‘in the case of certain dead people you cannot feel that they are indeed gone from this world?’ He added that ‘in my case the world daily becomes more and more peopled with such revenants and less and less with those who still walk this earth.’[2] Though Ford rarely alludes to it, the Spanish influenza pandemic killed more people than had died in the war itself. Far fewer people have died in the current pandemic than in 1918-1919 but there will still be a sense, I suspect, in which, once things move back a little—or a lot—towards what is usually termed ‘normal life’, the things familiar to us before Covid-19 hit will seem more substantial somehow, even more real, than whatever replaces them.

I feel no desperate need to go to the pub or a football match, or get on a plane somewhere, anywhere. To see, and walk beside, the sea, yes, and to reunite with a few—a very few—people. For the most part, my nostalgia—nostos, the journey home—is for quite mundane things, particular streets to walk on, particular buildings to look at again, hardly even that, just to pass by, barely remarking them. But, even given the singular nature of this pandemic, and a year like no other in my lifetime, I still know that, once that street corner and that building are there in front of me, something won’t quite jell, somehow the thing envisaged and the thing confronted will refuse to come together. Some other image will then arise: some other stretch of undistinguished street, some patch of sand, an obscure lane, the corner of a terrace, some scruffy path beside a canal. Which will be fine: the mild dissatisfaction, the readjustment, the readiness to try again. It will serve as ‘normal’ enough. 

‘The ambiguous human condition means tirelessly trying to take control of things’, Sarah Bakewell wrote, with Simone de Beauvoir in mind. ‘We have to do two near-impossible things at once: understand ourselves as limited by circumstances, and yet continue to pursue our projects as though we are truly in control.’[3]

As though, as though. My current condition is, I surmise, very ambiguous – but certainly human.

Notes


[1] Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, edited by W. C. Bamberger,  (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 196.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Last Post (1928; edited by Paul Skinner, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 5.

[3] Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being & Apricot Cocktails (London: Chatto & Windus, 2016), 226.