Friday the thirteenth

Alfred-Rethel

(Alfred Rethel via oldbookillustrations.com)

Friday the thirteenth, appropriately enough, and a great many people now have precisely the government they deserve. Sadly, the rest of us, who deserved something infinitely better, also have that same government.

At least we are in Bristol where, now that this country is officially a lunatic asylum, we can at least claim to be in a small island or oasis of sanity (four seats: four Labour MPs).

Does this help? Less than you might think. . .

‘With the spectacle of madness before one’s eyes one feels the odds shorten. The eclipse of reason seems such an easy affair, the grasp on sanity so provisional and insecure.’—Lawrence Durrell

 

Cheerful notes from literary history

Boat.Upturned

(The Ship of State)

The United Kingdom (as it’s currently known) goes to the polls tomorrow and I wish I felt a little more confidence in the British electorate. An astonishing number of people seem willing to ignore the threats to the survival of the National Health Service, working families forced to go to food banks, teachers having to use their own money to buy stationery and food for their pupils, homeless people dying on the streets. The obvious question is: do they not know or do they not care?

Thinking back to the much-quoted comment on the 2016 referendum—that people don’t mind being lied to if they like the lie they’re being told—we’re seeing now, unsurprisingly, the corollary: people do mind being told a truth if they don’t like the truth that’s being told.

In Nick Park’s Wallace & Gromit film, The Wrong Trousers, there’s a police ‘Reward’ poster headed: ‘Have you seen this chicken?’ It’s the criminal penguin in an absurdly obvious red rubber glove doubling as chicken comb. Wallace, never the sharpest tool in the box, exclaims at one point when the penguin has donned the glove: ‘It’s you!’

WrongTrousers

In Steve Bell’s cartoons of late, Boris Johnson has adopted ‘the scarlet rubber gauntlet of integrity’ https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/picture/2019/dec/09/steve-bells-if-boris-johnson-gets-ready-to-fight-the-election and Johnson in person has been no more convincing than the penguin. Yet many have, it seems, chosen to be convinced. There has, of course, been a relentless and sustained media onslaught against Jeremy Corbyn, for several years now, mainly in the trashier Tory papers—Sun, Express, Mail—but with some substantial if less hysterical help from the Times and the Johnson outlet, the Telegraph, collectively representing the Labour leader as a threat to western civilization. But I don’t know – he doesn’t despise ordinary people, doesn’t hide from interviewers or nick their phones and doesn’t lie through his teeth. Is he just too old-fashioned?

Frankly, the Labour manifesto seems to me the only chance our failing country has to reverse its precipitous decline—and if you think their manifesto’s too radical, then it’s just as well I don’t get to enact mine.

11 December. Surely there are some cheerful notes from literary history?

‘On Monday 11 December [1916]’, D. H. Lawrence sensed ‘a terrible wave of depression in Cornwall with people in Penzance market saying England was beaten, as the news came of the fall of Asquith and his replacement by Lloyd George. For Lawrence this was the death-blow to the liberal and decent England he had cared about . . . Now finally the old England was gone, replaced by the “patriotism” of Horatio Bottomley and the demago­guery of Lloyd George.’[1]

(Two years later, Lloyd George was returned to power at the head of a coalition government with 478 ‘Coalition’ MPs, the vast majority of them Conservatives. John Maynard Keynes famously asked ‘a Conservative friend [Stanley Baldwin], who had known previous houses, what he thought of them. “They are a lot of hard-faced men,” he said, “who look as if they had done very well out of the war.”’)[2]

Okay, try another one. In his essay ‘Welsh Poetry’, poet and painter David Jones wrote that, ‘In the Brenhinedd y Saeson, “The Kings of the English”, which is a Welsh version of a Latin chronicle, the scribe, in an entry for 11th December 1282, after noting that the Lord Llywelyn had been killed on that day, adds these significant words” Ac yna i bwriwyd holl Gymry y’r llawr, And then was cast down all Wales, to the ground.’[3]

Scream

Perhaps not that one either. Wait, though, tomorrow—Election Day—is the birthday of Edvard Munch, painter best-known for, ah, The Scream (several versions). So that’s encouraging.

 

 

Notes

[1] Mark Kinkead-Weekes, D. H, Lawrence: Triumph to Exile, 1912-1922 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 345.

[2] John Maynard Keynes. The Economic Consequences of the Peace (London: Macmillan, 1919), 133.

[3] David Jones, Epoch and Artist: Selected Writings (London: Faber, 1973), 61.

 

Bowling googlies

Willis-Headingley

Third test at Headingley, 1981: Willis bowling
(Photograph:  Colorsport/Rex/Shutterstock via The Guardian)

Bob Willis died a few days ago. Famous English fast bowler. Headingley 1981. 130. 18 runs. 8 for 43. Pretty arcane stuff for those who never follow test cricket, as a lot more people did in the days when it was on the BBC rather than tucked away on commercial channels. For those who did—probably those of a certain age—those figures are as instantly evocative as, say, the opening seconds of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. And, in all likelihood, many of them watched a video of the highlights of that famous day and the narrow victory that seemed impossible until Willis blew the Australian batsmen away. A devoted follower of Bob Dylan, he added the name to his own by deed poll—becoming Robert George Dylan Willis—a craziness I could relate to, having been guilty myself of inflicting thunderous versions of ‘Tombstone Blues’ on drinkers in an upstairs bar and roaring ‘House of the Rising Sun’ into the microphone of a reel-to-reel tape recorder on the bare floorboards of somebody’s upstairs room – not the true original, rather the arrangement that Dylan had ‘borrowed’ from Dave Van Ronk.

So, after playing my part in a highly un-Darwinian scenario, that is, sitting on the step at the back door, gripping the cat tightly with both hands, saying ‘Drop it, Harry! Drop it! Drop the damned mouse, Harry!’ until he tired of growling at me, slackened his hold and watched Robert Burns’ wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie scurry off to the neighbour’s fence—survival of the weakest—after playing that part, I say, I turned on my computer and watched Willis play his own rather more heroic part on that far-off day made vibrantly present again, his odd, angled, jerky run-up, the tumbling wickets, Willis hardly reacting much of the time, fiercely concentrated, always reaching for the second sleeveless sweater while another batsman trudged back to the pavilion.

H-waiting

There have been a few famous cricketing writers—Conan Doyle, Harold Pinter, A. A Milne, P. G. Wodehouse, Siegfried Sassoon and, most notably, Samuel Beckett. And cricketing references often occur as indications of a certain kind or class of Englishness. Henry Green’s sly humour has one of his characters, Alexander, in a fogbound London, ‘bowling along in his taxi the length of cricket pitches at a time, from block to block, one red light to another, or shimmering policemen dressed in rubber.’[1]

I don’t recall Lawrence Durrell particularly as a cricketer—he’d done a bit of boxing, I believe—but a 1958 essay, ‘Old Mathieu’, bristles with cricketing references. ‘He utters the words with the hangdog air of a cricketer who might say: “We have been forced to invite three American baseball players to join the Test team!”’ Durrell wrote. And, ‘Talking of [wine] he sounds rather like old Wilfred Rhodes discussing famous spin-bowlers of the past.’ Then: ‘On his lips the famous names sound full of the regional poetry of old county regiments or county cricket teams decimated in a year of bitter crisis.’ Near the close: ‘It is not unlike a spell at the nets under an exacting yet patient coach.’ And: ‘(I am reminded of a difficult shot to cover-point – or of a glide through the slips.)’[2] Or was that an outside edge, Larry?

Ford Madox Ford employs cricketing references several times in Parade’s End, as he does in No Enemy, which has a chapter, ‘A Cricket Match’, also included in the original French, ‘Une Partie de Cricket’, as ‘Envoi’.[3] In Ancient Lights, he straight facedly asserts that writers in England, being ‘well aware that they are not regarded as gentlemen’, all ‘desire to be something else as well. Sometimes, anxious to assert their manhood, they cultivate small holdings, sail the seas, hire out fishing boats, travel in caravans, engage in county cricket or become justices of the peace.’[4]

But perhaps his most extended engagement with the subject occurs in a late work, Great Trade Route, where he recalls his visit to the United States thirty years before, and tells the story of Philadelphia’s cricket team, claiming that he met a young man in 1906 who ‘introduced into the English game’ the googly. In a footnote he mentions that ‘the patient and omniscient gentleman who reads my proofs’ has pointed out to Ford that the googly was invented by an Englishman named Bosanquet. Ford assures him that he’s not forgotten Bosanquet but insists that in late 1906 his friend ‘bowled to me in the nets for a quarter of an hour or so balls that broke back both in the air and on the ground and that I found absolutely unplayable. His fellow cricketers who were more used to them played them more easily. They were there called “googlies.”’ His friend afterwards went with a cricket team to England and, Ford says, ‘it certainly seems to me that it was after 1907 that Bosanquet distinguished himself with the googly’.[5]

Bosanquet_bowling

(Bernard Bosanquet: Photograph by George Beldam, 1905)

Well now. Philadelphia certainly did have a good cricket team, which declined as baseball became the country’s dominant sport. Ford was indeed in Philadelphia in 1906 and a team from there did visit England: the third and final tour was in 1908. Bernard Bosanquet actually captained a team that visited Philadelphia in 1901 and it was during the previous English season that he first used the googly in a first-class match. Around 1903, the delivery he’s now famous for became more widely known as ‘a googly’. So Ford’s chronology is a little out while his statement that cricket was dying in England at the time is puzzling. Hayward, Hirst, Hobbs, Woolley: the period up to the First World War is sometime termed the golden age of cricket. And in 1906, when Ford was in the United States, his beloved Kent had actually just won the county championship for the first time.

In ‘Jane Austen Bowls a Googly: The Juvenilia’, the eminent Ford Madox Ford critic, Joseph Wiesenfarth, whose other areas of expertise include the nineteenth-century novel, particularly the work of George Eliot and Jane Austen, begins: ‘To “bowl a googly” is a term from cricket that means to catch a batsman off guard by throwing a very tricky pitch. Idiomatically and figuratively, it means to catch someone unawares with something unexpected.’

pride-and-prejudice-sort-of_final_image-only_landscape_300dpi

Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) by Isobel McArthur (after Jane Austen)

A fine essay, well worth seeking out – still, I pause briefly over that strikingly American construction, ‘throwing a very tricky pitch’: even my minimal knowledge of baseball is enough to locate such terms in that lexicon, rather than a cricketing one. Cricket has bowlers rather than pitchers; and in a cricketing context, the word ‘throwing’ is treated with great wariness, having been central to several long running ‘chucking’ controversies in the past (Griffin, Meckiff, Griffith, Muralitharan). More to the point—and this applies to Ford as well—a googly is not just ‘tricky’. It’s a trickster, an illusion, a feint, a sleight-of-hand. It has had, for most of its life, a very specific meaning: a ball delivered with an apparent leg-break action but behaving as an off-break when it touches the ground, that is, it spins in one direction while the manner of its delivery had led the batsman to believe that it will spin in precisely the opposite direction.

Wiesenfarth cites Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader—in which the British monarch has gone off-piste to the extent of reading novels and wanting to discuss them with other people—before moving on to Austen: ‘When the author of six classic novels of manners takes to getting some people drunk and throwing others out of windows, we could say that Jane Austen bowls us a googly.’[6] We could. And yes, in that sense, we might well make a case for Ford bowling his readers a googly in the process of telling us the story of the googly’s invention, his sprightly version of the googly origin myth.

 

 

Notes

[1] Henry Green, Party Going (1939), in Loving, Living, Party Going (London: Vintage, 2005), 401.

[2] Lawrence Durrell, ‘Old Mathieu’, in Spirit of Place: Mediterranean Writings, edited by Alan G. Thomas (1969; London : Faber and Faber, 1988), 365-368.

[3] First published in Bibliotheque universelle et revue suisse, 85 (January 1917), 117-126: Max Saunders, ‘Ford Madox Ford: Further Bibliographies’, English Literature in Transition 1880-1920, 43:2 (2000), 155.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911), 110.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Great Trade Route (London: Allen & Unwin, 1937), 246-249.

[6] Joseph Wiesenfarth, ‘Jane Austen Bowls a Googly: The Juvenilia’, Style, 51,1 (2017), 1-16 (quotations from first couple of pages).

 

 

Exemplars, anthropology, writing selves

To-West-Bay-Wall

Sitting at the kitchen table with the recent Library of America collection of Joan Didion’s early books, I can hear the Librarian upstairs in vigorous dialogue with the radio. Is it politicians or another helping of vox populi snippets? It’s not easy to say which is more thoroughly depressing these days.

It’s not been a cheering week generally: adding to the university staff strike and the gloom of a general election campaign that’s demeaning to us all came the deaths of Clive James and Jonathan Miller – as one of the contributors to the ‘Letters’ page remarked, ‘just when we’re most in need of an increase in the gross national IQ, we get a drastic reduction.’
https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2019/nov/28/sad-loss-of-clive-james-and-jonathan-miller-modest-witty-intellectual-giants

(Jonathan Miller via The Independent; Clive James via The Financial Times)

On the plus side, not unusually, Guy Davenport – it was his birthday on 23 November (1927-2005); sitting in a rented house on the South coast, I’d just finished re-reading his second collection of essays, Every Force Evolves a Form; and, to complete the trinity, I also read Greg Gerke’s splendid short essay, ‘Davenport as Exemplar’.

Quoting Davenport’s foreword to The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art—‘I am not writing for scholars or fellow critics, but for people who like to read, to look at pictures, and to know things’—Gerke writes: ‘I’d always wanted to come at art in a vital Davenportian way, which is to say not with pompous stridency—declaiming for my own notoriety, using Hegel and Derrida as petards to enjoyment—but in a cogent, stylistic manner for the aforementioned “people who like to read.”’ He mentions other critics from whom he has learned—William Gass, Hugh Kenner, Elizabeth Hardwick, Susan Sontag, Cynthia Ozick—and notes that, ‘Though Davenport’s style is not the closest to mine, he is probably the most inimitable, and maybe the most angry’, the three notable forerunners of such literate anger being Blake, Ruskin and Ezra Pound, all of them of central concern to Davenport. Gerke goes on to explore the relationship between the writing self and the ‘superficial’ self, Proust’s ‘self that frequents the world’, a relationship that inhabits, implicitly or explicitly, many of the essays collected in his recent See What I See.*

(* ‘Davenport as Exemplar’ is available here: https://www.essaydaily.org/2019/11/greg-gerke-davenport-as-exemplar.html
See What I See collects thirty-one essays on literature, cinema and the writing life); also recommended is Especially the Bad Things (Gerke’s short fiction). Both have just been published by Birmingham-based Splice: https://www.thisissplice.co.uk/?s=gerke )

A few days ago, it was the birthday of Claude Levi-Strauss—he died in 2009, aged one hundred—whose work I know rather patchily and, frankly, can’t be sure of how much I absorbed from ‘The Champollion of Table Manners’, an essay by Davenport which is by way of being a review of The Origin of Table Manners: Introduction to a Science of Mythology: 3.

Davenport wrote another essay called ‘The Anthropology of Table Manners from Geophagy Onward’, a far more personal take on the subject – within the very definite autobiographical limits that Davenport allows, agreeing with Menander that ‘Talking about oneself [ . . . ] is a feast that starves the guest’ (a reference that Gerke instances in the essay mentioned above). Briefly citing both Davenport essays, Adam Mars-Jones remarked (‘Introversion Has Its Limits’, London Review of Books, 8 March 2018), ‘Shockingly, there is no overlap between them, though cannibalising your own material is generally regarded as anthropophagy at its most respectable.’

GD_Every_Force

‘The Anthropology of Table Manners’ seems saturated with Lévi-Strauss, though it never mentions his name, and The Geography of the Imagination, in which it is collected, preceded Every Force Evolves a Form by several years. The original journal publication of the two essays, though, reverses the volume order, so the reading for the review did indeed underlie ‘The Anthropology of Table Manners’, one of Davenport’s funniest essays (and he can be extremely funny). ‘He is not an easy writer’, he concludes his review. ‘The Elementary Structure of Kinship is one of the most difficult books ever. The Savage Mind is, in its charming way, almost as difficult. The four volumes of the Mythologies require dedication and stamina to read all 2,500 pages. Yet he has never written an uninteresting sentence.’ And when he asserts that Lévi-Strauss ‘is, to my knowledge, the best and most diligent interpreter of our time’, that knowledge very probably incorporated a great deal, if not all, of Lévi-Strauss’s oeuvre. In 1978, he referred, in a letter to Hugh Kenner, to Lévi-Strauss’s Totemism, translated by Davenport’s friend from Merton College, Oxford days, Rodney Needham, and with an introduction by Roger Poole, the Virginia Woolf and Kierkegaard scholar who later wrote on Ford Madox Ford and became a hugely valued member of the Ford community.

Didion-60s-70s

The day moves on from radio to housework, yoga, cooking. Over coffee, I turn to another page of the Joan Didion volume, the opening of her third novel, A Book of Common Prayer: ‘I am an anthropologist who lost faith in her own method, who stopped believing that observable activity defined anthropos. I studied under Kroeber at California and worked with Lévi-Strauss at São Paulo’.

As for what Gerke accurately characterises as Davenport’s ‘very poetic, crisp style—the long pungent sentences are masked by short pugilistic ones’, so many of those sentences stick in the mind, my mind, some consoling, some vertiginously relevant to the present, even if shaped thirty or more years ago.

‘If the past is prologue, it is also a record of grievances to call up and enlist as excuses. All you need is rhetorical talent and a gift for rationalizing.’ Or try: ‘Words are tyrants more powerful than any Caesar. When they are lies, they are devils.’ In one of his most memorable pieces, ‘On Reading’, he writes: ‘We can evince any number of undeniable beliefs—an informed society cannot be enslaved by ideologies and fanaticism, a cooperative pluralistic society must necessarily be conversant with the human record in books of all kinds, and so on—but we will always return to the private and inviolable act of reading as our culture’s way of developing an individual.’ I also pause over ‘Every epoch chooses its own past and cannot know how it will be remembered’; on ‘The uncritical mind is a prey to credulity, and without skepticism there can be no democracy’; and close with ‘Where language has torn the world to pieces, the writer can put it back together.’

More than ever, clearly, the writers have a great deal of work to do.

Bloody Sundays

morris.portrait Cunninghame_Graham

(William Morris; Robert Cunninghame Graham)

Bloody Sunday. Most often—before the film buffs’ recall of the 1971 John Schlesinger film Sunday Bloody Sunday, starring Glenda Jackson, Peter Finch and Murray Head—the phrase triggers memories of the Bogside area of Derry, 30 January 1972, when thirteen unarmed demonstrators were killed by British troops (a fourteenth died later), an event whose aftereffects are still very much with us.

But there was an earlier ‘Bloody Sunday’, 13 November 1887, when tens of thousands of protesters, in and around Trafalgar Square, were blocked—and columns of demonstrators broken up—by police, and troops. The politician John Burns and the writer and radical MP Robert Cunninghame Graham were among those beaten and imprisoned. It was, Fiona MacCarthy remarks, ‘the scene of the most ruthless display of establishment power that London has ever seen.’ There were more than 400 arrests and more than 200 marchers were treated in hospital, ‘only a fraction of the many people injured.’ A law copyist, Alfred Linnell, was killed, probably beneath the hooves of a police horse. William Morris, who had been present at ‘Bloody Sunday’, quickly produced a pamphlet, its cover by Walter Crane, sales of which went to the Linnell family. The funeral, another occasion for mass demonstration, was held on 18 December, the pall-bearers including Morris, Cunninghame Graham, the crusading journalist W. T. Stead and Annie Besant.[1]

alfred-linnell_300x384

(Working Class Movement Library:
https://www.wcml.org.uk/contents/creativity-and-culture/art/walter-crane/)

Here’s another socialist, half a century later, Naomi Mitchison, on a research trip to Edinburgh, 13 November 1941:

Going along Princes Street and up the Mount to St Giles, felt a queer kind of pride and anger; the lion flag was flying on some building, I could have kissed it. Walked into Parliament Hall, with its bloody awful stained glass—all the pictures are put away—and thought of James VI’s remark when young “There is ane hole in this Parliament” and suddenly felt the most passionate and disconcerting longing to be a member of the first Scots Parliament under the New Order, or maybe the Supreme Soviet of Scotland, working with the others all over Europe.’[2]

Mitchison

(Naomi Mitchison)

A hole in this Parliament rather than this Parliament in a hole. Those were the days, eh?

On one more 13 November, this one exactly one hundred years ago, an essay by a certain Ezra Pound: ‘Capital v. Labour is not the only conflict; there is also the endless conflict between the furnished and the half-furnished mind.’[3]

 

Notes

[1] Fiona MacCarthy, William Morris: A Life for Our Time (London: Faber & Faber, 1994), 567-572.

[2] Naomi Mitchison, Among You Taking Notes . . . The Wartime Diary of Naomi Mitchison, 1939-1945, edited by Dorothy Sheridan (London: Victor Gollancz, 1985), 169.

[3] Ezra Pound, ‘The Revolt of Intelligence. I’, New Age, XXVI, 2 (13 November, 1919), 22.

 

Election mode

Géricault-Raft-Medusa

(Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa: Louvre)

Now is the winter of our disconnect. Or not.

‘Hora novissima, tempora pessima sunt — vigilemus’, the twelfth-century monk Bernard of Cluny wrote, ‘These are the last days, the worst of times: let us keep watch’. His poem, De Contemptu Mundi (On Contempt for the World) was around 3000 lines long, in an elaborate metre with many internal rhymes. It attacked various failings and abuses in the contemporary world, interspersed with rapturous descriptions of the heavenly Jerusalem.

We are in election mode. Or the end of days, some say. ‘Leading politicians openly lying through their teeth’, the Librarian observes, watching the evening news. ‘When did that change?’

I don’t know the answer. I’m old enough to remember politicians resigning when they were caught out and shown to have lied to their colleagues and the electorate. But now – they don’t seem to bother much. I recall a piece in The Guardian a few weeks back by Catherine Fieschi. ‘We need to stop asking why voters believe populists’ untruths and why they let themselves be repeatedly swindled by them – because they don’t and they aren’t. The purpose of populist lying is not to be believed. Only very belatedly do we seem to be grasping that the politics of lying and shameless behaviour are powerful elements in populism’s corrosive ideology.’
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/sep/30/europe-populist-lie-shamelessly-salvini-johnson

Yes. I feel: no more excuses. This is where we are. The Tory press, i.e., most of the British press, is frothing away about internal Labour struggles, or the time Mr Corbyn had a postcard from a Hamas leader, or the dangers of taxing rich, tax-evading bastards properly, or how Marxist-Trotskyist-Maoist-Leninist something or other was. And yes, I’m immensely tired of quarrels over ideological purity or who is betraying the revolution or who said or did what to whom and when. I wish Her Majesty’s Opposition had opposed instead of sticking their hands in their pants, I wish they’d formulated the proper response to Brexit, the Tory project to make this country smaller, poorer, meaner and nastier but far more vulnerable to predatory foreign companies.

Knit-your-own-cat

And yet – this is where we are. On one side: Johnson, Rees-Mogg, Raab, Patel, the hostile environment, dismantling and flogging off of the NHS, a weakening of workers’ rights, food safety and environmental standards; a little more broadly: Farage, Banks, Cummings, all the dodgy friends and backers; a little more broadly still: Trump, Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Modi, Orbán, Duterte, Salvini, the AfD, the Bannon playbook – and Putin. On the other side – by this time, I hardly care as long as there is another side: but let’s say a Labour Party that I have a few quarrels with, the Greens, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats (that I have more quarrels with): still, a lot of people that I could be in the same room with while still managing to keep my dinner down.

Anyone that thinks that there is ever – ever – going to be a political party that they agree with in every particular is deranged or simple-minded. ‘Elsewhere’, Marina Hyde observes, ‘imbecility remains a key battleground, with debate over which party is fielding the more extravagantly or malevolently stupid candidates.’
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/08/boris-johnson-control-tories-election-campaign-leader

Indeed. Nevertheless, there can no longer be any difficulty about which side you’re one and which one you wish to be associated with. A pretty stark choice. This will be the one you’re stuck with – only for a few decades but still. . .

 

 

‘Face to face with nature’: Richard Jefferies

p757.jpg
(Richard Jefferies/Edward Thomas, © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS via Times Literary Supplement)

(‘By standing face to face with nature, and not from books, I have convinced myself that there is no design and no evolution. What there is, what was the cause, how and why, is not yet known; certainly it was neither of these.’—The Story of My Heart)

Noticing that it is Richard Jefferies’ birthday (1848-1887), I was reminded of an essay I wrote for an intellectual history module, on the utopian ideas of Jefferies, William Morris and Samuel Butler, the specific books mentioned being Morris’s News From Nowhere, Butler’s Erewhon and After London by Jefferies. I must have been, certainly became, extraordinarily enthusiastic about it because I consumed an absurd amount of reading matter, given the significance of the essay in the context of the whole course: and the bulk of that extra reading was of Jefferies.

He published around twenty books in his lifetime—he died at the age of thirty-eight, so living no longer than Guillaume Apollinaire, Felix Mendelssohn, George Gershwin or Federico García Lorca. He wrote a great deal about rural life, the changing countryside and farming practices: The Amateur Poacher, The Gamekeeper at Home, Hodge and His Masters; also novels, the children’s classic, Bevis: The Story of a Boy, and a remarkable autobiographical work, The Story of My Heart, perhaps the most marked example of Jefferies’ mystical or pantheistic strain

‘How strange that condition of mind’, he wrote there, ‘which cannot accept anything but the earth, the sea, the tangible universe!’ And, ‘There is an immense ocean over which the mind can sail, upon which the vessel of thought has not yet been launched.’ Asserting that, ‘Now, today, as I write, I stand in exactly the same position as the Caveman. Written tradition, systems of culture, modes of thought, have for me no existence’, he would repeat that ‘the divine beauty of flesh is life itself to me’.[1]

Coate-Farm

(Coate Farm: https://richardjefferies.wordpress.com/ )

In 1909, Edward Thomas published his biography of Jefferies, mentioning in his preface that he had known Jefferies’ part of Wiltshire (he was born at Coate Farm, near Swindon) for twenty years, ‘and I hope that I have got most of what the country people had to tell about him and his family.’ It’s a thorough, informed and sympathetic portrait. Thomas remarks that ‘Jefferies’ thinking was symptomatic of the age rather than original; it is stimulating because it is personal.’[2] It’s certainly that.

In an 1877 essay (in which I see he mentions ‘Fung-shuy’ – Feng Shui), Jefferies writes: ‘Wherever you can find a single blade of grass, however small, there you stand face to face with the mystery of life, and all the possibilities of existence.’ And, ‘If you should chance to find a blade of grass withering in a rocky place, carry it a little water for the sake of the thoughts that spring from it.’ And in a period when many people were still coming to terms with the evolutionary ideas of Darwin and others: ‘I think that bees, birds and animals would change their apparently immutable habits without hesitation if they found an advantage in doing so.’[3]

In his first chapter, ‘The Country of Richard Jefferies’, Thomas remarks that the Wiltshire and Berkshire Canal which, roughly speaking, was Jefferies’ northern boundary, ‘has now relapsed into barbarism; its stiffened and weedy waters are stirred only by the moorhen, who walks more than she swims across them’ (Richard Jefferies 2). The first part of Jefferies’ After London or Wild England is entitled ‘The Relapse into Barbarism’ and opens with a statement of oral tradition: ‘The old men say their fathers told them that soon after the fields were left to themselves a change began to be visible. It became green everywhere in the first spring, after London ended, so that all the country looked alike.’ A little later, the narrator remarks: ‘Now the mark of a noble is that he can read and write.’ There is a brief ‘Appendix’, ‘The Great Snow’, the headnote describing it as ‘An alternative catastrophe, probably written before 1875’. This edition has an introduction by John Fowles, whose The French Lieutenant’s Woman, published a decade earlier, offered multiple alternative endings. Fowles writes of the several strangenesses of Jefferies’ novel: ‘And strangest of all is the fact that it should be the supposedly “sensitive” nature writer, author in 1883 of a passionate explosion, The Story of My Heart, against machine thinking and machine society, who two years later portrays the miseries of a future world bereft of higher knowledge and technology.’[4]

William_Henry_Hudson

(W. H. Hudson)

Edward Thomas’s biography of Jefferies was dedicated to W. H. Hudson. They had met in 1906 and when Thomas began work on the book in the following year, he asked Hudson to accept the dedication. Towards the end of his life, Hudson would remark that in Thomas ‘he had seen the son he wanted’. There were other curious connections. On 2 November 1900, ‘by a happy chance’, Hudson had lodged in the house at Hurstbourne Tarrant where William Cobbett had begun to write his Rural Rides – on 2 November 1821. In March 1921, when Hudson’s wife Emily died, she was buried in Broadwater cemetery at Worthing, where Richard Jefferies lies.[5]

In 1909, in the course of an appreciation of Hudson, Ford Madox Ford quoted from ‘Thistle-Down’, the opening chapter of Nature in Downland, ‘the first passage of Mr Hudson’s work that we ever read’, Ford noted.[6] He would recur to it several times in his later writings.

Charles, James, 1851-1906; Sussex Downs

(James Charles, Sussex Downs: The Council House, Chichester)

‘When, lying on my back, I gazed up into the blue sky, the air as far as I could see was still peopled with the flying down; and beyond all that was visible to the naked eye, far from the earth still more down was revealed by my glasses—innumerable, faintly seen silvery stars moving athwart the immeasurable blue expanse of heaven.’

A little later in that chapter, Hudson writes of Jefferies, of how, although he was so closely associated with Wiltshire, ‘the Sussex coast country where he found a home powerfully attracted and held him’. He added: ‘Jefferies was much in my mind just now because by chance I happen to be writing this introductory chapter in the last house he inhabited, and where he died, in the small village of Goring, between the sea and the West Sussex Downs.’[7]

‘By chance’. Wonderful. I must reread, at least, After London.

 
Notes

[1] Richard Jefferies, The Story of My Heart (1883; London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1922), 46, 54, 56, 88, 89.

[2] Edward Thomas, Richard Jefferies (1909; London: Faber and Faber, 1978), ix, 294.

[3] Richard Jefferies, ‘Village Hunting’ and ‘Butterfly Corner’, 1887, collected in Landscape and Labour, edited by John Pearson (Bradford-on-Avon: Moonraker Press, 1979), 47, 53.

[4] Richard Jefferies, After London or Wild England (1885; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 1, 32, 243, vii.

[5] Ruth Tomalin, W. H. Hudson: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 182, 179, 230.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, ‘The Work of W. H. Hudson’, English Review, II, i (April 1909), 160.

[7] W. H. Hudson, Nature in Downland (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1900), 14, 16.