Walking among graves (with just a touch of Whitman)

After my walk yesterday to the old haunts near the Tobacco Factory where, until the end of last year, we spent our civilized, productive days in an office on the ground floor—bonjour, Andrew, ça va bien?—I was tempted to rewrite it in the form of a political fable.

I had, as raw material, those motorists whose IQ plummets by forty points when they get behind the wheel; the cats sauntering across roads, taking appalling risks for no good reason; and . . . luckily, I resisted the temptation.


Today, I walk via Baked (for a dark rye loaf) up the Wells Road to the extraordinary Arnos Vale cemetery, 45 acres, established in the year of Queen Victoria’s accession (its first burial two years later), the birdsong practically deafening on some of the innumerable leafy paths that lead off in all directions from the paved road that runs through it. You can spend quite some time here and will find yourself walking slowly, however briskly you set out. . .



Cemetery grass brings to mind—not every mind, I grant you—what is, I think, one of the finest images in Whitman’s Song of Myself: ‘And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.’[1]

Leaves of Grass. I consider, briefly, the oddness of that title. We speak of blades of grass, usually, not leaves. Still, the reader’s attention is constantly directed to the leaf as single sheet of paper, or thickness of paper, the page of a book; and precious metals beaten thin, gold leaf and silver leaf: these uses are often highlighted or implied. Perhaps the main force of the title, though, is to collapse those assumed barriers between poet and reader, the world inside and outside the book, either the actual barriers (print, physical distance) or metaphorical ones (conventional roles of reader and writer, of literature itself):

Come closer to me,
Push close my lovers and take the best I possess,
Yield closer and closer and give me the best you possess.

This is unfinished business with me. . . how is it with you?
I was chilled with the cold types and cylinder and wet paper between us.[2]

The repetitions, the lengthening lines, the insistent murmuring of sibilants in those lines mime a rising erotic excitement. This is not a genteel, decorous reading, turning the pages in the library. This is a physical embrace.


I sit at a table on the café terrace with an Americano and the sun is, briefly, so warm on my back as to be uncomfortable; but I sit long enough to read Richard Holmes’ wonderful account of the discovery of a trunk belonging to Scrope Davies, in the private deposit vault of what became Barclays Bank, left there by Davies in 1820, as he fled the country following his financial ruin. ‘Everything that Scrope valued, and much that he did not, was hurled into the trunk’ on the evening of its owner’s hurried departure. In addition to clothes, letters, a lock of hair, tailor’s bills and betting slips, there were found—when the trunk was finally opened in 1976—twenty previously unknown letters from Byron to Scrope; a notebook containing Byron’s fair copy of the third canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (which Davies should have delivered to Byron’s publisher but did not); and notebooks from the Shelley circle, containing a fair copy of Byron’s Prisoner of Chillon as well as four of Shelley’s own poems, including two unknown sonnets.[3]

One of my favourite sentences in the whole piece, in the course of Holmes’ charting the history of Number 1, Pall Mall East and the name changes of the banks that occupied it: ‘Time passed, as it does in England.’ Which word would you care to stress here?


Admittedly an unrelated photograph now, since this visiting cat is glancing not at Sidetracks but at the last few pages of William Boyd’s Sweet Caress, under the mistaken impression that its previous four hundred pages can be skipped.


No reading stamina. Wrong diet, probably.



[1] Walt Whitman: The Complete Poems, edited by Francis Murphy (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986), 68.

[2] These are the opening lines of the poem—untitled, as were all the poems in the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass—which was later called ‘A Song for Occupations’, though these lines were dropped: see Whitman: Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, edited by Justin Kaplan (New York: Library of America, 1982), 89.

[3] Richard Holmes, ‘Scrope’s Last Throw’, Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer (London: Harper Collins, 2000), 271-282.

‘Decent provision for the poor’



Between 1st April 2016 and 31st March 2017, The Trussell Trust’s Foodbank Network provided 1,182,954 three day emergency food supplies to people in crisis compared to 1,109,309 in 2015-16. Of this number, 436,938 went to children.


‘Where a great proportion of the people (said he,) are suffered to languish in helpless misery, that country must be ill policed, and wretchedly governed: a decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization’ (1770)—James Boswell, Life of Johnson

Oh, Doctor Johnson, you . . .  Tory!



Apocalyptic frames of reference

Walking home the back way, two sourdough loaves from Mark’s bakery in my rucksack, the warmth of them pressed into the small of my back, not unpleasant even on a humid morning. The back way, in this instance, runs past a small trading estate, along a shared path (cyclists and pedestrians) and beside a stretch of the Malago River which, at this point, is a stream, a brook, a brooklet.

(On the Malago, see https://malago.wordpress.com/ )

As in many areas accessible to the public but a little off the beaten track—though hardly limited to those—rubbish is often scattered here, behind or against fences and walls, tossed into undergrowth, even dropped into the water. Volunteer teams of local residents regularly get together and clear this stuff but the relief is only ever temporary.

If other species fouled their own habitats in such a reckless and incontinent manner, we would, I suspect, view their extinction as both inevitable and deserved. The guano of cormorants eventually ‘fouls the nest colony’ but they shift their location, presumably because of this.[1] Human fouling is on a larger scale entirely, its effects reaching far beyond crowded and polluted cities to oceans, coral reefs, distant islands:


It’s also, of course, indefensible, since we know the effects of our behaviour but refuse to modify it—and shifting our location is not a practicable option.


(Max Ernst, Europe After the Rain, 1940-1942: © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT)

There have been countless works, in all media, of an apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic strain. Freakish weather, floods, droughts, epidemics and, increasingly over the past few decades, nuclear war, though the actual cause of the catastrophe is often left unspecified, the primary interest, from the writer’s point of view, being generally in the aftermath, the physical transformation together with the political, social and psychological conditions arising from it. And there have been some extraordinary works, from Mary Shelley’s The Last Man through Richard Jefferies’ After London to Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.

An apocalyptic frame of mind prompts other reflections. One that’s occurred to me several times over the years relates to our increased reliance on technology: is there a corresponding increase in our vulnerability in the event of that technology’s failure—whether through data corruption or the actions of hostile forces? If those things that we rely on—the internet, email, mobile phones—failed, how long would it take for the unease, anxiety, frustration, fear, to turn into more aggressive and destructive reactions?

Then there’s that oft-cited ‘thin line’ between civilisation and barbarism; and the obvious fact—though perhaps it’s not obvious to everyone—that, while it takes many decades, centuries, millennia, to build a civilisation, it takes very little time to destroy it:

What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London

It’s true in other contexts too, as vast as civilisations, as small as personal relationships: building is slow and often difficult while destroying is quick and usually easy—and thus well-suited to certain types of character and types of mind. Guy Davenport remarked that humans’ advantages over their fellow creatures ‘are all mechanical and therefore dependent on the education of each generation: meaning that an intervening generation of barbarians destroys all that has been carefully accumulated for centuries.’[3]


That fragility of the civilised state is a topic of extraordinary interest to writers. In a novel published well before the First World War, Arnold Bennett wrote of humanity walking ever ‘on a thin crust over terrific abysses.’[4] John Buchan, in a book that actually appeared during that war (though written in 1913), has his brilliant arch-villain Lumley say: ‘You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilisation from barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass. A touch here, a push there, and you bring back the reign of Saturn.’[5] A few years later, another of his characters, John Heritage, tells Dickson McCunn that he ‘learned in the war that civilization anywhere is a very thin crust.’[6] Fifteen years after the Armistice, Ford Madox Ford, who had served in the British army in France, wrote of it having been revealed to him that ‘beneath Ordered Life itself was stretched, the merest film with, beneath it, the abysses of Chaos. One had come from the frail shelters of the Line to a world that was more frail than any canvas hut.’[7]


Rudyard Kipling, too, influenced by ‘the Hindu concept of maya (or illusion)’, Andrew Lycett suggests, ‘came to regard civilisation as a fragile edifice’,[8] while J. G. Frazer, author of The Golden Bough, convinced of the ‘solid layer of savagery beneath the surface of society’, asserted that ‘we seem to move on a thin crust which may at any moment be rent by the subterranean forces slumbering below’.[9]

 This cheerful frame of mind can probably be partly blamed on my recent rereading of Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains. I read her first six novels within a few months, decades ago; and most of her other books at more widely-spaced points over many more years. One or two of the (much) later novels were more appreciated critically but I suspect I liked the earlier ones more, for all their imperfections (not that those were evident to me). I liked them firstly because I found them out entirely by myself; and because I hadn’t come across anything similar at that stage. I particularly liked Heroes and Villains because it was even more unfamiliar to me than Carter’s other books. Unlike several of my friends at that time, I’d never contracted the science fiction or fantasy habit.

It was reading New Worlds, then edited by Michael Moorcock and frequently including work by J. G. Ballard, that was a significant factor in Carter’s writing Heroes and Villains, between January 1968 and January 1969, often working for twelve hours a day on her ‘post-apocalyptic fairy tale’.[10]

‘The roads were arteries which no longer sprang from a heart. Once the cities were gone, the roads reverted to an older function; they were used for the most existential kind of travelling, that nomadic peregrination which is an end in itself.’[11]

Reading the novel again after so many years, things were visible to me that hadn’t been then, of course, and no doubt there are some autobiographical elements that criticism and biography has since traced out. But my own impressions were, firstly, that it’s a very consciously written book, its effects quite deliberately worked out; secondly, that it’s thickly populated with ideas and theories and propositions from the books she was reading at the time; thirdly, and most strikingly, the palpable sense of liberation. That sense often emerges in the work of a writer (or painter or composer) who’s realised that he or she is not bound by genres or classifications: the novel can be both realistic and fantastic; it can be poetic and prosaic; it can include references to classical literature and popular culture; it can provoke expectations and frustrate them; it can conform in some ways to quite recognisable generic rules—such as fairy tale—but can, at the same time, explore the most vital contemporary concerns, sexual politics, social anthropology, linguistics, environmental science.

Unsurprisingly, I noticed literary references that I wouldn’t have caught before: one of the Barbarian mothers wears ‘a dead wrist watch on her arm, purely for decoration; it was a little corpse of time having stopped for good and all at ten to three one distant and forgotten day’ (Heroes and Villains 44). Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ famously ends: ‘oh! yet / Stands the Church clock at ten to three? / And is there honey still for tea?’ and it’s a choice replete with ironies (some of them Brooke’s). Later in the book, after Marianne has rescued Jewel from drowning himself in the sea, ‘Water streamed from his hair and his soaked clothes stuck to him, the gaunt survivor of a shipwreck, his eyes momentarily blind as pearls’ (Heroes and Villains 143), which surely waves to The Waste Land again—‘(Those are pearls that were his eyes)’: The Waste Land, l.257—which is itself quoting The Tempest (I.ii.401).


But there are hazards to reference-hunting: having made a reasonable case for a phrase in the early pages of the novel faintly echoing Bob Dylan’s ‘Outlaw Blues’—Bringing It All Back Home was released in 1965, Carter’s novel in 1969, so it’s at least feasible—I then  attempted to convince myself that the tone and crispness of several other phrases were surely reminiscent of similar instances in two superb children’s books by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Quentin Blake: How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen and A Near Thing for Captain Najork. I was saved from such delusions by chronology: the first was published in 1974, the second a year later.

It’s a dangerous path. . .



[1] Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, in Birds Britannica (London: Chatto & Windus, 2005), 37.

[2] T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land (1922), ll. 371-376.

[3] Davenport, ‘The Symbol of the Archaic’, in The Geography of the Imagination (London: Picador, 1984), 19.

[4] Bennett, The Old Wives’ Tale (1908; Penguin, 1983), 444.

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

[6] Buchan, Huntingtower (1922; edited by Anne Stonehouse, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 116.

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

[8] Lycett, Rudyard Kipling (London: Weidenfeld, 1999), 3.

[9] Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, abridged edition (London: Macmillan, 1957), 73. The passage is quoted in the course of a discussion of Frazer’s significant influence on early modernist writers by Helen Carr, The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H.D. and the Imagists (London: Cape 2009), 262-267.

[10] Edmund Gordon’s phrase in his The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography (London: Chatto & Windus, 2016), 118-119.

[11] Heroes and Villains (1969; London: Picador, 1972), 107.

‘Rather worried about democracy’

‘Sometimes people never saw things clearly until it was too late and they no longer had the strength to start again. Or else they forgot their idea along the way and didn’t even realise that they had forgotten.’[1]


Walking back across the park, I feel a brisk wind spring up, quite cold, an abrupt imposition on a pleasantly warm morning, thirteen or fourteen degrees (mid-fifties in American money). As the 2016 Nobel laureate once sang, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. So which way is it blowing just lately?

In 1917, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published ‘His Last Bow’, in which Sherlock Holmes appears in the guise of a successful British agent in the summer of 1914, kitted out with Yankee accent and goatee beard. At the close of the story, reunited with the faithful Doctor John Watson, he remarks: ‘There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.’[2]

This was the Conan Doyle who wrote warning pamphlets even before the war broke out (and, subsequently, a six-volume work on The British Campaign in France and Flanders, apparently showing the same trust in official sources as he later showed towards spiritualists and small girls photographed with fairies in their garden).

Many of us will doubt that this is ‘God’s own wind’ and will certainly doubt that ‘a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared’. But yes, there’s an increasing suspicion that the wind is indeed coming from the east, though blowing more strongly on the United States at present, often via companies that specialise in harvesting data from social media and personalising election messages based on that data.


(Scottish miners strike, 17 June 1926: http://historycollections.blogs.sas.ac.uk/ ©Bishopsgate Institute)

Samuel Hynes, writing of the conclusion of the General Strike of 1926, observed that it was ‘more than simply the end of an industrial action; it was the end of hope that the war might still have some positive consequences in the lives of the men who had fought it.’[3] The Great War was seen by many of the survivors as a terrible gap in their lives. Wyndham Lewis wrote of it as a bridge: ‘Of course the bridge is symbolic. The bridge stands for something else. The bridge, you see, is the war.’[4] David Jones remarked that ‘for us amateur soldiers’, ‘the war itself was a parenthesis’.[5] Hynes notes that after the gap of the war, the General Strike could be seen as ‘war’s echo in society’, forcing another gap in the continuity of history.[6]

Literary types are (or should be) always alert to echoes—which are not the same as duplications. (The comments I’ve read from people who assure us that there’s no element of fascism in any of the recent political upheavals in the world because there aren’t endless rows of men in black shirts continually raising their right arms are beside the point.).

Echoes, yes. In Anthony Burgess’s novel, Napoleon Symphony, Lebrun remarks of Napoleon: ‘the new thing is lui, Bonaparte. What I mean is he doesn’t express any separable idea – you understand me? He’s not there to personify some new notion of absolutism or democracy or what you will. He’s there to turn the age into himself.’[7]

David Moody, author of a recent three-volume biography of Ezra Pound—who was often casually and carelessly referred to as ‘anti-democratic’ or ‘fascist’—remarked of Pound’s economic campaigns: ‘He found it infamous that the governments of those democracies should put saving the banks, and saving the financial system responsible for the crisis and the depression, before the welfare of their people. He held it as axiomatic that a democratic government should serve the interests of the whole people, not the interests of the few who controlled the nation’s wealth’.[8]


George Dangerfield, in his classic study, The Strange Death of Liberal England (first published in 1935), writing of the years 1910-1914, referred to ‘the spectacle it affords us of a democracy passing from introspection to what looks very like nervous breakdown.’[9]

The most famous phrase from Mrs Dale’s Diary, the drama serial broadcast every weekday on BBC Radio for more than twenty years (1948-1969), was Mrs Dale’s remarking of her husband that she was ‘rather worried about Jim.’ A great many people must now be ‘rather worried’ about democracy—or should be. A form of government ‘in which the people have a voice in the exercise of power, typically through elected representatives’, the Oxford dictionary has it. In the UK, we bypassed those elected representatives in the 2016 referendum. The official party policy of all the major parties was to remain in the European Union but David Cameron’s government went directly to ‘the people’. The total ‘Leave’ votes represented 37% of the electorate. In the 2015 General Election, the total Conservative Party votes represented 24% of the electorate. It’s easy to understand why such phrases as ‘the will of the people’, which are thrown around so freely, are viewed with widespread scepticism, and the electoral system still current in the United States seems no less odd than ours.

Most recently, our local elections and the Metro mayoral elections were won on even more derisory turnouts. When we walked into our local polling station, I said to one of the two electoral officers sitting behind the tables: ‘I hope it’s been a bit busier than this most of the time.’ He said: ‘This is a flurry.’ My wife and I were the only voters in the room. The West of England mayoral election eventually produced a 29.3% turnout: the winning candidate took the votes of just 8% of the electorate. Line up thirteen voters and just one of them voted for the new Metro mayor. The ‘will of the people’ manifested here, the ‘democratic choice’, was—apparently—for nobody at all.

Where does this leave the democratic project, the system of government designed to represent the will of the people, when the people seem to have abandoned it? And how are such questions complicated by the rapidly accumulating evidence of covert, if not unambiguously illicit, interventions in both referenda and national elections, frequently by immensely wealthy men, with their own agendas, purporting to oppose ‘elites’?


There have been a great many conspiracy theories in recent years—some of which have been used quite frankly as weapons of political power. And some, of course, are real. Are there conspiracies—or altered landscapes resulting from such conspiracies—that are almost too large to see?

We have a General Election approaching now, though it seems more like a presidential one because of the dogged and calculated focus upon individuals rather than policies. The Labour Party manifesto has been leaked (though none of the others, naturally). From what I read about it, there seemed—finally—something to vote for (after the many years of voting against things and generally being on the losing side). The right-wing rags duly foamed and flailed about Jeremy Corbyn ‘dragging us back to the seventies’, which was quite amusing, since many on the right seem to be yearning for the 1950s while others are clearly looking back longingly to the nineteenth century. And then, come to think of it, whatever the trials and troubles so beloved of political historians—and everyone will pick and choose to suit his or her preferred narrative—I remember, for example, how easy it was to find a job in the 70s, how easy—and affordable—it was to find a flat, how higher education was not yet limited to the wealthy or the massively indebted, how public libraries were properly stocked and staffed.

Still, for now we have the relentless bombardment by inane slogans. The EU referendum and the US Presidential election confirmed that, even if—or especially if—meaningless, phrases repeated ad nauseam will do the job: ‘In general, there is evidence that repetition of political frames tend to be effective, especially when the aim is to reach an audience that is not highly knowledgeable about politics.’[10]  And we are hearing a great deal more of Vox populi. It’s a cheap and handy option. Of course, broadcasters and newspaper journalists will tend to select those opinions which are most striking because of their forcefulness, dogmatism or sheer lunacy but, even knowing this, the spectacle is hugely dispiriting. Quite frankly, to look back at what has been done to this country in recent years and to be told that huge numbers of people are eager to vote for those who did it, are continuing to do it, and planning to do it even more, is mildly astonishing.

The reaction in this house tends to vary between the question addressed to newspaper, radio or television screen (‘Are you completely insane?’) or the statement addressed to the air (‘We’re doomed’).

As, indeed, we seem to be.



[1] Tove Jansson (who didn’t write only about Moomins), The Summer Book (1972; Sort of Books, 2003), 105.

[2] ‘His Last Bow: An Epilogue of Sherlock Holmes’: The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, edited by Leslie S. Klinger, two volumes (New York & London: W. W. Norton, 2005), II, 1443. The editor notes (1425) that the subtitle in the Strand Magazine, where the story first appeared, was ‘The War Service of Sherlock Holmes’.

[3] Hynes, A War Imagined (1990; London: Pimlico, 1992), 412.

[4] Lewis, Blasting and Bombardiering (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1937), 2.

[5] Jones, In Parenthesis (London: Faber, 1963), xv.

[6] A War Imagined, 421.

[7] Burgess, Napoleon Symphony (London, Jonathan Cape, 1974), 80.

[8] David Moody, Ezra Pound: Poet. A Portrait of the Man & His Work. Volume II: The Epic Years 1921-1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2014), xi.

[9] The Strange Death of Liberal England (London: Granada Publishing, 1970), 75.

[10] Dr Aleksandra Cichocka, political psychologist at the University of Kent, quoted in Steven Poole, ‘Stuck on Repeat’, Guardian (11 May 2017), 7. The ‘American strategist’, Jim Messina, is, apparently, ‘fond of saying that the average person thinks about politics for just four minutes a week’: mentioned by Stephen Bush, in his ‘Politics’ column: New Statesman (12-18 May, 2017), 9. How cheering is that?

A Note About Names

This blog’s name derives from the novelist (and poet, critic, editor, autobiographer, art critic) Ford Madox Ford, whose work occupies a good deal of my time. The subtitle of Ford’s No Enemy is ‘A Tale of Reconstruction’. Written for the most part in 1919, after Ford had left the British Army and was living in Sussex, it was finally published in 1929 in the United States: a British edition had to wait until 2002. The book is about the ‘reconstruction’ of a writer recovering from the stresses of the First World War: its writing helped reconstruct Ford himself. But in the year before its American publication, Ford published Last Post, the fourth and final volume of his postwar masterpiece Parade’s End. Last Post is also a ‘tale of reconstruction’, of the novel’s central character, Christopher Tietjens, but also of a version of England.

The word ‘tale’, apparently of Germanic origin, derives from the Old English talu, ‘telling, something told’. Like ‘story’, it can mean a fictitious rendering or an account of events or experiences. Those writers who use ‘tale’ to describe their work tend to be those whose material is slightly more exotic or fantastic: Dinesen, Kipling, Conrad. (This is the sort of generalisation that is both reckless and enjoyable to make.)

The entries here will conform, very roughly, in proportion to my conversations in an average day—about thirty per cent literature, thirty per cent politics, forty per cent the other stuff: food, wine, sex, television, film, paintings, work, friends, family, cats, gardens—with a bit less politics and a lot less personal stuff. Since a significant proportion of my political comments these days (at least in the privacy of my own home) consists of obscenity and pronounced astonishment at the general state of affairs in the contemporary world, a diminution of this seems advisable, politic even. As for the other stuff, since I don’t really share the widespread contemporary indifference to personal privacy,  that will be subject to fairly rigorous selection.

So mainly literature; almost certainly; probably.