Another day, another dolour

Punch_via_archive.org

(Punch via archive.org)

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

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

Dylan_Blonde_on_Blonde

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

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

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

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

Goya_The_sleep_of_reason

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

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

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

NS

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

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apsley_Cherry-Garrard

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

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

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


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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

An Unfinished Woman?

Lillian-Hellman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dorothy Parker

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

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

 

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

Very fine swans indeed

Swans.1

In Pavannes and Divisions, his prose collection of June 1918, Ezra Pound included ‘A Retrospect’, a group of ‘early essays and notes’, gathered from a period of some four or five years. Towards the close, under the heading ‘Only Emotion Endures’, Pound wrote: ‘Surely it is better for me to name over the few beautiful poems that still ring in my head than for me to search my flat for back numbers of periodicals and rearrange all that I have said about friendly and hostile writers.’[1]

The poets he names are, for the most part, predictable: Yeats, William Carlos Williams, Richard Aldington, H. D., Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce; and, of course, T. S. Eliot (‘I am almost a different person when I come to take up the argument for Eliot’s poems’). Two others are rather less expected: Alice Corbin, for instance, who, as well as a poet, was associate editor of Poetry magazine, for which Pound served as foreign correspondent, writing to her often in the 1912-1917 period.[2] He mentions her ‘One City Only’, which he himself published in his Catholic Anthology, 1914-1915. The second he alludes to—‘another ending “But sliding water over a stone”’—is ‘Love me at last’, published in Poetry in December 1914:
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=12993

The other slightly surprising inclusion is Padraic Colum—surprising, I mean, because, once again, this is a poet with a very traditional style yet with an evident appeal to Pound, even though he has been through the Imagist and Vorticist periods and publishes early versions of the first three Cantos in the summer of 1917. Indeed, it’s Colum whom he names first of all: ‘The first twelve lines of Padraic Colum’s “Drover”; his “O Woman shapely as a swan, on your account I shall not die”’.

The ‘first twelve lines’ of Colum’s ‘A Drover’ are:

To Meath of the pastures,
From wet hills by the sea,
Through Leitrim and Longford
Go my cattle and me.
I hear in the darkness
Their slipping and breathing.
I name them the bye-ways
They’re to pass without heeding.
Then the wet, winding roads,
Brown bogs with black water;
And my thoughts on white ships
And the King o’ Spain’s daughter.

Very simple; the kind of inversion (‘Go my cattle and me’) that you’d expect to set Pound’s teeth on edge. Yet this is quite skilled stuff: the subtle lengthening of lines to avoid the thud of the metronome; a light alliteration that never hits you over the head; the varies use of feminine line-endings; the twelfth line’s hint at a traditional children’s rhyme. Another twenty-four lines, though, beginning: ‘O! farmer, strong farmer!’ are less appealing, a bit more prone to poeticism and cliché.

The other poem, ‘I Shall Not Die’, begins:

O woman, shapely as the swan,
On your account I shall not die:
The men you’ve slain — a trivial clan —
Were less than I.
I ask me shall I die for these —
For blossom teeth and scarlet lips —
And shall that delicate swan-shape
Bring me eclipse?[3]

The swan, Michael Ferber notes, ‘has long been one of the most popular birds in poetry, not least because of the association of swans with poets themselves.’[4] There has certainly been an astonishing procession of literary swans, hardly surprising if the swan is the bird both of Apollo (god of poetry and music) and of Venus, goddess of love: from classical literature through to Shakespeare (the swan of Avon), Pope, Shelley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and others. Among modern poets, the poet of swans is surely Yeats, who draws on the complex mythological links between Leda, Helen of Troy— long a Yeatsian symbol for Maud Gonne—and Clytemnestra in ‘Leda and the Swan’.[5] A swan is there too in that volume’s title poem, ‘The Tower’ when, mindful of death (in a section beginning ‘It is time that I wrote my will’), Yeats writes of ‘the hour’

When the swan must fix his eye
Upon a fading gleam,
Float out upon a long
Last reach of glittering stream
And there sing his last song.

Perhaps most memorable is the title poem of the wonderful 1919 volume, The Wild Swans at Coole. The weight and balance of those lines, ostensibly unremarkable language, in five six-line stanzas:

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

There are phrases in this poem that echo lines in ‘Easter 1916’, which will appear in Michael Robartes and the Dancer in 1921 but which Yeats himself dates ‘September 25, 1916’—he held it back for political rather than poetical reasons.[6]

Yeats_Lady_Gregory.Coole.1915

(Yeats and Lady Gregory, Coole Park, 1915: http://yeats2015.com/event/major-exhibition-explores-w-b-yeats-connections-with-the-west/ )

The attractions of the swan for the poet are evident enough, I think: its colour, the purity of whiteness but with that intense dash of black and yellow on its bill; the grace of the curve and sweep of its body and wings and neck, the extraordinary spectacle of its landing on water; the size and strength and grandeur of it; the long history, traditions, myths and symbols attached to the bird: in brief, beauty and transformation.[7]

Transformation. I have a vague childhood memory of Danny Kaye, who’d starred as the title character in the 1952 Hollywood musical, Hans Christian Anderson, singing one of the songs from the film: ‘The Ugly Duckling’. There was an album of the songs released subsequently but I may simply have heard it played on the radio: it was internationally successful at the time. The duckling outsider turns out, of course, to be a very fine swan indeed (‘Me, a swan?’ ‘I am a swan’).

Danny_Kaye_HCA

In 1959, Ezra Pound wrote from Rapallo to William Cookson, who had just launched, in close association with Pound, Agenda, the highly influential poetry magazine (still current). At the top of the letter is a suggested ‘Motto for Agenda No 3 or 4’: ‘How can anyone go antisemite in a world that contains Danny Kaye’.[8]

I picture Cookson opening that letter and reading that line; then lowering his forehead to beat it softly but repeatedly against the desktop. But perhaps not.

 

References

[1] Reprinted in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber & Faber, 1960), 14: all quotations from the same page.

[2] See The Letters of Ezra Pound to Alice Corbin Henderson, edited by Ira B. Nadel (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993).

[3] Selected Poems of Padraic Colum, edited by Sanford Sternlicht (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1989), 41-42, 24.

[4] Michael Ferber, A Dictionary of Literary Symbols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 214.

[5] See A. Norman Jeffares, A New Commentary on the Poems of W. B. Yeats (London: The Macmillan Press, 1984), 247-249.

[6] Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (London: Macmillan London Ltd., 1950), 223, 147, 204. ‘Easter 1916’, though privately printed in an edition of twenty-five, ‘stayed out of public circulation’ until its publication in the New Statesman (23 October 1920): see R. F. Foster, W. B. Yeats: A Life. II. The Arch-Poet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 58-64.

[7] On the complex, often destructive—and class-ridden—history of the swan, see Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, Birds Britannica (London: Chatto & Windus, 2005), 60-69.

[8] ‘Some Letters to William Cookson 1956-1970’, Agenda, 17, 3-4 — 18, 1 (3 issues: Autumn-Winter-Spring, 1979/80) ‘Twenty-First Anniversary Ezra Pound Special Issue’, 39.

Cultivating our garden

Pots

We are cultivating our garden—at least, my wife is. Watering, deadheading, repotting, composting. A small space, containing less than a dozen pots. Nevertheless, whether window-box or rolling acres, a garden is, both practically and symbolically, an almost inexhaustible resource.

Gardens

‘When Voltaire ends Candide with the famous declaration “Il faut cultiver notre jardin,” the garden in question must be viewed against the background of the wars, pestilence, and natural disasters evoked by the novel’, Robert Pogue Harrison writes. ‘The emphasis on cultivation is essential. It is because we are thrown into history that we must cultivate our garden.’[1]

Indeed. It’s striking that two of the most interesting museums in London, the Garden Museum and the Imperial War Museum, are physically so close, a very manageable walk apart.

Garden.Museum2

(Garden Museum, Lambeth, London)

Harrison’s book is an examination of the many ways gardens evoke the human condition, from the ancient world to the homeless people in contemporary New York. Throughout history, the garden has served as a check against the destruction and losses of history. In  the ancient world, gardens were associated with self-cultivation and self-improvement, both essential to serenity and enlightenment, and the association has endured.

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.[2]

The garden can be read and understood as this tiny, immediate space—and also as the city, the nation, the planet we inhabit. From the tiny to the immense and back again. That Latin root, colere, means both to till (to tend, to care for) and to worship. ‘Cultivate’ and ‘culture’ are not merely neighbouring words in the dictionary: to civilise. Civis, citizen. Caring for the citizens—all of them, not just a carefully selected few.

Edward Fitzgerald, translator of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and champion letter writer, certainly saw gardens in terms of art, of the cultivated. ‘I am quite sure gardens should be formal and unlike general Nature’, he wrote to Frederick Tennyson (elder brother of Alfred). ‘I much prefer the old French and Dutch gardens to what are called the English.’[3]

Samuel Johnson used the sense in which the garden, as domestic setting, may be contrasted with the agricultural one, to comment on an incident in which Methodist students were expelled from Oxford for constantly praying in public: ‘Sir, I believe they might be good beings; but they were not fit to be in the University of Oxford. A cow is a very good animal in the field; but we turn her out of a garden.’[4]

IWN_film_poster copy

(Film poster for the new documentary on Ford, directed by Paul Lewis and Ryan Poe)

Ford Madox Ford, himself a smallholder and accomplished gardener, often used gardening metaphors. He alluded once to his concern, not for the commercial novelist but for ‘a queer, not easily defined fellow. To him writing has the aspects of an art. One’s art is a small enclosed garden within whose high walls one moves administering certain manures and certain treatments in order to get certain effects. One thinks that people ought to like these effects, say of saxifrages against granite.’ He never tired of experimenting with potatoes. ‘Of, say, fifty different plants by the end of 1922 I had succeeded in selecting nine that seemed to be reasonably new varieties and two that apparently resisted all the diseases they were likely to meet.’[5]

Curiously, by the end of 1922, Ford had published just over fifty books.

 

References

[1] Harrison, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), x.

[2] Andrew Marvell, ‘The Garden’, in The Complete Poems edited by Elizabeth Story Donno (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1985), 101.

[3] The Letters of Edward Fitzgerald, edited by Alfred McKinley Terhune and Annabelle Burdick Terhune, four volumes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), II, 56.

[4] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, edited by R. W. Chapman, revised by J. D. Fleeman, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 490.

[5] Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 108.

 

This sceptic isle

Arthur_Burdett_Frost

(Arthur Burdett Frost, via Old Book Illustrations)

In a letter of 10 July 1972, Sylvia Townsend Warner detailed, in a letter to William Maxwell, that day’s sequence of events. A telephone call from her cousin Rachel, ‘to tell me she had long suspected she was under a curse, and had now been assured by an expert that she was’; then a visit from the parson, ‘to ask how I was keeping and could I let him have a large kettle for the Youth Club’s canteen. I couldn’t but consoled him with strawberries.’ Another telephone call followed, ‘to ask me if I could adopt two frogs’. Again she had to refuse, ‘three cats made this garden unsuitable for frog conservation.’ She concluded: ‘All this before mid-day. This island is inflexibly lunatic.’[1]

STW_Gdn_stw.com

(Sylvia Townsend Warner via http://www.townsendwarner.com)

It’s a suspicion that never quite goes away and one I revisit constantly, generally with less good temper than Sylvia, often remembering too the words of Jack Nicholson’s character, Melvin Udall, to Nora Manning, in As Good As It Gets: ‘Sell crazy someplace else, we’re all stocked up here.’[2]

Yes, this island did seem to be increasingly well-stocked. And yes, it still feels more divided than ever. But there are some encouraging signs.

My own particular elite metropolitan bubble, the city and county of Bristol, comprises four electoral districts, totalling 323,840 voters.[3] Some bubble. And are all those voters affluent, middle-class Guardian-readers? Probably not. There are surely plenty of angry white men of the kind that howl at Jeremy Corbyn when he shows insufficient enthusiasm for murdering millions of innocent civilians (‘strong on defence’, as the saying is). Nevertheless, though we had three Labour MPs until Thursday, we now have four. All four. Four out of four.

And yet, and yet. Remarkable as that election result was, it’s still only foreplay—and we need consummation. Evidently, even after the past few years, after it all, many millions of people still voted for the Conservatives—and just the last twelve months have seen this Party of Austerity hold an unnecessary referendum followed by an unnecessary General Election, at a cost of well over £200 million of public money. Does this ring no alarm bells in the minds of the faithful? ‘Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point’, Pascal wrote, ‘The heart has its reasons which reason itself does not know’.[4]

Gurney_BBC

(Ivor Gurney via the BBC)

Ah but now we have heard that trumpet call to arms: Stability! Certainty! Though, come to think of it, I recall Ivor Gurney writing to Mrs Matilda Chapman, 21 April 1915: ‘But nothing – nothing is certain, but uncertainty.’[5]

Of course, he was writing in the middle of a war.

 

References

[1] Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 234.

[2] This line is for Andrew, who likes it, I know.

[3] Figures taken from The Guardian ‘General Election Results’ supplement, 10 June 2017.

[4] Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, translated by Honor Levi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 158. I recall that the Duchess of Windsor chose the first five words as the title of her memoir. Make of that what you will.

[5] Ivor Gurney, Collected Letters, edited by R. K. R. Thornton (Mid Northumberland Arts Group & Carcanet Press 1991), 18.

Why it’s so difficult. . .

(James Salter and Robert Phelps, via Narrative magazine)

On 12 June (close enough) 1975, in a letter to Robert Phelps, James Salter wrote: ‘Why is it so difficult to assemble those things that really matter in life and to dwell among them only? I am referring to certain landscapes, persons, beasts, books, rooms, meteorological conditions, fruits. In fact, I insist on it.’[1]

Why is it so difficult? The temptation for a lot of readers would be simply to answer: ‘Money.’ But it’s rarely simply a question of money.

Towards the end of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, the narrator, John Dowell, asks: ‘Why can’t people have what they want? The things were all there to content everybody; yet everybody has the wrong thing. Perhaps you can make head or tail of it; it is beyond me.’[2]

The four main characters in Ford’s novel are not short of cash and ‘everybody has the wrong thing’ gets a little closer to the real point. In what may—or certainly should—be a defining moment in the election campaign, the Prime Minister answered a nurse who had asked why her net pay had not increased in the past eight years by saying: ‘there isn’t a magic money tree that we can shake that suddenly provides for everything that people want.’ Apart from the sheer offensiveness of that response, the untruth was also very striking. As several commentators have pointed out in the past few days, if we’re talking about banks or controversial weapons systems, there certainly is a magic money tree, to the tune of tens—or hundreds—of billions of pounds. It is always a matter of choices, always a matter of priorities. (And these days, when a politician refers—with furrowed brow—to the need to make ‘difficult choices’, you know they mean ‘choosing to make life more difficult for you suckers’.)

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/06/magic-money-tree-theresa-may-banks-nurses

We don’t pay nurses properly or seriously tackle the housing crisis or sufficiently fund education or social care or local councils not because there isn’t sufficient money to do so but because the government chooses not to.

Obviously, some voters believe or assume that the government’s current priorities are the right ones. Others think that the important things are the ones that identify a truly civilised society: education, health, housing, the environment, social care, a humane welfare system, public libraries, pavements that you can actually walk on, stuff like that.

Can it change? Of course it can. Will it change? We should have a better idea, come Friday morning.

 

References

[1] Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps, edited by John McIntyre, foreword by Michael Dirda (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2010), 143-144.

[2] Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915; edited by Max Saunders, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 181.

 

Rainmaking

Chapman_Rainmaker

So the rain falls. Again. I don’t know that there’s a recognised function in history or myth entitled ‘Rainstopper’ or ‘Rainbreaker’; but there’s certainly plenty of scope for ‘Rainmaker’.

To people of a certain age and predilection, the word most likely conjures up the debut album of Michael Chapman, guitarist extraordinary, from Harvest Records, 1969. The (instrumental) title track followed the outstanding ‘It Didn’t Work Out’.

In a more literary frame of mind, the word—or rather, the idea—summons up the arresting opening of Allen Upward’s The Divine Mystery.

‘I was sitting like Abraham in my tent door in the heat of the day, outside a Pagan city of Africa, when the lord of the thunder appeared before me, going on his way into the town to call down thunder from heaven upon it.
‘He had on his wizard’s robe, hung round with magical shells that rattled as he moved; and there walked behind him a young man carrying a lute. I gave the magician a piece of silver, and he danced before me the dance that draws down the thunder. After which he went his way into the town; and the people were gathered together in the courtyard of the king’s house; and he danced before them all. Then it thundered for the first time for many days ; and the king gave the thunder-maker a black goat—the immemorial reward of the performing god.
‘So begins the history of the Divine Man, and such is his rude nativity. The secret of genius is sensitiveness. The Genius of the Thunder who revealed himself to me could not call the thunder, but he could be called by it. He was more quick than other men to feel the changes of the atmosphere; perhaps he had rendered his nervous system more sensitive still by fasting or mental abstraction; and he had learned to read his own symptoms as we read a barometer. So, when he felt the storm gathering round his head, he put on his symbolical vestment, and marched forth to be its Word, the archetype of all Heroes in all Mysteries.’[1]

divinemystery

Wonderful. Who wouldn’t feel curious enough to read on? This is also the passage with which Ezra Pound opened his review of Upward’s book, commenting then: ‘So begins the most fascinating book on folk-lore that I have ever opened. I can scarcely call it a book on “folk-lore”, it is a consummation. It is a history of the development of human intelligence.’[2]

Upward stresses the superior sensitivity of the seer, who ‘perceives as events in the future events which are already in existence as intentions or dispositions.’[3] He’d begun writing for The New Age in 1909, A. R. Orage, in Upward’s words, being ‘almost the only editor who has approached me of his own accord to ask for contributions, and he offered me an absolutely free hand’.[4] Upward outlined his philosophy of individual genius in a series of three articles entitled “The Order of the Seraphim”. In one of them, he writes: ‘Genius is the power of being sensitive to what is divine. The man of genius, the last delicate bud that sprouts from the tree of man, may be compared to the slender wire that rises from the receiving station to catch the unseen message that comes across the sea from an unseen continent. His duty, like the duty of the wire, is to record that message as he receives it.’[5]

That was written in 1910. Eight years earlier, Rudyard Kipling published ‘“Wireless”’, a mysterious story in which, while a chemist’s nephew is trying to pick up a signal on his wireless set, the chemist’s assistant takes medicine concocted by the narrator, who’s called in to see the ‘Marconi experiment’. The assistant, falling into a trance, starts to ‘compose’ fragments of poems by John Keats. In his diary for 1918, Kipling’s friend Rider Haggard quoted Kipling as saying: ‘We are only telephone wires.’[6]

Kipling-1905

(Rudyard Kipling in 1905: via BBC)

In his 1918 essay on Henry James, Pound wrote: ‘Artists are the antennae of the race’.[7] And Pound also had his rainmaking connections. He wrote in Canto 74:

‘I am noman, my name is noman’
but Wanjina is, shall we say, Ouan Jin
or the man with an education
and whose mouth was removed by his father
because he made too many things

‘Noman’ refers to the Greek ‘ou tis’ (no man or nobody), used by Odysseus to trick the Cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey. Ouan Jin—Chinese, ‘man of letters’—is rhymed with Wondjina, a rain god in Australian Aboriginal mythology. Later in the same Canto, Pound refers to the legend of Wagadu, the city destroyed four times, by vanity, falsehood, greed and dissension: reconstructed once more, it will live ‘now in the mind indestructible’.[8]

African_Genesis

That story, ‘Gassire’s Lute’, was included in African Genesis:[9] Douglas Fox, who co-wrote it with by the German anthropologist and archaeologist Leo Frobenius, told Pound of an old man who explained to him that, had Wondjina’s father not removed his mouth, his people would have been burdened with ‘the glittering claptrap of the white man’s culture’, unable to devote themselves to ‘the important things of life: conversation, dancing, hunting and warfare.’[10]

But wait a moment – yes, the rain has stopped. Again. Ah, and started again. I shall put a notice in the window, next to the election poster: ‘No rainmaker required’.

 

References

[1] Upward, The Divine Mystery: A Reading of the History of Christianity Down to the Time of Christ (Garden City Press, 1913; Santa Barbara: Ross-Erikson, with an introduction by Robert Duncan, 1976).

[2] The New Freewoman, 15 November 1913; reprinted in Ezra Pound, Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (London: Faber & Faber, 1973), 373; this volume also includes Pound’s 1914 essay ‘Allen Upward Serious’, 377-382.

[3] The Divine Mystery, 13.

[4] Upward quoted in Wallace Martin’s The New Age Under Orage: Chapters in English Cultural History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1967), 34.

[5] The Divine Mystery, 376.

[6] Collected in Traffics and Discoveries (1904; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1987), edited by Hermione Lee, 181-199. See her notes on the story, 331-334, citing Haggard and including a wealth of other interesting material.

[7] Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 297.

[8] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 426-427, 430.

[9] Leo Frobenius and Douglas C. Fox, African Genesis (1937; New York: Dover, 1999), 97-110.

[10] See the notes to Richard Sieburth’s edition of The Pisan Cantos (New York: New Directions, 2003), 120-121.

 

 

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.

Path

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. . .

https://arnosvale.org.uk/

Grass_Graves

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.

Sunshine_Corner

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?

Sidetracks

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.

Cat_Reading

No reading stamina. Wrong diet, probably.

 

References

[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’

foodbank

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/food-banks-hidden-uk-poverty-hundreds-independent-food-aid-network-trussel-trust-a7762576.html

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.

https://www.trusselltrust.org/2017/04/25/uk-foodbank-use-continues-rise/

‘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!