First Post, Next Post

FP-Front

A parcel arrives with copies of the Newsletter from the Ford Madox Ford Society, which will be sent out over the next few days to the homes and offices of the faithful—even to a few of the lapsed, if that lapsing is of recent enough date.

To post First Post I need a lot of C5 envelopes, so set off on the two-mile walk to the stationer that we used pretty regularly for fifteen years, ten minutes away from the old offices. But I find it gone. Stationery, no longer stationary, has fled. Should I have checked before leaving home? Probably, given the recent examples of things assumed to be stable and enduring proving to be nothing of the kind.

Still, maybe tomorrow, if I manage to score a lunch date with the woman of my dreams. For many years, there’s been a stationer on the main road below her workplace. If it can just hang on twenty-four hours, those copies could soon be on their way.

Ford Madox Ford Society: http://www.fordmadoxfordsociety.org/

 

 

News, percentages, violin solos

Jordaens, Jacob, 1593-1678; An Allegory of Fruitfulness

Jacob Jordaens, An Allegory of Fruitfulness (1620-9)
© The Wallace Collection

Another week, another cornucopia of good news. Worrying noises—surely the first ever—from the White House. A Hollywood scandal rippling out, worsening and darkening as it does so, women everywhere rolling their eyes, taking in the film world, industry, local and national government, science, academe, business, retail and every media outlet going, unable or unwilling even to feign surprise. ‘Wait—you’re saying that some men in positions of power actually misuse that power to exploit and sexually abuse women? Truly?’ Meanwhile, for the delectation of the British public, talks in Brussels (official slogan: ‘Down we go!’) have paused to allow both sides to parse thoroughly the words ‘deadlock’ and ‘impasse’.

On Thursday, The Times Literary Supplement arrives. The NB column on the back page discusses a recently published ‘literary plebiscite’ called Goodbye Europe: Writers and artists say farewell. At one point, I read: ‘Fifty-two per cent of British voters chose to vote Leave.’

No, they didn’t. Fifty-two per cent of those who voted on the day of the referendum may have done but this represented around thirty-seven per cent of the electorate. So nearly two-thirds of the British electorate did not vote to leave the European Union. None of this changes the result: however ill-advised it was to call a referendum at all, with no safeguards—such as requiring a true majority of the electorate or agreement among all the constituent parts of the United Kingdom—and amidst a blizzard of misinformation, the result was what it was. Still, I object to the constant swilling about of such phrases as ‘the will of the people’ and ‘the British people have spoken’ to imply a collective, wall-to-wall, shoulder-to-shoulder-with-linked-arms determination to exit the EU. I confess that I tire too of the constant pretence that the referendum itself—and the recent General Election—were centrally concerned with ‘the Nation’ or ‘the British people’ when they were merely chapters in the continuing story of Conservative Party infighting. But that’s another issue.

Wodehouse

Thankfully, there are brighter spots in the world, such as P. G. Wodehouse’s The Mating Season, which I happened to be reading (aloud) last night, where it cheered me to find the Reverend Sidney Pirbright described as ‘A tall, drooping man, looking as if he had been stuffed in a hurry by an incompetent taxidermist’; and Bertie Wooster’s brisk review of Miss Eustacia Pulbrook’s violin solo: ‘It was loud in spots and less loud in other spots, and it had that quality which I have noticed in all violin solos, of seeming to last much longer than it actually did.’

Indignant violinists, please note: Mr Wodehouse is not currently on social media.

 

Ghost-seers and revenants

Shields, Frederick James, 1833-1911; Hamlet and the Ghost

(Frederick James Shields, Hamlet and the Ghost: Manchester Art Gallery)

Saturday’s Guardian carried a paperback review of Lisa Morton’s Ghosts: A Haunted History. It begins: ‘Nearly half of Americans believe in ghosts; the worldwide figure is almost certainly higher’, and adds that Morton shows belief in ghosts to be ‘nearly universal, though the form taken by the “undead spirit” varies across time and space.’[1]

It’s certainly a remarkably prevalent word – and idea – in our culture, in most cultures. Ghostwriter, ghost story, Ghostbuster, ghost train, ghost town, ghost of a chance, give up the ghost, to look like a ghost, ghosts walking over our graves, the ghost in the machine. The Holy Ghost: the Divine Spirit, the third person of the trinity, the Holy Spirit, closer there to the German geist. Ford Madox Ford remembered telling his confessor about his difficulty in conceiving, let along believing in, that ‘Third Person of the Trinity’. The old priest sensibly replied: ‘“Calm yourself, my son, that is a matter for theologians. Believe as much as you can”.’[2]

The poet Thomas Campbell recalled meeting the celebrated astronomer William Herschel in Brighton, in September 1813, feeling that he’d been ‘conversing with a supernatural intelligence’. Herschel completely perplexed him by saying that many distant stars had probably ceased to exist ‘millions of years ago’, ‘and that looking up into the night sky we were seeing a stellar landscape that was not really there at all. The sky was full of ghosts.’[3]

I’d tended to assume that fear of ghosts in the old sense had sensibly diminished in the more than four hundred years since Hamlet and the other witnesses had no doubts at all about what they were seeing when the ghost of the late king appeared to them, or the two hundred and fifty years since James Boswell was so unsettled by talk of ghosts: ‘This was very strong. My mind was now filled with a real horror instead of an imaginary one. I shuddered with apprehension. I was frightened to go home’.[4]

Had interest not steadily shifted to the observer rather than the observed? Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is an obvious example; and Algernon Blackwood, in the preface to his collected stories, wrote: ‘My interest in psychic matters has always been the interest in questions of extended or expanded consciousness. If a ghost is seen, what is it interests me less than what sees it?’[5]

Ghosts_Almeida

(Ghosts at the Almeida Theatre via The Telegraph)
Lesley Manville as Helene Alving and Jack Lowden as Oswald Alving.

Henrik Ibsen disliked Ghosts as the title chosen by William Archer for his translation of the play into English. Richard Eyre, discussing his 2013 version, rendered the Norwegian Gengangere as ‘“a thing that walks again”, rather than the appearance of a soul of a dead person’ but pointed out that ‘Againwalkers’ was ungainly and the alternative, ‘Revenants’ he found ‘both awkward and French. Ghosts has a poetic resonance to the English ear.’
https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2013/sep/20/richard-eyre-spirit-ibsen-ghosts

Awkward? Arguably. French, most certainly. The 2004 film, Les Revenants, I’ve seen translated as They Came Back, while the recent television series based on it is called The Returned. In any case, the poetic resonance of ‘ghosts’ is certainly true enough in this English ear.

Unsurprisingly, the ‘theatre of war’—‘“theatre” is good. There are those who did not want / it to come to an end’[6]—is a flourishing site of wraiths, phantoms, visitants, revenants and vanishings. ‘Ghosts were numerous in France at that time’, Robert Graves wrote, recalling the second year of the First World War. Later, staying near Harlech at the large Tudor house of the Nicholson family—Graves married Nancy Nicholson, sister of Ben, third child of the painter William Nicholson and his wife Mabel—Graves remembered, ‘It was the most haunted house that I have ever been in, though the ghosts were invisible except in the mirrors.’[7]

Lucy_Masterman

(By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51483551)

From France in 1916, Ford Madox Ford wrote to Lucy Masterman, wife of the Liberal politician, then running the British War Propaganda Bureau (Wellington House): ‘Why does nobody write to me? Does one so quickly become a ghost, alas!’[8]

And two and a half years after the Armistice, Siegfried Sassoon, thinking about the war, pulled out his war notebooks and paused on a diary entry of 30 June 1916. ‘The diary makes me realise that I shall never partake of another war. It makes me wonder whether five years ago was real. “Gibson’s face in the first grey of dawn . . . ” Gibson is a ghost but he is more real to-night than the pianist who played Scriabine with such delicate adroitness. I wish I could “find a moral equivalent for war”. To-night I feel as if I were only half-alive. Part of me died with all the Gibsons I used to know.’[9]

Rapid and colossal changes, in agriculture, in urban sprawl, in transport, in technology, in population density, in the widespread loss of natural habitats, the accelerating extinction of species, the rampant carelessness of planning and development, combine to engender common but unpredictable sensations of loss, an uneasiness, an unfocused search for the missing. ‘Our landscape is full of ghosts’, Anna Pavord writes, ‘of hands that have twitched and pulled it into sheep runs and cattle folds, bridleways and burial mounds. It is one of its great strengths.’[10] And Helen Macdonald wrote that ‘The hawk and I have a shared history of these fields. There are ghosts here, but they are not long-dead falconers. They are ghosts of things that happened.’[11]

The self, of course, can become a ghost, or feel like one. Writing to William Maxwell in early 1940, Sylvia Townsend Warner remarked: ‘Being a writer makes one a ghost before one’s time—the kind of ghost that likes a libation. War—or rather a state of things that antedates war—makes one feel more ghostly still’.[12] John Banville’s narrator refers to the self as an indistinct black shape, ‘like the shape that no one at the séance sees until the daguerreotype is developed. I think I am becoming my own ghost.’[13]

STW2

(Sylvia Townsend Warner via  http://sylviatownsendwarner.tumblr.com/)

How many of us are never haunted, by remembered faces, voices, names, the lives unlived, places unvisited, old friends misplaced, acquaintances not pursued, desired lovers untried? We may not use the word ‘ghost’, of course. But sometimes one of the most poignant experiences of the ghostly is not the dead friend or relative or lover, the spirit reluctant to leave building, battlefield or landscape—but the life that was never quite there at the outset, the lost because never held, the almost-life, as in the poem by Julia Copus, her narrator straining to see the longed-for sign of a successful IVF treatment:

She takes it all in, like a small, controlled explosion:
here is the inch-long stiff, absorbent pad –
a stopped tongue, the damp on it still; and the plastic housing

with its cut-out windows. And here is the latex strip
(two lines for yes), the single band of purple
and beside it the silvery ghost of a second line

willed into being – frail as the arm of a sea-frond
trailed in the ocean – but failing to darken or turn
into more than a watermark.[14]

 

References

[1] P. D. Smith, ‘Out in paperback’ column, which I cannot find online: Guardian review supplement (7 October 2017), 9.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Provence (London: Allen & Unwin, 1938), 140.

[3] Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (London: Harper Collins, 2008), 210.

[4] Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763, edited by Frederick A. Pottle (London: William Heinemann, 1950), 214.

[5] The Tales of Algernon Blackwood (London: Martin Secker, 1938), xi.

[6] ‘Canto LXXVIII’, The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 477.

[7] Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (1929 edition; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2014), 157, 342; Sanford Schwartz, William Nicholson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 179-180.

[8] Letter of 6 September 1916: Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 74.

[9] Siegfried Sassoon, Diaries 1920-1922, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), 73.

[10] Anna Pavord, Landskipping: Painters, Ploughmen and Places (London: Bloomsbury 2016), 43.

[11] Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (London: Jonathan Cape, 2014), 240.

[12] Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 8.

[13] John Banville, The Sea (London: Picador, 2006), 194.

[14] Julia Copus, ‘Ghost’, in The World’s Two Smallest Humans (London: Faber and Faber, 2012), 50.

A Turn around the Cemetery

Arnos-Vale-1

2 October. Taking time away from news bulletins detailing mass murder, police brutality, terrorism and gross political irresponsibility, I take a turn around the cemetery, where the dead seem quite peacefully disposed.

They were calmer times in Westmorland, even though Britain and France were at war, when Dorothy Wordsworth recorded details of her day (and William’s) that Thursday, 2 October 1800. ‘A very rainy morning. We walked after dinner to observe the torrents. I followed Wm to Rydale, he afterwards went to Butterlip How. I came home to receive the Lloyds. They walked with us to see Churnmilk force and the Black quarter. The black quarter looked marshy, and the general prospect was cold, but the Force was very grand. The Lychens are now coming out afresh. I carried home a collection in the afternoon. We had a pleasant conversation about the manners of the rich—avarice, inordinate desires, and the effeminacy unnaturalness and the unworthy objects of education. After the Lloyds were gone we walked—a showery evening. The moonlight lay upon the hills like snow.’[1]

In Arnos Vale, I can hear, from far off, the workmen busy at the end of Sydenham Road. Wind buffets the trees. A woman in dark glasses walks three dogs towards me, one black, two matching white. We exchange half-smiles, nothing too risky.

Arnos-Vale-2

The wind pauses and the birdsong is more audible. Two, three Red Admirals in as many minutes pass me. The wind was only drawing breath. Gathered again, it gusts, leans, stills. There’s a sudden rush of children’s voices as the doors of the nearby school slap open and they spill into the playground.

On another 2 October, 1940, into the second year of another war, Josie Brinton wrote from Alexandria to her mother in Tennessee, ‘I know how worried you must be and it’s useless to tell you not to be but what else can I say. If you saw the carefree life everyone leads here you’d wonder what all the excitement was about’. Italian troops had crossed the border from Libya into Egypt three weeks earlier. Josie went on to recount the story current in Alexandria that ‘in the Mediterranean now all the English sailors had to do was lean over the side of their ships and shout “waiter” to have an Italian submarine come to the surface!’[2]

Alexandria-1940

(Alexandria, 1940 via histclo.com)

I used to be friends with a man who drove a Volkswagen Beetle. Drivers of this car would salute—or at least, acknowledge—one another, hooting, flashing their lights or simply waving. As a consequence, the whole world seethed with Beetle drivers: they were everywhere. Just so, romantic love will narrow all the people in the world to women with red hair or blue dresses, to men with slight stoops or yellow scarves. Now the streets are full of men of about my age, all equipped with rucksacks exactly like mine, all walking purposefully (when I am) or sauntering unhurriedly, without direction (when I am).

But there are no such men in the cemetery today: men with matching dogs, yes, but nothing more (I have no dog to match). And I notice again how often here the magpies are in pairs, as though companionship were more necessary, or at least a little more desirable, in the company of the dead.

References

[1] Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, edited by Mary Moorman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), 41.

[2] Michael Haag, Alexandria: City of Memory (Yale University Press, 2004), 180.

 

Acts of Attention

Vermeer-Lacemaker

(Johannes Vermeer, The Lacemaker)

Concentration: the focusing of all one’s attention; the keeping of the mind fixed on something.

Towards the end of the first year of the Great War, Friday 16 July 1915, Vera Brittain noted in her diary, ‘I find it very difficult to read just now, especially fiction; the immense realities of the present crowd in upon my mind, making concentration almost impossible & fictitious events quite trivial.’[1]

The present certainly offers plenty of ‘immense realities’—not all of them likely to foster optimism—though I’m not finding it difficult to read. Still, concentration is a little trickier these days. There’s the matter of intensity; but also the question of duration. The rate at which I read varies wildly—a crime novel, however good, demands a different kind of attention from, say, The Anathemata of David Jones—but on average, if I manage a hundred or a hundred and fifty pages in a day, that’s pretty good going. Yet I remember—how many years ago?—reading a Dickens novel, perhaps Little Dorrit or Our Mutual Friend, and reading four hundred or four hundred and fifty pages in a day.

So I seem to have lost that ability to stick to a single task, a single object of interest, for that length of time; but, of course, this is in large part because of the various distractions that can break my concentration and the habits I’ve lapsed into of allowing myself to be distracted.

Still, when I read of people who go crazy after eight hours without a phone, or who check their texts or emails every five minutes, a hundred and fifty times a day, I feel entirely dissociated from such patterns of behaviour. I’m not so easily distracted, am I? Just how often do I check the damned thing? In any case, here, sitting by the back door, reading, yes, Michel Leiris (‘Like many men, I have made my descent into Hell, and like some, I have more or less returned from it’),[2] my attention is caught—too easily caught—by a movement outside. And I mean this as a serial event: wind in the leaves, birds on the fence or on the bird table or, perhaps, this—neither a bird nor a plane:

Cat-tree

That cat—the visiting cat—is absurdly prone to distraction: a leaf, a fly, a cloud, gulls passing overhead, any of these will do. We have confidently diagnosed ADHD or the feline version of it. Yet, come to think of it, such behaviour has become typically human.

I was remembering—and getting almost right, from memory—an early passage in Aldous Huxley’s Island, when Will Farnaby, hearing the mynah bird utter its one-word message—‘Attention’—yet again, turns to Doctor MacPhail:

“Attention to what?” he asked, in the hope of eliciting a more enlightening answer than the one he had received from Mary Sarojini.
“To Attention,” said Dr MacPhail.
“Attention to attention?”
“Of course.”[3]

Paying attention: a transaction. We hand over a portion of ourselves and receive in return—what? It varies, of course, but, ideally, an addition, an augmentation, an enlargement of the self. Colette lamented that ‘We do not look, we never look enough, never attentively enough, never excitedly enough.’[4] What is enough? As John Ames, the narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, observes, ‘This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.’[5]

Not that it is simply a question of giving it attention. Don Gifford recalled the tale of Thoreau’s young friend Ellery Channing being reduced to tears because, as he himself admitted, ‘he knew so little about what merited recording that he returned home from his nature walks day after day with an empty notebook.’[6] And Robert Richardson writes of Thoreau ‘eagerly’ reading Ruskin and Gilpin, ‘whose work starts from the often ignored fact that the uneducated eye simply does not notice most of what is in front of it. Until our attention is called to this detail or that feature, we rarely scrutinize our surroundings, “in the full, clear sense of the word, we do not see.”’[7]

EstruscanPlaces

Attention at such a pitch is sometimes seen as a sacramental act: the Latin root of the word means an oath or a pledge. Of Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses, Declan Kiberd observes, ‘To each and every detail of the surrounding world he gives that close attention which is the nearest modern equivalent of prayer.’[8] D. H. Lawrence, writing of augury and divination, pointed out that there is ‘no other way when you are dealing with life.’ You may pray to a personal god or rationally mull things over but it amounts to the same thing in the end: ‘it is all the same process, ultimately: of divination.’ And he asserts that: ‘All it depends on is the amount of true, sincere, religious concentration you can bring to bear on your object. An act of pure attention, if you are capable of it, will bring its own answer. And you choose that object to concentrate upon which will best focus your consciousness. Every real discovery made, every serious and significant decision ever reached, was reached and made by divination. The soul stirs, and makes an act of pure attention, and that is a discovery.’[9]

An act of pure attention seems like something to aim at. Or, failing that, a hundred or so pages in a day punctuated by phones, emails, whirring birds and treed cats.

 
References

[1] Vera Brittain, Chronicle of Youth: Vera Brittain’s Diary 1913-1917, edited by Alan Bishop (London: Gollancz 1981), 221.

[2] Michel Leiris, Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility, translated by Richard Howard (1939; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 6. I’m still in the midst of it—it may not all be as cheerful as that quotation suggests.

[3] Aldous Huxley, Island (1962; London: Vintage, 2005), 21.

[4] Colette, Looking Backwards: Recollections [Journal à rebours and De ma fenêtre], translated by David Le Vay (London: Peter Owen, 1975), 149.

[5] Marilynne Robinson Gilead (London: Virago 2008), 32.

[6] Don Gifford, The Farther Shore: A Natural History of Perception (London: Faber, 1990), 11-12.

[7] Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 53.

[8] Declan Kiberd, Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), 89.

[9] D. H. Lawrence, Etruscan Places (1932), in D. H. Lawrence and Italy (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 54-55.

 

 

 

Autumn comes but once a year

Branch

The season turns. I wear a jacket for the first time in months, with a faint but definite sensation of relief. Strolling around in a shirt is fine—but where do you put things? In summer, I always have to carry a bag, not least because a good many shirt makers seem unacquainted with the concept of pockets. In any case: book, phone, notebook, memory sticks, black pen, red pen, pencil (rubber, pencil sharpener), tissues, sugar free sweets? What you need, my man, is a jacket.

We have had a week of uneasy, rather schizophrenic weather, some of it quite lively—though even the reported 70 m.p.h. around Avonmouth would likely seem a soothing breeze to the poor, battered Caribbean and southern United States. Yesterday, though, when I walked through the park, everything was so calm, bright, untroubled, so normal, that I experienced one of my apocalyptic moments. Unsurprisingly, these occur more often these days, given the last fifteen months or so and tend to consist of images of mayhem overlaying the scene in front of my eyes, the mown grass, trimmed flowerbeds, relaxed adults, playing children, gambolling dogs somehow provoking and evoking their opposite. That opposite is, of course, the ‘normal’ for a great many people: if not barrel bombs, snipers and nerve gas, then insufficient food, filthy water, inadequate shelter. And, always, the fear.

But in Bath, again, there are crowds of people at their ease, tourists from every part of the world as well as locals revelling in what may be one of the last really warm days of the year. We thread our way through, reach the bookshop, head directly home again.

New-Books

I revisit George Orwell’s essay ‘Inside the Whale’, looking at his explanation of why the young British writers in the thirties had turned to Communism, one of which was ‘the softness and security of life in England itself’. ‘With all its injustices,’ Orwell went on, ‘England is still the land of habeas corpus, and the overwhelming majority of English people have no experience of violence or illegality.’[1] This is still true, of course, though Orwell would find the current state of the country rather more worrying than he did then, I suspect, even though his essay was published in March 1940. The ordeal of the Blitz was still to come yet, bad as that was, other countries—Poland, Japan, China, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and, of course, Germany itself—fared far worse.

Yes, we have been lucky: but that luck has had its negative effects. One is an enduring fixation on the Second World War and a largely mythical version of our country’s role in it. This oddly skewed version of history, with its inflated view of our current relative importance in the world is constantly reinforced by the virulently anti-EU and anti-immigration sections of the press. Yet we also see, on an almost daily basis, a markedly tangential relation to reality displayed by some senior politicians, including cabinet ministers. Elsewhere, there seems a curious sense of paralysis and exhaustion, as if a period of extreme complexity and challenge were ended, rather than barely begun. Almost a century ago, John Maynard Keynes, in the aftermath of the First World War, wrote:

Keynes_Consequences

‘In this autumn of 1919, in which I write, we are at the dead season of our fortunes. The reaction from the exertions, the fears, and the sufferings of the past five years is at its height. Our power of feeling or caring beyond the immediate questions of our own material well-being is temporarily eclipsed. The greatest events outside our own direct experience and the most dreadful anticipations cannot move us.’[2]

There are dreadful anticipations enough. But, as the saying goes, we must bet: we are in the game. Okay, not actually a saying: this is Pascal on the ‘wager’ of whether or not God exists. (The comments that ‘Reason cannot decide anything. There is an infinite chaos separating us’ seem worryingly topical.)[3]

It is this we learn after so many failures,
The building of castles in sand, of queens in snow,

That we cannot make any corner in life or in life’s beauty,
That no river is a river which does not flow.[4]

 

References

[1] George Orwell, ‘Inside the Whale’, in A Patriot After All: 1940-1941, edited by Peter Davison, revised and updated edition (London: Secker and Warburg, 2000), 103.

[2] John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (London: Macmillan, 1919), 278.

[3] Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, translated by Honor Levi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 154; the English phrasing is more that of John Fowles, in The Aristos (London: Pan Books, 1968), 220.

[4] Louis MacNeice, ‘Autumn Journal’, in Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 102.

 

 

Trust; and his sister, Miss Trust

TSE-and-cat

(T. S. Eliot—a British subject, anyway—and a definite cat)

Being an Englishman of a certain age and type, I rarely speak to strangers in the street, though I always speak to cats—and strangers sometimes speak to me. Not long ago, a woman, elderly and rather frail, came out of her house as I was passing and asked me to open a tin of baked beans for her: the ring pull was stiff and her fingers were arthritic. In fact, the ring pull came off in my hand and, though she said she owned an old-fashioned tin opener and looked for it while I waited just inside her front door, she was unable to find it.

What struck me in retrospect was the fact of my being left for several minutes standing on my own inside her home. She’d never set eyes on me before. Did she trust me or was it more a matter of her not mistrusting anybody? Had she just been extraordinarily fortunate in her previous dealings with random strangers? Thinking of some of the people that I’d seen, and passed, within a few minutes’ walk of her house, I could only think it lucky for her that it was me, and not any of them, that she’d happened upon.

At the time of the horsemeat scandal about five years ago, someone on the news observed that trust takes a long time to establish but no time at all to lose. True enough, and true also of other things, which take so long to build up but can be so quickly screwed up, national health services, national public library systems and the like—civilisations, even.

zounds-room-already-full-devils
‘Zounds, the room is already full of devils!’ Gustave Doré, from Œuvres de François Rabelais (Works of François Rabelais), Paris, 1854. (Source: archive.org)

So who do we trust? Two or three generations ago, a lot of people would have opted for doctors, teachers, bank managers, clergymen, the police, solicitors. Not all of those groups have lasted well in this respect. Politicians may never have been especially trustworthy but trust in them was probably never quite as damaged or as threadbare as it is now.

Who else is there? Family, friends, perhaps neighbours – and? Some people ‘trust’ the internet or social media – or yes, journalists (some journalists).

‘Artists are the antennae of the race’, Ezra Pound wrote, remembering Shelley and adding, characteristically, ‘but the bullet-headed many will never learn to trust their great artists.’[1] Adrian Stokes wrote later, in Stones of Rimini, that ‘Poets alone are trustworthy interpreters’ – which sounds a little Poundian, and it should come as no surprise to learn that Stokes was drawn to the materials and settings of his major work by Pound’s Cantos.[2]

George Santayana, who had presumably had a few unlucky encounters at the local pub, wrote in his Soliloquies in England: ‘Trust the man who hesitates in his speech and is quick and steady in action, but beware of long arguments and long beards.’[3]

And here is John Ruskin—who did, indeed, sport a long beard, certainly in his later years and was not averse to long arguments—explaining in his Fors Clavigera (addressed, a wee bit optimistically, to ‘The Workmen of England’) some of the ramifications of his title:

Ruskin-1894

‘Certain authoritative conditions of life, of its happiness, and its honour, are therefore stated, in this book, as far as they may be, conclusively and indisputably, at present known. I do not enter into any debates, nor advance any opinions. With what is debateable I am unconcerned; and when I only have opinions about things, I do not talk about them. I attack only what cannot on any possible ground be defended; and state only what I know to be incontrovertibly true.’
‘You will therefore find that whatever is set down in Fors for you is assuredly true, – inevitable, – trustworthy to the uttermost, – however strange.*’

Followed by this excellent footnote: ‘*Observe, this is only asserted of its main principles; not of minor and accessory points. I may be entirely wrong in the explanation of a text, or mistake the parish schools of St. Matthias for St. Matthew’s, over and over again. I have so large a field to work in that this cannot be helped. But none of these minor errors are of the least consequence to the business in hand.’[4]

Now there was a – trustworthy – man with work to do. And rather wonderful, the comment that ‘when I only have opinions about things, I do not talk about them’. Lately, of course, a great many people feel no need to be informed about things or to know about things: why would they when they have opinions to voice?

Hindsight, even in fiction, is a wonderful thing. But—in or out of fiction—there is a need to adjust your opinions should the facts, or new knowledge of the facts, demand it. As Ford Madox Ford’s John Dowell remarks of Edward Ashburnham: ‘You would have said that he was just exactly the sort of chap that you could have trusted your wife with. And I trusted mine—and it was madness.’[5]

 

References

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

[2] Adrian Stokes, The Quattro Cento and The Stones of Rimini (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), 20, 26.

[3] George Santayana, ‘The British Character’, Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies (1922; Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1967), 32.

[4] John Ruskin, Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain (Orpington & London: George Allen, 1896), II, 379, 380.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915; edited by Max Saunders, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 16.

 

Weather or not

Window

Rain is skittering on the windows above my head. Rain again, the reign of rain. Tip tap. Or is it dot dash? Is it, perhaps, messaging? There’s a solid twenty-first-century word. Are you messaging, rain?

It might say: I can keep this up all day. Or even: I can keep this up forever, even after your stupid, aggressive, greedy, self-destructive species has wiped itself off the face of the earth. To which I reply: Too harsh by far. Lots of us are not like that at all. To which the rain says: So how did all you intelligent, peaceful, progressive, constructive people let this happen? To which I reply: I must go shopping now. . .

Yes, August! High summer, as comedians say. Colossal price hikes from us, as travel companies say, if quietly. In continental Europe, the weather is easing for some, though Italy and parts of the Balkans are still in the grip of a heat wave and parts of Greece too would still be uncomfortable for me. My younger daughter writes from Barcelona that it’s been twenty minutes since she had something to drink: she must go in search of fluids. Some British holidaymakers, warned away from swimming pools and beaches in Italy or Southern Spain must be a little confused to find themselves casting longing glances in the direction of home, where our weather forecasters try to vary the menu a little but with limited options. Sunshine and showers. Maybe sunshine between the showers. Showers this morning will give way to heavy rain in places. Rain, rain, rain.

William-Cobbett

August. William Cobbett, travelling early in that month in 1823, through southern English counties, rode into bad weather:

‘But, alas! Saint Swithin had begun his works for the day before I got on top of the hill. Soon after the two turnip-hoers had assured me that there would be no rain, I saw, beginning to poke up over the South Downs (then right before me) several parcels of those white, curled clouds that we call Judges’ Wigs. And they are just like Judges’ wigs. Not the parson-like things which the Judges wear when they have to listen to the dull wrangling and duller jests of the lawyers; but those big wigs which hang down about their shoulders, when they are about to tell you a little of their intentions, and when their very looks say, “Stand clear!” These clouds (if rising from the South West) hold precisely the same language to the great-coatless traveller. Rain is sure to follow them.’[1]

St Swithin’s day, if thou dost rain,
For forty days it will remain;
St Swithin’s day, if thou be fair,
For forty days ‘twill rain nae mair.

An idea already current in the fourteenth century, apparently.[2] In a wholly or largely agricultural economy, weather is a crucial matter. We had an industrial revolution; agriculture’s proportionate contribution to the national economy has diminished hugely; but we are still, famously, preoccupied with our weather.

There have been periods in our history when other topics fought for—and, briefly, achieved—ascendancy. But those periods have usually coincided with wars. Mollie Panter-Downs, writing in August 1941, remarked on the weather being ousted as the primary subject of conversation. ‘Everyone talks about food.’[3]

Chateauwood

(Soldiers of an Australian 4th Division field artillery brigade, near Hooge in the Ypres salient, 29 October 1917: photograph by Frank Hurley, who famously accompanied Mawson and Shackleton on expeditions to the Antarctic but was also official photographer with Australian forces in both World Wars. Australian War Memorial,  collection number E01220.)

War and weather, particularly extreme weather, have been frequently discussed just lately because of the centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres, better known as Passchendaele (July–November 1917), when relentless and prodigious rainfall, the heaviest for thirty years, turned the battlefield into a lethal quagmire, where men and horses drowned in great pools of foul water.

‘“That agony returns,”’ Edmund Blunden wrote. ‘On July 31 the worst and most hated of the British offensives was begun, against all reason, all around or nearly all around Ypres. Reason had had no luck for weeks before’.[4]

CO_002252.IWM

(Canadian Stretcher Bearers carry wounded through the mud: Imperial War Museum)

There were moments of individual, rainy luck—rain or, rather, its cessation. Ernst Jünger wrote of a shell hitting the collapsing farmhouse which he’d sheltered in earlier that day because it was raining; now, without rain, he has stayed outside: ‘That’s the role of chance in war. More than elsewhere, small causes can have a vast effect.’[5]

Not long after that war, in fact, we find weather, specifically the implausible dream of prolonged, fine English weather advanced as characteristic of utopian politics, when the Dowager Duchess of Denver (not that Denver), mother of Dorothy Sayers’ detective Lord Peter Wimsey, in conversation with Inspector Parker, is admiring the handsomeness of Sir Julian Freke: ‘just exactly like William Morris, with that bush of hair and beard and those exciting eyes looking out of it—so splendid, these dear men always devoted to something or other—not but what I think socialism is a mistake—of course it works with all those nice people, too good and happy in art linen and the weather always perfect—Morris, I mean, you know—but so difficult in real life.’[6]

One of my teachers, a Buddhist, used to assure me that there was no such thing as ‘bad weather’—there was only weather. Yes, we need to be—one can’t, in all conscience, use the word ‘robust’ since it has been so misused and degraded by politicians recently—stalwart, doughty, if not weatherproof. As Doctor Johnson said to Doctor Brocklesby: ‘The weather indeed is not benign; but how low is he sunk whose strength depends upon the weather!’[7]

 

References

[1] William Cobbett, Rural Rides, ed. George Woodcock (1830 edition; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983), 123.

[2] Steve Roud, The English Year: A Month-by-Month Guide to the Nation’s Customs and Festivals, from May Day to Mischief Night (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 244.

[3] Mollie Panter-Downes, London War Notes, edited by William Shawn; new preface by David Kynaston (London: Persephone Books, 2014), 194.

[4] Edmund Blunden, Fall In, Ghosts: Selected War Prose, edited with an introduction by Robyn Marsack (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2014), 129.

[5] Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel, translated by Michael Hofmann (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004), 196.

[6] Dorothy L. Sayers, Whose Body? (1923; London: New English Library, 1968), 93.

[7] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, edited by R. W. Chapman, revised by J. D. Fleeman, introduction by Pat Rogers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 1338.

 

August and blackberrying

Orpen, William, 1878-1931; Harvest

William Orpen, Harvest (1918), © Imperial War Museum.
The ambiguities of autumn enlarged: war and peace, life and death.

August. High summer, though you’d hardly know it as the rainclouds roll over the house and the showers come and go. The first day of August, in fact. Lammas, hlafmaesse, ‘loaf-mass’. First fruits, harvest. Hurry into your local church with the bread and the wheat.[1] ‘After Lammas corn ripens as much by night as by day.’[2]

The harvest (a word related in origin to ‘autumn’) has been, is still, quite literally a matter of life and death for a great many people. It’s been a rich source for the horror genre too, both on the screen and on the page (Stephen King, Thomas Tryon, The Harvest, Dark Harvest, Blood Harvest, and more, no doubt). And it has its visionary or mystical moments. Poet and playwright Ronald Duncan, a pacifist, ran a co-operative farm in Devon during the Second World War. He recalled of an August day in 1940 that, ‘Binding up these sheaves of oats, I am certain I believe in oats. The stalks falling behind the cutter which we draw behind an old car, the monk binding methodically, the new members binding enthusiastically, women with coloured scarves round their heads are gleaning and one cannot glean ungracefully. If one cannot see God in an oatfield one will never see. For, here is the whole of it.’[3]

West-Mill-Welcombe-Devon

West Mill, Welcombe, Devon: http://www.literaryplaces.co.uk/?p=147

‘Standing there in the morning happiness,’ T. H. White recalled, ‘with a saffron sky in the east and the moon in the south-west still lemon yellow, beside a field where the harvest had already begun, one saw in the mind’s eye the imaginary lines all over England: the roads coming up macadamized to the invisible threads, and going on as stone, the ditches suddenly changing from cut to uncut, the parishes and territories and neighbours’ landmarks: all slept at peace now, all this beautiful achievement of cooperation and forethought among our fathers who were at peace also, in dust.’[4]

Light-in-August-US-1932

Over the years, William Faulkner’s 1932 novel, Light in August provoked a good deal of discussion over the meaning of its title. Lena Grove is heavily pregnant at the novel’s opening and Faulkner was once asked at the University of Virginia whether his title did indeed refer to a ‘colloquialism for the completion of a pregnancy’. He said no, it was to do with the peculiar quality of light in that month.[5] In his biography of Faulkner, Joseph Blotner tells of the novelist sitting with his wife Estelle in the late afternoon. ‘“Bill,” she said, “does it ever seem to you that the light in August is different from any other time of the year?”’ In this account, Faulkner goes directly to his worktable, crosses out his working title for the novel, ‘Dark House’ and replaces it with ‘Light in August’. It has to be said, though, that Faulkner was largely responsible for the later uncertainty over the ‘meaning’ of his title.[6]

This morning, I noticed a tiny stain on the shoulder of the shirt I wore yesterday: blackberry juice. We’d been wading in among the brambles and nettles for the second time in a few days. Blackberrying is ‘the one almost universal act of foraging to survive in our industrialised island’, Richard Mabey writes.[7] The country in the city, so to speak. We pick them on a path which certainly isn’t hidden. There’s a fair amount of traffic but only by foot and bicycle—there’s no motor traffic nearby which is the main consideration, since we object to being poisoned. Still, it’s odd that quite a few passers-by seem baffled by what we’re doing and hurry their children past. (‘What are they doing, mummy?’ ‘Picking delicious free food, dear, I’ve no idea why.’) Blackberry and apple crumble: even the words taste good.

Gash, Walter Bonner, 1869-1928; Two Girls Picking Blackberries*

Walter Bonner Gash, Two Girls Picking Blackberries
© Alfred East Art Gallery Permanent Collection

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking.

The speaker in Heaney’s poem recalls how quickly the blackberries would rot. ‘Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.’[8]

Blackberries

And we have thorn pricks, nettle stings, stained hands. Still—two and a half kilos of blackberries in the freezer. Kilos! What am I saying? That may be a little too foreign for these troubled time. Say five and a half pounds, avoirdupois—but there I go again. . .

I have, though, called to mind a story that Ford Madox Ford told, which seems to me to hint at why some people chose the option that they did in last year’s referendum (and perhaps in more than one election since). Ford was, for a brief time, working on a small farm on the outskirts of Philadelphia. His employer eventually hired another worker, which released Ford from his labours. He was stopping up a wasp’s nest one day, while the hired man was on the roof, fixing the shingles.

I heard him call:
“I’m coming down now.”
I said: “Wait while I fetch a ladder.” When I came back he was lying on the ground.
He said: “I’ve bruck me leg.”
I said: “What did you jump for?”
He answered: “Wal, I thought I’d see.”[9]

 

References

[1] Steve Roud, The English Year: A Month-by-Month Guide to the Nation’s Customs and Festivals, from May Day to Mischief Night (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 260-261.

[2] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 315.

[3] Ronald Duncan, Journal of a Husbandman (London: Faber and Faber, 1944), 52-53.

[4] T. H. White, The Goshawk (1951; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975), 39.

[5] Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), 375.

[6] Joseph Blotner, William Faulkner : A Biography, two volumes (London: Chatto & Windus, 1974), I, 702 and ‘Notes’, 102.

[7] Richard Mabey, Flora Britannica (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996), 183.

[8] Seamus Heaney, ‘Blackberry-Picking’, Death of a Naturalist (1966; London: Faber and Faber, 2006), 8.

[9] Ford, Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 166-167.

Making Hay

Hay-Castle-2

Hay-on-Wye, a small town in the Welsh Marches, has a couple of dozen bookshops—and, curiously, that’s more or less the number of books that we bought during our stay there.

There are probably two useful guidelines in such a situation: firstly, if you’re trying to cull the absurd quantity of books in your house, don’t choose a place famous as ‘the town of books’ in which to spend a few days; secondly, if you do go anyway, don’t pretend that you’re not going to buy books while you’re there. Take a list rather than scrabble around to produce one, on a creased half-sheet of paper, while moaning ‘I can’t think, I’ve gone blank’, in the face of acres of packed shelving.

Firbank

We simply needed—one of us rather more than the other—a change of scene and a chance to relax. It was certainly a change; and she did relax. Hay was a good choice: the right size, the right location, the right atmosphere; a couple of good places to eat; some fine walks within easy reach. The rented apartment was ideally placed and pleasant to be in: unfussily but well furnished and equipped. Looking out on a castle, its high wall often lined with jackdaws, suited me pretty well.

Imagists-1930

There are some indifferent, and a few very good, bookshops among Hay’s two dozen. Richard Booth’s Bookshop (and café and cinema) is extraordinary but our best haul was probably in the Hay Cinema Bookshop—and the laurel wreath, appropriately, must go to the wonderful Poetry Bookshop.

Poetry_Bkshp_via_Biblio.com

(Poetry Bookshop via biblio.com)