Still cormorants, flickering authors

From close to the Arnolfini centre for contemporary arts, in the heart of Bristol’s harbourside, I’d seen a cormorant from time to time, as I had in other locations around the city, such as Wapping Wharf. Once I’d seen two, here, by the ferry stop at Nova Scotia Place. Now there were three. Apart from liking the distinctive look of them, and the dramatic gesture they sometimes make, of spreading their wings wide to dry them and holding that position for minutes on end, I had at the back of my mind two poems, or fragments of poems. One was a bit of doggerel from Christopher Isherwood, which runs:

The Common Cormorant or shag
Lays eggs inside a paper bag.
The reason you will see, no doubt,
It is to keep the lightning out.

But what these unobservant birds
Have never noticed is that herds
Of wandering bears may come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.

Cormorants_three.JPG

The second was a poem that I recalled as being one of the first to make an impression on me in my schooldays, probably around the age of nine or ten. It was called ‘Flannan Isle’.

There’s a small history trailing after that first brief exhibit. Isherwood had written the verses in 1928 to accompany a cartoon in the book that eleven-year-old Sylvain Mangeot was making, entitled People One Ought to Know.[1] In 1935, it appeared in The Poet’s Tongue, credited to ‘Anon’ before being included in Isherwood’s collection, Exhumations, thirty years later.[2] Since the anthology was co-edited by W. H. Auden, with whom Isherwood was intimate for many years—and they collaborated on at least four works during the 1930s—it seems unlikely that Auden was unaware of the poem’s true authorship.[3]

Cormorants_two

As for the second poem, ‘Flannan Isle’, there were no complications, no curious details, no story there: I knew it was by James Elroy Flecker. My interest in him was slightly obscure, or at least removed from the man himself: the most enthusiastic praise of Flecker that I’d seen was by Douglas Goldring, the novelist, playwright, travel writer, polemicist—and author of several books dealing in part or entirely with Ford Madox Ford, including the earliest biography of him.[4] So, to work: ‘Flannan Isle’, by James Elroy Flecker.

Except that it isn’t.

The inimitable Guy Davenport once wrote, in a short and extremely funny essay about Joseph Cornell and the film-maker Stan Brakhage: ‘We are never so certain of our knowledge as when we’re dead wrong.’[5] ‘Flannan Isle’ is in fact by Wilfred Gibson, who featured strongly in several volumes of Georgian Poetry and was one of the ‘Dymock Poets’, so called because several of them lived around that Gloucestershire village in the years immediately preceding the First World War. Robert Frost and Edward Thomas are usually mentioned in this context, along with Gibson, Rupert Brooke, Lascelles Abercrombie and John Drinkwater.

Not only is the poem not by Flecker but it doesn’t specifically mention cormorants. Gibson’s 1912 poem is about the mysterious disappearance of three lighthousemen from the island. The narrator is on a boat sent to investigate, in response to puzzling reports:

And, as into the tiny creek
We stole beneath the hanging crag,
We saw three queer, black, ugly birds—
Too big, by far, in my belief,
For guillemot or shag—
Like seamen sitting bold upright
Upon a half-tide reef:
But, as we near’d, they plunged from sight,
Without a sound, or spurt of white.[6]

Close: the shag is similar to a cormorant, though smaller. And Isherwood, a.k.a. ‘Anon’, made them sound closer than that (‘The common cormorant or shag’).[7]

Barker, Thomas Jones, 1815-1882; The Charge of the Light Brigade

(Thomas Jones Barker, The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1877
© Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, Shrivenham)

Still, I can manage to see it as very positive, that, as a child, I was struck by the poem rather than the poet. At that age, I think, for a poem to stick in my head, it  needed either strong repetition, as in Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’:

Cannon to right of them
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volleyed and thundered

or an unsettling image or situation, as in ‘Flannan Isle’; or a combination of both, as in Alfred Noyes’ ‘The Highwayman’, long a favourite anthology piece:

Her eyes grew wide for a moment; she drew one last deep breath,
Then her finger moved in the moonlight,
Her musket shattered the moonlight,
Shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him—with her death.[8]

Poems aside, I find that I can watch cormorants for quite a long time. That stillness, that sleek darkness. They stand, I stand. A restful arrangement. I wasn’t really aware of the ferocious, often murderous, anti-cormorant sentiment among anglers[9] and not familiar with  the negative associations of the word common among the Elizabethan writers. As a noun, then, it seems to mean ‘glutton’; as an adjective, ‘rapacious, ravenous’. Thomas Nashe uses the noun to mean a rapacious person—and employs it fairly often. In Pierce Penniless his Supplication to the Devil, Nashe’s persona is a ‘half-starved malcontent young poet who petitions the Devil to spirit away those capitalist ‘“cormorants”’[10] who ‘bung up all the wealth of the land in their snap-hance [with snap-locks] bags, and poor scholars and soldiers wander in back lanes and the out-shifts of the city, with never a rag to their backs.’ (What Nashe would think—and write— of our contemporary social and economic inequalities is rich food for thought.) Elsewhere, he divides companies of men into ‘corn’ and ‘chaff’: ‘the corn are cormorants, the chaff are good fellows which are quickly blown to nothing with bearing a light heart in a light purse.’[11]

The word’s origin hardly helps, apparently from the medieval Latin corvus marinus, ‘sea raven’, with clear links between ‘raven’ and the old verb meaning to hunt voraciously for prey. Shakespeare writes of ‘cormorant devouring time’, and the footnote in my copy of Love’s Labour’s Lost has: ‘Cormorant: ravenous. Elsewhere Shakespeare has “cormorant war” and “cormorant belly”.’ The character of Moth in the play is generally seen now as based on Nashe.[12]

All pretty hard on the cormorants, anyway, and in the teeth—ravenous, rapacious, gluttonous—of literary and angling disapproval, I shall continue to take pleasure in the sight of them.

 

References

[1] David Garrett Izzo, Christopher Isherwood Encyclopedia (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co, 2005), 37. People One Ought to Know was published in 1982.

[2] The Poet’s Tongue: An Anthology of Verse, edited by W. H. Auden and John Garrett (London: G. Bell, 1935), 123; as late as 1997, the author is given as ‘Anon’ in Old Chestnuts Warmed Up, edited by John R. Murray (London: John Murray, 1997), 17, there entitled ‘Birds, Bags, Bears and Buns’; Isherwood, Exhumations: Stories, Articles, Verses (London: Methuen, 1966), 7.

[3] The collaborative works are The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6 (1936), On the Frontier (1938), Journey to a War (1939).

[4] The Last Pre-Raphaelite: A Record of the Life and Writings of Ford Madox Ford (London: Macdonald, 1948; published in the United States as Trained for Genius). Goldring’s essay, ‘James Elroy Flecker: An Appreciation and Some Personal Memories’, was included in his Reputations: Essays in Criticism (London: Chapman & Hall, 1920), 1-35.

[5] Davenport, ‘Pergolesi’s Dog’, in Every Force Evolves a Form (Berkeley: North Point Press, 1987), 145.

[6] A. Methuen, An Anthology of Modern Verse (London: Methuen & Co., 1921), 84.

[7] The version of ‘the well-known nonsense poem’ quoted by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, in Birds Britannica (London: Chatto & Windus, 2005), 34, begins: ‘The common cormorant (or shag)’, making the identification (or misidentification) more explicit.

[8] Taken from The Oxford Book of Narrative Verse, chosen and edited by Iona and Peter Opie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 344.

[9] Birds Britannica, 34-37.

[10] See Charles Nicholl, A Cup of News: The Life of Thomas Nashe (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), 2.

[11] The second quotation is from The Unfortunate Traveller: see The Unfortunate Traveller and Other Works, edited by J. B. Steane (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972), 104, 255: the spelling is modernised in this edition.

[12] Love’s Labour’s Lost, edited by R. W. David (London: Methuen & Co., 1987), 3, xxxvi.

 

‘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]

Park-2

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-1926-001

(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]

Dangerfield_Strange_Death

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’?

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/07/the-great-british-brexit-robbery-hijacked-democracy

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.

 

References

[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?

Champagne, oysters and last tales

‘I have always rather enjoyed being with mad or slightly dotty people; there is something liberating about being able sometimes to get away from the unspeakably worn-down, conventional paths, for the mind as well. I understand so well how it was that great folk in the old days felt their ménage to be incomplete without a jester, who should preferably not be quite all there’.[1]

Blixen

(Karen Blixen with one of her deerhounds, via http://blixen.dk/?lang=en)

We are still in the early stages of the book cull. Thirteen carrier bags to the charity shop so far; more to go. A small terraced house is (allegedly) not the most comfortable container for thousands of books (gathered over a long period: my wife and I were both booksellers for years). Some of this culling comes easily; some is hard; some impossible. A few of my solutions have been highly suspect. Recently, a second Library of America edition of work by Carson McCullers breezed in: those two volumes can now replace, yes, three paperbacks. One book less. It’s true that the two volumes take up more space than the three they replace; and they were more expensive. But damn! they do look good.

McCullers.VolumesJPG

This second volume contains the complete stories, plays, essays, poems and autobiographical writings. After I’d ordered it—but before it arrived—I ordered a secondhand copy of Isak Dinesen’s Anecdotes of Destiny. I have other books by Dinesen: Last Tales, Seven Gothic Tales, Shadows on the Grass, Winter’s Tales, her Letters From Africa and, of course, Out of Africa, as well as the biography of Dinesen by Judith Thurman (who also wrote a very good one of Colette )—but I was missing that collection. What prompted me to order it was looking at a list of films I wanted either to watch or to watch again and remembering that I’d never actually seen the 1987 film Babette’s Feast (based on one of the stories in Anecdotes of Destiny), a Danish production directed by Gabriel Axel.

Babettes_Feast_Poster

Babette’s Feast film poster via http://www.cine-vue.com

When the McCullers volume arrived, a few days ago, I opened it at random and immediately saw the name Isak Dinesen. Is there a unique category, a dedicated name for this sort of synchronicity specific to the world of books? Or is it just that, if you have a highly associative mind (one which retains a high density of that sort of material), those connections are apparent more widely and more frequently? I know that the moment for my reading a book I may have owned for months or even years is quite often decided by two or three references to it in different contexts. It’s a bit like the famous quote from Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger: ‘“Mr Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: ‘Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action’.”’ (Fleming used these categories as section titles in the novel: the quotation comes at the end of the second section.)

McCullers has two short pieces on Dinesen in this Library of America collection, the first on the volume called Winter’s Tales, the other an account which begins with McCullers being given, and reading, Out of Africa, published under the author’s real name, Karen Blixen. She realises that this is ‘one of the most radiant books’ of her life.[2] Subsequently, and unsurprisingly, she moves on to other books by that author: ‘When I was ill or out of sorts with the world, I would turn to Out of Africa, which never failed to comfort and support me—and when I wanted to be lifted out of my life, I would read Seven Gothic Tales or Winter’s Tales or, much later, The Last Tales.’[3]

Untitled

‘“Madame,” he said, “I have been telling you a story. Stories have been told as long as speech has existed, and sans stories the human race would have perished, as it would have perished sans water.”’[4]

The essay moves on to McCullers’ recollection of the Academy of Arts and Letters dinner in January 1959, at which Dinesen—in fact, the Baroness Karen Blixen-Finecke—was a guest of honour. They sat next to one another at dinner and, asked by Dinesen if she could arrange a meeting with Marilyn Monroe, McCullers said she could. On 5 February, Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe called for Dinesen and her companion Clara Svendsen, arriving ‘with the unpunctuality Marilyn was famous for’, and they all lunched with Carson McCullers, a meal including oysters, white grapes, champagne and a soufflé, laid out on McCullers’ ‘black marble table.’ Miller expressed concern about the extremely frail Dinesen’s standard menu—she’d said that, when oysters were out of season, she turned to asparagus—and recklessly mentioned ‘protein’. Dinesen replied that she didn’t know anything about that but she was old; she ate what she wanted and what agreed with her.[5]

Blixen_MM_McCullers

(Marilyn Monroe, Isak Dinesen, Carson McCullers)

Dinesen died on Friday 7 September 1962, of emaciation. Monroe had died barely a month before, on 5 August. Dinesen and McCullers had long admired one another’s work and Dinesen ‘loved’ McCullers but it was Marilyn Monroe who had made the deepest impression on her. ‘It is not that she is pretty,’ she wrote, ‘although of course she is almost incredibly pretty—but that she radiates at the same time unbounded vitality and a kind of unbelievable innocence.’[6]

USA. Long Island. US actress Marilyn MONROE reading James Joyce. 1955.

This is one of my favourite photographs of Marilyn Monroe, by Eve Arnold. (‘She doesn’t have to pose, we don’t even need to see her face, what comes off the photo is absolute concentration, and nothing is sexier than absolute concentration’, Jeanette Winterson wrote of this photograph.)[7]

Marilyn’s holding a copy of Ulysses and the book is open almost at the end, so she’s reading the final chapter, Molly Bloom’s soliloquy: ‘and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms round him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.’[8] Continue reading “Champagne, oysters and last tales”

‘The courage of a fly in the milk’

We’re approaching 16 May, which is—among other things (not least, the birthday of Stella Bowen: see previous post)—the two hundred and fifty-fourth anniversary of the first meeting, in the bookshop run by Tom Davies, in Russell Street, off Covent Garden market, of James Boswell and Samuel Johnson. I’ve lately been reading Boswell’s London Journal, not because of the looming anniversary but because of Sylvia Townsend Warner, whose fiction is marvellous and whose letters are superb. To Leonard Bacon, the American poet and translator, she wrote: ‘The thing that struck me most about Boswell’s Dutch Diary was his desperate courage—the courage of a fly in the milk. I love him, of course, but I also esteem him. A man whose heart is a black pit of terror, black as a Geneva gown, and who yet can attend to the colour of the waistcoat he puts over it is a man after my own heart.’[1]

STW_via_NYRB

(Sylvia Townsend Warner via New York Review Books)

This was the direct, traceable cause of my picking up a secondhand copy of Boswell in Holland 1763-1764 in Lyme Regis six months ago. It was like a recommendation from a friend. On the matter of waistcoats, at the end of the volume, the editor has included a list, translated from the original French, compiled by François Mazerac, Boswell’s servant:

‘Clothes and linens that I found on entering the service of Monsieur Boswell

1 coat, waistcoat, and breeches, with silver lace

1 red coat, waistcoat, and breeches, with gold lace

1 rose-coloured coat and waistcoat, with gold buttons

1 blue coat, waistcoat, and breeches, with white buttons’

and so on for another two dozen lines, enumerating stockings, lace ruffles, silk handkerchiefs, night-caps, garter-buckles, breeches and much else.[2]

Boswell-in-Holland

The London Journal covers the two years preceding Boswell’s trip to Holland, so when I came across a copy of that in the Oxfam Bookshop recently, I grabbed it. Both of these volumes are in what’s called the ‘trade edition’, derived from the great ‘Yale Edition of the Private Papers of James Boswell’. There is also a ‘research edition’ of these and other Boswell writings, which offer complete texts and much more extensive annotation, while also preserving the spelling and capitalisation of the original manuscripts. The ‘trade’ edition is also termed the ‘reading’ edition, surely not without cause. That’s the one I have.

The London Journal is hugely diverting and gives a very vivid and complex sense of a man who is often ridiculous, sometimes silly, snobbish, prone to melancholia, afraid of ghosts, veering frequently from remorse to vigorous self-regard, yet always honest, or at least candid. I’m a newcomer to this Boswell, though I’d read his Life of Johnson years ago and found it as extraordinary an achievement as it’s generally acknowledged to be. For a long time after the biography was first published, though, Boswell himself was poorly regarded. He was seen as having been lucky in meeting Johnson when he did; and having simply recorded, in a rather naïve and straightforward manner, whatever he could of Johnson’s doings and sayings. The case was altered by the discovery of the ‘colossal hoard’ of Boswell papers, manuscripts of the Life and other writings, journals and letters. From being viewed as ‘a little man who wrote a great book’, Boswell’s reputation and standing changed quite radically. He ‘came to be seen as an important literary figure, a pioneer of modern biography — and of autobiography, for the focus of academic interest has shifted from subject to author’. He was, it became clear, ‘a much more careful and ambitious writer than anybody had supposed.’[3] The long, complex story of the discovery of Boswell’s papers and their tortuous journey into safe, scholarly hands was also new to me.[4]

Boswell-London-Journal

Boswell had left Scotland for his second sojourn in London on 15 November 1762, so he’d only just passed his twenty-second birthday (he was born on 29 October 1740). His father, the Laird of Auchinleck, wanted him to pursue the law but Boswell had conceived a desire to serve in the Guards, believing that a commission in that regiment would enable him to live permanently in London.[5]

A good deal of his time was spent in soliciting the help of powerful people in the cause of securing that commission, among them the Duke of Queensberry and the Countess of Northumberland. There are some wonderful moments of comedy when Boswell congratulates himself, such as the occasion of a ‘rout’, a large party which was ‘full of the best company’. Boswell had secured the attention of the Countess, who approached him ‘with the greatest complacency and kindness’: ‘I could observe people looking at me with envy, as a man of some distinction and a favourite of my Lady’s. Bravo! thought I. I am sure I deserve to be a favourite. It was curious to find of how little consequence each individual was in such a crowd. I could imagine how an officer in a great army may be killed without being observed. I came home quiet, laid by my clothes, and went coolly to bed. There’s conduct for you.’[6] Just a few months later, he entertains severe doubts about Lady Northumberland’s sincerity: ‘O these Great People! They are a sad set of beings. This woman who seemed to be so cordially my friend and promised me her good offices so strongly is, I fear, a fallacious hussy.’ A moment later: ‘However, let me not yet be too certain. She may perhaps be honest’ (238).

Elizabeth_Percy_Reynolds

(Sir Joshua Reynolds, portrait of Elizabeth Percy Northumberland)

On another occasion, turning over in his mind the complications inextricable from having too little money and too many ways of making life pleasant, his thoughts move from economics to artistry and, again, he finds strong cause for satisfaction. ‘How easily and cleverly do I write just now! I am really pleased with myself; words come skipping to me like lambs upon Moffat Hill; and I turn my periods smoothly and imperceptibly like a skilful wheelwright turning tops in a turning-loom. There’s fancy! There’s simile! In short, I am at present a genius: in that does my opulence consist, and not in base metal’ (187).

NPG 4452; James Boswell by Sir Joshua Reynolds

(James Boswell by Sir Joshua Reynolds; oil on canvas, 1785
762 mm x 635 mm © National Portrait Gallery)

One of his preoccupations is, of course, sex—an often risky business in eighteenth-century London. When Boswell’s father had fetched him back from London in 1760, and Boswell reluctantly returned to his law studies, he had already contracted ‘the first of many venereal infections’.[7] Ten days after leaving Scotland, though ‘determined to have nothing to do with whores’, he picks up a girl in the Strand ‘and went into a court with intention to enjoy her in armour [a prophylactic sheath]. But she had none. I toyed with her, She wondered at my size, and said if I ever took a girl’s maidenhead, I would make her squeak.’ No consummation, then, but the girl gets a shilling and Boswell gets a boost to his ego. He resolves ‘to wait cheerfully’ till he can find ‘some safe girl’ or is ‘liked by some woman of fashion.’[8] On numerous occasions, that cheerful waiting melts like summer snow. Sometimes he berates himself, sometimes just shrugs: ‘then came to the Park, and in armorial guise performed concubinage with a strong, plump, good-humoured girl called Nanny Baker’ (237). He frequently determines to be better—gravity, restraint, abstinence, seriousness—and such determination as frequently falters. Just as he humanised Johnson, recording Johnson’s flaws and faults and weaknesses as faithfully as he did the evidences of Johnson’s greatness, so the candour, the recognition of blunders and failures in his own life and character humanise the fallible and endearing Boswell.

The journal became extremely important to him: his father deprecated the habit and his old friend William Temple said that: ‘he imagined that my journal did me harm, as it made me hunt about for adventures to adorn it with, whereas I should endeavour to be calm and studious and regular in my conduct, in order to attain by habit a proper consistency of conduct. No doubt consistency of conduct is of the utmost importance. But I cannot find fault with this my journal, which is far from wishing for extravagant adventures, and is as willing to receive my silent and serious meditations as my loud and boisterous rhodomontades.’[9] Crucially, the journal habit is supported by Samuel Johnson. Even before he knows that Boswell keeps one, he suggests that he do so. ‘No former solicitations and censures could tempt me to lay thee aside,’ Boswell addresses his journal, ‘and now is there any argument which can outweigh the sanction of Mr. Samuel Johnson?’ (305)

He tells Johnson that he puts down ‘all sorts of little incidents’ in his journal and notes Johnson’s reply, which will find its way into the Life: ‘“Sir,” said he, “there is nothing too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great knowledge of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.”’[10]

Doctor Samuel Johnson ?1772 by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1723-1792

(Sir Joshua Reynolds, portrait of Samuel Johnson, ?1772: © Tate Gallery)

And indeed, in addition to the larger issues and events, Boswell records not only the little things but those days when there seems to be nothing much at all: ‘FRIDAY 11 FEBRUARY. Nothing worth putting into my journal occurred this day. It passed away imperceptibly, like the whole life of many a human experience’ (188); ‘THURSDAY 7 APRIL. I breakfasted with [William Johnson] Temple. This day was afterwards passed in dissipation which has left no traces on my brain’ (235); ‘Thursday 21 July 1763. ‘I remember nothing that happened worth relating this day. How many such days does mortal man pass!’ (316).

There’s a fine cast of characters: apart from those Boswellian friends and relations whose names are not generally known, the ones that are include Charles Churchill, David Hume, Oliver Goldsmith, John Wilkes, David Garrick—and, of course, Doctor Johnson.

I look forward to Holland in Jamie Boswell’s company.

 

References

[1] Letter of 18 October 1953: Sylvia Townsend Warner, Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 131.

[2] Boswell in Holland, 1763-1764, edited by Frederick A. Pottle (London: William Heinemann, 1952), 383-384.

[3] Adam Sisman, Boswell’s Presumptuous Task (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2000), xviii-xix.

[4] Apart from Sisman’s account in his final chapter, ‘Posterity’, there’s a good account in Ian Hamilton’s chapter, ‘Boswell’s Colossal Hoard’, in his Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography (1992; London: Pimlico, 1993), 63-84. Frederick A. Pottle, who edited both the London and Holland journals, published a detailed account in Pride and Negligence: The History of the Boswell Papers (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982).

[5] Pottle’s introduction to the London Journal, with its biographical outline, notes on the recurring figures in Boswell’s story and eighteenth-century background, is very helpful for those not overly familiar with the history of the period.

[6] Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763, edited by Frederick A. Pottle (London: William Heinemann, 1950), 71: any bracketed page numbers in the text refer to this.

[7] Boswell’s Presumptuous Task, 12.

[8] Boswell’s London Journal, 49-50.

[9] Boswell’s London Journal, 269—now usually ‘rodomontade’: boastful or inflated talk or behaviour.

[10] Boswell’s London Journal, 305; see Life of Johnson, edited by R. W. Chapman, revised by J. D. Fleeman, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 307.

 

‘You can almost live upon a view. Almost.’

On 8 May 1923, Ford Madox Ford wrote to his partner—and mother of his third daughter, Julie—the painter, Stella Bowen. He was in Tarascon where he and Bowen had moved late the previous month; she was in Paris.

Stella_Bowen_Paris_1920s

(Stella Bowen; photographer unidentified: Australian War Memorial via Wikipedia)

Stella—an absolutely key figure in Ford’s story—was born Esther Gwendolyn Bowen in North Adelaide, 16 May 1893, (she died in 1947), and moved to England in 1914 after the death of her mother. She studied at the Westminster School of Art and was acquainted with a number of leading painters and writers before she met and fell in love with Ford. Their daughter Julie was born in 1920. Stella later wrote: ‘Julie had a troublesome birth in a London nursing home on November 29th. There seems to be a conspiracy of silence about the horrors of childbearing and a pretty legend that the mother forgets all about it as soon as it is over. The hell she does!’[1]

Ford and Bowen had left Sussex—and England—in late 1922, going firstly to Paris, then on to the Villa des Oliviers, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, owned by the poet and editor Harold Monro, who had rented it to them for just £7 a month. They reached the villa on 20 December: ‘perched between Nice and Monte Carlo’, it boasted a spectacular view.[2] ‘You can almost live upon a view’, Bowen later remarked of Coopers at Bedham, the Sussex cottage they had left behind. ‘Almost.’[3]

stellabowen-drawnfromlife

Stella had spent a couple of weeks with Dorothy Pound while Ezra was rooting about in archives in Rimini, researching the Malatesta Cantos. Joining the Pounds in Florence, she also saw paintings in Assisi, Arezzo, Cortona and Siena. Later that spring, Stella took painting lessons in Paris, where she saw the Pounds again and her confidence was badly shaken by Pound’s criticisms of her work and her views on painting.

ford-joyce-pound-quinn

(Ford, left, in Paris in 1923, next to James Joyce, Ezra Pound and the American lawyer and art collector John Quinn)

‘Let us begin with Ezra,’ Ford wrote to her. ‘His criticisms of yourself you simply should not have listened to: they arise solely from a frantic loyalty to W.[yndham] Lewis—and no doubt to Dorothy. He is in fact singularly unintelligent on the aesthetic side of any art—at any rate in conversation. It is only historically that he is sound about anything.—Of course if it doesn’t depress you too much it’s a good thing to listen to gramophonic records of Lewis’s dicta (in wh. Lewis himself doesn’t for a moment believe): but if you do get depressed by it, just don’t listen.’ A little later, he added: ‘Darling: I assure you that you have all the makings of an artist; the only thing you need being a certain self-confidence. If you would attain to that you would see that, even in your work as it is, there is the quality of serenity—of imperturbability’.[4]

Bowen_Villefranche_1923

(Villefranche by Stella Bowen, painted in Cap Ferrat, France, 1923: oil on wood panel  34.6 x 26.7 cm;  private collection via Australian War Memorial)

Pound and Ford were, and remained, friends for thirty years, from their first meeting in April 1909 to Ford’s death in June 1939. They disagreed on a great many literary and artistic matters (among others), a state of affairs clearly indicated by a letter of August 1911 that Pound sent to his parents once he’d reached home after spending time with Ford in the German town of Giessen: ‘Back here at last. I had very little time to myself while with Hueffer, not that there was much work done, but we disagree diametrically on art, religion, politics & all therein implied’.[5]

Ford_Pound_Rapallo_1932

(Ford and Pound in Rapallo, Italy, 1932: © Estate of Janice Biala, New York)

One other striking feature of this brief period in the Ford-Bowen relationship is just how unusual this sojourn in Italy and the weeks in Paris were for Stella. Until Ford began travelling frequently to the United States (around 1926 onwards), they were rarely separated but Bowen had very little time to devote to her own art, either producing it or studying other examples of it, always having to balance the two other major and time-consuming responsibilities in her life. One was caring for Julie and running the household—because the second, inextricable from the first, was enabling Ford to work: and a big part of that was keeping worries and problems, especially financial ones, away from him. It was not simply a matter of sexual politics—Ford was, in many ways, though not all, ahead of his time in this area—but rather that, firstly, the only money they earned  was from Ford’s writing; and then, during these years, Ford was still suffering the after-effects of shell-shock and ‘the nerve tangle of the war’[6] which had impaired his memory. He was about to establish himself, or re-establish himself, as a major writer, with the publication of Some Do Not. . ., the first volume of his masterpiece, Parade’s End; but he was not there just yet. So Stella’s career suffered, certainly in those years, a casualty of Ford’s own: but with so little money available, and with a young child, it was not an easy situation to resolve. Ford was always highly supportive of Stella’s painting but, frequently shielded from anxieties—and thus enabled to work—by Stella’s efforts, he couldn’t quite see why she found it so difficult to do so.[7]

Stella_Bowen_SelfPortrait_c.1928

(Stella Bowen, Self-portrait, painted in Paris, c. 1928, oil on plywood,
45 x 36.8 cm, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, gift of Suzanne Brookman, the artist’s niece, 1999)

It was a busy day for Ford, that 8 May 1923. He also wrote (from the splendidly named Hotel Terminus in Tarascon) to his friend and fellow-writer Edgar Jepson, about the novel he’d recently completed, The Marsden Case, enclosing a copy of the book. ‘I hope you’ll like it. I believe that, as “treatment,” it’s the best thing I’ve done’.[8]

Fascinating and accomplished as that novel is, Ford was about to outstrip it to a remarkable degree. The MS of Some Do Not. . . ‘is inscribed as having been completed in “Paris 22.9.23”’—and it was published just over six months later.[9]

 

References

[1] Stella Bowen, Drawn From Life (1941; London: Virago Press, 1994, with a new introduction by Julia Loewe, Ford and Stella’s daughter), 73.

[2] Most of the Fordian biographical details (here and elsewhere) come from Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); here, II, 122-123, 127.

[3] Bowen, Drawn From Life, 78.

[4] Correspondence of Ford Madox Ford and Stella Bowen, edited by Sondra J. Stang and Karen Cochran (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993), 196, 197.

[5] Mary de Rachewiltz, A. David Moody and Joanna Moody, editors, Ezra Pound to his Parents: Letters 1895-1929 (London: Oxford University Press, 2010), 257. Ford Madox Hueffer changed his name to Ford Madox Ford in June 1919.

[6] To H. G. Wells: Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 154.

[7] There’s a great deal of interesting material on Stella and her relationship with Ford, including some rare images, in the recently-released documentary, It Was the Nightingale: The Unreliable Story of Ford Madox Ford, from Subterracon Films, produced by Paul Lewis, who also co-directed with Ryan Poe, with sound and film design by Kelley Baker: see http://www.subterracon.com/it-was-the-nightingale.html

For more on Stella, see Drusilla Modjeska, Stravinsky’s Lunch (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000) and Joseph Wiesenfarth, Ford Madox Ford and the Regiment of Women: Violet Hunt, Jean Rhys, Stella Bowen, Janice Biala (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), particularly strong on Stella’s painting. See also the Australian War Memorial site devoted to the retrospective exhibition of Stella’s work, Stella Bowen: Art, Love and War: see https://www.awm.gov.au/exhibitions/stella/

[8] Letters of Ford Madox Ford, 149.

[9] Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), lvii, lix, lxxxi.

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.