Walking with a purpose

 

You pass them everywhere in Bristol now—and in what town or city do you not? In residential porches and corporate doorways, on benches and in bus shelters, living in tents, living in vans. Homelessness, the raw, incontrovertible evidence of fractured social policies and failed governance, is visibly, palpably increasing. A man that my wife spoke to had just been discharged from hospital. Though a friend had kindly paid for one night’s stay at a bed and breakfast, his address thereafter was, once again, a tent pitched on a strip of grass above the river. The hospital staff knew he would have no roof over his head but had no choice in the matter. The Secretary of State for Health assures us that there’s no crisis in the National Health Service and, since the United Kingdom is currently the world’s fifth largest economy by GDP, it can’t be a question of money—so it’s a puzzling business. It’s also a moral quandary for the individual walker. With my limited resources, if I give change to this person, what about the next—and what about the fifth and the tenth and the twentieth after that? Who do I choose—and how? And should I really have to?

There’s a moment in Richard Cobb’s essay, ‘Pre-Revolutionary Paris’, when he remarks of the abbé Germain Brice, author of the early eighteenth-century Description de la ville de Paris, that he ‘provided a completely comprehensive tour of the city; and he was not afraid of exposing his more delicate princelings to some of the filthiest, most stinking, and most overcrowded quarters of Paris; it was not just a Tournée des Grandes Ducs of the high spots, of the new centres of luxury. Perhaps his walks were also to have a moral purpose.’[1]

‘A moral purpose.’ Yes, this in turn recalls George Eliot, in a letter of 3 November 1851, telling the anecdote of Thomas Carlyle, ‘angry with [Ralph Waldo] Emerson for not believing in a devil’, in a determined effort ‘to convert him took him amongst all the horrors of London – the gin shops etc. – and finally to the House of Commons, plying him at every turn with the question “Do you believe in a devil noo?”’[2]

‘More delicate princelings’? Certainly, some of those wealthy and cushioned politicians so enthusiastic about penalising the undeserving poor or forcing invalids into morale-boosting work as roadmenders or steeplejacks, should be forcibly steered around a few choice areas of our inner cities.

‘Do you believe in a devil noo?’ Devils, like angels, are difficult to disentangle from religion. ‘The devil’, Hugh Kenner wrote, ‘it used to be thought, could only move in straight lines; pious Christians could thwart him by moving in zigzags. They did that on their knees, praying their way along labyrinths diagrammed on the floors of churches: there are still fine ones in Chartres cathedral and in the parish church of St. Quentin, in the Loire Valley. Meant to humble but not bewilder the faithful, such mazes have no branchings. They spiral haltingly inward, as if to Jerusalem.’[3]

The Simoniac Pope 1824-7 by William Blake 1757-1827

(William Blake, Dante’s Simoniac Pope: Tate)

Though often in touch with religious concerns, evil can, like good, occupy determinedly secular territory. Great wickedness and immorality, the dictionaries say, especially—but not necessarily—when regarded as a supernatural force. And to be sure, from time to time, in my agnostic fashion, I picture the architect of the pernicious Universal Credit scheme (among many others, admittedly) placed by Gustave Doré or William Blake in an extremely hot environment, illuminated by a luridly flickering light, and subject to the relentless and gleeful attention of gigantic figures wielding toasting forks.

And what might we set against the intellectual vacuity so demonstrably prevailing in several citadels of power as the year closes? There’s always poetry, of course.

emily-dickinson

The Devil – had he fidelity
Would be the best friend –
Because he has ability –
But Devils cannot mend –
Perfidy is the virtue   
That would he but resign
The Devil – without question
Were thoroughly divine[4]

Yes, devilish tricky things, devils. Stories, then, perhaps the inexhaustibly quotable Sylvia Townsend Warner, writing to William Maxwell, 31 December 1966:

‘It was the kind of hotel which has a great many old ladies in it, and as a writer of short stories I was enthralled to discover how a single sentence can place a character—“Mrs Walker has China tea”—or rouse one’s deepest curiosity, as when one of the two Miss Grays (sisters but they don’t often meet) said informingly to the other, pointing to an empty table with a paper napkin in a tumbler on it, “That’s Mrs. Washbourne.” Valentine said it was like living in one of my stories but worse.’[5]

Whose story we are living in just now will no doubt become clearer as we lurch or tiptoe into 2018. I’ve heard several people say that next year can’t be worse than 2017. I hope they’re right. Always remembering that resistance is fertile, as I think I heard somebody say.

 
References

[1] Richard Cobb, ‘Pre-Revolutionary Paris’, in Paris and Elsewhere: Selected Writings, introduction by Richard Gilmour, preface by Julian Barnes (New York: New York Review Books, 2004), 154.

[2] Mentioned by Rupert Christiansen, The Visitor: Culture Shock in Nineteenth-Century Britain (London: Chatto & Windus, 2000), 118.

[3] Hugh Kenner, the title essay (1986) of Mazes (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 250.

[4] The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown, 1961), 624-625.

[5] Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 169.

 

Blue writing on the wall

unknown artist; Writing on the Wall

(The Writing on the Wall, Unknown artist: Southampton City Art Gallery)

I’ve been thinking a bit about blue just lately. Not just because of capricious and mercurial weather, clear brilliance lurching to rain or snow or hail but also because of the death earlier this month of William Gass. He wrote a book some forty years ago called On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry and offered a strikingly honest answer to the question of why he wrote: ‘I write because I hate. A lot. Hard.’[1]

I never read much of his work, apart from a couple of stories, and was occasionally guilty of mixing him up with William Gaddis, whose gargantuan novel, The Recognitions, I wrestled with decades ago, but Gass did write a very distinctive essay about Ford Madox Ford’s Fifth Queen trilogy and I was familiar with that.[2]

Then came the recent excitement over the plan to reintroduce the blue passport for United Kingdom citizens. Predictably, while the Prime Minister referred to it as an expression of ‘independence and sovereignty’ that reflected ‘citizenship of a proud, great nation’, and other right wing politicians made similar noises, neither they nor the tabloid press made clear that Britain could have simply retained the blue passport while in the EU, nor that it was the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher that elected to adopt the burgundy EU passport in 1988—though never obliged to do so. Several commentators have pointed this out while wondering about the fuss over such a detail, prompting the Daily Mail, for example (26 December), to huff: ‘How typical of such people to deride something that will be a potent, everyday symbol of Britain’s independence from the EU come 2019.’ Yup.

Blue-passport

Passport size is mandated by the International Civil Aviation Organization, an agency of the UN. Most of the recent changes to British passports have been at the behest of the United States, sometimes via the EU, and this includes its imposition of more stringent photo requirements and biometric features, as the historian James Baldwin explained last week:
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/dec/22/blue-passports-taking-back-control-imposed-league-of-nations-burgundy-passport-eu

Woke up this morning with the passport blues. Was it really worth inflicting this scale of damage on the country to change the colour of something that its government chose thirty years ago? Blue, bleu, blau. George Dangerfield wrote of the occasion when David Lloyd George, addressing a group of bankers at the Guildhall, assured them that, ‘In the matter of external affairs the sky has never been more perfectly blue.’[3] The date of that confident assertion? 17 July, 1914.

So this is where we are; this is what we’ve come to. The sense of an ending—and let’s hope the ending is just of 2017, a year remarkably light on laughter but heavy on bad manners, bad faith, bad politics and bad economics.

In Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, A. S. Byatt wrote of the god Loki that he was ‘the god of endings. He provided resolutions for stories – if he chose to. The endings he made often led to more problems.’ Loki was, of course, the trickster, a figure that recurs in countless stories in most cultures, from creation myths to cinema screens, from Brer Rabbit, Crow and Puck to the Pink Panther and The Joker.

In ‘Thoughts on Myths’, a final section of Ragnarok, Byatt comments: ‘But if you write a version of Ragnarök in the twenty-first century, it is haunted by the imagining of a different end of things. We are a species of animal which is bringing about the end of the world we were born into. Not out of evil, or malice, or not mainly, but because of a lopsided mixture of extraordinary cleverness, extraordinary greed, extraordinary proliferation of our own kind, and a biologically built-in short-sightedness.’[4]

Stone-wall

Indeed. The Librarian drew my attention to two online items this morning, just to confirm that the writing is truly on the wall—one from a Conservative politician who evidently shouldn’t be allowed near social media without medical supervision, both for her sake and for ours; and one from the current President of the United States.

And that writing on the wall? Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin. As Daniel interpreted those words for the king, Belshazzar: God hath numbered thy kingdom and finished it; thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting; Thy kingdom is divided. and given to the Medes and Persians.[5]

We’re currently a little light on Medes and Persians in this neck of the woods but, apart from that slight anomaly, it’s clearly a Brexit thing.

References

[1] Interview with Thomas LeClair in Paris Review, 70 (Summer 1977).

[2] William Gass, ‘The Neglect of The Fifth Queen’, in Sondra J. Stang, editor, The Presence of Ford Madox Ford (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 1981), 25-43.

[3] George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935; London: Granada Publishing, 1970), 358.

[4] A. S. Byatt, Ragnarok: The End of the Gods (Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd., 2011), 44, 167.

[5] Daniel 5, 26-28.

The Heights of Poetry

Haydon-WW-Helvellyn
(Wordsworth by Benjamin Haydon, © National Portrait Gallery, London)

‘Great writers in our time have tended to be tall,’ the six-feet-four Hugh Kenner remarks in the context of his first meeting with the five-feet-ten Ezra Pound. ‘T. S. Eliot, five-eleven-and-a-half—a figure I obtained after bumping my head on his six-foot office door. W. B. Yeats and James Joyce, each five-eleven; Sam Beckett, six-two. Save for psychic height, the physical Pound was a midget among giants.’[1]

Such considerations have cropped up before. I find—dear, dear, the Internet again—that Havelock Ellis, physician, sexologist, eugenicist, in an 1897 article, ‘Genius and Stature’, and his 1904 book, A Study of English Genius, asserted that men of genius—sorry, women, not this time—tended to be either shorter than average or, more frequently, taller than average. Those of average height scored markedly less well and the findings were complicated by the social class of the subjects (the poorer classes, unsurprisingly, tended to be physically smaller). In 1885, a certain Henry Troutbeck claimed to have examined Chaucer’s remains during the preparations for Robert Browning’s burial: he was five feet six inches (not bad for the fourteenth century, surely). Alas, further investigation showed that Browning’s grave was far enough away from Chaucer’s to to make this a bit implausible; then, too, it seems that, in any case, ‘the location of Chaucer’s bones remains somewhat doubtful.’[2]

Certainly, poets come in all sizes. Measuring them precisely is a tricky business, though Benjamin Haydon, when beginning his portrait of Wordsworth on Helvellyn, surveyed the poet in detail and found him to be exactly 5 feet 9⅞ inches tall. (He also did a drawing of him ‘with and without his false teeth.’)[3] Alexander Pope, apparently, came in at four feet six inches, while Edith Sitwell measured around six feet—or five feet eleven inches, by official reckoning.[4] On 20 October 1915, Wilfred Owen underwent his second medical examination at the Artists’ Rifles headquarters. A year earlier, his height of five feet five inches would have disqualified him but the standard had been lowered since then. He officially entered the British Army the following day.[5] Keats was around five feet and one inch—‘around’? Timothy Hilton has him at 5’ 0¾” , as does Robert Gittings, while Andrew Motion has ‘five feet and a fraction of an inch’—but what fraction?[6] And Keats was how much shorter than Charles Olson?

charles_olson_writing_at_black_mountain_college
(Charles Olson writing at Black Mountian College)

Olson (born 27 December 1910) was roughly six foot eight or nine, Robert Creeley wrote; or six feet seven inches, as some say; twenty-one inches taller than Keats, Guy Davenport remarks (‘in his stocking feet taller by half again than Alexander the Great’), which would make him six feet ten inches.[7] Damned tall, anyway, large, everything about him large, the ambition, the format of the volumes of Maximus poems from Cape Goliard, vocabulary, geographical and historical reach.

Sometimes he’s absurdly overpitched, sometimes opaque, sometimes just crazy, sometimes inspired, sometimes visionary. Sometimes he’s just on the money.

Try:

What has he to say?
In hell it is not easy
to know the traceries, the markings
(the canals, the pits, the mountings by which space
declares herself, arched, as she is, the sister,
awkward stars drawn for teats to pleasure him, the brother
who lies in stasis under her, at ease as any monarch or
a happy man[8]

or

It is undone business
I speak of, this morning,
with the sea
stretching out
from my feet

or

I am not at all aware
that anything more than that
is called for. Limits
are what any of us
are inside of

or, ah:

The upshot is
(and this the books did not tell us) the race
does not advance, it is only
better preserved[9]

George Butterick, the Olson scholar who edited the Collected Poems (nearly 650 pages of non-Maximus poems) and The Maximus Poems for the University of California Press, cites in this connection Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance’: ‘Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. It undergoes continual changes [… ] but this change is not amelioration. For every thing that is given, something is taken.’[10]

T. S. Eliot, along similar—though not the same—lines wrote that the artist must ‘be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same’. And that the mind of Europe ‘is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen.’[11]

On a more individual note, David Jones, putting on his wall in 1958 a drawing of a dancing bear he’d produced in 1903, at the age of seven, wrote to a friend: ‘“It’s much the best drawing I’ve ever done, which shows how, in the arts, there ain’t no such thing as getting better as you get older!”’ Again, in 1967, Jones wrote of this drawing, ‘there are few of my subsequent works which I prefer to that.’[12] The assertion held in a wider perspective in Jones’s case too. Though moved and impressed by books that he read by Teilhard de Chardin, he thought Teilhard’s ‘idea of evolution towards union with God naïve — like any belief in general progress. In art, for example, “Picasso is no improvement over Lascaux.”’[13]

Jones-dancing-bear
(David Jones, ‘The Bear’ (1903), via Apollo magazine)

Is that true? Individually, the issue is complicated by a general acceptance of the fact that advancing age must inevitably be accompanied by a loss of powers—but it’s a fact often confounded by extraordinary artistic performances from writers and painters in their seventies, eighties and even nineties: among others, Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Tomlinson, Rose Macaulay, Sybille Bedford, W. B. Yeats, Titian, Thomas Hardy, Penelope Fitzgerald, Isak Dinesen, Louise Bourgeois, Ezra Pound—and David Jones himself.

And more generally? Those of us who grew up with the unexamined optimism common enough in those days, a version of the Whig interpretation of history (the inevitable and continuing advance of progress over the forces of reaction) have had rude awakenings enough in this new age of unreason. As for the arts—it’s a good, a constant question. In the essay already quoted, Eliot wrote: ‘Someone said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did”. Precisely, and they are that which we know.’ That actually accounts for a large part of the confident assertion that painters, poets, novelists—and critics—are better or smarter or more profound than those in earlier periods: they are simply positioned later in history. Our own age knows a great deal that people in the early twentieth and nineteenth and eighteenth centuries didn’t know; but we’d be fools to think that those earlier ages didn’t know a great many other things that are completely lost to us now.

It has to be said, though, that, as a general rule, we’re taller than they were.

References

[1] Hugh Kenner, The Elsewhere Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 35.

[2] Thomas A. Prendergast, Chaucer’s Dead Body: From Corpse to Corpus (London: Routledge, 2003), 106, 108, 59.

[3] See Alethea Hayter, A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (London: Robin Clark 1992), 142-143.

[4] Pope mentioned in Hugh Kenner’s review of Maynard Mack’s Alexander Pope: A Life (1986), in Historical Fictions (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 253; ‘Sitwell’s passport recorded her height as five feet eleven but she was often reported as being well over six feet’: Rosemary Hill, ‘No False Modesty’, a review of Richard Greene, Edith Sitwell: Avant-Garde Poet (London: Virago Press, 2011), in London Review of Books, 33, 20 (20 October 2011), 25.

[5] Dominic Hibberd, Wilfred Owen: A New Biography (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002), 164.

[6] Timothy Hilton, Keats and his World (London: Thames & Hudson, 1971), 56; Robert Gittings, John Keats (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971), 135; Andrew Motion, Keats (London: Faber and Faber, 1997), 36.

[7] Robert Creeley, ‘Introduction’ to Charles Olson, Selected Writings (New York: New Directions, 1966), 1; Guy Davenport, ‘Olson’, in The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 80.

[8] Charles Olson, ‘In Cold Hell, in Thicket’, in The Collected Poems of Charles Olson, edited by George F. Butterick (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 155. The reference here is to the Egyptian sky-goddess Nut, arching over and around her earth-god brother and lover Geb (‘her starry belly was painted inside the sarcophagi of Egyptian kings’): Robert von Hallberg, Charles Olson: The Scholar’s Art (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 145.

[9] Charles Olson, The Maximus Poems, edited by George F. Butterick (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 57, 21, 59.

[10] George Butterick, A Guide to the Maximus Poems of Charles Olson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 86. See Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and Lectures, edited by Joel Porte (New York: Library of America, 1983), 279—I’ve quoted very slightly more than Butterick does.

[11] Eliot, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, in Selected Essays, third enlarged edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), 16.

[12] Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), 11; David Jones, ‘A Note to the Illustrations’, Agenda, Vol. 5, Nos. 1-3, Special David Jones issue (Spring-Summer, 1967), 2.

[13] Dilworth, David Jones, 314.

 

Sleep and his brother

Archer, James, 1823-1904; La mort d'Arthur

(James Archer, La mort d’Arthur: Manchester Art Gallery)

Commanded by ‘Zeus the cloud-gatherer’, Apollo ‘did exactly as he was told’.

He carried Sarpedon out of the line of fire,
Washed him properly in a stream, in running water,
And rubbed supernatural preservative over him
And wrapped him up in imperishable fabrics
And handed him over to the speedy chaperons,
Sleep and his twin brother Death, who brought him
In no time at all to Lycia’s abundant farmland.’[1]

Michael Longley is rendering here a part of Homer’s Book XVI of the Iliad. What Zeus says to his son Apollo about another of his sons, Sarpedon, almost exactly repeats what Zeus’s wife Hera has earlier said to her husband when he expressed his wish to rescue Sarpedon from the murderous attention of Patroclus. Hera, reasonably enough, pointed out that, were he to save Sarpedon from his battlefield death, then other gods and goddesses might feel a little aggrieved, since many ‘sons of the immortals’ were engaged in the fight. Essentially, she says, while Zeus has the power to reprieve Sarpedon, to do so ‘would upset the balance of the world’.[2]

Running soldiers, vase, 6th century BC Attic (Greek) (detail)

Sleep and death. With characteristic elegance, Alice Oswald writes:

Sarpedon the son of Zeus
Came to this unseen ungrowing ground
Came from his cornfields from his leafy river
From his kingdom of paths and apple groves
And was killed by a spear
Then for a long time he lay crumpled as linen
Until two soft-voiced servants Sleep and Death
Carried him home again[3]

Richmond Lattimore has them as ‘swift messengers’[4] but I rather like that explicit characterisation of them as servants rather than masters. Given the acceptance of fate and its workings, what could be more natural than sleep or, indeed, death?

In Finland, I gather, 27th July is Sleepy Head Day, when the last person sleeping in the house tends to be doused with water. The tradition dates back to the Middle Ages and is supposedly related to the legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, who hid in a cave to escape religious persecution and woke centuries later. There are long sleeps, absurdly long sleeps—and mythical sleeps. Legend insists that King Arthur and his knights are not dead but only sleeping until they are needed again. Malory wrote: ‘Yet som men say in many p[art]ys of Inglonde that kynge Arthur ys nat dede but h[ad] by the wyll of oure Lord Jesu into another place; and men say that he shall com agayne, and he shall wynne the Holy Crosse.’[5] Tracing the ways in which Arthur’s memory was kept alive, through oral tradition, folk tales and ballads, to flourish in Victorian Britain, in Morris, Swinburne and most evidently in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Peter Ackroyd suggests that this is ‘the true significance of Arthur: by not dying, by being perpetually reborn, he represents the ideas of the English imagination.’[6]

Marguerite_Yourcenar

(Marguerite Yourcenar)

Some are deprived of the sleep they desire: Alethea Hayter writes of the opium addict that: ‘He is unable to sleep, and sometimes seems to be waiting for someone who never comes.’[7] For others, sleep is not wanted at all. The narrator of Michael Ondaatje’s novel remarks that ‘Sleep is a prison for a boy who has friends to meet. We were impatient with the night, up before sunrise surrounded the ship.’[8] Sleep has its risks and dangers, its shifting borders. ‘But what interests me here’, Marguerite Yourcenar has her emperor Hadrian say, ‘is the specific mystery of sleep partaken of for itself alone, the inevitable plunge risked each night by the naked man, solitary and unarmed, into an ocean where everything changes, the colors, the densities, and even the rhythm of breathing, and where we meet the dead.’[9] And the Old Gypsy Woman says to the narrator of Antonio Tabucchi’s Requiem, ‘Listen, my dear, this can’t go on, you can’t live in two worlds at once, in the world of reality and the world of dreams, that kind of thing leads to hallucinations, you’re like a sleepwalker walking with your arms outstretched, and everything you touch becomes part of your dream’.[10]

One of my favourite sleeping anecdotes occurs in a Sylvia Townsend Warner letter to her friend George Plank. ‘I will sit down to tell you about two very old & distant cousins of mine, brother & sister, who live together. She is in her nineties: he is a trifle younger. They were sitting together, he reading, she knitting. Presently she wanted something, and crossed the room to get it. She tripped, & fell on her back. So she presently said: Charlie, I’ve fallen & I can’t get up. He put down his book, turned his head, looked at her, and fell asleep.’[11]

So there’s that to look forward to.
References

[1] Michael Longley, ‘Sleep & Death’, Snow Water (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), 42.

[2] Malcolm M. Willcock, A Companion to the Iliad (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 185.

[3] Alice Oswald, Memorial (London: Faber and Faber, 2011), 61.

[4] Homer, The Iliad of Homer, translated by Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), 348, line 671.

[5] The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, edited by Eugène Vinaver (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), 873.

[6] Peter Ackroyd, Albion (London: Chatto & Windus, 2002), 118.

[7] Alethea Hayter, Opium and the Romantic Imagination (London: Faber, 1971), 69.

[8] Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table (London: Vintage Books, 2012), 30.

[9] Marguerite Yourcenar, The Memoirs of Hadrian, translated by Grace Frick, with Yourcenar (1951; Penguin Books, 2000), 26.

[10] Antonio Tabucchi, Requiem, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (London: Harvill, 1994), 25.

[11] Letter of 14 February, 1960: Sylvia Townsend Warner, Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 180.

 

Winter solstice; nothing political

Lights2

Winter solstice. The shortest, least lighted day. The darkest hour before the dawn, and all that. So we can expect some brightening soon? Answers on a speck of dust, please, to a post office box located somewhere out in mid-ocean.

Is it possible, on such a day, not to stray into political lament or harangue in this new age of unreason, at the end of what feels like a very long year or rather, eighteen months, which is how long it is since, in Jonathan Meades’ summary, ‘[t]he aim of the 52 per cent that shot itself in the foot was so poor that it also shot the 48 per cent.’?[1]

Face-to-the-world

It’s possible. Difficult but possible, if only by concentrating on quite other things, such as the obvious advantage of new bookshelves in the kitchen being the option of browsing while the kettle boils or the grill heats up. You might gather useful, or useless, or at least diverting facts such as that Gustave Courbet had himself photographed more than any other nineteenth-century French painter.[2] Or, say, insights into the problems of novel-writing:

Unstrung-Harp

‘Several weeks later, the loofah trickling on his knees, Mr Earbrass mulls over an awkward retrospective bit that ought to go in Chapter II. But where? Even the voice of the omniscient author can hardly afford to interject a seemingly pointless anecdote concerning Ladderback in Tibet when the other characters are feverishly engaged in wondering whether to have the pond at Disshiver Cottage dragged or not.’[3]

Or, say, this cheering news of the use to which Mary Cassatt put her share of the 1879 Impressionist exhibition’s earnings: ‘[ . . . ] Mary bought a Monet and a Degas; by that time she already owned pictures of Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, and Monet; her impulse, like Degas’, was ever to put money not earmarked for necessities, into pictures.’[4] I’m thinking how pleasant it would be: not needing to be rich, simply having the good taste to want ‘a Monet and a Degas’ and, of course, to have that sense of priorities.

21 December, something cheering. Let me see. Yes, that day in 1944, Sylvia Townsend Warner writes to Ben Huebsch of Viking Press about her wonderful novel The Corner That Held Them, reviewed by Kate Macdonald earlier this year here:

https://katemacdonald.net/2017/05/22/sylvia-townsend-warner-the-corner-that-held-them/

‘At this moment you should have up to p.182. I have killed off a lot more ladies in the next bit you will get, so much creating and killing off makes me feel as providential as Providence. Ralph, however, is still with us. He is to live into an old age serene and bright and die without a pang of conscience.’ Four months later, she writes to him to say: ‘It will be long—about 180,000 I believe. It is also what one calls powerful. If dropped from a suitable height it would wipe out the state of Vermont.’[5]

confucius

(Confucius: K’ung Fu-Tse)

Meanwhile, reflecting—obviously, not at all in a political way—on the news of the day, of altogether too many recent days, an extract from Ezra Pound’s ‘Canto XIII’ pops into my head:

And Kung raised his cane against Yuan Jang,
Yuan Jang being his elder,
For Yuan Jang sat by the roadside pretending to
be receiving wisdom.
And Kung said “You old fool, come out of it,
“Get up and do something useful.”
And Kung said
“Respect a child’s faculties
“From the moment it inhales the clear air,
“But a man of fifty who knows nothing
Is worthy of no respect.”[6]

References

[1] Jonathan Meades, ‘In the loop: The gulf between the arts and art: a personal view’ (edited text of a speech given at the annual dinner of the Royal Academy of Arts in London), Times Literary Supplement (20 October 2017), 14.

[2] Laura Cumming, A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits (London: Harper Press, 2010), 194.

[3] Edward Gorey, The Unstrung Harp; or, Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel, in Amphigorey: Fifteen Books by Edward Gorey (New York: Perigee Books, 1981), unpaginated.

[4] Nancy Hale, Mary Cassatt: A biography of the great American painter (New York: Doubleday, 1975), 94.

[5] Sylvia Townsend Warner, Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 88, 92.

[6] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 58-59.

 

Christmas listing

Xmas-Tree-3

‘You better watch out
You better not cry’

I stir apples and quinces in the saucepan, speculate briefly on what that ferocious spirit at the bottom of the slim bottle actually is—grappa?—then tip it in anyway. It will evaporate, surely, leaving behind it the sense of something, a hint, a rumour. Perhaps you know that passage in Kipling’s—highly selective—autobiography, where he refers to the process of cutting away a story draft’s extraneous material: ‘a tale from which pieces have been raked out is like a fire that has been poked. One does not know that the operation has been performed, but everyone feels the effect.’[1] It was that same Mr Kipling who wrote the script for the first royal Christmas broadcast in 1932, which was listened to by some twenty million people Apparently, the idea had been mooted by John—not yet Lord—Reith as early as 1923, the year in which he became Director-General of the BBC.[2]

‘Better not pout
I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town’

‘Pout’? I get the sense that the word is used less often these days. ‘A protrusion of the lips, especially as an expression of petulance or sulkiness, or to make oneself sexually attractive; a pouting expression or mood’, the Oxford English Dictionary says, with quoted examples going back to the late sixteenth century. Could that be all that’s needed to make oneself sexually attractive? Who knew it was that easy?

The Librarian is doing complicated things with fairy lights, wrapping paper and other accessories. I conclude that Christmas is bearing down on us—fast.

‘He’s making a list
And checking it twice.’

Now that’s a properly checked checklist. People everywhere are surely compiling lists at the moment, though the roll of those whom history will damn as fools, dupes or villains is currently writing itself.

The Christmas present headings—both giving and receiving—have been sensibly whittled down to books, food and drink. Some people read, most people drink, everyone eats. Simple, a problem solved. As easy as pouting, you might say.

References

[1] Rudyard Kipling, Something of Myself, edited by Robert Hampson (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987), 156.

[2] Andrew Lycett, Rudyard Kipling (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1999), 571; Martin Pugh. ‘We Danced All Night’: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars (London: Bodley Head 2008), 371.

 

Happy Birthday, Mr Ford

ford-joyce-pound-quinn

(Messrs Ford, Joyce, Pound and Quinn: Paris, 1923)

Today is the birthday of Ford Madox Ford, born Ford Madox Hueffer in Merton, Surrey, 17th December 1873. Even excluding the several pseudonyms he used, there are plenty of other versions of his name, many of them—such as ‘Forty-Mad-Dogs Hueffer’—traceable to the always inventive Ezra Pound.[1]

I tend to mention Ford a lot because he comes easily to mind, my mind anyway (among an increasing number of other minds). But then anyone interested in modern literature will probably have read his The Good Soldier; anyone really interested in modern literature will probably have read, or intended to read, or at least know something about, Parade’s End, his superb tetralogy about England before, during and after the Great War. ‘About England’—that is to say, about landscape, class, gender, love, sex, history, politics, social conventions, religion, psychological breakdown—and other things.

Ford was always attentive to anniversaries, Saints’ days—and birthdays, not excluding his own. According to the dates given at the back of the book, he began writing When the Wicked Man—not one of his best novels, by a country mile—in Paris, on 17 December 1928 (he went on with it in New York and finished it aboard R.M.S. Mauretania, off the Scillies, 1 December 1930.) More famously, we find this claim in the ‘Dedicatory Letter’, addressed to Stella Bowen, which first appeared in the 1927 Albert & Charles Boni edition of The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion:

‘Until I sat down to write this book—on the 17th December 1913—I had never attempted to extend myself, to use a phrase of race-horse training. Partly because I had always entertained very fixedly the idea that—whatever may be the case with other writers—I at least should not be able to write a novel by which I should care to stand before reaching the age of forty; partly because I very definitely did not want to come into competition with other writers whose claim or whose need for recognition and what recognitions bring were greater than my own. I had never really tried to put into any novel of mine all that I knew about writing. I had written rather desultorily a number of books—a great number—but they had all been in the nature of pastiches, of pieces of rather precious writing, or of tours de force. But I have always been mad about writing—about the way writing should be done and partly alone, partly with the companionship of Conrad, I had even at that date made exhaustive studies into how words should be handled and novels constructed.
‘So, on the day I was forty I sat down to show what I could do—and The Good Soldier resulted.’[2]

FMF_SB_Corr

In his lifetime, Ford published almost eighty books: say seventy-eight if we don’t count The Panel and its slight revision for American publication, Ring for Nancy, as separate items. For numerologists, 2017 has been the seventy-eighth year since his death. (Ford studies take many forms, some of them a little worrying. Mais passons.)

And I see that I read my first Ford book – good grief! – forty years ago. (Acutely numerate Ford scholars might narrow their eyes at this point, suspecting a massaging of the figures—‘Really? Exactly forty?’—but you can trust me on this.)

People occasionally ask, ‘Are there any others that are really good?’ I try to be scrupulous in separating the ones that I think are ‘really good’, say a dozen or so, maybe more, from those that have points of interest for the Ford specialist (just about all of them). Keeping it tight: if historical novels, particularly set in the Tudor period, are your thing, you may already have come across The Fifth Queen trilogy. It centres on Katharine Howard and on a chap called Thomas Cromwell, not an unfamiliar name these days. Then I’ve always had a fondness for The Young Lovell, set in 1486, concerning magic and a belle dame sans merci; and Ladies Whose Bright Eye, set in the fourteenth century (though with one foot in the twentieth), which might just edge it, because of its high spirits.

FMF_EE

Then England and the English, which is cheating slightly since this is another trilogy, comprising The Soul of London, The Heart of the Country and The Spirit of the People. Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance was written at speed in the months following Conrad’s death. Ford refers to it as a novel but it gives a much more vivid sense of how Conrad actually was than many scrupulous biographies of him. No Enemy, written mostly in 1919, was published in America ten years later (and first published in the UK seventy-three years after that). Dancing along the border between fiction and autobiography, it has folded into it many of Ford’s experiences and perceptions of the recent war: suffering from shell-shock, he had, in effect, to learn to write again.

From Ford’s final decade, I’d probably pick It Was the Nightingale just ahead of the outrageously enjoyable Return to Yesterday; and Provence would just edge out the slightly more eccentric Great Trade Route, so Ford’s beloved adopted home rather than the embodied idea and the sometimes uneasy grappling with the American South.

That, of course, leaves out of account entirely the poetry, the critical essays, the letters, the fairy tales, the art criticism. . . Still, it’s a start.

And of the two heavyweights? People sometimes ask: Coleridge or Wordsworth? Eliot or Pound? Lennon or McCartney? The Good Soldier or Parade’s End? I say: both, though acknowledging that, on the quiet, one leans this way or that.

Val-Christopher

(Adelaide Clemens as Valentine Wannop, Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens
in the BBC/HBO adaptation of Parade’s End)

‘The day of her long interview with Tietjens, amongst the amassed beauties of Macmaster furnishings, she marked in the calendar of her mind as her great love scene. That had been two years ago: he had been going into the army. Now he was going out again. From that she knew what a love scene was. It passed without any mention of the word “love”; it passed in impulses; warmths; rigors of the skin. Yet with every word they had said to each other they had confessed their love; in that way, when you listen to the nightingale you hear the expressed craving of your lover beating upon your heart.’[3]

Yes.

References

[1] This one crops up in Pound’s interview with D. G. Bridson, in New Directions 17, edited by James Laughlin (New York: New Directions, 1961), 166. Another version was ‘Freiherr von Grumpus ZU und VON Bieberstein’: Brita Lindberg-Seyersted, editor, Pound/Ford: The Story of a Literary Friendship (London: Faber & Faber 1982), 141.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915; edited by Max Saunders (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 3.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), 322.