Reckoning with David Jones


The David Jones reckoning cannot be long postponed. I was reliably informed that, preparatory to a serious grappling with Jones’s second great long poem The Anathémata, there were tremendously useful essays, collected in The Dying Gaul, published in 1978 and long out of print. I no longer remember which essays they were: perhaps ‘Use and Sign’? Or ‘Art in Relation to War?’

I seem to recall a conversation with Dr Cornelius van Muchey (lately of Sumatra):

Have you read In Parenthesis?

I have, yes. Twice.

Okay with that?

I think. . . yes, pretty much.

Watched the films? Read the biography?

Yes. Yes.

And have you read The Anathémata?

Sort of.

What does that mean?

It means that In Parenthesis is like Ulysses while The Anathémata is more like Finnegans Wake.

Ah. Have you read Finnegans Wake?

Sort of.



I now have a copy of The Dying Gaul.*

‘It was a dark and stormy night, we sat by the calcined wall; it was said to the tale-teller, tell us a tale, and the tale ran thus: it was a dark and stormy night . . . ‘

* And I belatedly see that Faber, presumably taking advantage of the publication of Thomas Dilworth’s biography from Cape, have reprinted in paperback both The Dying Gaul and the wonderful Dai Greatcoat: a self-portrait of David Jones in his letters.

Carrington and the Quangle-Wangle


Carrington, Barbara Hiles, Dorothy Brett, 1911:

To Dorothy Brett, 1 December 1918, Aldous Huxley wrote: ‘I saw Carrington not long ago, just after the armistice, and thought her enchanting; which indeed I always do whenever I see her, losing my heart completely as long as she is on the spot, but recovering it as soon as she is no longer there. We went to see the show at the Omega, where there was what I thought an admirable Gertler and a good Duncan Grant and a rather jolly Vanessa Bell. Carrington and I had a long argument on the fruitful subject of virginity: I may say it was she who provoked it by saying that she intended to remain a vestal for the rest of her life. All expostulations on my part were vain.’[1]

Aldous Huxley and Dora Carrington spent time together at Lady Ottoline Morrell’s Garsington Manor, sleeping on the roof when the heat indoors became unbearable. ‘Strange adventures with birds, and peacocks, and hordes of bees. Shooting stars, other things.’[2] There’s little doubt that Huxley made use of Carrington when creating the character of Mary Bracegirdle in Crome Yellow. To Gerald Brenan in December 1921, Carrington remarked on the character, adding: ‘But it’s a book which makes one feel very very ill. I don’t advise you [to] read it.’[3]


Aldous Huxley by Dorothy Wilding, © National Portrait Gallery, London. Probably not the right hat, then: ‘In later years he wore no hat—except occasionally a French beret—but then he still sported a black hat with a very large brim indeed, to all effects a sombrero. “Here”, the St John Hutchinson’s young children would cry when they saw his long form ambling up their garden path, “Here comes the Quangle-Wangle!”’[7]

In January 1919, Carrington experienced what her biographer terms ‘a disturbing dream about a furtive encounter with the creator of the virginal “Mary Bracegirdle” which took place in her mother’s house, only weeks after her father’s death’.[4] Carrington wrote to Strachey: ‘Such a nightmare last night, with Aldous in bed. Everything went wrong, I couldn’t lock the door; all the bolts were crooked. At last, I chained it with a watch chain to two nails. Then I had a new pair of thick pyjamas on and he got so cross because I wouldn’t take them off and they were all scratchy. Everything got in a mess, and he got so angry, and kept trying to find me in the bed by peering with his eye-glass, and I thought all the time how I could account to my mother for the mess on my pyjamas!’[5] 

Carrington, Dora, 1893-1932; Spanish Boy, the Accordion Player

Carrington, Spanish Boy, the Accordion Player, c.1924. (Photo credit: The Higgins Art Gallery & Museum, Bedford)

Carrington’s tendency to make such vivid impressions on those she met meant that confronting fictional versions of herself was a not infrequent ordeal. Gilbert Cannan’s Mendel: A Story of Youth (1916), dedicated to ‘D. C.’, had been a rather more brazen affair, drawing with little disguise on Carrington’s relationship with Mark Gertler: ‘How angry I am over Gilbert’s book! Everywhere this confounded gossip, and servant-like curiosity. It’s ugly, and so damned vulgar. People cannot be vulgar over a work of art, so it is Gilbert’s fault for writing as he did. . . . ’[6]


Lively stuff. The new collection of Carrington’s letters, edited by Anne Chisholm, biographer of Nancy Cunard and Frances Partridge, came out last week. We should finally get to the bookshop in the next few days and secure a copy. Somebody in the house is expecting it for Christmas. Apparently.


[1]  Letters of Aldous Huxley, edited by Grover Smith (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969), 172.

[2] To Lytton Strachey, August 1916, Carrington: Letters and Extracts from her Diaries, chosen and with an Introduction by David Garnett (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), 35.

[3] Carrington: Letters and Extracts from her Diaries, 200.

[4] Gretchen Gerzina, Carrington: A Life of Dora Carrington, 1893-1932 (London: John Murray, 1989), 141.

[5] Carrington: Letters and Extracts from her Diaries, 127.

[6] Carrington to Gertler, 1 November 1916, in Mark Gertler, Selected Letters, edited by Noel Carrington (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1965), 254.

[7] Sybille Bedford, Aldous Huxley: A Biography (London: Pan Macmillan, 1993), 127.


The Last of England; or London; Sinclair, Sebald, Ford


I was sitting at the dining table of a rented holiday cottage in West Bay, idly totting up the senses in which the title of Iain Sinclair’s chapter might be read: ‘After Sebald’ is the title of chapter four of The Last London: True Fictions from an Unreal City. Grant Gee’s 2012 film Patience is subtitled (parenthetically) After Sebald; and Sinclair follows in Sebald’s footsteps, to an extent, in company with the poet Stephen Watts, a friend of Sebald’s, who sometimes walked with him. Chronologically, Sinclair is, of course, after—later than—Sebald; he is also pursuing him, or an image of him. Much of his writing draws on similar tropes of memory and deep autobiography to those of Sebald: again, this is, in a sense, ‘after’ him. He also touches on the Sebaldian afterlife of conference, festschrift, memorial, tribute: and the influence of Sebald, as man, walker and writer, as presence, as image of ‘writer’, on others, including the writer Rachel Lichtenstein, with whom Sinclair has collaborated in the past. And the afterworld is an abiding concern in Sinclair’s fictional or metafictional world, not least here in the moving elegiac conjuring of Martin Stone. ‘Slow down. Lose yourself among walks laid out with sufficient complexity to confuse the dead. To keep them to allocated spaces. To the chipped ballast of memorial slabs holding them in the ground.’[1]

Post-lunch, convalescing from such mental exertions, I trip over Sinclair’s mention of a book called The Last of England (2004) by Randall Swingler. Now, to a close reader of Ford Madox Ford, that title, The Last of England, sets dogs barking and bell ringers swinging on their ropes.

Brown, Ford Madox, 1821-1893; The Last of England

(Ford Madox Brown, The Last of England: Birmingham Museums Trust)

By way of brief explanation, for those immune to such infections, The Last of England is a famous painting by Ford Madox Brown, maternal grandfather of Ford Madox Ford. It exists in two versions—or three, counting the watercolour replica in the Tate—the oil on panel of 1855 (Birmingham Museums Trust) and the 1860 version (oil on canvas: The Fitzwilliam Museum), which seems entirely suitable in the context of any discussion of a writer whose name, nationality and status are far from stable and are strongly marked by doubleness, trebleness—or more. (Sentences like that sometimes appear to be occupational hazards for those with ambitions to write about Ford.)

As well as his several unsurprising references to the picture’s title in his 1896 biography of grandfather Brown, Ford used the phrase in his great postwar tetralogy, Parade’s End, twice in the opening volume and once in the final one. There is a finer symmetry than is at first apparent: the single mention in the closing volume is balanced by the fact that Last Post is itself ‘the last of England’ for Ford in several senses. The whole of the tetralogy had been written abroad but constituted his most searching fictional analysis of this country, while Last Post moved on from recent history to glance at possible futures. Thereafter, the material of his fiction lay elsewhere, in France and the United States. And, arguably, Last Post, his last ‘English’ novel, was the last of his books to be aimed at a primarily British audience.


Ford used the phrase twice more, in It Was the Nightingale, the autobiographical volume most closely related in its themes and treatment to his great novel. Once, because of the restrictions that were being brought in against immigration:

‘What then was to become of England of the glorious traditions? It had been political fugitives and martyrs that had given England her place among the nations. It had been the Flemish weavers, the Anabaptists, the Huguenots, the ceaseless tide of the discontented from every nation that had given England, not alone her tradition of freedom, but her crafts, her system of merchanting, her sense of probity, her very security. . . . This then was the last of England, the last of London. . . . ’

(Cue two minutes’ silence here, looking around us, as we must.)

The second instance concerns Ford’s leaving England for France in November 1922: ‘There was, as I passed through Trafalgar Square, a dense fog and the results of a general election coming in. . . . an immense shouting mob in a muffled and vast obscurity. The roars made the fog sway in vast curtains over the baffled light-standard. That for me was the last of England.’[2]

So, for a moment, familiar with the poet Ted Walker’s memoir and Derek Jarman’s film, plus a couple of other uses of the phrase in book titles, I paused, breathing a little heavily. Had I missed something really significant? I’d heard of Randall Swingler, come across him in a couple of literary histories, in memoirs by several figures, including E. P. Thompson and Julian Symons, which appeared in PN Review—which had also published George Barker’s ‘Elegy’ (‘Randall Swingler, that most honest man’)—and especially in Swingler’s ‘The Right to Free Expression’, published in Polemic, with annotations by George Orwell.[3] As a committed Communist, Swingler was never going to hit it off with Orwell: taking such exception to Orwell’s ‘The Prevention of Literature’ and referring to its author as ‘singularly independent of factual evidence’ made sure of that.

The 2004 publication date Sinclair mentioned made me pause, even within my pausing, though reprints or revised editions of Swingler, who died in 1967, were plausible. Then I suddenly registered the reference to J. H. Prynne, which pointed pretty definitely to Randall Stevenson’s volume in The Oxford English Literary History, Volume 12: 1960-2000: The Last of England?

Not to suggest for a moment that Sinclair’s bracing, exhilarating and often extremely funny book should be defined by a tiny error—but while some errors are merely errors, others exist for just such occasions, to connect with, and stimulate, those ready for such connection. In the past, I’ve commented to others about books particularly poorly proofread who turn out not to have noticed any errors at all; on the other hand, often having read a book I then see a review of it which points in tones of thunder to outrageous shortcomings, blunders and misrepresentations that completely passed me by. Swingler for Stevenson would be puzzling or a speck of grit in the eye for a minority of Sinclair’s readers, I suspect. Even if they noticed, would it really matter to them? Not unless they too had a selection of phrases like ‘the last of England’ wired up to the alarm system of their memory banks.

Besides, that ‘error’ (which already seems to need the qualification of quotation marks) seems quite at home in Sinclair’s chronicle of complex networks of connection and affiliation, all of a piece with a universe of chance encounters, names slightly misheard, images glimpsed through the interstices of blurry weather. ‘We impose connections in a futile attempt to find meaning in a maelstrom of possibilities.’ Elsewhere, he writes: ‘In the state that manifests itself when projects are launched, and when they dictate their terms by way of coincidences and excited discoveries, unexpected phone calls, emails from strangers, I found it difficult to sleep. The streets had become a displacement dream.’ And one more: ‘What I was groping towards was the conviction that different writers, laying down different maps of the same place, enlarge the potentialities of the city. Geography shifts. Individuals dissolve. Place is burnished and dissolved.’[4]

There’s a fascinating video on the London Review of Books website at the moment: Stewart Lee interviewing Iain Sinclair. The fact that Lee several times refers to Sinclair’s book as The Last of London seems to fit as well. . .



Iain Sinclair, The Last London: True Fictions from an Unreal City (London: Oneworld, 2017), 58.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 86, 137. One of the book’s later editors describes it, in fact, as ‘a companion volume to Parade’s End, reiterating the concerns of the tetralogy with renewed urgency’. See John Coyle, editor, Ford Madox Ford, It Was the Nightingale (1934; Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2007), xiv.

[3] George Orwell, Smothered Under Journalism: 1946, edited by Peter Davison, revised and updated edition (London: Secker and Warburg, 2001), 432-443. Davison’s footnote (443) mentions Swingler’s volumes of poetry and his editorial involvement with several journals in the 1930s and 1940s. Barker’s poem is in PN Review 27, volume 9, number 1 (September-October 1982).

[4] Sinclair, The Last London, 18 (I see I’ve quoted this once before but think it’s earned a repeat), 42, 54.



Finished sentences, tied shoelaces

(Sylvia Townsend Warner in her garden: via the Sylvia Townsend Warner Society)

‘We have just come back from Theodore Powys’s funeral’, Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote to William Maxwell on 28 November 1953. ‘He died sooner, and with less misery than any of us dared expect, probably because he had made up his whole mind to it. I do not mean that he was resigned; but he was resolved. There was a great deal about the funeral that he would have approved of. To begin with, because of the lay-out of his front door, the coffin came out upright, as though it were walking out on its own volition, or rather, as though he were walking it out to its burial. It was a mild grey-skied day, the doors of the village church were open during the service, and while the parson was reading the lesson from St. Paul a flock of starlings descended on the churchyard and brabbled with their watery voices, almost drowning the solitary cawing rook inside the building. The parson, an old man, and a friend of Theodore’s, must have believed every word he said, and after the blessing he stood for some time at the foot of the grave in an oddly conversational attitude, as though, for this once, he had got the better of an argument.’[1]

A longish extract – but why settle for anything less?


(Theodore Francis Powys, by Howard Coster, 1934 © National Portrait Gallery)

Sylvia had met Powys (whose brothers included John Cowper and Llewellyn; his sisters the writer Philippa, the painter Gertrude, and the authority on lace and lace-making Marian) in March 1922—annus mirabilis for a good many writers other than James Joyce and T. S. Eliot—after a brief correspondence. Her friend Stephen Tomlin (‘Tommy’) had conveyed his strong interest in Powys, finally prompting Sylvia to read The Soliloquy of a Hermit (1916). Having visited him in East Chaldon—or Chaldon Herring, ‘as it is properly called in the Ordnance map though the postal name is East Chaldon’[2]—Sylvia was given the task of finding a publisher for a Powys manuscript and found her way to Tommy’s ‘only influential acquaintance in the literary world’. This was David Garnett, co-founder of the Nonesuch Press and currently a bookseller, whose novel, Lady into Fox would appear in October, with tremendous success. Garnett sent the story on to Chatto and Windus, who published The Left Leg (1923) when Powys added the title story and one more. The stories were dedicated to Tommy, Garnett and Sylvia.[3] Mr Tasker’s Gods (1925), Mr Weston’s Good Wine (1927) and Unclay (1931) followed in the next few years, as did several further collections of stories. Douglas Goldring commented in Odd Man Out that ‘The Dorsetshire stories of T. F. Powys, which suburban critics find so morbid and unreal, seem to me to give an entirely truthful picture of peasant life as I observed it in Somerset.’[4]


(David Garnett)

In 1930, Sylvia bought a cottage opposite the inn called The Sailors Return in East Chaldon and, soon afterwards, began the relationship with Valentine Ackland which would last until Valentine’s death nearly forty years later.[5] Garnett, who had first visited the village in the summer of 1922, published his novel, The Sailor’s Return, in 1925.[6] Set in the late 1850s, it concerns an English sailor returning home with his black African wife to rent a Dorset village inn and the prejudice and hostility they encounter from local people. It’s been reprinted by Dorset publisher The Sundial Press:
who also publish books by Powys brothers Theodore, Llewellyn and John Cowper, including Theodore’s Unclay and Kindness in a Corner.

Garnett was instrumental in getting Sylvia Townsend Warner’s early work published and their close friendship produced scores of superb letters. There was a long, slightly mysterious hiatus in their contact, probably due to Valentine’s jealousy, but it resumed and continued until Sylvia’s death.

Near the end of her life, Warner wrote to Garnett: ‘You enjoy my letters, I enjoy yours. We are like those Etruscan couples who sit conversing on their tomb. We belong to an earlier and more conversational world, and tend to finish our sentences and tie up our shoelaces.’ And Garnett, on his travels, sent her vibrant reports filled with tantalising details, such as this from Campeche, Mexico: ‘In the square there is a bust to the lifelong mistress of Porfirio Diaz, the dictator, Señora Romero. He gave her a villa and had the railway line diverted to run in front of the windows because she liked watching trains.’[7] 


[1] Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 44-45.

[2] Sylvia Townsend Warner, ‘T. F. Powys and Chaldon Herring’, in With the Hunted: Selected Writings, edited by Peter Tolhurst (Norwich: Black Dog Books, 2012), 54.

[3] Claire Harman, Sylvia Townsend Warner: A Biography (London: Chatto & Windus, 1989), 48-51.

[4] Douglas Goldring, Odd Man Out: The Autobiography of a “Propaganda Novelist” (London: Chapman and Hall, 1935), 47.

[5] Harman, Sylvia Townsend Warner, 96-97.

[6] Richard Garnett, editor, Sylvia and David: The Townsend Warner/ Garnett Letters (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994), 23-25.

[7] Garnett, Sylvia and David, 213, 114.

A feather in the wind


Between Eype and West Bay, a fierce wind rocks us on the cliff path. A couple of days later, at lunch in the Watch House Café, the sound is almost deafening at times, sails flapping on high and rolling seas. On the slope above the shore, you can lean steeply and confidently into the wind. The sea is foaming, furious, tiny tumbleweeds of spume blown in cartwheels across the sand, thinning to threads of washing suds, smears along the beach.

In a high wind, I often feel as I do when watching a raging sea: a sense of awe at such naked strength and power but also extreme pleasure in the knowledge that they are, precisely, irresistible. No matter how misdirected, demented and destructive human behaviour becomes, the wind will blow, the sea will rise and fall. In such a wind, resistant, your feet solidly planted, you feel your body’s strength but also sense its limits.


In An Affair of the Heart, Dilys Powell, the celebrated film critic who also wrote several fine books about Greece, remembered a people called the Perachorans. She was married to the archaeologist Humfry Payne, who, in 1929, was appointed director of the British School of Archaeology in Athens. A year later, he initiated an excavation at Perachora, a settlement on the Gulf of Corinth, and Powell spent a good deal of time in and around the area. She wrote, ‘They grow old, they die, but they are the same. And I reflected with astonishment – for in imagination it is always oneself who is stable in an inconstant world – that I was the feather in the wind.’[1]

It’s a resonant image. Sixty years on, the world is a little more inconstant, a little less stable. Just a little. Still, it’s hardly surprising that the wind has always been a favourite literary symbol, from Homer through to the Romantic poets and beyond, seemingly apposite in a staggering variety of contexts, wind as god, wind as breath, wind as inspiration or omen or threat or simply impersonal force.

‘My thoughts were a great excitement’, W. B. Yeats remembered, ‘but when I tried to do anything with them, it was like trying to pack a balloon into a shed in a high wind.’[2] Indeed, we’ve all experienced that, no doubt. Or something like it. Or vaguely resembling it. Although lately it seems that, even when just a little excited, people tend to take to social media. Sometimes, they bring along thoughts with that excitement.


(Karen Blixen with her brother Thomas on the family farm in Kenya in the 1920s)

Karen Blixen, writing of her farm at the foot of the Ngong Hills, sited at an altitude of over six thousand feet that ‘the wind in the highlands blows steadily from the north-north-east. It is the same wind that down the coasts of Africa and Arabia, they name the Monsoon, the East Wind, which was King Solomon’s favourite horse.’[3] And it may well have been: he seems to have had 4000 to choose from, or 40000, depending on the version you settle on. A great many horses, in either case; and a great many wives and concubines too.

Having made our effortful way back from the beach—at an angle of something less than ninety degrees—we sit listening to the howling in the chimney, raising our voices a little. That in turn recalls (of course) the narrator of Ford’s The Good Soldier: ‘And I shall go on talking, in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars.’[4] And it occurs to me to wonder, given the level of noise in this wind, just how much the narrator (‘talking in a low voice’) wanted to be heard; or rather, how much it mattered. Without getting too detailed, if his listener is the now-mad Nancy Rufford it probably doesn’t matter much at all: the murmur of a voice amidst the chorus of the wind will do.

‘Wind in the Work of Ford Madox Ford’. That could be worked up into something, surely. The sentence from The Good Soldier has its traceable ancestry, primarily Ford’s own poem, ‘On Heaven’, which includes the line ‘Through the roar of the great black winds, through the sound of the sea!’[5] And more than twenty years later, at the close of Provence: From Minstrels to the Machine, another strong wind—the mistral this time—plays a central role in the drama, unless it’s a comedy:

‘And leaning back on the wind as if on an up-ended couch I clutched my béret and roared with laughter. . . .We were just under the great wall that keeps out the intolerably swift Rhone. . . . Our treasurer’s cap was flying in the air. . . . Over, into the Rhone. . . . What glorious fun. . . . The mistral sure is the wine of life. . . . Our treasurer’s wallet was flying from under an armpit beyond reach of a clutching wind . . . . Incredible humour; unparalleled buffoonery of a wind . . . . The air was full of little capricious squares, floating black against the light over the river. . . . Like a swarm of bees: thick. . . . Good fellows, bees. . . .’

A ‘delirious, panicked search’ then begins, for the scattered banknotes (those ‘little capricious squares’), for passports, for citizenship papers. The money that was to finance a year or two of rest has mostly gone. ‘But perhaps the remorseless Destiny of Provence desires thus to afflict the world with my books’, Ford concluded—as if he would ever have willingly stopped writing, mistral or no.[6]

Back in Bristol, it’s oddly calm today. Hardly a flicker in the heaped brown leaves. I type at the top of a page: ‘Calm in the Work of Ford Madox Ford’. Nothing’s come yet.


[1] Dilys Powell, An Affair of the Heart (London: Souvenir Press, 1958), 173.

[2] W. B. Yeats, Autobiographies (London: Macmillan, 1955), 41.

[3] Karen Blixen, Out of Africa (1937; Harmondsworth: Penguin 1987), 14.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915; edited by Max Saunders, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 18.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Collected Poems (New York: Oxford University Press, 1936), 8.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, Provence (London: Allen & Unwin, 1938), 367-368.


Passing time, clocking off


(Harold Lloyd in Safety Last!)

On 11 November 1918, US pilot Sergeant Charles Veil, still with a French squadron although he had technically become a lieutenant in the United States Army, was greeted on landing with the news that the Armistice had been signed and that the war was over. ‘No more patrols, no more fights in the air. Nothing to do, nothing to live for. . . I found my watch, brought it forth, threw it as far as ever I could. Time would never mean the same thing again. . . .’[1]

It means, of course, different things to different people at different. . . times. It might seem stable enough if you stand still—until you move east or west—a lot more stable than it used to be, for sure. Standard time came in towards the close of the nineteenth century. In the United States, it was the railroad companies rather than governments that were first to institute it: ‘Around 1870, if a traveler from Washington to San Francisco set his watch in every town he passed through, he would set it over two hundred times.’ You’d barely have had time to set the time. And, in fact, it was on this day, 18 November, in 1883, that the railroads imposed uniform time. It was called ‘the day of two noons’ because at midday clocks in the eastern part of each zone had to be set back: ‘one last necessary disruption’.[2]

Clock time as a major issue can certainly be demanding. On Robert Scott’s Antarctic expedition of 1910-1913, the young Apsley Cherry-Gerrard (‘Cherry’) ‘kept three clocks and two wristwatches above his bunk to make absolutely sure that he did not miss his shift on deck.’[3] Hugh Kenner wrote of Buckminster Fuller that: ‘He zoomed around the globe in person, bearing his news to audiences in town after town. He wore three watches to tell him (1) the time back home, (2) the time where he was now, and (3) the time at his next stop.’[4]


Buckminster Fuller ( )

But time is not only clock time, of course: it’s time as experience, time in our heads, the moment that stretches into hours, the days collapsed into a heartbeat. Does time speed up as we age? Is it one of the inescapable problems of ageing, the days ‘flashing by like subway stations passed by the express train’, as Saul Bellow’s narrator remarks? ‘If only we could bring back the full days we knew as kids.’ But ‘[o]ur need for rapid disposal eliminates the details that bewitch, hold, or delay the children.’ Still, ‘Art is one rescue from this chaotic acceleration. Meter in poetry, tempo in music, form and color in painting. But we do feel that we are speeding earthward, crashing into our graves.’[5]

Time; space—or time as space. At a small party to celebrate the completion of her book about the area around the Italian village where she lives, Julia Blackburn writes of saying that: ‘being here in the valley has made me think that time past and time present and time future is like a vast landscape and we are walking through it on a tracery of thin paths.’[6]


Then space as time, in a sense. William Herschel’s 1802 paper considered the idea that deep space must also imply deep time. His telescope had ‘also, as it may be called, a power of penetrating into time past’ — the rays of light conveying the image of a remote nebula to the eye must have been ‘almost two million years on their way’. Therefore the universe was ‘almost unimaginably older than people had previously thought.’[7]

Writers, certainly most of the major modernist writers, have a complex relationship with time: James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, David Jones, Marcel Proust, T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, Dorothy Richardson, William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett, Gertrude Stein. How could they not, given the rupture of the First World War, that ‘crack across the table of History’?[8] Wyndham Lewis devoted a massive volume to opposing and analysing the ‘Time-doctrine’, the stress on the subjective and the interior which he traced to the French philosopher Henri Bergson, ‘the perfect philosophic ruffian, of the darkest and most forbidding description: and he pulls every emotional lever on which he can lay his hands.’[9] Characteristically, Lewis—‘Dogmatically, then, I am for the Great Without, for the method of external approach’[10]—had a pop at a huge range of targets, among them Joyce, Pound, Stein, Proust and a flock of philosophers.

Later writers’ view of time has tended more towards Bergson’s—and less towards Lewis’s—view of the matter. Eudora Welty remarked that ‘The time as we know it subjectively is often the chronology that stories and novels follow: it is the continuous thread of revelation.’[11] Jeanette Winterson wrote that Sigmund Freud, ‘one of the grand masters of narrative, knew that the past is not fixed in the way that linear time suggests. We can return. We can pick up what we dropped. We can mend what others broke. We can talk with the dead.’[12]

Indeed. We don’t need time machines. We are time machines. Possessing memory and imagination, we are masters—or mistresses—of both past and future. It’s just the present that’s so damned tricky.


[1] Stanley Weintraub, A Stillness Heard Round the World: The End of the Grest War, November 1918 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 186.

[2] Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918 (Harvard University Press, 1983), 12.

[3] Sara Wheeler, Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Gerrard (London: Jonathan Cape, 2001), 63.

[4] Hugh Kenner, The Elsewhere Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 139.

[5] Saul Bellow, Ravelstein (London: Viking, 2000), 191-192.

[6] Julia Blackburn, Thin Paths: Journeys In and Around an Italian Mountain Village (London: Jonathan Cape, 2011), 248.

[7] Richard Holmes. The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (London: Harper Collins, 2008), 203.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, A Man Could Stand Up— (1926; edited by Sara Haslam, Manchester: Carcanet, 2011), 17.

[9] Wyndham Lewis, Time and Western Man (London: Chatto & Windus, 1927), 449, 174.

[10] Wyndham Lewis, Men Without Art (London: Cassell, 1934), 128.

[11] Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings (London: Faber, 1985), 69.

[12] Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (London: Vintage 2012), 58.

‘The story exists for the scribbled notes in the margin’


(Robert Phelps via Narrative)

‘As for credos, Monroe Wheeler, Glenway, and I were once walking along the gentle ridge above his house and I asked how each would summarise his philosophy. Monroe’s answer was straightforward, prompt: “I never want to be left out of the dance.” After a slow, foxy smile, Glenway reached down and picked up a stone. “I believe everything breathes; even this stone must utter a blissful sigh every millennium.”’

This is Robert Phelps, in the third of ‘three miniature portraits’ which he believed combined to offer a view of the writer Glenway Wescott, whose The Pilgrim Hawk (1940) and An Apartment in Athens (1945) I’ve read and admired.


Glenway Wescott, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1936: Via the Beinecke Library, Yale University:

Phelps (born 16 November 1922) did publish one novel, though it was not successful: ‘a serious new writer like Robert Phelps produces in Heroes and Orators (1958) a complex and troubling study of homosexual love that goes unnoticed’, Leslie Fiedler commented.[1] Phelps was one of the co-founders of Grove Press, though he sold his share in it and turned to freelance writing. He’s best remembered now as the editor and translator of, particularly, Colette, introducing a great many readers to her work, primarily through his wonderful compilation of her own writings, superbly fitted together to form an autobiography, Earthly Paradise. He also edited her Collected Stories and worked the same sort of editorial magic on the writings of Jean Cocteau. His other major editing job was the journal of Glenway Wescott or rather, drawn from memos, newspaper clipping and carbon copies of letters, Phelps remarked, ‘in substance as well as appearance it is closer to a scrapbook.’[2] To James Salter, he wrote of his work on this volume: ‘It’s like walking for days along the English coast after the wreck of the Armada. The beach is strewn. You keep running back and forth. Everything glitters, even the eyes of dead men.’[3]



Phelps died in 1989, aged 66. I’d read a few books by Colette over the years but read quite a few more, especially the Phelps-related ones, after coming across the letters between Phelps and James Salter: two superb writers in love with other writers, in love with each other’s being in the world, to talk and write about books and weather and France and the look of things, the touch and smell of things. ‘Your stories pour over me’, Salter wrote, ‘I am in a different world, one where I recognize myself’ (12). Phelps intensely admired Salter’s writing and, what is less common, was able to articulate the reasons for that admiration. Of Salter’s story, ‘The Cinema’, he observed: ‘The thing that most gratifies me (and I mean gratify literally, as good cheese gratifies me, or a well-hung line of laundry snapping in the wind, or a Cavafy poem) is that if I stop at the end of almost any given sentence, I cannot guess what will come next—neither substance nor syntax. With most writers, there is maximum predictability. You can skim whole paragraphs’ (30). After noting that Salter was ‘a minority of one’ and ‘a new herb in the cabinet’, he remarked that, with ‘wholly different temperaments, Genet and Pasolini do something of the same thing. But you are tender, and unperverse. You are pure, and in the European sense of the word, American’ (31).

He told Salter about Erik Satie: ‘Did you know that after he died, his friends found one hundred unused umbrellas in his room? There was also a piano, which was unplayable and which Braque bought as a souvenir’ (47). He mentioned his hostess at Pound Ridge, in upstate New York, where he was staying. She was ‘an old friend of Philip Roth’ and told Phelps how Roth ‘puts the ms. of his current book in the refrigerator every day—in case of a fire’ (51).

Salter wrote to him, with more than a little urgency, ‘We must catch the train, Robert, we must move, otherwise life takes you, makes you soggy. We’re wearing cheap shoes, we must stay ahead of it’ (53).


So much fascinating, mysterious, stimulating, alluring, irresistible stuff in the world—‘Scrapbooks, footnotes, almanacs, letters, diaries, questionnaires, marginalia, memos, alphabets . . . how I love them’ (38)—to which he brought an insatiable curiosity and in which he took an evident delight: he asks Salter, ‘Did you know that St. Francis of Assisi thought of God “as a melody so sweet it could just be borne”? One of his best friars, Giles, when attacked by theologians, answered their arguments on the flute’ (111).

Just reminding myself of Phelps and his work has prompted me—wanting more of such melodies—to order two books that I found I didn’t have.

There’s a very fine 2009 piece on Phelps in American Scholar by Michael Dirda (who contributed the ‘Foreword’ to Memorable Days:


[1] Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (1960; revised edition, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984), 477.

[2] Continual Lessons: The Journals of Glenway Wescott, edited by Robert Phelps with Jerry Rosco (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1990), vii.

[3] Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps, edited by John McIntyre (Berkeley, California: Counterpoint, 2010), 71: other page references to this book in parentheses.