Counting cats to get a quorum

Clark-Civilisation Orage-Critic

(Sir Kenneth Clark, Civilisation)

One hundred years ago today, The New Age, under the editorship of A. R. Orage—he preferred a French pronunciation, though his family pronounced it ‘Orridge’ and Violet Hunt said his real name was ‘“Horridge” from Liverpool’—published the third instalment of Ezra Pound’s ‘The Revolt of Intelligence’. ‘The more I see of nations the more I loathe them’, Pound wrote, ‘the more I learn of civilisation the more I desire that it exist and that such scraps of it as we have should be preserved for us and for our successors.’ And he added: ‘I do not expect the electorate either in England or America to begin instanter the quest of quality in their chosen representatives.’[1]

Civilisation. The state of being civilised, my dictionary says, helpfully. Culture; cultural condition or complex. And civilise? To reclaim from barbarism; to instruct in arts and refinements.

Kenneth Clark’s series of that name ran for thirteen episodes, fifty years ago. Critics now would focus on its perceived shortcomings: too male, too pale, too European and so on but it was extraordinarily successful and influential in its time. The buildings, the statues, the paintings, a rich, assured historical panorama. Solid?

‘“You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilisation from barbarism’, Lumley says in John Buchan’s The Power-House. ‘“I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass. A touch here, a push there, and you bring back the reign of Saturn.”’[2]

A touch and a push. It’s always been easier to lay waste to things than to build them: every child with toy bricks to play with learns that pretty early. ‘All civilisation has proceeded from cities and cenacles’, Pound wrote. Cenacle: a group or coterie, sometimes applied to the room in which the Last Supper was held. Not a big crowd, for sure.[3] In a 1967 letter to Hugh Kenner from his home in Lexington, Kentucky, Davenport reported a conversation with the classical scholar, Donald Carne-Ross: ‘He calculates civilization as being able to sustain itself among eight people as a minimum. You have to count cats to get a quorum at this outpost.’[4]

With his customary scepticism, the poet and playwright (and farmer and pacifist) Ronald Duncan once wrote: ‘The assiduous cultivation of kitchen-gardens is the only realistic alternative to the singing of Rule Britannia. We cannot have it both ways. Civilisation may have followed the trade-routes, but so did syphilis.’[5]

There is, to be sure, endless room for argument about shades of meaning here, some of them very familiar and longstanding: ‘civilised’, ‘culture’, ‘barbarism’, ‘arts’, though they tend to be largely unexamined by some of the very people up to their necks in the stuff.


(Dorothy Thompson, 1934)

Looking back to the 1930s, Sarah Churchwell cites articles by the journalist Dorothy Thompson when she writes: ‘Hitler came to power “largely because so-called civilized people did not believe that he could”, Thompson warned [Saturday Evening Post, May and June 1933]. The problem was that they complacently assumed that their idea of civilisation was “greatly cherished by all men”, who agreed that their culture, a “complex of prejudices, standards and ideas”, had been “accumulated at the cost of great sacrifice” over centuries.
‘Instead, the intellectual elite needed to understand that “this culture is, actually, to the vast masses no treasure at all, but a burden”. And if economic conditions deteriorated, leaving those people resentful, “hungry and idle”, they would only view such “civilizations as a restraining, impeding force”.
‘At which point, they would identify smashing the system as freedom.’[6]

I set out to cheer myself up and look what happens.


[1] Pound/Lewis: The Letters of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis, edited by Timothy Materer (London: Faber and Faber, 1985), 299; Pound, ‘The Revolt of Intelligence’, III, New Age, XXVI, 7 (18 December, 1919), 106.

[2] Buchan, The Power-House (written and serialised 1913, published in book form 1916; Edinburgh: B&W Publishing, 1993), 38.

[3] Pound, ‘On Criticism in General’, Criterion, I, 2 (January 1923), 143.

[4] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 896.

[5] Ronald Duncan, All Men Are Islands: An Autobiography (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1964), 249.

[6] Sarah Churchwell, Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018), 184.


Raising a glass


(A Good Soldier)

Today is the birthday of Humphry Davy (1778), Cornish-born chemist and inventor. He spent the summer of 1805 in the Lake District and climbed Helvellyn with Wordsworth, Southey and Walter Scott., as Richard Holmes relates in The Age of Wonder. ‘They talked of Coleridge, who was still absent somewhere in the Mediterranean, and writing home ever less frequently.’ Davy would later write (Works, I, 220): ‘Our histories of past events are somewhat like the wrecks upon the sea-beach: things are often thrown up because they happen to be light, or because they have been entangled in sea-weed: i.e. facts are preserved which suit the temper or party of a particular historian.’

It’s also the birthday of John Kennedy Toole, author of A Confederacy of Dunces; of the artist Paul Cadmus (of whom Guy Davenport wrote eloquently); and of Penelope Fitzgerald.

On this blog, though, edging ahead even of Fitzgerald, is Ford Madox Ford (1873), to whom a good many friends and acquaintances will be raising a glass today, perhaps remembering John Dowell in The Good Soldier:

‘You may well ask why I write. And yet my reasons are quite many. For it is not unusual in human beings who have witnessed the sack of a city or the falling to pieces of a people, to desire to set down what they have witnessed for the benefit of unknown heirs or of generations infinitely remote; or, if you please, just to get the sight out of their heads.’


Friday the thirteenth


(Alfred Rethel via

Friday the thirteenth, appropriately enough, and a great many people now have precisely the government they deserve. Sadly, the rest of us, who deserved something infinitely better, also have that same government.

At least we are in Bristol where, now that this country is officially a lunatic asylum, we can at least claim to be in a small island or oasis of sanity (four seats: four Labour MPs).

Does this help? Less than you might think. . .

‘With the spectacle of madness before one’s eyes one feels the odds shorten. The eclipse of reason seems such an easy affair, the grasp on sanity so provisional and insecure.’—Lawrence Durrell


Cheerful notes from literary history


(The Ship of State)

The United Kingdom (as it’s currently known) goes to the polls tomorrow and I wish I felt a little more confidence in the British electorate. An astonishing number of people seem willing to ignore the threats to the survival of the National Health Service, working families forced to go to food banks, teachers having to use their own money to buy stationery and food for their pupils, homeless people dying on the streets. The obvious question is: do they not know or do they not care?

Thinking back to the much-quoted comment on the 2016 referendum—that people don’t mind being lied to if they like the lie they’re being told—we’re seeing now, unsurprisingly, the corollary: people do mind being told a truth if they don’t like the truth that’s being told.

In Nick Park’s Wallace & Gromit film, The Wrong Trousers, there’s a police ‘Reward’ poster headed: ‘Have you seen this chicken?’ It’s the criminal penguin in an absurdly obvious red rubber glove doubling as chicken comb. Wallace, never the sharpest tool in the box, exclaims at one point when the penguin has donned the glove: ‘It’s you!’


In Steve Bell’s cartoons of late, Boris Johnson has adopted ‘the scarlet rubber gauntlet of integrity’ and Johnson in person has been no more convincing than the penguin. Yet many have, it seems, chosen to be convinced. There has, of course, been a relentless and sustained media onslaught against Jeremy Corbyn, for several years now, mainly in the trashier Tory papers—Sun, Express, Mail—but with some substantial if less hysterical help from the Times and the Johnson outlet, the Telegraph, collectively representing the Labour leader as a threat to western civilization. But I don’t know – he doesn’t despise ordinary people, doesn’t hide from interviewers or nick their phones and doesn’t lie through his teeth. Is he just too old-fashioned?

Frankly, the Labour manifesto seems to me the only chance our failing country has to reverse its precipitous decline—and if you think their manifesto’s too radical, then it’s just as well I don’t get to enact mine.

11 December. Surely there are some cheerful notes from literary history?

‘On Monday 11 December [1916]’, D. H. Lawrence sensed ‘a terrible wave of depression in Cornwall with people in Penzance market saying England was beaten, as the news came of the fall of Asquith and his replacement by Lloyd George. For Lawrence this was the death-blow to the liberal and decent England he had cared about . . . Now finally the old England was gone, replaced by the “patriotism” of Horatio Bottomley and the demago­guery of Lloyd George.’[1]

(Two years later, Lloyd George was returned to power at the head of a coalition government with 478 ‘Coalition’ MPs, the vast majority of them Conservatives. John Maynard Keynes famously asked ‘a Conservative friend [Stanley Baldwin], who had known previous houses, what he thought of them. “They are a lot of hard-faced men,” he said, “who look as if they had done very well out of the war.”’)[2]

Okay, try another one. In his essay ‘Welsh Poetry’, poet and painter David Jones wrote that, ‘In the Brenhinedd y Saeson, “The Kings of the English”, which is a Welsh version of a Latin chronicle, the scribe, in an entry for 11th December 1282, after noting that the Lord Llywelyn had been killed on that day, adds these significant words” Ac yna i bwriwyd holl Gymry y’r llawr, And then was cast down all Wales, to the ground.’[3]


Perhaps not that one either. Wait, though, tomorrow—Election Day—is the birthday of Edvard Munch, painter best-known for, ah, The Scream (several versions). So that’s encouraging.




[1] Mark Kinkead-Weekes, D. H, Lawrence: Triumph to Exile, 1912-1922 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 345.

[2] John Maynard Keynes. The Economic Consequences of the Peace (London: Macmillan, 1919), 133.

[3] David Jones, Epoch and Artist: Selected Writings (London: Faber, 1973), 61.


Bowling googlies


Third test at Headingley, 1981: Willis bowling
(Photograph:  Colorsport/Rex/Shutterstock via The Guardian)

Bob Willis died a few days ago. Famous English fast bowler. Headingley 1981. 130. 18 runs. 8 for 43. Pretty arcane stuff for those who never follow test cricket, as a lot more people did in the days when it was on the BBC rather than tucked away on commercial channels. For those who did—probably those of a certain age—those figures are as instantly evocative as, say, the opening seconds of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. And, in all likelihood, many of them watched a video of the highlights of that famous day and the narrow victory that seemed impossible until Willis blew the Australian batsmen away. A devoted follower of Bob Dylan, he added the name to his own by deed poll—becoming Robert George Dylan Willis—a craziness I could relate to, having been guilty myself of inflicting thunderous versions of ‘Tombstone Blues’ on drinkers in an upstairs bar and roaring ‘House of the Rising Sun’ into the microphone of a reel-to-reel tape recorder on the bare floorboards of somebody’s upstairs room – not the true original, rather the arrangement that Dylan had ‘borrowed’ from Dave Van Ronk.

So, after playing my part in a highly un-Darwinian scenario, that is, sitting on the step at the back door, gripping the cat tightly with both hands, saying ‘Drop it, Harry! Drop it! Drop the damned mouse, Harry!’ until he tired of growling at me, slackened his hold and watched Robert Burns’ wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie scurry off to the neighbour’s fence—survival of the weakest—after playing that part, I say, I turned on my computer and watched Willis play his own rather more heroic part on that far-off day made vibrantly present again, his odd, angled, jerky run-up, the tumbling wickets, Willis hardly reacting much of the time, fiercely concentrated, always reaching for the second sleeveless sweater while another batsman trudged back to the pavilion.


There have been a few famous cricketing writers—Conan Doyle, Harold Pinter, A. A Milne, P. G. Wodehouse, Siegfried Sassoon and, most notably, Samuel Beckett. And cricketing references often occur as indications of a certain kind or class of Englishness. Henry Green’s sly humour has one of his characters, Alexander, in a fogbound London, ‘bowling along in his taxi the length of cricket pitches at a time, from block to block, one red light to another, or shimmering policemen dressed in rubber.’[1]

I don’t recall Lawrence Durrell particularly as a cricketer—he’d done a bit of boxing, I believe—but a 1958 essay, ‘Old Mathieu’, bristles with cricketing references. ‘He utters the words with the hangdog air of a cricketer who might say: “We have been forced to invite three American baseball players to join the Test team!”’ Durrell wrote. And, ‘Talking of [wine] he sounds rather like old Wilfred Rhodes discussing famous spin-bowlers of the past.’ Then: ‘On his lips the famous names sound full of the regional poetry of old county regiments or county cricket teams decimated in a year of bitter crisis.’ Near the close: ‘It is not unlike a spell at the nets under an exacting yet patient coach.’ And: ‘(I am reminded of a difficult shot to cover-point – or of a glide through the slips.)’[2] Or was that an outside edge, Larry?

Ford Madox Ford employs cricketing references several times in Parade’s End, as he does in No Enemy, which has a chapter, ‘A Cricket Match’, also included in the original French, ‘Une Partie de Cricket’, as ‘Envoi’.[3] In Ancient Lights, he straight facedly asserts that writers in England, being ‘well aware that they are not regarded as gentlemen’, all ‘desire to be something else as well. Sometimes, anxious to assert their manhood, they cultivate small holdings, sail the seas, hire out fishing boats, travel in caravans, engage in county cricket or become justices of the peace.’[4]

But perhaps his most extended engagement with the subject occurs in a late work, Great Trade Route, where he recalls his visit to the United States thirty years before, and tells the story of Philadelphia’s cricket team, claiming that he met a young man in 1906 who ‘introduced into the English game’ the googly. In a footnote he mentions that ‘the patient and omniscient gentleman who reads my proofs’ has pointed out to Ford that the googly was invented by an Englishman named Bosanquet. Ford assures him that he’s not forgotten Bosanquet but insists that in late 1906 his friend ‘bowled to me in the nets for a quarter of an hour or so balls that broke back both in the air and on the ground and that I found absolutely unplayable. His fellow cricketers who were more used to them played them more easily. They were there called “googlies.”’ His friend afterwards went with a cricket team to England and, Ford says, ‘it certainly seems to me that it was after 1907 that Bosanquet distinguished himself with the googly’.[5]


(Bernard Bosanquet: Photograph by George Beldam, 1905)

Well now. Philadelphia certainly did have a good cricket team, which declined as baseball became the country’s dominant sport. Ford was indeed in Philadelphia in 1906 and a team from there did visit England: the third and final tour was in 1908. Bernard Bosanquet actually captained a team that visited Philadelphia in 1901 and it was during the previous English season that he first used the googly in a first-class match. Around 1903, the delivery he’s now famous for became more widely known as ‘a googly’. So Ford’s chronology is a little out while his statement that cricket was dying in England at the time is puzzling. Hayward, Hirst, Hobbs, Woolley: the period up to the First World War is sometime termed the golden age of cricket. And in 1906, when Ford was in the United States, his beloved Kent had actually just won the county championship for the first time.

In ‘Jane Austen Bowls a Googly: The Juvenilia’, the eminent Ford Madox Ford critic, Joseph Wiesenfarth, whose other areas of expertise include the nineteenth-century novel, particularly the work of George Eliot and Jane Austen, begins: ‘To “bowl a googly” is a term from cricket that means to catch a batsman off guard by throwing a very tricky pitch. Idiomatically and figuratively, it means to catch someone unawares with something unexpected.’


Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) by Isobel McArthur (after Jane Austen)

A fine essay, well worth seeking out – still, I pause briefly over that strikingly American construction, ‘throwing a very tricky pitch’: even my minimal knowledge of baseball is enough to locate such terms in that lexicon, rather than a cricketing one. Cricket has bowlers rather than pitchers; and in a cricketing context, the word ‘throwing’ is treated with great wariness, having been central to several long running ‘chucking’ controversies in the past (Griffin, Meckiff, Griffith, Muralitharan). More to the point—and this applies to Ford as well—a googly is not just ‘tricky’. It’s a trickster, an illusion, a feint, a sleight-of-hand. It has had, for most of its life, a very specific meaning: a ball delivered with an apparent leg-break action but behaving as an off-break when it touches the ground, that is, it spins in one direction while the manner of its delivery had led the batsman to believe that it will spin in precisely the opposite direction.

Wiesenfarth cites Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader—in which the British monarch has gone off-piste to the extent of reading novels and wanting to discuss them with other people—before moving on to Austen: ‘When the author of six classic novels of manners takes to getting some people drunk and throwing others out of windows, we could say that Jane Austen bowls us a googly.’[6] We could. And yes, in that sense, we might well make a case for Ford bowling his readers a googly in the process of telling us the story of the googly’s invention, his sprightly version of the googly origin myth.




[1] Henry Green, Party Going (1939), in Loving, Living, Party Going (London: Vintage, 2005), 401.

[2] Lawrence Durrell, ‘Old Mathieu’, in Spirit of Place: Mediterranean Writings, edited by Alan G. Thomas (1969; London : Faber and Faber, 1988), 365-368.

[3] First published in Bibliotheque universelle et revue suisse, 85 (January 1917), 117-126: Max Saunders, ‘Ford Madox Ford: Further Bibliographies’, English Literature in Transition 1880-1920, 43:2 (2000), 155.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911), 110.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Great Trade Route (London: Allen & Unwin, 1937), 246-249.

[6] Joseph Wiesenfarth, ‘Jane Austen Bowls a Googly: The Juvenilia’, Style, 51,1 (2017), 1-16 (quotations from first couple of pages).



Exemplars, anthropology, writing selves


Sitting at the kitchen table with the recent Library of America collection of Joan Didion’s early books, I can hear the Librarian upstairs in vigorous dialogue with the radio. Is it politicians or another helping of vox populi snippets? It’s not easy to say which is more thoroughly depressing these days.

It’s not been a cheering week generally: adding to the university staff strike and the gloom of a general election campaign that’s demeaning to us all came the deaths of Clive James and Jonathan Miller – as one of the contributors to the ‘Letters’ page remarked, ‘just when we’re most in need of an increase in the gross national IQ, we get a drastic reduction.’

(Jonathan Miller via The Independent; Clive James via The Financial Times)

On the plus side, not unusually, Guy Davenport – it was his birthday on 23 November (1927-2005); sitting in a rented house on the South coast, I’d just finished re-reading his second collection of essays, Every Force Evolves a Form; and, to complete the trinity, I also read Greg Gerke’s splendid short essay, ‘Davenport as Exemplar’.

Quoting Davenport’s foreword to The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art—‘I am not writing for scholars or fellow critics, but for people who like to read, to look at pictures, and to know things’—Gerke writes: ‘I’d always wanted to come at art in a vital Davenportian way, which is to say not with pompous stridency—declaiming for my own notoriety, using Hegel and Derrida as petards to enjoyment—but in a cogent, stylistic manner for the aforementioned “people who like to read.”’ He mentions other critics from whom he has learned—William Gass, Hugh Kenner, Elizabeth Hardwick, Susan Sontag, Cynthia Ozick—and notes that, ‘Though Davenport’s style is not the closest to mine, he is probably the most inimitable, and maybe the most angry’, the three notable forerunners of such literate anger being Blake, Ruskin and Ezra Pound, all of them of central concern to Davenport. Gerke goes on to explore the relationship between the writing self and the ‘superficial’ self, Proust’s ‘self that frequents the world’, a relationship that inhabits, implicitly or explicitly, many of the essays collected in his recent See What I See.*

(* ‘Davenport as Exemplar’ is available here:
See What I See collects thirty-one essays on literature, cinema and the writing life); also recommended is Especially the Bad Things (Gerke’s short fiction). Both have just been published by Birmingham-based Splice: )

A few days ago, it was the birthday of Claude Levi-Strauss—he died in 2009, aged one hundred—whose work I know rather patchily and, frankly, can’t be sure of how much I absorbed from ‘The Champollion of Table Manners’, an essay by Davenport which is by way of being a review of The Origin of Table Manners: Introduction to a Science of Mythology: 3.

Davenport wrote another essay called ‘The Anthropology of Table Manners from Geophagy Onward’, a far more personal take on the subject – within the very definite autobiographical limits that Davenport allows, agreeing with Menander that ‘Talking about oneself [ . . . ] is a feast that starves the guest’ (a reference that Gerke instances in the essay mentioned above). Briefly citing both Davenport essays, Adam Mars-Jones remarked (‘Introversion Has Its Limits’, London Review of Books, 8 March 2018), ‘Shockingly, there is no overlap between them, though cannibalising your own material is generally regarded as anthropophagy at its most respectable.’


‘The Anthropology of Table Manners’ seems saturated with Lévi-Strauss, though it never mentions his name, and The Geography of the Imagination, in which it is collected, preceded Every Force Evolves a Form by several years. The original journal publication of the two essays, though, reverses the volume order, so the reading for the review did indeed underlie ‘The Anthropology of Table Manners’, one of Davenport’s funniest essays (and he can be extremely funny). ‘He is not an easy writer’, he concludes his review. ‘The Elementary Structure of Kinship is one of the most difficult books ever. The Savage Mind is, in its charming way, almost as difficult. The four volumes of the Mythologies require dedication and stamina to read all 2,500 pages. Yet he has never written an uninteresting sentence.’ And when he asserts that Lévi-Strauss ‘is, to my knowledge, the best and most diligent interpreter of our time’, that knowledge very probably incorporated a great deal, if not all, of Lévi-Strauss’s oeuvre. In 1978, he referred, in a letter to Hugh Kenner, to Lévi-Strauss’s Totemism, translated by Davenport’s friend from Merton College, Oxford days, Rodney Needham, and with an introduction by Roger Poole, the Virginia Woolf and Kierkegaard scholar who later wrote on Ford Madox Ford and became a hugely valued member of the Ford community.


The day moves on from radio to housework, yoga, cooking. Over coffee, I turn to another page of the Joan Didion volume, the opening of her third novel, A Book of Common Prayer: ‘I am an anthropologist who lost faith in her own method, who stopped believing that observable activity defined anthropos. I studied under Kroeber at California and worked with Lévi-Strauss at São Paulo’.

As for what Gerke accurately characterises as Davenport’s ‘very poetic, crisp style—the long pungent sentences are masked by short pugilistic ones’, so many of those sentences stick in the mind, my mind, some consoling, some vertiginously relevant to the present, even if shaped thirty or more years ago.

‘If the past is prologue, it is also a record of grievances to call up and enlist as excuses. All you need is rhetorical talent and a gift for rationalizing.’ Or try: ‘Words are tyrants more powerful than any Caesar. When they are lies, they are devils.’ In one of his most memorable pieces, ‘On Reading’, he writes: ‘We can evince any number of undeniable beliefs—an informed society cannot be enslaved by ideologies and fanaticism, a cooperative pluralistic society must necessarily be conversant with the human record in books of all kinds, and so on—but we will always return to the private and inviolable act of reading as our culture’s way of developing an individual.’ I also pause over ‘Every epoch chooses its own past and cannot know how it will be remembered’; on ‘The uncritical mind is a prey to credulity, and without skepticism there can be no democracy’; and close with ‘Where language has torn the world to pieces, the writer can put it back together.’

More than ever, clearly, the writers have a great deal of work to do.

Camelot and St Cecilia


You don’t need an alarm clock in a pitch-dark Dorset bedroom if you can draw on the services of a cat with breakfast on his mind. Tucked away a little here but fifteen minutes’ walk brings you down to the sea, dead calm early in the week, less so later.

A little under seventy miles across the English Channel is Alderney, in the Bailiwick of Guernsey. The northernmost of the Channel Islands, it was the home from 1946 of T. H. White, author of The Goshawk and The Once and Future King, plus more than twenty other books, even though he died at the age of fifty-seven.

From 3 Connaught Square, Alderney, on 22 November 1950, White wrote to his friend David Garnett: ‘The reason why I am sober is that last Friday the 1st lieutenant of our local submarine threw me out of a window while we were amiably conversing about ju-jitsu. He did not mean any harm, and in fact has done nothing but good, as I fell on my head. It has altered something inside. I was unconscious for hours.’[1]



(T. H. White)

My Fridays are not like that – though I’m not a total stranger to ‘amiably conversing’. Garnett was a friend of long standing and plays a large part in the biography of White by Sylvia Townsend Warner, also a friend of Garnett. In 1949, a man called Wren Howard of Jonathan Cape visited White and, feeling a bulky object under the settee cushion on which he was sitting, extracted the typescript of The Goshawk, a record of White’s attempt to train a hawk in the mid-1930s. Howard read it, took it back to London and wanted Cape to publish it. White was reluctant; Garnett then read it and agreed that it should be published, whereupon White wrote to Howard: ‘If Bunny Garnett says that the Hawk book is really good, I will consent to publishing. I have not read it since I wrote it, long before the war.’[2]


(David ‘Bunny’ Garnett)

White and his Hawk book are a major thread running through Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. She refers to the period in which White drafted the book, the collective impulse to recover and draw upon England’s history and domestic culture. ‘It was a movement that celebrated ancient sites and folk traditions. It delighted in Shakespeare and Chaucer, in Druids, in Arthurian legend. It believed that something essential about the nation had been lost and could be returned, if only in the imagination. White, caught up on this conservative, antiquarian mood, walked with his hawk and wrote of ghosts, of starry Orion naked and resplendent in the English sky, of all the imaginary lines men and time had drawn upon the landscape. By the fire, his hawk by his side, he brooded on the fate of nations.’[3]


(Richard Burton and Julie Andrews in Camelot: Wikipedia Commons)

The fate of nations. White’s Arthurian stories reminded me of the Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe musical based on them, Camelot, directed by Moss Hart and hugely successful on Broadway, starring Richard Burton and Julie Andrews. In turn, ‘Camelot’ became inextricable from the administration of John F. Kennedy, following Jackie Kennedy’s 1963 Life interview, when she quoted lyrics from the Lerner-Loewe production. And today is, of course, the 56th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, the day on which Aldous Huxley and C. S. Lewis both died too, though a little overshadowed then by events in Dallas. Just thirty years later, it was Anthony Burgess’s turn (he was born in the same year as Kennedy).

It’s also Saint Cecilia’s Day, she being the patron saint of musicians. On 25 July 1914, in his regular column in Outlook, Ford Madox Ford quoted John Dryden’s ‘Less than a god they said there could not dwell…’[4]
This is from the third stanza of ‘Song for St Cecilia’s Day, 1687’:

What passion cannot Music raise and quell?
When Jubal struck the chorded shell
His listening brethren stood around,
And, wondering, on their faces fell
To worship that celestial sound.
Less than a god they thought there could not dwell
Within the hollow of that shell
That spoke so sweetly and so well.
What passion cannot Music raise and quell?

Woodville, Richard Caton, 1856-1927; Marshal Ney at Eylau

(Richard Caton Woodville, Marshal Ney at Eylau: Tate)

In 1928, Ford would publish a novel called A Little Less Than Gods, about Marshal Ney and Napoleon’s hundred days, its writing intimately involved with the history of the Ford–Joseph Conrad relationship. The Dryden poem is quoted, or rather, slightly misquoted, in Chapter V.[5] In his final book, The March of Literature, Ford quoted the whole stanza and commented that, for him, it was ‘the most pleasurable verse in all English poetry’, adding: ‘It further confirms our argument that English poetry depends upon music and died when music died in England.’[6]

That’s a nice example of the Ford who so admired the ‘sweeping dicta’ of his friend Arthur Marwood, partial model for Christopher Tietjens in Parade’s End. And T. H. White was not immune to the habit, writing in 1950:

‘I believe that the peak of British culture was reached in the latter years of George III: that the rot began to set in with the “Romantics”: that the apparent prosperity of Victoria’s reign was autumnal, not vernal: and that now we are done for.’[7]

Hmm. . . ‘now we are done for’. Still, make a note of that. Just in case.


[1] David Garnett, editor, The White/Garnett Letters (London: Jonathan Cape, 1968), 246.

[2] Sylvia Townsend Warner, T. H. White: A Biography (New York: Viking, 1968), 243.

[3] Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (London: Jonathan Cape, 2014), 104.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, ‘Literary Portraits—XLVI. Professor Cowl and “The Theory of Poetry in England”’, Outlook, XXXIV (25 July, 1914), 110.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, A Little Less Than Gods (London: Duckworth, 1928), 108.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, The March of Literature: From Confucius to Modern Times (London: Allen & Unwin, 1939), 605.

[7] T. H. White, The Age of Scandal (1950; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2000), 17.