A vast quantity of letters (and a counting pony)

(D. H. Lawrence/ Nancy Mitford: both © National Portrait Gallery)

In a letter partly about letters, Nancy Mitford wrote to Hamish Erskine on 24 October 1932: ‘The others have all gone off to a circus but I remain here by the fire & with D. H. Lawrence’s letters. Terrible to have reached an age (or a stage) when one would rather hear about a pony counting to 9 with its foot than bother to go & see it do so. Lawrence’s letters are terrifying – would you read them if I sent them to you? But they must be read – all & carefully or no use & there is a vast quantity of them.’ Mitford added a postscript: ‘The children are back – the pony counted to 20 AND LAUGHED OUT LOUD. Well well.’[1]

That selection of Lawrence’s letters, edited by Aldous Huxley, had appeared the previous month and was reprinted before the end of the year. It was certainly a hefty volume, coming in at almost 900 pages, though Mitford’s ‘vast quantity’ would be thrust into sharp perspective fifty years on by the Cambridge edition of the letters, which increased Huxley’s 790 items by a factor of more than 7, added invaluable annotations and restored the excisions which Huxley had made—‘cutting out feeling-hurting passages, uninteresting bits and things which are repeated in several letters to different people . . . tho’ it’s often worth keeping repetitions because of the subtle variations’.[2] Understandably, he felt he needed to tread a little warily since his edition was appearing only two years after Lawrence’s death at the early age of 44. Huxley had first proposed to Frieda Lawrence that they produce a memorial volume, ‘reminiscences by various people interspersed with Lawrence’s own letters’, offering (‘this goes without saying’) to do whatever work was involved for nothing. But the idea ‘petered out’.[3]

Lawrence and Huxley had met in 1915, apparently at the home of Lady Ottoline Morrell. She suggested to Lawrence that the two of them should get to know one another and Lawrence wrote to Huxley a week or so later, inviting him to tea.[4] They met again in the mid-1920s and Huxley was very important to the Lawrences in the last years of Lawrence’s life.[5]

If, like Orwell, Huxley was not a great novelist—Brave New World and Island, like Animal Farm and 1984, tend to be viewed as fables or satires rather than ‘straight’ novels—he was certainly a significant writer and an extraordinarily interesting figure: Sybille Bedford’s great affection for him is made wholly understandable in her biography of him. 

A year into the First World War—he was then 21—Huxley wrote a letter to a family friend of the Huxleys, the concert violinist Jelly d’Aranyi: ‘This war impresses on me more than ever the fact that friendship, love, whatever you like to call it is the only reality.’ He went on: ‘You never knew my mother—I wish you had because she was a very wonderful woman’ (Julia Huxley had died in 1908). ‘I have just been reading again what she wrote to me just before she died. The last words of her letter were “Dont be too critical of other people and ‘love much’”–and I have come to see more and more how wise that advice was. It’s a warning against a rather conceited and selfish fault of my own and it’s a whole philosophy of life.’[6]

Certainly, that advice—if not always easy to follow—is, yes, not bad. Really not bad at all.


[1] The Letters of Diana Mitford, edited by Charlotte Mosley (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993), 51. To a Guy Davenport reader, the counting pony can only recall the typing dog that caused the Stan Brakhage–Joseph Cornell contretemps: see ‘Pergolesi’s Dog’ in Davenport’s Every Force Evolves a Form (Berkeley: North Point Press, 1987), 144-146.

[2] To Dorothy Brett, 10 March 1931: Letters of Aldous Huxley, edited by Grover Smith (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969), 346-347.

[3] Sybille Bedford, Aldous Huxley: A Biography (London: Pan Macmillan, 1993), 235.

[4] Letters of D. H. Lawrence II, June 1913–October 1916, edited by George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 452, n.2  and 467-468.

[5] David Ellis, D. H. Lawrence: Dying Game, 1922-1930 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 312, and later instances indexed.

[6] Huxley, Letters, 83.

Zounds and scars and other niceties

‘During the endless hours flat on your back’, Ernst Jünger wrote in his famous memoir  of the Great War, ‘you try to distract yourself, to pass the time; once, I reckoned up my wounds. Leaving out trifles such as ricochets and grazes, I was hit at least fourteen times, these being five bullets, two shell splinters, one shrapnel ball, four hand-grenade splinters and two bullet splinters, which, with entry and exit wounds, left me an even twenty scars.’[1]

Virginia Woolf’s Mr Oliver (‘of the Indian Civil Service, retired’) refers to the nearby Roman road: ‘From an aeroplane, he said, you could still see, plainly marked, the scars made by the Britons; by the Romans; by the Elizabethan manor house; and by the plough, when they ploughed the hill to grow wheat in the Napoleonic wars.’[2]

Scars on the body, scars on the land. The wounds are not always visible. In 1944, the poet Keith Douglas died soon after the Normandy landings. Drawing on an unpublished memoir by one of his fellow-officers, his biographer Desmond Graham wrote that Douglas ‘had climbed from his tank to make his report, when the mortar fire started. As he ran along the ditch one of the shells exploded in a tree above him. He must have been hit by a tiny fragment, for although no mark was found on his body, he was instantly killed.’[3] There was a story of Edward Thomas being killed at Arras by the force of a shell-blast that left no mark upon his body: this is discussed and definitively contradicted by his most recent biographer.[4]

‘Zounds’, Philip the Bastard says in Shakespeare’s King John. ‘’Swounds’, he has Prince Hamlet say. These, both standing in for ‘God’s wounds’, are examples of what Geoffrey Hughes called ‘Elizabethan minced oaths’, abbreviations and euphemisms in response to ‘Puritan injunctions against Profanity on the Stage’. Shakespeare himself enlarged the repertoire to blood and eyelid (‘’sblood’ and ‘’slid’).[5]

(Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, 1899)

It’s hardly comparable to war or deities but ageing certainly inflicts wounds of various kinds. Not everyone is as cavalier as me with knives in the kitchen but what is most noticeable is the body’s increasing slowness to heal. So many nicks and cuts and gashes, though: Doctor Freud would have a field day with me unless, perhaps, one can merely be clumsy in certain contexts.

Literature would hardly be content with marks upon the body, certainly not only those. ‘Language is what eases the pain of living with other people’, Anne Carson writes, before adding sharply: ‘language is what makes the wounds come open again.’[6] Colette wrote of a character she named Charlotte: ‘Her presence lured other ephemera from the depths of my memory, phantoms I seem always to be losing and finding again, restless ghosts unrecovered from wounds sustained in the past when they crashed headlong or sidelong against that barrier reef’.[7] In Sarah Hall’s novel The Wolf Border, Rachel, having just given birth, is impatient for contact with her baby and with the ministrations of the surgeons and the midwife. ‘There seems no need for anything else now. There is no wound. The only wound is life, recklessly creating it, knowing that it will never be safe, it will never last; it will only ever be real.’[8]

(Via BBC)

One of the most alarming wounds is mentioned by E. P. Thompson, when recounting the history of ‘Governor’ Thomas Pitt, of Swallowfield (1653-1726), grandfather of the rather more famous William Pitt. He bought up Old Sarum, famous rotten borough, after his return from East Indian buccaneering (trading outside the East India Company’s monopoly), did a deal with the Company, made even more money in India, became Governor of Madras, ‘and acquired, for some £20,000, a monstrous diamond weighing 410 carats, which had been smuggled from the mines hidden in the wounds in a slave’s leg’.[9]

A nice image to close on. My thumb—courtesy of the sharp lid of an opened tin lurking in the sink—is doing just fine at its own leisurely pace. No sign of any gems there, not the merest sparkle.


[1] Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel, translated by Michael Hofmann (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004), 288.

[2] Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts (1941; edited with an introduction by Frank Kermode, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 3-4.

[3] Desmond Graham, Keith Douglas, 1920-1944: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), 256.

[4] Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Edward Thomas: From Adlestrop to Arras (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 412-413.

[5] Geoffrey Hughes, Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English (London: Penguin Books, 1998), 18, 104.

[6] Anne Carson, ‘Just for the Thrill: An Essay on the Difference Between Women and Men’, in Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (New York: Vintage, 2000), 232.

[7] The Pure and the Impure (translated by Herma Briffault; 1962; Penguin Books, 1971), 26.

[8] Sarah Hall, The Wolf Border (London: Faber 2015), 254.

[9] E. P. Thompson, Whigs and Hunters (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 110

Blitz Writing

Memories—or stories, or myths—of the Blitz have surfaced several times of late, a comparison that doesn’t really fit, as has often been pointed out, but perhaps understandable during that very brief period earlier this year when there was a widespread sense of something affecting or afflicting the entire nation, a sense too of a collective effort and responsibility.

There are, though, a couple of genuine points of comparison: the Blitz is usually defined as having lasted around eight months, during which time nearly 30,000 people were killed and around 25,000 wounded. Covid-19 in its British context has lasted around that long so far; and the excess deaths attributed to it are pretty close to the entire casualty figures from the Blitz.

‘Blitz writing’ is a fairly crowded field, with some eminent names—depending on your definition of the term—ranging from Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Henry Green, Patrick Hamilton, William Sansom and H. D. to Evelyn Waugh, E. M. Forster, James Hanley, Mollie Panter-Downes, Vera Brittain and Virginia Woolf, producing poetry, essays, letters, fiction and diaries.

I’ve been reading a book that offers examples of those last two, and with precisely that title: Blitz Writing: Night Shift & It Was Different at the Time by Inez Holden, edited by Kristin Bluemel and published by Kate Macdonald’s excellent Handheld Press

The second part is drawn from Holden’s diaries, evidently selected and edited with great care, part of a project originally intended to be shared with George Orwell, with whom she had a close relationship. The first is a short novel about the workers at an aircraft factory over six nights, both men and women of various ages, classes and backgrounds. Its title recalled for me the first published writing of one of my admired authors, Sylvia Townsend Warner, ‘Behind the Firing Line’ by ‘A Lady Worker’, an account of her wartime work in a munitions factory, which appeared in February 1916.[1] Warner published quite a few stories set during the Second World War but their landscape was the towns and villages of the southern counties of England rather than London or any other major city.[2]

Inez Holden came from a wealthy upper-class background; her friends included H. G. Wells, Anthony Powell and Stevie Smith (both Powell and Smith based fictional characters on her) and she partied with such luminaries as Cecil Beaton, Stephen Tennant, Tallulah Bankhead and Harold Acton. Holden’s first novel, Sweet Charlatan, appeared in 1929, the same year as Living, a novel focused on the workers in a Birmingham factory, by Henry Green—also from an upper-class background. Green’s novel was more obviously adventurous stylistically—he eliminated definite articles, for instance—and was a peacetime work. Written during the war and centrally concerned with it, particularly the period of the Blitz, Holden’s focus was also predominantly on working-class life. By the ‘mid-to-late thirties’, Kristin Bluemel writes in her informative introduction, Holden ‘identified herself as an anti-Communist socialist’ (xv), a position clearly comparable to Orwell’s own.

(The Impersonation Party, 1927: Holden second from right in striped top)

‘More obviously adventurous stylistically’ Green’s novel may have been but, while Holden’s novel seems aligned with the ‘seemingly objective, truth-telling stance associated with 1930s documentary fiction’ (xviii), recalling in this the famous assertion on the first page of Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin (1939)—‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking’—it’s very written, with some sly and subtle touches, some noticeable idiosyncrasies, such as her avoidance of comparative terms—opting for ‘more happy’ rather than ‘happier’, ‘more clear’ rather than ‘clearer’—as well as supple shifts into other registers and varied narratorial angles.

The novel opens with the heading ‘Monday’ and the injunction: ‘Follow me’, though the words are spoken by Sid, the second-in-charge of the night shift. Nevertheless, we follow. Ten lines in, the ‘I’ of the narrator first appears. The character called ‘Feather’ can reasonably be seen as a projection of Holden’s own social background or may, rather, be split between the two. Much of the time ‘I’ adheres to what she could plausibly hear and see – but not consistently: ‘Feather remembered the time’ and ‘Feather thought’ – though these moments are followed by ‘Feather also said to me’, allowing the inference that she has spoken to the narrator of what she remembered and thought (52). But, on the following page, when a girl called Nan quickly slaps a young Home Guard boy who is lounging around her work bench, ‘Feather, who had happened to look up and see this happen, thought: “She’s like those high-class cricketers who can field and throw back in one movement.”’

The ‘objective’ realist stance allows for perceptive moments that many readers will acknowledge the accuracy of: ‘Sometimes it was like that in the factory. The machinery noise never ceased, but it was the sound of a squeaking boot or a dropped cup, the noise within the noise, the unwarranted attack that was so painful’ (54). Holden also seizes sometimes on surprising metaphors and similes, as when alluding to the foreman jealous of the ease with which Feather and Sid converse: ‘Flash Jim, who now walked away on his work looking as acid as if he had been nourished on vinegar fed to him from the end of a hat pin’ (70). Some observations might well be applied to other ages than her own: there is in the factory ‘a convention against easy heroical talk and pat-off patriotism in the workshop; that way of yapping-out was all right for people who did not work at all, read in the newspapers sitting well back in their arm-chairs and thought, “We are all in it together” because they listened to the radio news four times a day’ (74). Then, too, ‘The few months ago in war-time so soon became “the old days” so that already we looked back on the first months of war as on remote memories of adolescence’ (78). The narrator remarks at one point that: ‘Fatigue had a great strength, perhaps it was stronger than love or hatred, because it could produce a mood which no insults or sorrow could reach’ (82).

(H. F. Davis/ Getty Images/ via The Guardian)

Kristin Bluemel comments (xvii-xviii) on the degree to which Holden listened to the Blitz, how sound connects the chapters of the novel and the use made of individual sounds in the remarkable final chapter: separate and, in context, odd, out of place and doubly memorable. First is the penny whistle, its clear notes heard even amidst ‘the usual orchestra of city bombardment’, played by ‘the street musician who stood, each evening, at the end of the road where the shops started’. He goes on ‘with this work as if the happenings around did not concern him.’ To the narrator, who is on firewatching duty, the whistling takes on ‘an enduring sound like the treble tune of thrush heard through a thunderstorm’ (77). She makes her way towards the area where the factory at which she works is sited and realises that the building has been hit. ‘A small crowd of people were standing in the road watching. This group was like a revue sketch crowd of actors carefully made up to seem absurd’ (82).

Later, as part of the blazing factory collapses, a bird begins to sing. There comes ‘a second sound of falling stones’ and ‘the note of the singing bird became more clear’ (83). The narrator makes her tired way home. ‘I remembered again two clear sounds, the penny whistle at the beginning of the bombardment, the bird singing at the end of it. Between these two sounds there showed a chink of light through which I could see the start of a more hopeful life, a future in which the courage of people could also be used for their greater happiness and well-being’ (85). 

Handheld Press will be publishing another Inez Holden title in March 2021: There’s No Story There: Wartime Writing, 1944-1945. She’s quite a discovery, and I’m glad to have made it – or rather, to have had it made for me.


[1] Partly reprinted as ‘The Night Shift’, in Sylvia Townsend Warner, With the Hunted: Selected Writings, edited by Peter Tolhurst (Norwich: Black Dog Books, 2012), 23-29.

[2] Many of them included in the recently published English Climate: Wartime Stories: https://persephonebooks.co.uk/products/english-climate

‘A Lady Asks Me’

Italian (Venetian) School; Portrait of an Unknown Young Woman; Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/portrait-of-an-unknown-young-woman-189206

‘A Lady asks me’, as Ezra Pound begins Canto 36, borrowing from his own translation of Guido Cavalcanti’s ‘Donna mi prega’, ‘I speak in season’. In fact, here, the season is undeniably autumn – and it’s the Librarian, asking what I’m finding the worst thing about the pandemic – ‘apart, obviously, from huge numbers of people dying’.

I know already that she misses, often very keenly, her library, the beautiful physical space itself and her colleagues—the greetings on a staircase, words exchanged in a corridor, on the phone or round the edge of a door, those brief moments that, tabulated and totalled, make up a significant proportion of any working day, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

For me, though, the shape of the days is much less changed. I read, I write, I walk, I cook, I feed the cat. The things that huge numbers of my fellow-citizens are apparently frantic for don’t really bother me. In another age, we would go to the cinema occasionally and to restaurants a little more often: but a large part of going out to eat—and of being in the cinema—is being able to relax. I certainly couldn’t relax in those settings at the moment, so why would I do it? Going on holiday: yes, but we’d be doing the same things, just in a different setting and at a substantial cost, and the logistics of any such trip make my head hurt. I’d really like to walk by the sea again – but now, as always, I don’t want to do it in the company of several thousand others.

There’s a world out there of worsening political chaos, lethal incompetence, thousands of avoidable deaths (and how many more in the United States, whose president is waging war against his own country); after the schools failures, now the universities fiasco, students imprisoned while administrators rearrange deckchairs on an ever more steeply tilting deck amidst ignorant comments from politicians and tabloid journalists.

Louis MacNeice writes in Autumn Journal:

It is this we learn after so many failures,
The building of castles in sand, of queens in snow,
That we cannot make any corner in life or in life’s beauty,
That no river is a river which does not flow.

Even in lives superficially unchanged or little changed, this has changed. Life at present does not flow. Watching moving water, the fact of it moving becomes less and less its dominant feature; the currents that make our own lives flow are often invisible, unremarked. So perhaps one of the worst things is the simplest. We can go out, we can walk, other people can and do take buses or trains – but never now in an untroubled way, never wholly spontaneous, never unthinking, never without watchfulness, wariness, a readiness to take evasive measures. It’s the old literary metaphor of the poem as a field of action, of moving through hostile territory, always on the qui vive. A potentially productive conceit, you might argue, but probably not how you want to live your – civilian – life.

On this day in 1916, Ford Madox Ford published a piece called ‘Trois Jours de Permission’, about a three-day leave granted to him a little earlier that year, which he spent in Paris, much of it waiting for some grand fromage or other. ‘Yes, one learns to wait’, Ford wrote. ‘The most impatient temperament, somewhere in France, will be strait-waistcoated into inaction, into introspection.’

So here I am, somewhere in England, inactive and introspective, waving goodbye to September – though mentally active and prospective enough to expect little better of October. . .

Intact in the mind

22 September. In 1798—not an uneventful year—Ann Radcliffe wrote of sitting on shipboard, en route from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight: ‘a fine view of the town, the hospital, the forts and harbour, as we sailed out, the sea not rough. Hear the he-hoes of the sailors, afar in the channel, and the boatswain’s shrill whistle.’[1]

I’m reminded that my sister, born in Portsmouth, would have been 75 today, and that I have several images of its harbour, the seafront and yes, the Isle of Wight, fairly secure in my memory, ‘intact in my mind’ as William Maxwell termed it, in a letter to Sylvia Townsend Warner on this day in 1954: ‘Do you know I always believe implicitly in the places you describe as not only existing but being part of your life? Once read about, they remain intact in my mind, and I could move right into any house or piece of property you have ever written about. It occurred to me, on the train this morning, that perhaps you ought to have me insured.’[2]

As for the border between things remembered from ‘life’ and from books, which are a great part of many lives, it’s as porous as most other borders and is becoming more so, and not just for me. Fiction, as generally understood, has entered increasingly into the areas of public life where it’s not been conventionally expected to occur. When political figures don’t know the answer to a question—or do know but don’t want to say—they just make something up and barely bother to hide the fact. More official advice yesterday and today, so many talking or shouting heads buffeted by passing breezes, obviously humming along to a Bob Dylan song, though whether ‘Blowing in the Wind’ or ‘Idiot Wind’ it’s becoming harder to tell.

Now that the Christmas cracker motto ‘Follow the science’ has become visibly more complicated—it always was though it suited some people to pretend otherwise—I imagine we’ll all go on more or less as we were. Those lucky enough to be in a position to choose various degrees of isolation will so choose; those unavoidably more vulnerable will, alas, continue vulnerable; the frankly exploited, yes, the same; those reckless both on their own account and that of others will go on being so.

I’m now sometimes seen in daylight, though still prone to veering off paths and pavements. But we’ve cancelled our holiday in Dorset – and have put in a little extra pasta and a little extra wine ahead of. . . well, fill in your catastrophe of choice here, though ‘catastrophe’ isn’t quite the word. A downward turn, the Greek original says – but we’re well past that. Play some music, phone a friend and buckle up.


[1] Radcliffe’s journal, quoted by Geoffrey Grigson in The English Year: From Diaries and Letters (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 128.

[2] Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 55.

Foxed, boxed

(Via Natural History Museum)

I begin to think that the foxes recognise us – by sight or scent? The second, more likely. At first they would retreat much further along the road that crosses the hill we walk up; now, as we reach that point, we see them sitting or crouching only a few metres from the junction and can almost see the thought bubble that reads: It’s them, walking straight up as usual. No problem.
A morning’s tally of close encounters: three foxes, one white cat—emerging like a ghost from the bushes in the small park—one woman runner and, as we pass the larger park when almost home, a man with two small dogs. On another morning, darker and with a heavy mist, we see no foxes, two cats and five people: not so good. But always the birds: sparrows, certainly, in some of the hedges, and blackbirds, beyond which even my provisional identification skills peter out.
I’ve read, just lately, reflections on several encounters with the wild, by Helen Macdonald, John Burnside and Melissa Harrison, particularly focused on what Harrison, probably in her excellent podcast (https://melissaharrison.co.uk/podcast/) called the ‘I and Thou’ moments, after Martin Buber, the moment of relationship rather than objectification, when the bird, the animal, the forest, even the single tree, looks back at the observer, listens to the listener, in a reciprocal engagement.
Certainly, for me, these near-encounters with the wild—however wild urban foxes are reckoned to be these days—are like a shot into the veins, a thrill along the nerves, a rush of oxygen into flagging lungs. Is it the increasing rarity, the always-attendant sense of what’s being lost, the disorienting nudge out of the circles and boxes and bubbles into which we back ourselves these days, even without pandemics? Hard to say. It could just be the contrast with people, with some people.
National leaders trashing their own countries’ reputations—and often enough trashing  the countries themselves—the lethal incompetence, the undisguised corruption; the sheer impunity, the denial of climate emergency, the barefaced, continuous lying and the blatant contempt for those voters who, quite bafflingly, will vote for them again—or so it seems. To those of us old enough to remember the Thatcher years, Cold Wars, nuclear stand-offs, illegal invasions and the rest, it seems extraordinary to find oneself thinking—and saying—‘It has never been this bad before.’
Ah, well. Winter is coming—as the saying goes.

Travelling light, or dark

(Daumier, Honore; The Heavy Burden; Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-heavy-burden-160162)

I knew a woman called Janet many years back—bookseller, cook—and remember when she gave up smoking. It was, she explained, one less thing to worry about and to have to carry when you left the house. So, keys and money. This was before people pledged undying love to their phones, obviously. Lately, I’ve noticed how little I carry myself these days: the cash in my wallet has been there since March, untouched. I don’t carry a chequebook or cards, and don’t worry about pens or a notebook.

Still walking so early in the morning, there are no shops open yet, and nothing in them that I need, or plan, to buy anyway. I don’t bother with a notebook because I’d barely be able to see to write. My bunch of keys has shrunk even further: office keys a while gone now; and the keys to the house of the Librarian’s parents not needed these last few months since we’ve not gone down to visit them in Somerset, though they’ve visited us.

Travelling light or lighter, though in the near-dark. Not that burdens are always material, of course, and this year has been a heavy, sometimes crushing, one for people to bear. Literary history abounds in things carried, from memories or a sense of guilt to the objects carried according to the scheme, devised by Professors at the School of Languages in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, ‘for entirely abolishing all Words whatsoever’. Words being ‘only’ names for things, ‘it would be more convenient for all men to carry about them such things as were necessary to express a particular business they are to discourse on.’ Gulliver remarks that he has ‘often beheld two of those sages almost sinking under the weight of their packs, like pedlars among us, who, when they met in the street, would lay down their loads, open their sacks, and hold conversation for an hour together; then put up their implements, help each other to resume their burdens, and take their leave.’[1]

(Illustrated by J. G. Thompson: British Library)

From Corfu in 1935, Lawrence Durrell wrote to Alan Thomas: ‘The peasants are incorrigible thieves and liars, but make up for it by having the dandiest arse-action when they walk. This is due to always carrying huge weights on their heads. They’re very saucy and can be persuaded to do almost anything within reason.’[2] ‘Within reason’ is nicely placed.

When Greece’s terrible years of invasion and occupation by the Nazis were beginning, Mark Mazower relates, the Chief of Police in Mytilene, Nikolaos Katsareas, ‘had a finger in food and fuel rackets, helped “supervise” allocations of flour to the island’s bakers, and finally fled at an opportune moment by caique to the Middle East so weighed down with large quantities of British tinned goods that he had to ask his fellow-passengers to help him carry them on board.’[3]

In Guy Davenport’s story, ‘Mesoroposthonippidon’, he has Diogenes viewing civilization as ‘weightless’, since he carries books in his head. In ‘On Some Lines of Virgil’, though, during the visit to the cave at Pair-non-Pair, Jolivet carries his disabled friend Marc Aurel—who has lost both his legs—on his back: a burden borne  by choice whereas his Uncle Jacques represents, rather, the burden imposed by familial duty.[4]

‘Now we are truly adult, we think, stunned that this is what being adult means’, Natalia Ginzburg wrote in an essay called ‘Human Relations’, ‘nothing at all like what we thought it meant as children, certainly not self-confidence, certainly not a serene mastery over all worldly things. We are adult because we carry with us the mute presence of the dead, from whom we ask counsel in our present actions, from whom we ask forgiveness for past offenses; we’d like to rip away all our past cruelties of word and deed, from the time when we still feared death, but had no idea, couldn’t yet fathom, how irreparable and irremediable death was. We are adult because of all the silent answers, all the silent pardons of the dead that we carry within.’

In another essay, ‘My Craft’, she comments that, ‘When writing a story, you must toss in the best of everything you have seen and possess, the best of everything you’ve gathered throughout your life. Details can dissipate: if they’re carried around for long periods without being used, they wear out. And not only details but everything—ideas, clever turns of phrase.’[5]

(Natalia Ginzburg via Times Literary Supplement)

Tim O’Brien wrote, in The Things They Carried, that, ‘for all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and unknowns, there was at least the single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry.’ He goes on to detail some of those things: ‘They carried their reputations. They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment.’[6]

Often, what we carry is absence, not only the loss of others but of alternative, possible versions of ourselves. Helen Macdonald wrote that: ‘We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all of the lives we have lost.’[7]

Sometimes, in fiction as in life, the burden can be laid down, as with Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes among the ‘innumerable’ cowslips: ‘She knelt down among them and laid her face close to their fragrance. The weight of all her unhappy years seemed for a moment to weigh her bosom down to the earth; she trembled, understanding for the first time how miserable she had been; and in another moment she was released. It was all gone, it could never be again, and never had been. Tears of thankfulness ran down her face. With every breath she drew, the scent of the cowslips flowed in and absolved her.’[8]

That weight is sometimes an accumulation of light, apparently slight things, as Charles Olson wrote:

Feather to feather added
(and what is mineral, what
is curling hair, the string
you carry in your nervous beak, these

make bulk, these, in the end, are
the sum[9]


[1] Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726; edited by Paul Turner, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 184-185.

[2] Lawrence Durrell, Spirit of Place: Mediterranean Writings, edited by Alan G. Thomas (1969; London : Faber and Faber, 1988), 32.

[3] Mark Mazower, Inside Hitler’s Greece: The Experience of Occupation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 56.

[4] Guy Davenport, Eclogues: Eight Stories (London: Picador, 1984), 110, 117; 176-179.

[5] A Place to Live and Other Selected Essays of Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Lynne Sharon Schwartz (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002), 32, 47.

[6] Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (1990; London: Fourth Estate, 2015), 14, 17-18.

[7] Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (London: Jonathan Cape, 2014), 129.

[8] Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes (1926; London: Virago Press, 1993), 149.

[9] Charles Olson, The Maximus Poems, edited by George F. Butterick (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 5.

Sampling Amanda Cross

Looking for something to read the other day, since I had fewer than a hundred waiting candidates, I was browsing the Librarian’s Virago shelves. I’d looked several times at three mystery novels by Amanda Cross but never to the point of actually reading them. This seemed as if it might be the time.

‘Amanda Cross’ was, in fact, the pseudonym of Carolyn Gold Heilbrun, a professor of literature at Columbia University, where she taught from 1960 to 1992, publishing several volumes of feminist literary criticism and fourteen mystery novels featuring Kate Fansler, an amateur sleuth who is also, curiously enough, a professor of literature at a New York university.

The Amanda Cross books are upbeat, civilized, witty, highly readable – and well-populated with literary references, quotations and allusions. I’m not sure how I resisted for so long the first one I read, given that it’s called The James Joyce Murder. It has a prologue, an epilogue – and fifteen chapters, all with the titles of the stories in Joyce’s Dubliners. The order of her chapters differs from the order of the stories in Joyce’s book but all are used and, often very cleverly, the content of the chapter related to the story which gives it its title. There are also characters in the novel with names familiar to a reader of Joyce (in addition to Grace and Eveline): Kate, Molly, Lenehan, Mulligan, Eugene Stratton.

In the last one I read, A Death in the Faculty (1981), which centres on the first appointment of a woman to a tenured position in the Harvard English department—as, I gather, Heilbrun was the first woman to receive tenure in Columbia’s English department—Kate Fansler, while listening to the speeches by graduating students, recalls an event she has read about that took place at the Commencement of 1969. A law student had ‘begun his speech with a call to law and order: “The streets of our country are in turmoil. The universities are filled with students rebelling and rioting. Communists are seeking to destroy our country. Russia is threatening us with her might. And the republic is in danger. Yes, danger from within and without. We need law and order! Without law and order our nation cannot survive!”’ From the audience there is ‘wild applause’, after which the student continues: ‘“Those words were spoken in 1932 by Adolf Hitler.”’ The writer adds: ‘Kate would have given a great deal to have heard the silence that followed.’

Fifty years on from that address, it doesn’t take much effort to see the same tactics employed by Hitler still being used, most obviously and unashamedly in the United States. Still, even here, those Londoners with just a smattering of historical knowledge or, in some cases, long memories, who had thought their streets were cleared of fascists many years ago, have recently discovered that this is not in fact the case.

‘Inversions of phrase’

(Thomas Hardy, 1899)

It being August, and some nights seeming unusually long, I was reminded of the short Thomas Hardy poem, ‘An August Midnight’, written at Max Gate in 1899.[1]

A shaded lamp and a waving blind,
And the beat of a clock from a distant floor:
On this scene enter—winged, horned, and spined—
A longlegs, a moth, and a dumbledore;
While ’mid my page there idly stands
A sleepy fly, that rubs its hands… 

Thus meet we five, in this still place,
At this point of time, at this point in space.
— My guests besmear my new-penned line,
Or bang at the lamp and fall supine.
“God’s humblest, they!” I muse. Yet why?
They know Earth-secrets that know not I.

Only twelve lines, seemingly simple enough, but not without interest. A small drama, which ‘this scene’ emphasises. Four indefinite articles in the first two lines – and one definite article, tied to the word ‘beat’, in the most strongly stressed line of the poem, because of those two strategic monosyllables, ‘beat’ and ‘clock’. ‘Dumbledore’ might momentarily trip up the Harry Potter generation; and commentators on the poem don’t always agree: is it a bumblebee or a cockchafer – or cockchafter? F. B. Pinion says bumblebee, Claire Tomalin says ‘a cockchafter or maybug’.[2]

(Cockchafer via http://www.newforestexplorersguide.co.uk/)

I pause on ‘Thus meet we five’, partly because of the implied equalising of the lives involved here, partly because of the inversion of natural word order and partly because of the number in this context. One of the mystic numbers, as Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable explains, the pentad ‘being the sum of 2 and 3, the first even and first odd compound. Unity is God alone, i.e. without creation. Two is diversity, and three (being 1 and 2) is the compound of unity and diversity, or the two principles in operation since creation, and representing all the powers of nature.’

The conjunctions of ‘still’ and ‘point’ (and time and space) prompt a forward glance to T. S. Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’: ‘At the still point of the turning world’ and:

Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.

‘I muse’ is another of these teasing touches, Hardy being his own muse, providing context, content, then text himself, from the materials in his immediate vicinity, the subjects of his poem entering the poet’s territory, the page, physically—‘My guests besmear my new-penned line’—as well as in the mind and memory. Tomalin comments on Hardy’s ‘appreciation that life is lived on different scales’, that the poem ‘shows him at his most tender, at ease in what still sometimes seemed to him to be God’s creation’.

The poem ends: ‘They know Earth-secrets that know not I.’ Pinion remarks that: ‘The inversion of the last line is perhaps an extreme example of the awkwardness and disregard for sound that Hardy sometimes accepted for the sake of verse pattern.’

Inversion: a change in order or position, a recurring theme in critical commentary, mainly but not always with reference to modern poets who, it’s implied, should know better or should, at least, reflect the habits of their own day. We expect to find it in Victorian poetry but not in modern poetry. Where—when—does the change come?

‘Poetry must be as well written as prose. Its language must be a fine language, departing in no way from speech save by a heightened intensity (i.e. simplicity)’, Ezra Pound wrote in January 1915, in a letter often cited, to Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry magazine. ‘There must be no book words, no periphrases, no inversions. It must be as simple as De Maupassant’s best prose, and as hard as Stendhal’s.’[3]

(Harriet Monroe, 1920)

Ford Madox Ford, whose ideas this letter largely repeated (as Pound himself subsequently acknowledged), had written in 1905 of how modern poets were barred from certain subjects by that dialect then accepted as the proper language for poetry. ‘We wait, in fact, for the poet who, in limpid words, with clear enunciation and without inverted phrases, shall give the mind of the time sincere frame and utterance.’[4] Twenty years on and Ford, in some ‘Notes for a Lecture on Vers Libre’, explained: ‘You see I hate—and I hated then—inversions of phrase. A line like A sensitive plant in a garden grew filled me with hot rage. If the chap wanted to say that a sensitive plant grew in a garden, why didn’t he say it—or if he could not find a rhyme for garden, let him for Heaven’s sake hold his peace.’[5]

Did Pound and Ford not use ‘inversions of phrase’ in their early poetry? Of course they did. But in the quest for both modernity itself and a definition of modernity which could separate your tribe from the others (and occasionally be brandished like a broadsword), word order—along with archaisms, ‘hath’, ‘thou’—was an early bone of contention (and remains so). Often, of course, the driving factor was the need for a rhymeword, until that need too fell away for many. And the First World War brought its own complications, the urgency and intensity of the subject matter sometimes crowding out concern with technique or ‘modernity’—besides, some of the soldier-poets died so young that they had little time to dwell on them.

Here’s Charles Sorley, probably in 1915 – he was killed by a sniper in October of that year at the Battle of Loos, aged twenty, and the manuscript of this poem was found by his father among Sorley’s personal effects:

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise.[6]

The inversions are probably not what you’d first notice there…

Ford ended, in Buckshee, with very free and colloquial verse:

We shall have to give up watering the land
Almost altogether.
The maize must go.
But the chilis and tomatoes may still have
A little water.

Pound, in some respects, circled round upon himself, his concerns, images – and diction, the earliest sometimes bleeding into the latest. Canto CX begins: ‘Thy quiet house’ and, a few lines on:

Hast’ou seen boat’s wake on sea-wall,
                        how crests it?

And some just kept going regardless, such as the prolific, popular and long-lived Walter de la Mare. His biographer noted that the critic Forrest Reid advised de la Mare to aim for simplicity of expression, however subtle the thought. ‘He thought this, with some justice, de la Mare’s greatest temptation, and condemned his inversions as a growing mannerism [ . . . ] De la Mare defended himself rather vaguely on the grounds that inversion either came off or it didn’t, and could not be defended or attacked on principle. He doubted anyway “whether ordinary talk is necessarily the best or most forcible or most attractive form of expression”’.[7]

(Walter de la Mare)

And yes, opening the book almost at random, de la Mare’s 1950 volume begins with ‘Here I sit, and glad am I’. There’s ‘The Changeling’: ‘Come in the dark did I’ and ‘Here’: ‘Forgave I everything’. Although I also catch sight of ‘Unwitting’:

This evening to my manuscript
Flitted a tiny fly;
At the wet ink sedately sipped,
Then seemed to put the matter by,
Mindless of him who wrote it, and
His scrutinizing eye –
That any consciousness indeed
Its actions could descry! . . .

Silence; and wavering candlelight;
Night; and a starless sky.[8]

Half a century apart, poets working late, their pages encroached upon by insect visitors.

Hardy’s last line doesn’t jar that much to me, probably because the inversion—as is not unusual—produces that flickering moment of uncertainty to offset it, as if, as well as the narrator not knowing those Earth-secrets, they don’t know him either.

First rule of poetic inversion: there’s no absolute rule.


[1] Thomas Hardy, The Complete Poems, edited by James Gibson (London: Macmillan, 1976), 113.

[2] F. B. Pinion, A Commentary on the Poems of Thomas Hardy (London: Macmillan, 1976), 51; Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man (London: Viking, 2006), 281.

[3] Ezra Pound, Selected Letters, 1907-1941, edited by D. D. Paige (New York: New Directions, 1971), 48-49.

[4] ‘A Literary Causerie: On Some Tendencies of Modern Verse’, Academy, 69 (23 September 1905), 982-984, reprinted in Critical Essays, edited by Max Saunders and Richard Stang (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 28-32.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, ‘Notes for a Lecture on Vers Libre’ (1920s), in Critical Writings, edited by Frank MacShane (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964). The words quoted are from Shelley’s ‘The Sensitive Plant’.

[6] Charles Sorley, ‘[When you see millions of the mouthless dead]’, in Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology, edited by Tim Kendall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 191.

[7] Theresa Whistler, The Life of Walter de la Mare: Imagination of the Heart (London: Duckworth, 2003), 323-324.

[8] Walter de la Mare, Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), 349-355.

‘England have my bones’

(T. H. White on Alderney: BBC)

‘Heaven take my soul, and England keep my bones!’ are Arthur’s last words in Shakespeare’s King John (IV.iii.10), as he leaps from a castle wall. T. H. White, author of The Goshawk and The Once and Future King (another Arthur), among many other books, had a slightly different version, the last four words of which gave him the title of his 1936 volume: ‘God keep my soul/ And England have my bones.’ It ended up, he said, as ‘a book about the tangible side of country life’, adding that: ‘Fishermen will be maddened by the flying, aviators by the snakes, zoologists by the instructions for playing darts.’ Trying to imagine ’the kind of person who will bear with every digression’, he concluded that, should such a person exist, ‘he will be an amateur like myself: a reader with a forgiving mind, not a critical one: somebody not fascinated by sherry parties, who can see the point of an England defined by negatives.’[1]

White’s letter to David Garnett (his second) asking Garnett to look at England Keep My Bones marked the beginning of their nearly thirty-year friendship, ‘a friendship which, reversing the usual order, ripened into acquaintance’, Sylvia Townsend Warner explained, ‘for they met seldom, and never for long at a time. In fact, they were better apart. When they met, they got on each other’s nerves.’

(Sylvia Townsend Warner via NYRB; and her biography of White)

But then, with strangers, as another friend remembered, White ‘could be quite odious; rude and suspicious if he thought they were lionizing them, still more if he thought they weren’t; shouting down anyone who disagreed with his more preposterous assertions or even ventured to interrupt.’[2]

White’s book is often lyrical, but also marked by frequently pugnacious or arresting statement—‘Nowadays we don’t know where we live, or who we are’ (3), ‘I felt happy and interested, as if I had been condemned to death’ (20-21), and ‘Even sitting in the same chair rots one’s soul. Decent men ought to break all their furniture every six months’ (65). There are curious anecdotes and details, such as the origins of Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter (42) and, writing of ‘the shire’ in which he lives, located about half-way between ‘the doze of Norfolk and the fierce friendliness of Gloucestershire’ (4), he notes that it boasted the first recorded beheading and the last person to be gibbeted (110). But there are also evocative statements such as ‘Falling in love is a desolating experience, but not when it is with a countryside’ (22), which seem expressly designed to be plundered by people like me – and have been. The book’s devotion to ‘outdoor pursuits’ prompted the reviewer James Agate to remark—quite understandably, I think—‘It is about subjects in which I am not even faintly interested. It is entrancing’ (quoted by Warner, 87).

It was on this day 85 years ago, 18 August 1935, that White scored 180 with three darts—‘for the first and last time in three or four thousand games of darts’—in The Rose and Crown at Burwash, ‘of which the proper pronunciation is Burridge’ as Henry James remarked to Ford Madox Ford (who already knew).[3] ‘It was not a landlord’s board’, White added, by which I take him to mean that if the target areas for the highest scoring darts are slightly enlarged there is a correspondingly larger chance of successful, happy, and thus higher-spending, punters. ‘Burwash’ may, though, be pronounced ‘Burrish’: it certainly was by a helpful National Trust volunteer, to whom I put the specific question on my one visit to Bateman’s, the fine Jacobean house in which Rudyard Kipling—a story of whom was the occasion of James’s pronouncing the name to Ford—made his home between 1902 and his death in 1936. I bought a bag of flour from the 17th century—and still working—mill which could at that time be seen in action most Wednesday and Saturday afternoons.

(Batemans: National Trust)

The setting is remarkable: the house itself, the garden, the 1928 Rolls Royce Phantom 1 – and the mill. Kipling installed a turbine generator in 1902 and, in the autumn of that same year, published a short story, ‘Below the Mill Dam’. The story, collected in Traffics and Discoveries (1904), largely comprises a conversation between the cat and the rat and is widely seen as a political fable expressing Kipling’s dislike of the attitudes and policies exemplified by Arthur Balfour. David Gilmour, author of The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling, thinks the cat is Balfour (or at least talks like him): ‘there is no problem identifying the prototype of the Grey Cat’.[4]

That memorable visit to East Sussex was heavily Ford Madox Ford-related: he lived for years in the area, and his books—ten, fifteen, twenty years later—are saturated with its place-names and roads and buildings and outlooks. But, with an hour or two to spare in the afternoon, with Bateman’s on the route back to the station, Kipling-world became irresistible. Perhaps I’ll get back there – sometime – for a longer, slower look.


[1] England Have My Bones (1934; London: Macdonald Futura, 1981), v-vi.

[2] Sylvia Townsend Warner, T. H. White: A Biography (New York: Viking, 1968), 86; John Verney in the ‘Foreword’, 6.

[3] Ford, Return to Yesterday (London: Gollancz, 1931), 7.

[4] David Gilmour, The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling (London: John Murray, 2002), 181.