‘You’re reading Zola now?’ the Librarian asks in a slightly disbelieving tone, one surely coloured by unsettling memories of undergraduate courses in European literature, with beckoning names like ‘Realism’ and ‘Naturalism’. ‘Why would you put yourself through that?’
She sits down to lunch with Modern Nature—Derek Jarman’s 1989-1990 journals—while I consider the question. I felt I needed a novel – to go with the pile of current not-novel reading; I thought I was due a ‘classic’; a quick survey of the fiction titles unread by me that we currently own didn’t throw up one to snag my attention in the right way (yes, there are hundreds of those but many of them sitting in boxes in a storage unit) and this one was close to hand; I haven’t read Monsieur Zola for years; he crops up a lot elsewhere, when you read about Cézanne or Dreyfus or dip into the Goncourt Journals; Ford Madox Ford remembers coming across him in Hyde Park—an anecdote about hairpins—and also riding with him in a hansom cab. So I’m reading Zola.
Though not, as it turns out, for very long. La Bête Humaine (1890), set in the 1860s, is the seventeenth (out of twenty) in the Les Rougon-Macquart series. It’s an odd and uncomfortable mixture, ‘a curious hybrid’ the jacket announces: a railway novel and a story of murder. Less than twenty pages in and Roubaud is attacking his wife with ferocious violence – because she was sexually exploited by her distinguished guardian when a teenager and victim-blaming clearly comes easily—naturally?—to him. ‘In three years he had never laid a finger on her and now he was murdering her’ – surprisingly, he isn’t, quite. But a few pages on and Jacques Lantier, in the company of Flore, is afflicted by some ‘madness’ which ‘seemed to be taking possession of him, some ferocity making him cast his eyes round for a weapon, a stone, anything to kill her with.’ He suffers, it seems from some ‘hereditary taint’, from ‘sudden attacks of instability in his being’. ‘At such times he lost all control of himself and just obeyed his muscles, the wild beast inside him.’ And: ‘He was coming to think that he was paying for others, fathers, grandfathers who had drunk, generations of drunkards, that he had their blood, tainted with a slow poison and a bestiality that dragged him back to the woman-devouring savages in the forests.’
At which point even the translator, Leonard Tancock, notes that the paragraph ‘stretches probability to breaking-point’, though he’s referring to the fact that, since Zola ‘invented Jacques as an afterthought’, he has to pile in the back story and familial connections. Whereas I, still musing over Séverine’s apparent recovery from her husband’s enthusiasm for throwing her across the bed in order to rain ‘blow after blow on her, anywhere’, am now edging away from that ‘tainted’ blood and those ‘woman-devouring savages in the forests’.
‘To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven’, Ecclesiastes says (3, i-viii)—so too do The Byrds (and I notice in passing the topical ‘a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing’). Similarly, I’ve always thought there was a right time to read a book, for me to read a book at any rate. My early enthusiasm for Dylan Thomas was strong enough to make it difficult now to get on a sensible footing with him, Henry Miller too (though The Colossus of Maroussi apparently presents no such difficulties). Some books I tossed aside two or even three decades years ago and was glad to find my way back to in the last few years. But what I always thought of as a Protestant reading ethic meant I usually ploughed on, with only a handful of abandoned books. There’ve been quite a few more lately.
When you’re younger, there may not be complete autonomy: reading lists, deadlines, course requirements. Decades later, the real authority is time: age and time, the one increasing, the other decreasing. Then, too, the profusion of box sets and streaming services mean that viewers have developed a sixth sense, not necessarily unerring but a sense they’ve learned to trust, as they sit down before a new series. We have it down to around five minutes in a lot of cases: the sideways glance at the Librarian, sometimes a muttered ‘Anything?’ or ‘What d’you think?’ Occasionally returned by an ‘I’ll watch it on my own’. Something comparable has happened with the reading: it – the click, the connection – has to come sooner. I have five hundred books in my head that I still want to read – plus the ones that haven’t been published yet – and I tend not to set things aside for a couple of decades now. If it’s gone, it’s probably gone. But I also seem to have shaken off that dutiful sense. Nothing now that I must read let alone must finish. The pleasure principle has conquered, it stands with legs astride on a battlefield heaped with the discarded dustjackets of a hundred duty-reads.
In short (or medium?), that particular Zola is returned to the shelf. There might be another one at some stage (a return to Germinal, most likely). For the moment, Patrick Leigh Fermor (and Artemis Cooper’s biography of him), the stellar Stella Bowen, Frank O’Hara and—just arrived—Shirley Hazzard’s stories, will keep me going for a while. Plus, of course, a good many volumes, scans, transcriptions and notes related to a certain Ford Madox Ford.
Our local Victorian cemetery is pretty quiet, certainly early on a Saturday—Mayday—morning. Good walking, orchestral birdsong. The sparrows en route are noisy, even clamorous in two or three specific bushes, but it’s chatter, sociability. Some of the cemetery birdsong smacks more of performance.
At one point, the Librarian and I conduct a highly technical ornithological exchange.
—What’s that bird up there? —Where? Oh, just a pigeon, isn’t it? —Is it? I thought there was something about the beak. —Oh yes, looks like a finch. —I thought perhaps a jay. Tiring of this, the bird launches itself into space. —Oh yes! You can see now. Beautiful colours. It is a jay.
In Ford Madox Ford’s 1923 novel, The Marsden Case, the narrator is found ‘gazing through a plate-glass window set in granite at a blue straw hat trimmed with jay’s wings pointing backwards so that it resembled a helmet of Mercury’. ‘The jay, the “British Bird of Paradise”, displaying his vari-coloured feathers at a spring-time gathering’, W. H. Hudson wrote in one of his catalogues of the birds which ‘give most delight to the aesthetic sense’.
(Benjamin Haughton, Jay: Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services)
Ford was a great admirer of—and well acquainted with—Hudson, who devoted a great deal of time in his later years to combatting the barbaric treatment of birds, which slaughtered hundreds of thousands and drove many species to extinction. ‘Rare visitors were shot on sight. In May 1870 a flock of forty golden orioles, arriving in woods near Penzance, was quickly wiped out: “everyone in the place was up and after them.”’ This ‘spirit of destruction prevailed everywhere’, in town and country and ‘running through all classes.’ Fashionable women wore hats ‘trimmed with gulls’ wings or the plumes of great crested grebes, or a ball dress set off by a spray of goldfinches or robins.’ Hudson was closely involved with the founding in the late 1880s of the Society for the Protection of Birds, which was incorporated by Royal charter in 1904.
‘The wilderness is near as well as dear to every man’, Henry Thoreau wrote, ‘The very uprightness of the pines and maples asserts the ancient rectitude and vigor of nature. Our lives need the relief of such a background, where the pine flourishes and the jay still screams.’
As well it might.
 Ford Madox Ford, The Marsden Case (London: Duckworth, 1923), 22-23.
 Hudson, Birds and Man, (1901); see Ruth Tomalin, W. H. Hudson: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 150.
Feeling a little odd is not, it transpires, down to the cat beginning the day by licking my eyebrows; rather, a recurrence of an old trouble, a touch of positional vertigo, a common enough problem of the inner ear but no less unsettling for that. It will, or should, pass off. In the meantime, I try not to look up – or down – or move my head too quickly or stretch my neck or bend or twist. . . Best to sit and read or stand and think about sitting to read. So the morning goes, with exaggerated care taken not to drop the soap in the shower or get too inventive coming downstairs.
On the plus side, I’m two Pfizer doses in – and, the other morning, took what I believe to have been my first solo walk in more than a year; not the Daily Walk but a brisk sortie to another park – the one with the rosemary bushes, so I could pick a few sprigs for the asparagus, rosemary and tomato tart (Anna Jones’ recipe) I was making for lunch. It was early, the air felt wonderfully fresh, there was barely any noise except birdsong, the distant slamming of a car door and, until I went home by a slightly different route, passing the park at the end of our road, I saw no people at all. Then, scattered across the slopes, there were dog walkers and two or three runners.
So here I am now among the women: Mary Butts and Nathalie Blondel (biographer of Butts and editor of her journals); Olive Garnett; Juliet Soskice, Ford Madox Ford’s sister; Stella Bowen; and Selina Hastings’ biography of Sybille Bedford.
(Mary Butts in 1919)
Just as time, in this pandemic, seems to move at two utterly different speeds—like lightning and barely at all—and the past is both a fingertip away and impossibly remote, so it is with the theoretical sharing of the experience of the pandemic. The early rhetorical booming about how we were all in it together (painfully reminiscent of the early days of Tory austerity policies) was quickly recognised as nonsense, even in the context of England alone. Now we look at the appalling footage from India, the funeral pyres, the staggering numbers of new infections and people dying for want of oxygen. We have all experienced a pandemic but in such widely differing ways and in such wildly differing circumstances that the statement is practically meaningless. And to write about it? Feasible but – very difficult, yes.
A new national poll concludes that 40% of those surveyed thought the Tories were corrupt – presumably the other 60% were either Tories or that very prevalent breed of contemporary voters: the ones who really and truly Don’t Know, and, very often, don’t care either. The Prime Minister may or may not have said ‘no more fucking lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands’. The two points that most struck me were, firstly, how very plausible it was that Johnson would have said it, or something very like it, given what we know of him; and secondly, bodies were already piled in their scores of thousands, many of those deaths directly attributable to his government’s policies, particularly being too damned slow to lock down and too damned quick to come out of lockdown.
Future historians will surely have a whale of a time looking back at the state we’re now in and the last few years that led us here. Will they be able to believe their eyes?
‘Yesterday you awaked very bad’, James Boswell wrote in his journal, Monday 9 April 1764. ‘You got up as dreary as a dromedary. . . . ’
I suspect that—‘dreary as a dromedary’— we’ve all been there. Not to bask in the alliteration but to glimpse the dromedary’s view of a day: plod, plod, plod – then a nosebag at the end of the day, if you’re lucky.
‘Arras’ used to signify a tapestry, a hanging screen, of the sort that Renaissance heroes or villains were forever thrusting swords through or maids or villains were pressing their ears against to overhear crucial intelligence—until I first read about the First World War. Then it became a battle, most famously—for literary historians—the battle in which the poet Edward Thomas was killed, on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917. So too was Tommy Nelson (Thomas Arthur Nelson), to whom John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps is dedicated—they were both partners in the publishing company—while Buchan’s brother Alastair was also fatally wounded there, though not on the same day.
The poet Ivor Gurney was wounded on Good Friday night and sent to the hospital at 55th Infantry Base Depot, Rouen, so two days before Edward Thomas’s death; while Siegfried Sassoon at Basseux on that Easter Monday was close enough to hear the guns at Arras, where Thomas was killed that morning by the blast from a shell.
104 years on, though, I suspect we’re largely back behind the arras: eavesdropping, occasionally subject to Renaissance villains thrusting blades through, tragedies of blood, the old stories. . .
Even in a country still largely in denial about the Brexit fiasco—and many people who predicted exactly how this would turn out are finding that there’s very limited satisfaction in being proved right about a disaster, as we’d already learned from predicting more or less how the invasion of Iraq, lacking legality and hard evidence, would turn out—even given all that, I say, there’s been an extraordinary amount of utter nonsense unleashed on us recently.
A highly suspect report exonerating the measures taken by the Metropolitan Police at Clapham Common—notably, male violence against women peacefully protesting the death of a victim of male violence—followed by a widely-criticised report which concluded that there was no institutional racism in this country, all in the teeth of the evidence or rather, picking the teeth of the evidence and carefully ignoring the bits of expert testimony that didn’t fit the predetermined narrative. Then there was— there is!—the ludicrous business of statues, policemen and policewomen milling around a statue of Winston Churchill. And flags. Lots of flags. Very small politicians, sometimes with very small flags, but sometimes with very large ones.
There was a famous meeting at Balmoral, 9 April 1912, attended by Bonar Law, Walter Long, Sir Edward Carson and other luminaries. In the centre of the show grounds was a signalling tower with a flagstaff ninety feet high. The Union Jack unfurled was forty-eight feet by twenty-five. ‘It was the largest ever woven’, the historian George Dangerfield remarked, adding dryly: ‘Patriotism could do no more.’
A little later, he remarked: ‘There was a method in the Unionist madness. Such was the state of English nerves in those days, that violence made a stronger appeal to the public than any other form of speech and action.’
And here we are. Hard to believe, of course, given what we—what some of us, why not all of us?— know and have known but. . . here we are.
I wonder, sometimes, why my only reliable guides to the current state of things are Devi Sridhar, Marina Hyde and Cold War Steve. But I look at the front pages of the national newspapers every morning on the BBC website — and that reminds me.
Boswell in Holland, 1763-1764, edited by Frederick A. Pottle (London: William Heinemann, 1952), 205.
 John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915; edited by Christopher Harvie, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 112.
 Michael Hurd, The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 96.
 Harry Ricketts, Strange Meetings: The Poets of the Great War (London: Chatto and Windus, 2010), 101.
 George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935; London: Granada Publishing, 1970), 98-99, 106.
In a letter to poet and publisher James Laughlin, on 28 March 1995, Guy Davenport wrote about poet and publisher Jonathan Williams who, when he came to town (Lexington, Kentucky, in Davenport’s case), required a royal court, with about thirty people invited to dinner afterwards. ‘Whereas I am a hermit’, Davenport added. ‘Bonnie Jean [his partner] and I consider more than four people in a room to be a replay of the French Revolution.’
Some people wouldn’t turn a hair at this, of course, whereas I’m thinking: ‘Four people? How could you stand so many in a room?’ Though this might be so even without a pandemic.
I’m wondering now, on average grey days, whether we shall ever be wholly ‘without a pandemic’. I suspect not, though it’s difficult to envisage precisely what that ‘not without’ will look like. Like flu but a little worse? Invisible but some people always keeping their distance, stepping off paths, wearing masks? Some people themselves invisible because they will never – never – reappear in cinemas, theatres, restaurants, shops? People as ghosts, as revenants, as faces glimpsed or voices almost overheard?
In the aftermath of the First World War, Ford Madox Ford asked his friend Isabel Paterson if ‘in the case of certain dead people you cannot feel that they are indeed gone from this world?’ He added that ‘in my case the world daily becomes more and more peopled with such revenants and less and less with those who still walk this earth.’ Though Ford rarely alludes to it, the Spanish influenza pandemic killed more people than had died in the war itself. Far fewer people have died in the current pandemic than in 1918-1919 but there will still be a sense, I suspect, in which, once things move back a little—or a lot—towards what is usually termed ‘normal life’, the things familiar to us before Covid-19 hit will seem more substantial somehow, even more real, than whatever replaces them.
I feel no desperate need to go to the pub or a football match, or get on a plane somewhere, anywhere. To see, and walk beside, the sea, yes, and to reunite with a few—a very few—people. For the most part, my nostalgia—nostos, the journey home—is for quite mundane things, particular streets to walk on, particular buildings to look at again, hardly even that, just to pass by, barely remarking them. But, even given the singular nature of this pandemic, and a year like no other in my lifetime, I still know that, once that street corner and that building are there in front of me, something won’t quite jell, somehow the thing envisaged and the thing confronted will refuse to come together. Some other image will then arise: some other stretch of undistinguished street, some patch of sand, an obscure lane, the corner of a terrace, some scruffy path beside a canal. Which will be fine: the mild dissatisfaction, the readjustment, the readiness to try again. It will serve as ‘normal’ enough.
‘The ambiguous human condition means tirelessly trying to take control of things’, Sarah Bakewell wrote, with Simone de Beauvoir in mind. ‘We have to do two near-impossible things at once: understand ourselves as limited by circumstances, and yet continue to pursue our projects as though we are truly in control.’
As though, as though. My current condition is, I surmise, very ambiguous – but certainly human.
Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, edited by W. C. Bamberger, (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 196.
 Ford Madox Ford, Last Post (1928; edited by Paul Skinner, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 5.
 Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being & Apricot Cocktails (London: Chatto & Windus, 2016), 226.
The poet and painter David Jones wrote to his friend René Hague from Sidmouth in March 1935: ‘This bar, where we used to come, is absolutely choked with chaps talking awful balls—God it is depressing—what a world—heavenly lovely nice wodged in with bloody desolate old lachrymarum valle.’
Our ‘heavenly lovely nice’ just now would be the Covid-19 vaccination programme, a triumph for the National Health Service. The vale of tears would be – the rest.
I have a part in a major project now, though one still at an early stage; and, if it’s of interest primarily to readers of Ford Madox Ford and other modernists – that’s a pretty big constituency these days, isn’t it? So I have an impressive reading list – often books to be reread, in fact, though a little differently this time around, imprinting dates and names and other invaluable details on the mind, heart or skin. And yet, and yet – much of the time I can be found upstairs (or sometimes down), turning the pages of Mary Butts (yes, certainly relevant), chunks of Elizabethan history (possible but unlikely), Joan Didion (doubtful), James Merrill (also unlikely), Ruth Rendell and Josephine Tey (surely not).
‘This bad habit of absorption in anything other than the work that was my immediate duty has persisted all my life, and I have been most unjustly rewarded for it.’ So Arthur Ransome wrote in his absorbing autobiography, thinking of the highly successful books he had made out of remembering and describing the things that he really liked doing anyway: savouring the natural world of the Lake District and elsewhere, as well as the fishing and sailing. (I won’t be holding my breath for rewards, whether just or unjust: a few admiring words from people I admire will do nicely when the job’s done.) In John Buchan’s 1927 novel, Maclean asks: ‘Where is this magic country?’ To which Midwinter replies: ‘All around you – behind the brake, across the hedgerow, under the branches. Some can stretch a hand and touch it – to others it is a million miles away.’
A magic country – just off the beaten track. The shimmering attractions, the mirage of refreshment, enlightenment or merely a saving silence. My straying from the alleged centre – not pandemic-related, merely life-related – has a long history but hasn’t proved too harmful on the whole: I still usually meet deadlines, anyway. It is, I suppose, distantly related to a much less innocuous practice, often found in government circles, the diversion or smokescreen, such as conjuring up a phoney threat to statues to direct attention away from large, lethal failures or instances of rampant hypocrisy or the nasty habit of breaking international law or non-proliferation treaties.
No, my sometimes wayward reading habits do not, in contrast, represent a clear and present danger to this country. So I’ll probably go on much the same. . .
 René Hague, editor, Dai Greatcoat: A self-portrait of David Jones in his letters (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), 67.
The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome, edited with prologue and epilogue by Rupert Hart-Davis (London: Jonathan Cape, 1976), 59.
 John Buchan, Midwinter (1927; Edinburgh, Black &White Publishing, 1993), 115.
In 1976, 3 March was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Western Lent, named for the custom of sprinkling on the heads of penitents the ashes of consecrated palms left over from Palm Sunday. In a letter of this date, Hugh Kenner wrote to Guy Davenport: ‘The enclosed clippings may amuse. And did I mention the sermon on hell in an Irish church last month, in the midst of which a choir boy was noticed to be on fire? Sleeve too near a candle apparently.’
Dear Hugh – ‘was noticed’.
Clear, dry days draw us back to Arnos Vale, our local Victorian garden cemetery, one of the city’s wonders. The last few visits there, though, have been a bit disconcerting: unfamiliar gaps and bare slopes and sightlines where before were dense gatherings of trees. Then, too, we can often hear the melancholy sound of chainsaws.
Guy Davenport wrote of two entwined trees, an apple and a pear, which had stood near his home for over fifty years. They were cut down by a developer, ‘in full bloom, with a power saw, the whining growl of which is surely the language of devils at their business, which is to cancel creation.’
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun, All felled, felled, are all felled; Of a fresh and following folded rank Not spared, not one That dandled a sandalled Shadow that swam or sank On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
The situation at Arnos Vale is quite other. Not, like the felled trees mourned by Hopkins or Davenport, due to rapacious developers, nor like those in so many present or recent cases of misguided (or not wholly disinterested) councils or the disastrous vandalism inextricable from hugely expensive vanity projects. The Arnos Vale trees have fallen prey to Chalara ash dieback, a fungal disease affecting ash trees in many locations across the country, an infection frequently fatal once contracted. At Arnos Vale they have been dealing with it since 2017 and, tragically, they have almost total infection across this beautiful 45-acre site. https://arnosvale.org.uk/ash-dieback-faqs/#:~:text=If%20you%20have%20recently%20visited,total%20infection%20across%20the%20site.
The cemetery was, in fact, rescued from development, more than thirty years ago, when the private owner of the site announced plans to clear and commercially develop a large part of it. Local individuals and other citizens, Bristol city council and well wishers from around the world campaigned and worked together to rescue and preserve it for future generations. Still a working cemetery, it also offers a paradise for walkers with or without dogs, nature lovers, curious children, people in need of quiet, of ‘a green thought in a green shade.’
They will plant other trees there. The gaps will be filled, the spaces will narrow and we’ll go on walking along the paths. If we could change governments or perceived priorities or media shortcomings or UK laws, we’d do that. Since we can’t, we’ll have to settle for making a donation every so often, to help the work that’s being done there. Where better, after all, could we walk?
Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 1611.
 Guy Davenport, ‘Shaker Light’, in The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996), 59.
 ‘Binsey Poplars (felled 1879)’, Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, fourth edition, revised and enlarged, edited by W. H. Gardner and N. H. Mackenzie (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 78.
 Andrew Marvell, ‘The Garden’, in The Complete Poems, edited by Elizabeth Story Donno (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1985), 101.
On 27 February 1948, the novelist, short story writer, artist and autobiographer, Denton Welch wrote: ‘In Gide’s Journal I have just read again how he does not wish to write its pages slowly as he would the pages of a novel. He wants to train himself to rapid writing in it. It is just what I have always felt about this journal of mine. Don’t ponder, don’t grope – just plunge something down, and perhaps more clearness and quickness will come with practice.’
It was, I think, back in October 2020, when my reading took in Elena Ferrante, Alan Garner, Seamus Heaney and Paraic O’Donnell, that I came across this journal entry for that month in 1945:
‘Connie met us in the garden, and because I had grown a beard while in bed, she knelt down on the grass in front of me and murmured something about Christ. Then she got up, looking very old and knowing and monkified, and passed close to Eric, saying nonchalantly, as she brushed his fly buttons with her hand, “Would you like these undone?” Her voice was so light, so almost social sneering, that I could not feel that there was any real sexuality in her, only the ghost of frivolous excitation. Then she began to talk to me about dukes, the Dukes of Cumberland and Cambridge, I think. She always gets on to dukes with me. I wonder why?’
It’s an account of Welch and his close friend Eric Oliver going for tea with Cecilia Carpmael, a wealthy friend of Welch’s mother, a painter with a studio in Cheyne Walk and a house in Kent – ‘and her mad sister, Connie’. If not before, I think it would have caught and held me at those last two sentences.
I don’t know Welch’s writing style well enough to guess at the likelihood of wordplay (probably none whatsoever) in that ‘dukes’—slang for ‘fists’—or, closely following ‘sexuality’ and ‘excitation’, whether there’s a hint of ‘dykes’ (which Eric Partridge suggests was only adopted in the 1930s), but, having only previously read his novel In Youth Is Pleasure, and that more than a dozen years ago, I began reading the Journals properly. Somehow, mysteriously, in the way of these things, I also acquired and read both his last, not quite finished, novel A Voice Through a Cloud and the fine biography, Denton Welch: The Making of a Writer, by the editor of the Journals, Michael De-la-Noy.
Partway—I’m reminded that, years ago, reluctant to accept this one-word version of what he must have thought should be hyphenated or separate words, the poet Charles Tomlinson, who was supervising my thesis, wrote in the margin of a draft chapter: ‘Perhaps you meant “Parkway”?’ (a Bristol railway station)—yes, even when only partway through all three books, one of my strongest and most immediate impressions is that Welch was—as Dylan Thomas remarked of Rilke to Vernon Watkins—‘a very odd boy indeed’.
Welch died in December 1948, at the age of thirty-three. At the age of twenty, he had been involved in an appalling road accident: when cycling he was struck by a car and left with such serious injuries, including a fractured spine, that he was subject to periods of intense pain for the rest of his life, often bedridden with prolonged violent headaches, haemorrhages and fevers. But he also had respites during which he produced stories, poems and essays, drew and painted, wrote many letters, learned to drive a car, to cycle again and go out pretty often, to poke around in antique shops, explore old houses, picnic with Eric Oliver, pay visits to friends or, more often, receive them.
The passage about Gide’s journal practice, which Welch seemed to wish to emulate, is quoted by Michael De-la-Noy at the beginning of his edition of the Journals, when he states that he believes they deserve to be published in their entirety ‘not because they pretend to represent a polished example’ of his ‘neatest literary style or most cleverly condensed subject matter’ but because ‘they stand as a testament to his astonishingly rapid maturity as an author’, as ‘an invaluable record of a tragic and often heroic life’ (Journals xii).
De-la-Noy states in his introduction that Welch never revised the Journals, but much of the writing is extraordinary and would be even had it been extensively revised. As I’ve no doubt quoted before in another connection, ‘the quotabilities swarm’. Some readers may find a few of his concerns ‘precious’: his prolonged and detailed interest in the renovation of his doll’s house, the architectural features of churches, a Georgian jug, the panelling in an old house, a silver teaspoon – but he has an astonishing recall of material details and, not surprisingly, a constant awareness of death and curiosity about how the present might be seen from the future, and sometimes of an audience in that future.
Walt Whitman, in ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’, observed the crowds and envisaged others, fifty or a hundred years hence, seeing the islands, enjoying the sunsets and ‘the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling back to the sea of the ebb-tide’. Welch writes in November 1942: ‘Sometimes I think of when we shall be quaint, be ancient history – like 1840 and gas lamps in the street or like De Quincey and his Anne in Soho Square, in the doorway with the port and the spices which saved his life. When we shall be like ivories or wax figures seen against a flat background. Something after us as well as before. Our future laid out as the nearer past of the people gazing back at us’ (Journals 25).
In 1944, having received an airmail letter from an aircraftman in India, who had kept track of all Welch’s work and wanted to buy a picture from him, he wrote: ‘It made me feel, when I heard of it, as if I had been preserving myself on a top shelf for years, waiting to be discovered. As if I were dead and done with, and watching some future person ferreting me out’ (Journals 173). In 1947, a little over a year before his own death, he writes: ‘I have been thinking of my mother who died twenty years ago. In years to come, when I shall be older than she was when she died, it will be as if I were her elder brother; then, later still, her father’ (Journals 340). In the year of his death, there is this wonderful entry: ‘This afternoon, with the red sun sinking down into all its coloured cushion clouds – so cold that the people in the streets seem to be ashamed of their faces – and now here, after Russian tea and two fat chocolates sent by Pocetta, just arrived from America. Chopin pours over me from the wireless box. Nothing but this small picture will be left of the day; many years after, people may be able to read, then say, “He was cold, he watched the sunset, he ate a chocolate,” but nothing more will be left to them’ (Journal 352-353).
Sometimes it’s just the oddity, the sheer individuality of the writing, not a sense of striving for effect but rather the product of a mind increasingly reliant upon memory, the consolations of solitude, the gradual withdrawal from a world becoming inaccessible to him in any case. In April 1944: ‘Peter talked about the nice police sergeant he knew who was friendly with Somerset Maugham, E. M. Forster etc. He also talked about his crook friend who likes licking girls all over in Hyde Park and who made £900 out of the Black Market. A curious mixture’ (Journals 143). I like there the specificity of the location in which those comprehensive lickings occur. Or this, on the last day of 1944: ‘In my wall is the mouse that scratches and dances. It seems as immortal as we are, and it is all a painted lie. No mouse or man after a hundred years – no cottage in the trees – only the earth, the water, the dripping woods and the low sky for ever’ (Journals 176).
He is writing his journal largely (1942-1948) in a time of war: it does impinge, sometimes obliquely, sometimes with brutal immediacy—the explosion of a time-bomb which landed in the garden of his home in 1940 smashed all the windows, uprooted a tree and covered the surrounding area with mud and dust—but most often in connection with food. Or, at least, although his biographer comments that Welch ‘was obsessed throughout his adult life’ with food, which occurs often in the imagery in his fiction too, perhaps that’s just my having always connected those years with the difficulty or impossibility of obtaining all sorts of food. In fact, he often describes quite unexceptional meals in careful detail—‘We went on to a dish of new peas, hard boiled egg, split lengthways, sardines, new potatoes with mint and butter, salad hearts and sweet dressing’ (Journals 200)—but at least a dozen times I paused to wonder: ‘Could they really get that or those in 1943 or 1946?’
Just thirty-three years in all. Born in Shanghai, where his family was—and had long been—in business, then schools in England, sometimes selected in the light of their attitude to Christian Science (Welch’s mother was an adherent), Goldsmith School of Art in New Cross. Two books published in his lifetime; the book of stories he’d prepared for the press appeared two days after his funeral; and the almost-finished A Voice Through a Cloud, two years after his death. Like so much of Welch’s writing, it’s intensely autobiographical, beginning with an account of his accident—‘I heard a voice through a great cloud of agony and sickness’, the voice being a policeman’s—and going on to trace the aftermath of that profoundly life-altering event. It’s a remarkably accomplished and moving account, with acute recall of his childhood: ‘Out of doors my nostrils were always filled with the smell of humid earth and dank grass, and my heart with the pleasure-fear of seeing ghosts and apparitions.’ There is also a later spur to a memory which, in some particulars if not the primary one here, will strike a chord with many readers: ‘I was reminded of the letters I had written to my mother when she died and I was eleven years old. I used to take these letters out with me into the fields; there I would post them in rabbit-holes, under the overhanging cornices of streams, amongst the tangle of roots and stones and earth, in empty birds’ nests, in old tins and bottles and the pockets of ragged clothes on rubbish dumps, down waterfalls and millraces and a deep forgotten well in the garden of a ruined cottage.’
Easy to quote—’a deep forgotten well’—but harder to stop quoting. Some wonderful stuff, anyway, which has won Welch a good many admirers over the years, from Edith Sitwell, Elizabeth Bowen and W. H. Auden to Alan Bennett, William Burroughs and John Waters. And—obviously—me.
The Journals of Denton Welch, edited by Michael De-la-Noy (London: Allison & Busby, 1984), 353.
 Denton Welch, A Voice Through a Cloud (1950; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983); Michael De-la-Noy, Denton Welch: The Making of a Writer (Harmondsworth: Viking, 1984).
 Dylan Thomas, Letters to Vernon Watkins, edited by Vernon Watkins (London: J. M. Dent and Sons and Faber and Faber, 1957), 105.
 Hugh Kenner on Part II of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, in A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (London: Marion Boyars, 1977), 194.
Walt Whitman: The Complete Poems, edited by Francis Murphy (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986), 190.
‘Come, come, now, my blonde darling, I may not have written for a little longer than usual, but it couldn’t have been that “over a month” you mention. And you mustn’t worry about not hearing from me now and then. A lot of things can happen in a wartime Army to make writing difficult, and they don’t all have to be bad. If anything should happen to me, the good old USA would notify you, your name and address are on my dog tag. (The new dog tags, not yet issued to us, have no name and address of next-of-kin on them.)’
Dashiell Hammett was sending reassurances (after a fashion) from the Aleutians to his older daughter Mary, in February 1944. Over a month! Still, it was, as he says, the Aleutians in wartime. ‘Darling’, Ford Madox Ford wrote to Stella Bowen in November 1918, ‘I haven’t had a word from you for three days—& you can imagine how long a time that seems to me’.
There are people now that we haven’t had a word from for six months, people that we haven’t seen for a year – or more. So how would this work? That the people we haven’t seen for the longest period are the ones we most want to see? Of course not – or not necessarily. We are, after all, human animals, so we have, most of us, some of us, a few of us, lived in that magical state where we miss people the moment they leave us, more, even before they leave us since we can predict the moment when that separation will occur and feel it on our skin before it happens.
I see that people are pining away for the loss of a sight of Athens, Paris, New York, Sydney, Prague, Bilbao. I have been to some, though not all, of those places but, to be frank (to be earnest), the places I am plagued by pictures of—unannounced, unprompted, unasked for—are palpably absurd. Absurd and banal and not to be mentioned in the context of these discussions of exotic and far-flung locations. They are the corners of streets not far from here; the road leading to a park in Bath; the hill running down to the Librarian’s parents’ home; a lane in Clifton, three miles away.
The local is lodged in my brain in a way that those others are not. Even the marvels of that apartment in Prague, that we talked of this evening. Even the baguette and Brie and glass of red wine on a pavement in Paris, bringing to mind the letter that Ford Madox Ford writes to Henry Goddard Leach, the editor of Forum and Century, in 1938, about the pieces he is thinking of drafting: ‘Another I meditate treating very soon is simply the fact that France—from the point of view of culture and the arts—manages everything so infinitely better than either branch of Anglo-Saxondom that the sooner we acknowledge the fact the sooner we shall be out of the wood.’
And that was it, more or less. I remember thinking at the time, as I sat on that pavement in Paris: If we can’t even manage to provide bread and cheese and a glass of wine at this sort of level, how the hell can we manage anything else?
The answer was, of course: we can’t. And so it proved. Proves. Has proven. Will prove. Will prove to have proven.
Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett, 1921-1960, edited by Richard Layman with Julie M. Rivett (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2001), 281-282.
Correspondence of Ford Madox Ford and Stella Bowen, edited by Sondra J. Stang and Karen Cochran (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994), 38.
 Ford Madox Ford, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 288.
I was thinking about habits—not the monkish kind—but order, repetition, the almost unthinking, hardly a novelty in a plague time, when the Librarian and I wear ruts in the park that trace out our daily walks there. I’m aware, for instance, that I hear tunes in my head to accompany various tasks or movements: unscrewing the top of the coffeemaker to clean it and walking up or down stairs, I hear thirteen notes. On the stairs, this corresponds to the theme tune of The Archers—I don’t listen to the programme but anyone in this country who ever listens to the radio recognises that theme tune, as they do EastEnders, whether they watch the television programme or not—or a riff in the Kinks’ Autumn Almanac or, worryingly, ‘Me and My Teddy Bear’.
Habit, custom, ritual? The last is more ceremonial, usually religious, though it need not be, An often repeated series of actions will qualify—which brings me to the cat, just lately. Breakfast dish; back door; dish again; back door again; check that the dish is empty; stroll upstairs to lie on the Librarian until she gets up.
The back door is part of the deal. Having no catflap, the arrangement is that, if the cat asks for the door to be opened – I open it. Sitting at the table, eating breakfast, reading, in sub-zero temperatures or with a drifting rain, the arrangement holds. He doesn’t actually step outside unless there’s warmth and sunshine – but a deal’s a deal.
Habit, though: positives and negatives. ‘Chaos often breeds life, when order breeds habit’, Henry Adams wrote, who would not quite qualify as a Man with No Regrets. And, once established, a habit sticks: ‘A habit or an attitude of mind is the hardest thing to change, whatever tricks or suppressions you may play with its projection’, Mary Butts wrote. Some habits are worse than others or, rather, harder to break. Ronald Duncan wrote of ‘the worst and most dangerous of all mental diseases—the habit of seeing things as we wish them to be, not as they are.’ He liked the formulation so much that he used it again twenty years later, just a little amplified. The narrator of Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman wryly observes that ‘The habit of sardonic contemplation is the hardest habit of all to break.’
Some habits become stylistic tics, artistic signatures, as Guy Davenport remarked of Picasso: ‘throughout his career his habit of combining full face and profile became a stylistic trademark—prompting Henri Rousseau’s perfectly accurate observation, “You and I, M. Picasso, are the two greatest living painters, I in the modern manner, you in the Egyptian,” the full-face eye in a face seen sideways being the rule in Egyptian drawing.’ Penelope Fitzgerald alluded to ‘the insight of long habit, so much more reliable than love’.
Born in Paris and moving to London at the age of twenty-three, W. L. George published his novel The Making of an Englishman, centred on the Anglicising of a Frenchman, in 1914. ‘I believe silence is England’s secret’, George’s narrator says, ‘and I bore many a snub before I acquired the habit.’ Reviewing this ‘atrocious’ book, Ford Madox Ford wrote: ‘if I were an Englishman, I should try to kick Mr George sixty times round Leicester Square for writing it.’ Like his review, George had, Ford concluded, ‘his tongue in his cheek’, concluding: ‘He is a wicked man.’ George was, in fact, a friend of his, part of the English Review circle, and writing about George’s novel gave Ford an opportunity for several digs at English national traits as he had come to regard them, not least the inarticulacy of ‘the English gentleman’.
Sixty years ago, Richard Cassell suggested that Ford developed ‘a theory of style from the English habit of avoiding direct speech.’The Inheritors, written in collaboration with Conrad (but mostly by Ford), begins:
“Ideas,” she said. “Oh, as for ideas—” “Well?” I hazarded, “as for ideas—?”
A little over twenty years later, with Conrad so recently dead, Ford wrote: ‘If you listen to two Englishmen communicating by means of words, for you can hardly call it conversing, you will find that their speeches are little more than this: A. says, “What sort of a fellow is … you know!” B. replies, “Oh, he’s a sort of a …” and A. exclaims, “Ah, I always thought so….” This is caused partly by sheer lack of vocabulary, partly by dislike for uttering any definite statement at all. For anything that you say you may be called to account.’
These days – I don’t know. Calling to account seems to have gone right out of fashion in this country – and several others. In any case, for the foreseeable future, my Englishness will continue to carve deeper ruts on the park walks and limit itself to broken sentences should any stranger be so reckless as to approach me.
 Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1918; New York: The Modern Library, 1931), 249.
 Mary Butts, ‘Traps for Unbelievers’, in Ashe of Rings and Other Writings (New York: McPherson & Company, 1998), 317.
 Ronald Duncan, Journal of a Husbandman (London: Faber 1944), 212; see All Men Are Islands: An Autobiography (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1964), 8: ‘the worst and most dangerous of all mental diseases which is the habit of seeing things as we would wish them to be and an inability to see things as they are.’
 Angela Carter, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972; London: Penguin Books, 2011), 245.
 Guy Davenport, Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature (Washington: Counterpoint, 1998), 68.
 Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower (1995; London: Everyman, 2001), 301.
 W. L. George, The Making of an Englishman (London: Constable, 1914), 72.
 Ford Madox Ford, ‘Literary Portraits—XXI. Mr W. L. George and “The Making of an Englishman”, Outlook, XXXIII (31 January 1914), 143.
 Richard A. Cassell, Ford Madox Ford: A Study of His Novels (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1961), 68.
 Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad, The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story (1901; Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999), 5.
 Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (London: Duckworth, 1924), 135-136.