Snow business

Hurley-Mertz leaving hut by trapdoor

Frank Hurley: Mertz leaving the hut via the trapdoor
(Via )

It’s the first day of spring, meteorologically speaking. It’s also the first day for a while that the Librarian hasn’t held out her arms to the east—or, perhaps, to the south-west—while demanding: ‘Send us snow!’ Today being a pause in the strike (caused by the proposed swingeing cuts to university staff pensions), she set off through falling snow on the two-mile walk to work, possibly thinking that was enough of the white stuff to be going on with, though Storm Emma is expected later today and the Met Office has now issued a red weather warning (signifying ‘danger to life’) for south-west England and south Wales from this afternoon.

I accept that, in the Scandinavian countries, in Canada, Mongolia, Russia, Japan, the United States, Austria, Switzerland, Peru, Bolivia and many more, they look askance at the British habit of cities, roads, airports, schools and railways seizing up whenever seven or eight inches of snow falls. But we have a temperate climate and it’s not economically viable to equip a nation, and adapt its infrastructure, for atypical conditions which occur so rarely. That’s the argument I’ve heard many times, anyway, though the phrase ‘economically viable’ is not a stable one in this country at present, given the prevailing order of priorities.

Worldturndupsidedown . Tenniel-Mad-Hatter

In our neck of the woods, anyway, it’s the mere sight of snow, rather than the fact of snow in March, that’s unusual. Other places—Scotland, the North, parts of Wales, traditionally run on different snow tracks. Late in March, near the Anglo-Welsh border, the Reverend Francis Kilvert recorded: ‘A snowy Palm Sunday. Snow on the Palms. Mr. Venables went to Bettws in a dense snowstorm.’ He discerned compensations though. ‘In the afternoon I had the happiness to have all the poor people to myself. None of the grand people were at Church by reason of the snow. So of course I could speak much better and more freely.’[1]

In London too, again in late March, Ezra Pound reported to his father in 1916 ‘the blizzard, 80 big trees down in the park. Counted twenty from bus-top first day I went down to Piccadilly.’[2]

Not yet having reached The Beginning of Spring in my grand revisiting of Penelope Fitzgerald’s work —it’s set in Moscow just before the First World War, anyway—I’m still able to spot that this first day of English spring is far from springlike. Having made the short trip to the newsagent and back in overcoat and boots (via the front entrance, eschewing all trapdoors), though it was hardly matter for a photograph by Frank Hurley or Herbert Ponting, I decided that was probably enough. Go out to gambol through the snow in the park— or stay in with coffee, reading Julian Barnes on Manet, Courbet and Cézanne?

No need even to toss a coin.


[1] Entry for 24 March 1872: Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, Three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969), Volume Two (23 August 1871—13 May 1874), 157.

[2] Letter to Homer Pound, 7 April 1916: Ezra Pound to His Parents: Letters 1895–1929, edited by Mary de Rachewiltz, David Moody and Joanna Moody (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 366.


Put it more simply, Larry

(Lawrence Durrell via )

When I went to the Ford Madox Ford conference in Swansea in September 2013, I remember thinking, as the train entered Wales, that the change was physically apparent. Could I really look out of a train window and say ‘that’s Wales’? I felt I could but would have been hard put to it if I were challenged to say precisely how and why. But I did, quite abruptly, recall the opening lines of a poem by R. S. Thomas, whose title I could not then remember, and sat leaning against the window, listening to the voice in my head:

To live in Wales is to be conscious
At dusk of the spilled blood
That went into the making of the wild sky,
Dyeing the immaculate rivers
In all their courses.
It is to be aware,
Above the noisy tractor
And hum of the machine
Of strife in the strung woods,
Vibrant with sped arrows.[1]

No, that’s not quite what I heard. The third line had ‘to’ instead of ‘into’, the fourth and fifth lines had vanished from my memory, I had ‘the noise of the tractor’ and ‘the hum’. But not too bad since I hadn’t read the poem for a good thirty years. At home, seeming not to have any R. S. Thomas, I took down from the shelves four or five anthologies of post-1945 poetry, all containing poems by Thomas but not that one. Then I remembered that the hugely important and influential series of Penguin Modern Poets had featured Thomas in the very first volume. I’d owned that, more, at least the first ten volumes in the series, for years. Penguin Modern Poets 10: The Mersey Sound—Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten—was the bestseller, which took everyone by surprise. Where did my copies go? I’m not sure. Perhaps they didn’t go anywhere. It was just me that went. In any case, the Thomas poem, ‘A Welsh Landscape’, yes, was in the initial volume.


(R. S. Thomas via The Telegraph)

It was in April 1962 that Penguin Books launched Penguin Modern Poets. Each volume contained representative selections from three poets and that first volume included, together with Thomas, Elizabeth Jennings – and Lawrence Durrell (born on this day, 27 February 1912, in Jalandhar, India). I don’t know how far the series had gone before I came to it but there was a handful of poems of which I recalled parts, sometimes only a few lines, for years.


The Thomas was one and another, in the same volume, was by Durrell. It was called ‘The Parthenon’, dedicated ‘For T. S. Eliot’, and it was the direct, colloquial beginning that stuck in my head:

Put it more simply: say the city
Swam up here swan-like to the shallows,
Or whiteness from an overflowing jar
Settled into this grassy violet space,
Theorem for three hills,

Went soft with brickdust, clay and whitewash,
On a plastered porch one morning wrote
Human names, think of it, men became the roads.[2]

Looking at it now, of course, I’m struck by more details: the conversational opening phrase followed by the word ‘say’; the artful sibilants, ‘swam’ to ‘swan’ then, with the modifying ‘like’, shifting to ‘shallows’. The word ‘jar’ in a grassy space would prompt me to look back at Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ via Wallace Stevens, whose ‘Anecdote of the Jar’ begins:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.[3]

This is purely because of the strong recollection of one of my lecturers—surely John Reid?—reading the Stevens poem and looking encouragingly out at his audience: ‘What does that remind you of? What’s Stevens doing there?’ Pause. Then, with a kind of resonant despair: ‘It’s Keats! The urn!’ Packed rows of blank faces gave back whatever was the equivalent then of ‘Yeah, whatever’.

Durrell’s insertion of the word ‘Theorem’ is a nice touch too. He refers often to scientific or mathematical matters, a continuum or simultaneity here, a Freudian slap there, his range of interests always extended beyond the narrowly ‘artistic’. Firmly established in Sommières, he played with the ideas of opposing characteristics of North and South, discerning in France’s great figures ‘a pattern of talents: for scientists, philosophers and thinkers tend to be of northern stock, while the poets, artists and men of action come from the Mediterranean southern fringes.’[4] From Corfu in the mid-1930s, he wrote to his friend Alan Thomas, ‘What do you read when you spend a wet Monday alone? Myself I read one of the sciences.’ But he slyly added: ‘The most exact one to date is demonology. It is fun to follow the growth of science out of magic and demonology, and see it declining again in our time back to magic, its parent.’[5]

Whenever I find myself quoting one of those ‘Cypriot Greek proverbs’ that Durrell used as epigraphs to several chapters in Bitter Lemons, such as ‘A fool throws a stone into the sea and a hundred wise men cannot pull it out’, I’m reminded that, a little further on, he casually notes that, ‘No Greek can resist aphorism; its form will make him believe it to be true, even if it is false.’[6]

A bit more R. S. Thomas followed that early reading of the poems—and a lot more Durrell. The novels, the travel books, essays, letters; plus the connected stuff, the related writers, the sacred places. Greece, Alexandria, Provence. Miller, Cavafy, Seferis, Anaïs Nin. And, of course, the stimulus of conversation, a decade and a half in the office with my friend Andrew, a thoroughgoing Durrellian.


(‘Darling Anaïs, I do feel for you in your cutoffness, and there seems nothing to say to you that will make you less conscious of the distance of light and air which lies between us; the war goes bitter and deep in me – it makes everything taste of ash.’—Letter from Durrell in Greece, quoted in The Journals of Anaïs Nin: Volume Three, 15.
Portrait of Anaïs Nin by the wonderful Brassaï [Gyula Halász, 1899-1984], 1932.)

Durrell was so prolific that, inevitably, some of the writing is a bit hit and miss. But with that range of cultures and countries and curiosities there are plenty of highlights, often cropping up in unexpected places or small-scale pieces or, say, in departures and returns. He writes of April 1941 when, lying ‘on the pitch-dark deck of a caique nosing past Matapan towards Crete’, he thinks back to ‘that green rain upon a white balcony, in the shadow of Albania’, with ‘a regret so luxurious and so deep that it did not stir the emotions at all. Seen through the transforming lens of memory the past seemed so enchanted that even thought would be unworthy of it.’[7] And revisiting Corfu, long afterwards: ‘As for the people . . . Memory does not grow older by a second per thousand years in Greece. Step off the ship and everywhere you will fall upon remembered faces, be instantly recognized and embraced: and I don’t mean only by friends, but by everyone who remembers you in that once, nearly twenty years ago, you gave his son a lesson or let him shine your shoes. Because they remember you they possess you, and you belong to them.’ And then, ‘there is nothing to do but surrender yourself. Strong-willed men break down and cry like babies. No good. The steady flow of hospitality ends only when you are lovingly hospitalized or carried aboard a departing ship on a stretcher.’[8]

Again, rereading The Alexandria Quartet a while back, with that slight nervousness attendant on a revisiting of a past favourite, was as provoking and pleasurable as I hoped it would be. Durrell’s rarely less than diverting, even when he’s being exasperating, a thought that occurred to me when deeply implicated in the more than 1300 pages of The Avignon Quintet, with its maddening hall of mirrors, characters repeatedly dissolving into novelists writing other characters, who are then revealed to be characters in someone else’s novel, while I mutter, ‘Cut it out, Larry’, every ten pages – but read on. ‘There is only trial and error on a journey like this, and no signposts’, as Durrell wrote on another occasion.[9]

Joyeux anniversaire, Larry. Or even, Aürós aniversari.

The International Lawrence Durrell Society site is here:



[1] R. S. Thomas, ‘Welsh Landscape’, Collected Poems: 1945-1990 (London: Dent, 1993), 37.

[2] Lawrence Durrell, Collected Poems 1931-1974 (London: Faber and Faber, 1985), 134.

[3] Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems (New York: Vintage Books, 1982), 76.

[4] Lawrence Durrell, Caesar’s Vast Ghost: Aspects of Provence (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), 26.

[5] Alan G. Thomas, editor, Spirit of Place: Mediterranean Writings (1969; London : Faber and Faber, 1988), 47.

[6] Lawrence Durrell, Bitter Lemons (London: Faber and Faber, 1959), 152, 235.

[7] Lawrence Durrell, Prospero’s Cell (1945; London: Faber and Faber, 1962), 133.

[8] Lawrence Durrell, ‘Oil for the Saint: Return to Corfu’, Holiday, Philadelphia, (October 1966), in Spirit of Place, 286, 290.

[9] Lawrence Durrell, The Black Book (1938; London: Faber and Faber, 1977), 233.


Wrenching pension tensions

(‘My God, that’s no way to run a university. What are these creatures?’
Henry Fuseli: The Nightmare, c. 1790-1791 version. )

It’s getting on for ten years now since the Times Higher Education’s ‘The Poppletonian’, Laurie Taylor’s weekly bulletin from that hotbed of learning and stringent academic standards, featured as the ‘Thought for the Week’, the famous contribution by Jennifer Doubleday, Head of Personal Development: ‘What if the hokey-cokey is really what it’s all about?’

I wondered then – and I wonder now. On the home front, even taking precedence over the Punch and Judy Brexit show at the moment is the ongoing strike in defence of university pensions. Have there been surprises? Not really. The major news outlets, for the most part, refer to ‘the lecturers’ strike’: perhaps they genuinely don’t realise that it’s other professionals—librarians, clerical and technical staff—too. Lazy journalism, anyway, as is the consistent presentation of the £6.1 billion pension fund ‘deficit’ as an established fact rather than a projection based on disputed figures. There may have been surprise at the degree of contempt with which university employers evidently view their staff, who are, after all, the people who keep running the campuses from which those employers derive their astronomical salaries. But perhaps nobody’s surprised at all, given the violent changes inflicted on the higher education system in recent years and some of the people that have been put in charge of what used to be endearingly called ‘centres of learning’. I suppose the term is ‘profit centres’ now.

Things are beginning to liven up, anyway. After the Minister for Universities called on Universities UK and the University and College Union, to ‘get back to the negotiating table, without pre-conditions’, UUK agreed to resume talks – but they would not ‘re-open the Joint Negotiating Committee decision made on 23 January’. It was precisely because of that decision, of course, that university staff went on strike in the first place.


Then, too, articles and documentaries are appearing now which suggest a strong family resemblance between the revelations about expenses claimed by vice-chancellors (and their senior colleagues) and the MP expenses scandal of glorious memory. And more people seem to be querying the very odd arrangements whereby some vice-chancellors are pulling in up to £90,000—on top of those teeteringly high salaries—for sitting on that very committee which proposes slashing the pensions of university staff.

So much of this stuff is what we call in this country ‘how things are done’ or, if we’re feeling bold, ‘conflict of interest’—if it occurs in other countries, we seem to know precisely what to call it.




Foxes, Graces, Fatal Flowers

Maitland, Paul Fordyce, 1863-1909; Boats Moored on the Thames

(Paul Fordyce Maitland, Boats Moored on the Thames: York Museums Trust)

On a cold and blue and almost cloudless day, I pass through the park, between the bobbing magpies. Once you recognise the sight and sound of them, they’re everywhere. In our small garden yesterday, I watched a magpie take into its beak three, four, five suet pellets, and was put in mind of the fox.

Six or seven years ago, looking out of the window of my mother’s first-floor flat in Sutton, I would sometimes see foxes jogging along beside the railway line, about fifty metres away. At the end of the short garden was a garage with a flat roof and the downstairs neighbour used to throw food up onto it. One morning a fox appeared there – the roof was accessible from a low wall nearby. It took up items of food into its long jaws, meat and vegetables, five, six, seven pieces and, at the last, added a whole egg. Then it made its way down off the roof and emerged at the side of the track, all the food still apparently in place, undamaged, before padding off in the direction of home where, presumably, its cubs were waiting.

There are times when something occupying our minds or strongly present for a while—and it might be anything, from a car, a song or a woman’s name to a painting, a terrace of houses or a body of writing—exerts a powerful centripetal force. Details of things seen or heard fly to it and stick like burrs. Sounds and sights, images, phrases, connect with an audible click.

Since I’m reading or, mostly, rereading Penelope Fitzgerald’s books at present, when I walked in the park yesterday and heard the skirl of bagpipes launching into ‘Amazing Grace’, it was enough to recall the novel I’d just finished. Offshore, which won the Booker Prize in 1979, is set on the barges moored on Chelsea Reach and is dedicated ‘To Grace and all who sailed in her’. Grace is the name of the central character Nenna James’s barge, as it was the name of Fitzgerald’s, ‘a battered, patched, caulked, tar-blackened hulk’. The ‘great consolation was that a Thames barge, because of the camber of the deck, never sinks completely.’ On this point, Fitzgerald remarked, she could ‘give evidence, because we went down twice, and on both occasions the deck stayed just above water’, although Grace was finally ‘towed away to the Essex marshes to be broken up.’[1] After one of those disasters, Fitzgerald ‘went back to her teaching the next day, looking more than usually dishevelled, and said to her class: “I’m sorry I’m late, but my house sank.”’[2]


Similarly, thoughts of that fox recalled Fitzgerald’s letter in response to Frank Kermode’s review of her final novel, The Blue Flower, which centres on the life of the German Romantic poet Friedrich von Hardenberg, who wrote as ‘Novalis’. ‘I hope you won’t mind me writing to thank you for your review of The Blue Flower. I started from D. H. Lawrence’s “fatal flower of happiness” at the end of The Fox, having always wondered how DHL knew it was blue, and never quite managed to find out all I wanted to, partly because Novalis’ letters to Sophie have disappeared, buried in her grave I daresay.’[3]

Kermode had written of Fitzgerald: ‘She has the gift of knowing, or seeming to know, everything necessary, and as it were knowing it from the inside, conveying it by gleams and fractions, leaving those who feel so disposed to make it explicit.’ And, of the object of Fritz’s quest, ‘The visionary blue flower dominates his imagination, but in the waking life of Fritz von Hardenberg the part of the flower was played by Sophie von Kühn’.[4]

Sophie was the twelve-year-old girl with whom the poet fell in love. They became engaged on her thirteenth birthday but she died of tuberculosis just two years later. Novalis himself died before reaching thirty.

The end of ‘The Fox’ has ‘poor March’ musing on how, ‘The more you reached after the fatal flower of happiness, which trembles so blue and lovely in a crevice just beyond your grasp, the more fearfully you became aware of the ghastly and awful gulf of the precipice below you, into which you will inevitably plunge, as into the bottomless pit, if you reach any further. You pluck flower after flower – it is never the flower.’[5]

And the ending of Offshore? The two weakest characters, drunk and more than usually incapable, drift off in the storm, when the anchor comes clear and the mooring-ropes pull free under the strain. ‘It was in this way that Maurice, with the two of them clinging on for dear life, put out on the tide.’[6]

A craft that should be firmly linked to those of its close neighbours becoming unmoored and drifting off into the open sea because of intoxicated incompetence. Not a fable for our time, obviously.


[1] Penelope Fitzgerald, ‘Curriculum Vitae’, in A House of Air: Selected Writings, edited by Terence Dooley with Mandy Kirkby and Chris Carduff (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 477-478.

[2] Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (London: Chatto and Windus, 2013), 158.

[3] Penelope Fitzgerald to Frank Kermode, 3 October [1995], in So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 453.

[4] Frank Kermode, ‘Dark Fates’, review of The Blue Flower, London Review of Books, 17, 19 (5 October, 1995), 7.

[5] D. H. Lawrence, ‘The Fox’, in The Complete Short Novels, edited by Keith Sagar and Melissa Partridge (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 203.

[6] Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore (1979; London: Everyman, 2003), 131.


Something to be resisted

(Photograph: Jane Atkins, via The Guardian)

At the kitchen table, the Librarian is looking at the newspaper. ‘What a bloody mess.’ Perhaps the word wasn’t ‘bloody’. A comment on the times: I have not the faintest idea what she is referring to – there are just too many candidates, even sticking to the United Kingdom: the Brexit fiasco (or the fiasco of the level of comment upon it); the Labour policy on Brexit fiasco; the transport fiasco; the benefits or homelessness or education fiascos; the prisons fiasco; the higher education fiasco; the housing fiasco; the local council cuts fiasco; the tax evasion fiasco; the fracking fiasco; the foreign policy fiasco; the Tory leadership fiasco. I surrender.

In fact, she’s referring to the higher education fiasco: a fiddle here, a twiddle there. Either you acknowledge the benefits—to everyone—of a population as well-educated as possible or you don’t. So either you fund higher education properly or you don’t. And, of course, even in the higher education sector, there’s more than one bloody mess. This one—the forthcoming universities strike—is coming up fast.

The Guardian reports that ‘Universities UK (UUK), which represents university employers, has proposed that in order to overcome a £6.1bn deficit in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the fund should switch from a defined-benefit scheme that gives a guaranteed retirement income to a riskier defined-contribution plan, where pension income is subject to stock market movements.

A UUK spokesperson said the proposed pension changes were a necessary step, made in the best interests of university staff, to put the USS on a sustainable footing for the long term.’

‘Necessary’, ‘best interests’, ‘sustainable’. Nice, but not actually true. Try this:

‘University employers have provoked the largest vote for industrial action ever seen in the higher education sector. They have done this by overseeing what they present as a financial crisis for the University Superannuation Scheme (USS), and by threatening enormous cuts to the pensions of hundreds of thousands of university staff. None of this is necessary. It is the result of the misrepresentation of USS finances, and the desire of a new breed of university managements to cut their pension liabilities and thereby ease the financing of new buildings and campuses.’

Yes, this kind of behaviour, this kind of pretext, is becoming all too familiar—and is something that needs to be resisted. As it will be.


Education, chaos, Henry Adams


(Henry Adams at his desk. Massachusetts Historical Society via Wikipedia: photograph by Marion Hooper Adams, 1883.)

‘Said Mr Adams, of the education,
Teach? at Harvard?
Teach? It cannot be done.
and this I had from the monument’

So Ezra Pound, in the first and longest of The Pisan Cantos.[1] That ‘monument’ was the philosopher George Santayana: born in Spain, he went to the United States at the age of eight, later studied at Harvard and taught there for many years before returning to Europe for the last forty years of his long life.

‘Mr Adams’ was not the John Adams to whom Pound so frequently referred, often pairing him with Thomas Jefferson; nor the historian Brooks Adams but his elder brother Henry Adams (born 16 February 1838), also historian—and novelist, and autobiographer.

In early 1939, Pound had put together four quotations, from John Adams, Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and section 8 of the American Constitution, as an Introductory Text Book, which he asserted ‘should be taught in all American universities as the basis of a true American culture.’[2] Towards the end of that year, he called on Santayana when the latter was in Venice. As David Moody surmises, ‘Possibly feeling rather talked at as by an over-excited teacher’, he told Pound the anecdote about Henry Adams which found its way into the Cantos.[3] But Noel Stock is surely correct in saying that, while Pound seems to make the story apply to Harvard in particular, Santayana in his autobiography implies a more general statement about teaching.[4]

‘Never before had Adams been able to discern the working of law in history, which was the reason of his failure in teaching it, for chaos cannot be taught.’[5] So Adams—writing of himself in the third person, as he does throughout his book—defines the problem. Santayana looked back to that meeting in Persons and Places: ‘“So you are trying to teach philosophy at Harvard,” Mr Adams said’, adding ‘“I once tried to teach history there but it can’t be done. It isn’t really possible to teach anything.”’ Santayana commented dryly, ‘This may be true, if we give very exacting meanings to our terms; but it was not encouraging.’[6]


(Ernest and Mary Fenollosa, via )

For Pound, the main link with Henry Adams—about whom he is not particularly complimentary—is the figure of Ernest Fenollosa, whose notes and direct translations, given to Pound by Fenollosa’s widow, Mary, enabled both the Noh plays and the poems of Cathay; and whose ideas expressed in The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry had a lasting influence upon Pound.

Chapter XX of Adams’ Education is headed ‘Failure (1871); Chapter XXI is headed ‘Twenty Years After (1892). In that large and gaping temporal space, Adams was married to Marion Hooper, known as ‘Clover’ (a talented amateur photographer), in 1872; she committed suicide in December 1885. In the late spring of 1886, Adams, in company with the artist John La Farge, set off westward to Japan. After a week in Tokyo, they moved to a small house, belonging to a Buddhist priest, in the hills, close to the summer villa of Ernest and Mary Fenollosa in Nikko. La Farge emerged from his stay with drawings, sketches and other material for future use—the book, An Artist’s Letters from Japan, and a printed version in the same year of a talk centred on Hokusai—but Adams seems never to have really engaged with Japan.


(Magnolia by John La Farge, 1860)

In September, Adams and La Farge sailed back across the Pacific to San Francisco. Lawrence Chisolm remarks that, ‘For Adams, return was a prelude to years of wandering, until at last, in The Education of Henry Adams, he transformed the story of his personal searches into a history of Western man.’[7]

‘His first step, on returning to Washington’, Adams wrote, ‘took him out to the cemetery known as Rock Creek, to see the bronze figure which St. Gaudens had made for him in his absence’ (329). This was the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens; and that ‘bronze figure’ was a memorial to Adams’ wife Clover. Adams discusses his own, and others’, responses to the figure but doesn’t allude to the reason for its being there at all. Robert Hughes suggests that this may in fact have been one legacy of Japan: its inspiration ‘seems to have been a sixth-century wooden figure sheathed in bronze which he saw in the convent of Chugu-ji’.[8]


(Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Adams Memorial (1886-1891), Rock Creek, Washington)

Adams once noted that ‘One sees what one brings’ (387)—and he brought an extensive knowledge of artistic and religious history to the moment when ‘he found himself lying in the Gallery of Machines at the Great Exposition of 1900, his historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new’ (382). He had seen, at the Louvre and at Chartres, what he judged ‘the highest energy ever known to man’, exercising ‘vastly more attraction over the human mind than all the steam-engines and dynamos ever dreamed of’ (384-385), yet the unprecedented speed and extent of new scientific and technological developments represented now, in 1900, ‘a new avalanche of unknown forces’ which would require ‘new mental powers to control. If this view was correct, the mind could gain nothing by flight or by fight; it must merge in its sensual multiverse, or succumb to it’ (463).

Familiar modernist concerns: speed, fragmentation, instability, multiplicity – but Adams gets in quite early.

(There was an intriguing novel called Panama by Eric Zencey, which sets Henry Adams in Paris in 1892, investigating the disappearance of a young woman connected with the Panama Canal bribery scandal. I’m slightly alarmed to see that it’s over twenty years since I read it.)


[1] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 433.

[2] Ezra Pound, Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 129; A. David Moody, Ezra Pound: Poet: A Portrait of the Man and His Work: Volume II: The Epic Years 1921–1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 299.

[3] A. David Moody, Ezra Pound: Poet: A Portrait of the Man and His Work: Volume III: The Tragic Years 1939-1972 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 7.

[4] Noel Stock, The Life of Ezra Pound (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974), 478.

[5] Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1918; New York: The Modern Library, 1931), 363: page numbers in brackets refer to this edition.

[6] George Santayana, Persons and Places: The Background of My Life (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944), 234.

[7] Lawrence W. Chisolm, Fenollosa, the Far East and American Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963), 75.

[8] Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (London: The Harvill Press, 1997), 244.


Wintry discontents


It was St Matthew who observed that God ‘maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust’ (Matthew 5:45). Still, some people—very few of whom will fall into such clear-cut categories—get a lot more sun than others; or a lot more rain; or snow; or just weather, generally.

BBC weather reports mention strong winds disrupting events at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang; a tropical storm threatening the Phillipines; and, just over a week ago, the extreme weather in Moscow. The Russian capital had seen its heaviest snowfall in a day since records began, with more than 2000 trees brought down and air travel disrupted, according to official statements. This followed the breaking of another record in December, when the city registered the least amount of sunshine ever seen in a month there.

And here, in the mild South? Glumly dutiful rain today: no snow, of course (though more Northern parts of the country have had plenty), and it’s not even that cold. I turn the thermostat up one degree and it’s comfortable enough. But yes, some days lately have been pretty murky. ‘We just sat and grew older’, Frank Kermode recalled of his early naval experience in the Second World War, parked off the coast of Iceland, ‘as lightless winter followed nightless summer and the gales swept down the funnel of the fjord’.[1]

Patrick Hamilton was probably right to observe that, certainly in the twentieth century, ‘Wars, on the whole, are remembered by their winters.’[2] In the First World War, 1916-17 was claimed to be ‘the coldest winter in living memory.’[3] And the next year? Holidays for some. ‘Even in the doom-struck winter of 1917-18’, E. S. Turner observed, ‘British newspapers carried advertisements headed, “Where to Winter: Monte Carlo.”’[4]

Friedrich, Caspar David, 1774-1840; Winter Landscape

(Caspar David Friedrich, Winter Landscape:
photo credit, The National Gallery)

In war or peace, though, winters take their toll, physically, financially, psychologically, emotionally. ‘Wynter wakeneth al my care’, an anonymous medieval (early fourteenth century) lyricist wrote – or sang, sighing and sorely mourning, ‘When hit cometh in my thoht / Of this worldes joie, hou it geth al to noht.’

Nou hit is, and nou hit nys,
Al so hit ner nere, ywys[5]

(Now it is and now it is not,
As though it had never been, indeed)


( )

It might well seem that the world’s joy (and much else) was pretty fleeting when the average life expectancy for a male child was not much more than thirty years. In later centuries, people would take a longer view: Gilbert White could look back almost the length of that medieval lifespan when, writing of the winter of 1767-8, he noted that there was ‘reason to believe that some days were more severe than any since the year 1739-40.’[6]

On to Victorian England, where the Reverend Francis Kilvert can record in his diary for Septuagesima Sunday, St Valentine’s Eve, 13 February 1870: ‘the hardest frost we have had yet.’ Arriving at the Chapel, he writes, ‘my beard moustaches and whiskers were so stiff with ice that I could hardly open my mouth and my beard was frozen on to my mackintosh.’[7]

Ah, that old beard and mackintosh combo.


A little later still: though Virginia Woolf defined ‘the greatest pleasure of town life in winter’ as ‘rambling the streets of London’,[8] the disquieting character of the first winter of the war certainly unsettled her. ‘It’s a queer winter—the worst I ever knew, & suitable for the war & all the rest of it’, she wrote in her diary for Friday 22 January 1915. And, three weeks later: ‘I am sure however many years I keep this diary, I shall never find a winter to beat this. It seems to have lost all self control.’[9]

It was in the winter of the next year that D. H. Lawrence retrospectively placed the apocalyptic moment from which there was no real coming back. ‘It was in 1915 the old world ended. In the winter of 1915-1916 the spirit of the old London collapsed, the city, in some way, perished, perished from being a heart of the world, and became a vortex of broken passions, lusts, hopes, fears, and horrors.’[10]


(Ottoline Morrell by George Charles Beresford, 1864-1938)

That was through the eyes, or in the voice, of his protagonist, Richard Somers, still traumatised by his encounters with officialdom. Lawrence’s letters of the time are not, though, hugely different. To Harriet Monroe, he wrote on 15 September 1915:‘This is the real winter of the spirit in England.’ Less than two months later, though, to Ottoline Morrell, he wrote with—if not optimism, then at least a crack of light—‘There must be deep winter before there can be spring.’


(D. H. Lawrence)

No, definitely not optimism. He is advising her to drift and let go. His postscript reads: ‘Only do not struggle – let go and become dark, quite dark.’[11]


[1] Frank Kermode, Not Entitled: A Memoir (London: Harper Collins, 1996), 125.

[2] Patrick Hamilton, The West Pier (1951; in The Gorse Trilogy, Black Spring Press, 2007), 30.

[3] Michael Hurd, The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 94.

[4] E. S. Turner, Dear Old Blighty (London: Michael Joseph 1980), 49.

[5] The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1918, edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), 9, 10.

[6] Gilbert White, The Illustrated History of Selborne (1789; London: Macmillan, 1984), 46.

[7] Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, Three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969), Volume One (1 January 1870—19 August 1871), 34.

[8] Virginia Woolf, ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’, in Selected Essays, edited by David Bradshaw (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 177.

[9] The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume 1: 1915-19, edited by Anne Olivier Bell (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979), 26, 33.

[10] D. H. Lawrence, Kangaroo, edited by Bruce Steele, with an introduction and notes by Mac Daly (1923; Cambridge edition, 1994; London: Penguin, 1997), 216.

[11] Letters of D. H. Lawrence II, June 1913-October 1916, edited by George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 393, 469.