Furious fancies: defence in Bedlam

Hogarth_Scene-in-Bedlam
(‘Scene in Bedlam’: Plate VIII of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress.)

Hearing politicians declaim about ‘defence’ these days often puts me in mind of the anonymous poem, ‘Tom a Bedlam’ or ‘Tom o’Bedlam’s Song’, probably dating from the early seventeenth century if not before. Its last two verses are:

With an host of furious fancies,
Whereof I am commander.
With a burning spear
And a horse of Air,
To the wilderness I wander.

By a knight of ghosts and shadows,
I summoned am to tourney
Ten leagues beyond
The wild world’s end-
Methinks it is no journey.[1]

Phantasmal armies; equally phantasmal foes. Knowing the reality of what actually threatens us now, who are these enemies that can be defeated or discouraged by a massively expensive and inevitably anachronistic nuclear weapons system?

Following Jeremy Corbyn’s speech in the wake of the mass murder in Manchester, Theresa May, other Tories and the right-wing tabloids launched a predictable attack.

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/may/26/may-puts-manchester-bombing-at-heart-of-election-with-attack-on-corbyn

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/05/26/jeremy-corbyn-making-excuses-terror-attacks-theresa-may-says/

It’s only too possible that Michael Fallon didn’t wholly grasp what Mr Corbyn actually said. Certainly, on Channel 4 News, he dismissed a statement simply because he believed it to be by Jeremy Corbyn when in fact it was a quote from Boris Johnson. Theresa May would have understood what Jeremy Corbyn was saying but chose to wilfully misrepresent him, safe in the knowledge that most people would not have seen the text of his speech, and that a great many voters’ grasp of defence policy is hardly nuanced or anything much more than a drowsy assumption that Trident is something to do with an intelligent ‘defence policy’—rather than expressing a determination of the ‘size matters’ lobby to stay at the big table of the Security Council of the United Nations.

Trident-via

http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/peace/trident-the-uks-nuclear-weapons-system

The primary misrepresentation was to pretend that Mr Corbyn had claimed that the Manchester atrocity and other terrorist acts were solely due to British foreign policy (though that pretence also entailed an apparent unfamiliarity with the English language’s distinction between ‘excuse’ and ‘explanation’). Neither he nor anyone else worth attending to would claim that this country’s foreign policy was the only factor but it would be naïve, misinformed or, frankly, deliberately misleading to claim that there is no connection whatsoever.[2]

Jeremy Corbyn actually said (in what was a perfectly reasonable and rational response): ‘We will also change what we do abroad. Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.
‘That assessment in no way reduces the guilt of those who attack our children. Those terrorists will forever be reviled and implacably held to account for their actions.
‘But an informed understanding of the causes of terrorism is an essential part of an effective response that will protect the security of our people, that fights rather than fuels terrorism.
‘Protecting this country requires us to be both strong against terrorism and strong against the causes of terrorism. The blame is with the terrorists, but if we are to protect our people we must be honest about what threatens our security.
‘Those causes certainly cannot be reduced to foreign policy decisions alone.’
‘And no rationale based on the actions of any government can remotely excuse, or even adequately explain, outrages like this week’s massacre. But we must be brave enough to admit the war on terror is simply not working. We need a smarter way to reduce the threat from countries that nurture terrorists and generate terrorism.’
‘So, let the quality of our debate, over the next fortnight, be worthy of the country we are proud to defend. Let’s have our arguments without impugning anyone’s patriotism and without diluting the unity with which we stand against terror.’

But it seems that we can’t do that in this country. We have to impugn, we have to dilute, we have to posture.

I am always busily resisting the temptation to align myself—mutatis mutandis—with the Major in J. G. Farrell’s novel Troubles, set during the Irish War of Independence:

‘The Major only glanced at the newspaper these days, tired of trying to comprehend a situation which defied comprehension, a war without battles or trenches. Why should one bother with the details: the raids for arms, the shootings of policemen, the intimidations? What could one learn from the details of chaos? Every now and then, however, he would become aware with a feeling of shock that, for all its lack of pattern, the situation was different, and always a little worse.’[3]

References

[1] Famously, this poem inspired Kenneth Patchen’s extraordinary 1941 novel, The Journal of Albion Moonlight.
[2] Shiraz Maher, ‘In the minds of the murderers’, New Statesman, 26 May—1 June 2017, 24.
[3] J. G. Farrell, Troubles (1970; London: Flamingo Books, 1984), 169.

 

Dawn chorus and aubades

Woken by the bird chorus at 04:15, I note that it’s a new record for this month, having previously been woken at 05:15 and 04:45. They’ll be waking me the previous evening before too long. Since we are still, so to speak, between cats, we have—with curious logic—set up a bird table in our small back garden. The regular visitors are blackbirds, blue tits, and beautiful—if omnivorous and scavenging—magpies, plus the occasional sparrow. Perhaps this dawn choir is an expression of avian gratitude.

Magpie_rspb.org

(Magpie via https://www.rspb.org.uk/ )

There was a distinct dawn-related genre in Provençal troubadour literature: the aube or aubade, poems or songs announcing, or in praise of, the dawn—though the Troubadour poets sometimes lamented the dawn’s arrival since it meant the parting of the lovers.

The appeal of first light (or, sometimes, darkness) has endured. Philip Larkin’s ‘Aubade’ begins: ‘I work all day, and get half-drunk at night./ Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.’[1]

The first stanza of William Empson’s fine ‘Aubade’ runs:

Hours before dawn we were woken by the quake.
My house was on a cliff. The thing could take
Bookloads off shelves, break bottles in a row.
Then the long pause and then the bigger shake.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.[2]

(Nine more stanzas with just a bare handful of run-on lines; also a quite intricate pattern of repetition.)

Empson_via_New_Directions

(William Empson via New Directions Publishing)

Ezra Pound’s second book, A Quinzaine for this Yule, was dedicated to ‘The Aube of the West Dawn’; he wrote and translated several aubades.

In No More Parades (the second of the volumes of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End), Sylvia Tietjens has turned up at the Rouen base camp where her husband Christopher is charged with moving troops up the line.

He added: “I shall have to be up in camp before four-thirty to-morrow morning. . . . ”
Sylvia could not resist saying:
“Isn’t there a poem . . . Ah me, the dawn, the dawn, it comes too soon! . . . said of course by lovers in bed? . . . Who was the poet?”
[ . . . ]
[Tietjens] then said in his leisurely way:
“There were a great many poems with that refrain in the Middle Ages…. You are probably thinking of an albade by Arnaut Daniel, which someone translated lately. . . . An albade was a song to be sung at dawn when, presumably, no one but lovers would be likely to sing. . . . ”
“Will there,” Sylvia asked, “be anyone but you singing up in your camp to-morrow at four?”[3]

The lines that Sylvia quotes are most likely from Pound’s ‘Alba Innominata’, a translation based on the anonymous Provençal poem, ‘En un vergier sotz fue’. Its five verses and ‘Envoi’ all end (apart from one slight variation) with the line ‘Ah God! Ah God! That dawn should come so soon!’[4]

Lark_in_Morning_

Ford and Pound had met in April 1909, through the novelist May Sinclair, and Pound’s third volume, Personae, appeared in that same month. His first important periodical publication in this country was in the pages of the English Review, edited by Ford: ‘Sestina: Altaforte’, in the issue of June 1909. ‘Alba Innominata’ was included in Pound’s next volume, Exultations, published in October 1909.

At the end of 1920, Pound and his wife Dorothy moved to Paris and, in late 1922, Ford and Stella Bowen also moved to France, first to St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, then Paris. In early 1925, they took a cottage in the village of Guermantes, about an hour’s train travel from Paris. No More Parades was begin in October 1924 and, in that same month, Pound and his wife Dorothy moved permanently to Rapallo, in Italy

Six years after his novel was published, Ford would recall Pound’s early years in London when the poet, ‘looking down his nose would chuckle like Mephistopheles and read you a translation from Arnaut Daniel. The only part of that albade that you would understand would be the refrain: “Ah me, the darn, the darn it comes toe sune!”’[5]

 

References

[1] Larkin, Collected Poems, edited by Anthony Thwaite (East St Kilda: The Marvell Press and London: Faber, 2003), 190.

[2] Empson’s poem is taken from Contemporary Verse, edited by Kenneth Allott (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1950), 157.

[3] Ford, No More Parades (1925; edited by Joseph Wiesenfarth, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 134-135.

[4] Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations (New York: Library of America, 2003), 120; and see Richard Sieburth’s note, 1262.

[5] Ford, Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 388.

Poor Jamie, poor Gérard

I am currently with James Boswell in Holland. Since his Dutch journal, continued in the same vein as his London journal, had been lost, this volume comprises his almost daily memoranda; his French ‘themes’, short essays he wrote at the intended rate of two pages a day, to improve his facility in the language; letters to him from friends and family and some of his letters to them; and a substantial section of documents based on his not-quite-love-affair with a young Dutch woman, Isabelle van Tuyll van Serooskerken, generally known as Belle de Zuylen or Zélide, whose first novel had been published the year before Boswell met her. Later, she also produced plays and pamphlets, and wrote music.

Belle_van_Zuylen,_attributed_to_Guillaume_de_Spinny

(Belle de Zuylen by Guillaume de Spinny, 1759: Zuylen Castle)

In the words of the editor’s summary, Boswell ‘had resolved that he would reform on the day he left England for Holland. He did. For ten months in Holland he was by heroic effort modest, studious, frugal, reserved, and chaste. And he almost went out of his mind.’[1] Poor Jamie. Certainly, his interest in women did not diminish. He wrote in a letter to Charles de Guiffardière: ‘There are so many beautiful and amiable ladies in our circle that a quire of paper could not contain their praises, though written by a man of a much cooler fancy and a much smaller handwriting than myself’ (91).

Labouring to stay on the paths of righteousness, sobriety, godliness and celibacy, he repeatedly addresses stern memoranda to himself: ‘Guard against liking billiards. They are blackguard’ (21), ‘Write French before ten each morning, and lay out hours exactly. Spend not so much time in sauntering. Be firm to be always employed’ (37). Sometimes he admonishes himself for slight lapses: ‘But remember how near you was to getting drunk and exposing yourself, for if you had gone on a little longer, you could not have stopped’ (66), ‘Yesterday you did not at all keep to rules as you ought to do’ (55). And sometimes he congratulates himself—‘Yesterday you did extremely well’ (65).

Nadar_Daumier

(‘Nadar elevating Photography to Art’: lithograph by Honoré Daumier, 1863)

My departures from Boswell involve revisiting the tales of Isak Dinesen or Algernon Blackwood; or, particularly, travelling with the biographer and translator Richard Holmes. He is currently in the France of his youth, rubbing shoulders with the pioneer photographer and balloonist Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon), the theatrical phenomenon Jean-Gaspard Deburau; and the writers Théophile Gautier and Gérard de Nerval.

Gérard de Nerval (born on this day, 22nd May, in 1806; he died—a suicide—in 1855) is still generally known to Anglophone readers, when known at all, as the man who walked a lobster on a blue silk ribbon through the gardens of the Palais Royal.[2] The other detail familiar to some readers is that T. S. Eliot quotes a line from Nerval’s sonnet, ‘El Desdichado’—‘Le prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie’—in The Waste Land.[3]

Félix_Nadar_1820-1910_portraits_Gérard_de_Nerval

(Nadar: portrait of Gérard de Nerval)

The source of the lobster story appears to have been Nerval’s friend Théophile Gautier, to whom Nerval defended his choice of companion by asking why it was any more ridiculous than walking a dog or a cat—‘or a gazelle, or a lion, or any other animal that one chooses to take for a walk?’ He added: ‘I have a liking for lobsters. They are peaceful, serious creatures. They know the secrets of the sea’.[4]

When I read this, I thought of Eliot’s earlier poem, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’:

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

The tremendously thorough annotations of the 2015 The Poems of T. S. Eliot mention, in connection with these lines, Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man (and much else)[5] but I did wonder when Eliot became aware of Gérard de Nerval.

In December 1908, Eliot picked up the ‘newly published second edition of Arthur Symons’s The Symbolist Movement in Literature’ in the Harvard Union library’ and, as a result of his reading of this book, immediately ordered the three volume edition of Jules Laforgue’s Oeuvres complètes.[6] The influence of Laforgue on Eliot’s early work is well-documented but, interestingly, in this second edition of Symons’ book, which differs a good deal from the first, the opening chapter is on Gérard de Nerval (that on Laforgue is the fifth; and Gautier is now mentioned only in the chapter on Nerval). Symons refers to the occasion on which Nerval ‘was found in the Palais-Royal, leading a lobster at the end of a blue ribbon (because, he said, it does not bark, and knows the secrets of the sea)’.[7]

Symons, The Symbolist Movement in Literature

Nerval had developed an obsessive love for an actress called Jenny Colon, who died in 1842. Shortly afterwards, he set off on his travels to Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey, returning to Paris in 1844: his Journey to the Orient appeared two years later. Following his first major breakdown in 1841, he suffered from mental health problems and periods of hospitalisation for the rest of his short life. In a letter of 1915, Symons mentioned that he had purchased an autograph letter of Jenny Colon—he compared Nerval’s breakdown to his own in 1908.[8]

‘Everything is alive, everything is in motion, everything corresponds; the magnetic rays that emanate from me or from others flow directly through the infinite chain of creation whose transparent network is in continuous communication with the planets and the stars. A captive here on earth for the moment, I commune with the chorus of stars and they join in my sorrows and joys.’[9]

 

References

[1] Boswell in Holland 1763-1764, edited by Frederick A. Pottle (London: William Heinemann, 1952), xiii: bracketed figures refer to page numbers in this volume.

[2] See Richard Holmes, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1985), 212-213, where he suggests that the story is ‘perhaps apocryphal’; see also the script of his radio play, ‘Inside the Tower’, based on the life of Nerval (‘All Nerval’s speeches are drawn from his own essays, letters and journals’), in  Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer (London: Harper Collins, 2000), 89-131 (105-106).

[3] The Waste Land, ll.429. For the text of the poem accompanied by a prose translation, see Gérard de Nerval, Selected Writings, translated with an introduction by Richard Sieburth (London: Penguin Books, 1999), 363.

[4] Holmes, Footsteps, 213.

[5] The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 389-390.

[6] Lyndall Gordon, Eliot’s Early Years (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 28, 29.

[7] Arthur Symons, The Symbolist Movement in Literature, second revised edition (London: Archibald Constable & Co., 1908), 12-13.

[8] Arthur Symons, Selected Letters, 1880-1935, edited by Karl Beckson and John M. Munro (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1989), 238, 239n3.

[9] Nerval, ‘Aurelia’, translated by Richard Sieburth, Selected Writings, 307.

Apocalyptic frames of reference

Walking home the back way, two sourdough loaves from Mark’s bakery in my rucksack, the warmth of them pressed into the small of my back, not unpleasant even on a humid morning. The back way, in this instance, runs past a small trading estate, along a shared path (cyclists and pedestrians) and beside a stretch of the Malago River which, at this point, is a stream, a brook, a brooklet.

(On the Malago, see https://malago.wordpress.com/ )

As in many areas accessible to the public but a little off the beaten track—though hardly limited to those—rubbish is often scattered here, behind or against fences and walls, tossed into undergrowth, even dropped into the water. Volunteer teams of local residents regularly get together and clear this stuff but the relief is only ever temporary.

If other species fouled their own habitats in such a reckless and incontinent manner, we would, I suspect, view their extinction as both inevitable and deserved. The guano of cormorants eventually ‘fouls the nest colony’ but they shift their location, presumably because of this.[1] Human fouling is on a larger scale entirely, its effects reaching far beyond crowded and polluted cities to oceans, coral reefs, distant islands:

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/may/15/38-million-pieces-of-plastic-waste-found-on-uninhabited-south-pacific-island

It’s also, of course, indefensible, since we know the effects of our behaviour but refuse to modify it—and shifting our location is not a practicable option.

Ernst_Europe

(Max Ernst, Europe After the Rain, 1940-1942: © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT)

There have been countless works, in all media, of an apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic strain. Freakish weather, floods, droughts, epidemics and, increasingly over the past few decades, nuclear war, though the actual cause of the catastrophe is often left unspecified, the primary interest, from the writer’s point of view, being generally in the aftermath, the physical transformation together with the political, social and psychological conditions arising from it. And there have been some extraordinary works, from Mary Shelley’s The Last Man through Richard Jefferies’ After London to Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.

An apocalyptic frame of mind prompts other reflections. One that’s occurred to me several times over the years relates to our increased reliance on technology: is there a corresponding increase in our vulnerability in the event of that technology’s failure—whether through data corruption or the actions of hostile forces? If those things that we rely on—the internet, email, mobile phones—failed, how long would it take for the unease, anxiety, frustration, fear, to turn into more aggressive and destructive reactions?

Then there’s that oft-cited ‘thin line’ between civilisation and barbarism; and the obvious fact—though perhaps it’s not obvious to everyone—that, while it takes many decades, centuries, millennia, to build a civilisation, it takes very little time to destroy it:

What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London
Unreal[2]

It’s true in other contexts too, as vast as civilisations, as small as personal relationships: building is slow and often difficult while destroying is quick and usually easy—and thus well-suited to certain types of character and types of mind. Guy Davenport remarked that humans’ advantages over their fellow creatures ‘are all mechanical and therefore dependent on the education of each generation: meaning that an intervening generation of barbarians destroys all that has been carefully accumulated for centuries.’[3]

GD_Geography

That fragility of the civilised state is a topic of extraordinary interest to writers. In a novel published well before the First World War, Arnold Bennett wrote of humanity walking ever ‘on a thin crust over terrific abysses.’[4] John Buchan, in a book that actually appeared during that war (though written in 1913), has his brilliant arch-villain Lumley say: ‘You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilisation from barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass. A touch here, a push there, and you bring back the reign of Saturn.’[5] A few years later, another of his characters, John Heritage, tells Dickson McCunn that he ‘learned in the war that civilization anywhere is a very thin crust.’[6] Fifteen years after the Armistice, Ford Madox Ford, who had served in the British army in France, wrote of it having been revealed to him that ‘beneath Ordered Life itself was stretched, the merest film with, beneath it, the abysses of Chaos. One had come from the frail shelters of the Line to a world that was more frail than any canvas hut.’[7]

FMF_IWN

Rudyard Kipling, too, influenced by ‘the Hindu concept of maya (or illusion)’, Andrew Lycett suggests, ‘came to regard civilisation as a fragile edifice’,[8] while J. G. Frazer, author of The Golden Bough, convinced of the ‘solid layer of savagery beneath the surface of society’, asserted that ‘we seem to move on a thin crust which may at any moment be rent by the subterranean forces slumbering below’.[9]

 This cheerful frame of mind can probably be partly blamed on my recent rereading of Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains. I read her first six novels within a few months, decades ago; and most of her other books at more widely-spaced points over many more years. One or two of the (much) later novels were more appreciated critically but I suspect I liked the earlier ones more, for all their imperfections (not that those were evident to me). I liked them firstly because I found them out entirely by myself; and because I hadn’t come across anything similar at that stage. I particularly liked Heroes and Villains because it was even more unfamiliar to me than Carter’s other books. Unlike several of my friends at that time, I’d never contracted the science fiction or fantasy habit.

It was reading New Worlds, then edited by Michael Moorcock and frequently including work by J. G. Ballard, that was a significant factor in Carter’s writing Heroes and Villains, between January 1968 and January 1969, often working for twelve hours a day on her ‘post-apocalyptic fairy tale’.[10]

‘The roads were arteries which no longer sprang from a heart. Once the cities were gone, the roads reverted to an older function; they were used for the most existential kind of travelling, that nomadic peregrination which is an end in itself.’[11]

Reading the novel again after so many years, things were visible to me that hadn’t been then, of course, and no doubt there are some autobiographical elements that criticism and biography has since traced out. But my own impressions were, firstly, that it’s a very consciously written book, its effects quite deliberately worked out; secondly, that it’s thickly populated with ideas and theories and propositions from the books she was reading at the time; thirdly, and most strikingly, the palpable sense of liberation. That sense often emerges in the work of a writer (or painter or composer) who’s realised that he or she is not bound by genres or classifications: the novel can be both realistic and fantastic; it can be poetic and prosaic; it can include references to classical literature and popular culture; it can provoke expectations and frustrate them; it can conform in some ways to quite recognisable generic rules—such as fairy tale—but can, at the same time, explore the most vital contemporary concerns, sexual politics, social anthropology, linguistics, environmental science.

Unsurprisingly, I noticed literary references that I wouldn’t have caught before: one of the Barbarian mothers wears ‘a dead wrist watch on her arm, purely for decoration; it was a little corpse of time having stopped for good and all at ten to three one distant and forgotten day’ (Heroes and Villains 44). Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ famously ends: ‘oh! yet / Stands the Church clock at ten to three? / And is there honey still for tea?’ and it’s a choice replete with ironies (some of them Brooke’s). Later in the book, after Marianne has rescued Jewel from drowning himself in the sea, ‘Water streamed from his hair and his soaked clothes stuck to him, the gaunt survivor of a shipwreck, his eyes momentarily blind as pearls’ (Heroes and Villains 143), which surely waves to The Waste Land again—‘(Those are pearls that were his eyes)’: The Waste Land, l.257—which is itself quoting The Tempest (I.ii.401).

Near_Thing_Captain_Najork

But there are hazards to reference-hunting: having made a reasonable case for a phrase in the early pages of the novel faintly echoing Bob Dylan’s ‘Outlaw Blues’—Bringing It All Back Home was released in 1965, Carter’s novel in 1969, so it’s at least feasible—I then  attempted to convince myself that the tone and crispness of several other phrases were surely reminiscent of similar instances in two superb children’s books by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Quentin Blake: How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen and A Near Thing for Captain Najork. I was saved from such delusions by chronology: the first was published in 1974, the second a year later.

It’s a dangerous path. . .

 

References

[1] Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, in Birds Britannica (London: Chatto & Windus, 2005), 37.

[2] T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land (1922), ll. 371-376.

[3] Davenport, ‘The Symbol of the Archaic’, in The Geography of the Imagination (London: Picador, 1984), 19.

[4] Bennett, The Old Wives’ Tale (1908; Penguin, 1983), 444.

[5] Buchan, The Power-House (1916; Edinburgh: B&W Publishing, 1993), 38.

[6] Buchan, Huntingtower (1922; edited by Anne Stonehouse, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 116.

[7] Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 49.

[8] Lycett, Rudyard Kipling (London: Weidenfeld, 1999), 3.

[9] Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, abridged edition (London: Macmillan, 1957), 73. The passage is quoted in the course of a discussion of Frazer’s significant influence on early modernist writers by Helen Carr, The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H.D. and the Imagists (London: Cape 2009), 262-267.

[10] Edmund Gordon’s phrase in his The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography (London: Chatto & Windus, 2016), 118-119.

[11] Heroes and Villains (1969; London: Picador, 1972), 107.

Still cormorants, flickering authors

From close to the Arnolfini centre for contemporary arts, in the heart of Bristol’s harbourside, I’d seen a cormorant from time to time, as I had in other locations around the city, such as Wapping Wharf. Once I’d seen two, here, by the ferry stop at Nova Scotia Place. Now there were three. Apart from liking the distinctive look of them, and the dramatic gesture they sometimes make, of spreading their wings wide to dry them and holding that position for minutes on end, I had at the back of my mind two poems, or fragments of poems. One was a bit of doggerel from Christopher Isherwood, which runs:

The Common Cormorant or shag
Lays eggs inside a paper bag.
The reason you will see, no doubt,
It is to keep the lightning out.

But what these unobservant birds
Have never noticed is that herds
Of wandering bears may come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.

Cormorants_three.JPG

The second was a poem that I recalled as being one of the first to make an impression on me in my schooldays, probably around the age of nine or ten. It was called ‘Flannan Isle’.

There’s a small history trailing after that first brief exhibit. Isherwood had written the verses in 1928 to accompany a cartoon in the book that eleven-year-old Sylvain Mangeot was making, entitled People One Ought to Know.[1] In 1935, it appeared in The Poet’s Tongue, credited to ‘Anon’ before being included in Isherwood’s collection, Exhumations, thirty years later.[2] Since the anthology was co-edited by W. H. Auden, with whom Isherwood was intimate for many years—and they collaborated on at least four works during the 1930s—it seems unlikely that Auden was unaware of the poem’s true authorship.[3]

Cormorants_two

As for the second poem, ‘Flannan Isle’, there were no complications, no curious details, no story there: I knew it was by James Elroy Flecker. My interest in him was slightly obscure, or at least removed from the man himself: the most enthusiastic praise of Flecker that I’d seen was by Douglas Goldring, the novelist, playwright, travel writer, polemicist—and author of several books dealing in part or entirely with Ford Madox Ford, including the earliest biography of him.[4] So, to work: ‘Flannan Isle’, by James Elroy Flecker.

Except that it isn’t.

The inimitable Guy Davenport once wrote, in a short and extremely funny essay about Joseph Cornell and the film-maker Stan Brakhage: ‘We are never so certain of our knowledge as when we’re dead wrong.’[5] ‘Flannan Isle’ is in fact by Wilfred Gibson, who featured strongly in several volumes of Georgian Poetry and was one of the ‘Dymock Poets’, so called because several of them lived around that Gloucestershire village in the years immediately preceding the First World War. Robert Frost and Edward Thomas are usually mentioned in this context, along with Gibson, Rupert Brooke, Lascelles Abercrombie and John Drinkwater.

Not only is the poem not by Flecker but it doesn’t specifically mention cormorants. Gibson’s 1912 poem is about the mysterious disappearance of three lighthousemen from the island. The narrator is on a boat sent to investigate, in response to puzzling reports:

And, as into the tiny creek
We stole beneath the hanging crag,
We saw three queer, black, ugly birds—
Too big, by far, in my belief,
For guillemot or shag—
Like seamen sitting bold upright
Upon a half-tide reef:
But, as we near’d, they plunged from sight,
Without a sound, or spurt of white.[6]

Close: the shag is similar to a cormorant, though smaller. And Isherwood, a.k.a. ‘Anon’, made them sound closer than that (‘The common cormorant or shag’).[7]

Barker, Thomas Jones, 1815-1882; The Charge of the Light Brigade

(Thomas Jones Barker, The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1877
© Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, Shrivenham)

Still, I can manage to see it as very positive, that, as a child, I was struck by the poem rather than the poet. At that age, I think, for a poem to stick in my head, it  needed either strong repetition, as in Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’:

Cannon to right of them
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volleyed and thundered

or an unsettling image or situation, as in ‘Flannan Isle’; or a combination of both, as in Alfred Noyes’ ‘The Highwayman’, long a favourite anthology piece:

Her eyes grew wide for a moment; she drew one last deep breath,
Then her finger moved in the moonlight,
Her musket shattered the moonlight,
Shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him—with her death.[8]

Poems aside, I find that I can watch cormorants for quite a long time. That stillness, that sleek darkness. They stand, I stand. A restful arrangement. I wasn’t really aware of the ferocious, often murderous, anti-cormorant sentiment among anglers[9] and not familiar with  the negative associations of the word common among the Elizabethan writers. As a noun, then, it seems to mean ‘glutton’; as an adjective, ‘rapacious, ravenous’. Thomas Nashe uses the noun to mean a rapacious person—and employs it fairly often. In Pierce Penniless his Supplication to the Devil, Nashe’s persona is a ‘half-starved malcontent young poet who petitions the Devil to spirit away those capitalist ‘“cormorants”’[10] who ‘bung up all the wealth of the land in their snap-hance [with snap-locks] bags, and poor scholars and soldiers wander in back lanes and the out-shifts of the city, with never a rag to their backs.’ (What Nashe would think—and write— of our contemporary social and economic inequalities is rich food for thought.) Elsewhere, he divides companies of men into ‘corn’ and ‘chaff’: ‘the corn are cormorants, the chaff are good fellows which are quickly blown to nothing with bearing a light heart in a light purse.’[11]

The word’s origin hardly helps, apparently from the medieval Latin corvus marinus, ‘sea raven’, with clear links between ‘raven’ and the old verb meaning to hunt voraciously for prey. Shakespeare writes of ‘cormorant devouring time’, and the footnote in my copy of Love’s Labour’s Lost has: ‘Cormorant: ravenous. Elsewhere Shakespeare has “cormorant war” and “cormorant belly”.’ The character of Moth in the play is generally seen now as based on Nashe.[12]

All pretty hard on the cormorants, anyway, and in the teeth—ravenous, rapacious, gluttonous—of literary and angling disapproval, I shall continue to take pleasure in the sight of them.

 

References

[1] David Garrett Izzo, Christopher Isherwood Encyclopedia (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co, 2005), 37. People One Ought to Know was published in 1982.

[2] The Poet’s Tongue: An Anthology of Verse, edited by W. H. Auden and John Garrett (London: G. Bell, 1935), 123; as late as 1997, the author is given as ‘Anon’ in Old Chestnuts Warmed Up, edited by John R. Murray (London: John Murray, 1997), 17, there entitled ‘Birds, Bags, Bears and Buns’; Isherwood, Exhumations: Stories, Articles, Verses (London: Methuen, 1966), 7.

[3] The collaborative works are The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6 (1936), On the Frontier (1938), Journey to a War (1939).

[4] The Last Pre-Raphaelite: A Record of the Life and Writings of Ford Madox Ford (London: Macdonald, 1948; published in the United States as Trained for Genius). Goldring’s essay, ‘James Elroy Flecker: An Appreciation and Some Personal Memories’, was included in his Reputations: Essays in Criticism (London: Chapman & Hall, 1920), 1-35.

[5] Davenport, ‘Pergolesi’s Dog’, in Every Force Evolves a Form (Berkeley: North Point Press, 1987), 145.

[6] A. Methuen, An Anthology of Modern Verse (London: Methuen & Co., 1921), 84.

[7] The version of ‘the well-known nonsense poem’ quoted by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, in Birds Britannica (London: Chatto & Windus, 2005), 34, begins: ‘The common cormorant (or shag)’, making the identification (or misidentification) more explicit.

[8] Taken from The Oxford Book of Narrative Verse, chosen and edited by Iona and Peter Opie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 344.

[9] Birds Britannica, 34-37.

[10] See Charles Nicholl, A Cup of News: The Life of Thomas Nashe (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), 2.

[11] The second quotation is from The Unfortunate Traveller: see The Unfortunate Traveller and Other Works, edited by J. B. Steane (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972), 104, 255: the spelling is modernised in this edition.

[12] Love’s Labour’s Lost, edited by R. W. David (London: Methuen & Co., 1987), 3, xxxvi.

 

‘Rather worried about democracy’

‘Sometimes people never saw things clearly until it was too late and they no longer had the strength to start again. Or else they forgot their idea along the way and didn’t even realise that they had forgotten.’[1]

Park-2

Walking back across the park, I feel a brisk wind spring up, quite cold, an abrupt imposition on a pleasantly warm morning, thirteen or fourteen degrees (mid-fifties in American money). As the 2016 Nobel laureate once sang, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. So which way is it blowing just lately?

In 1917, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published ‘His Last Bow’, in which Sherlock Holmes appears in the guise of a successful British agent in the summer of 1914, kitted out with Yankee accent and goatee beard. At the close of the story, reunited with the faithful Doctor John Watson, he remarks: ‘There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.’[2]

This was the Conan Doyle who wrote warning pamphlets even before the war broke out (and, subsequently, a six-volume work on The British Campaign in France and Flanders, apparently showing the same trust in official sources as he later showed towards spiritualists and small girls photographed with fairies in their garden).

Many of us will doubt that this is ‘God’s own wind’ and will certainly doubt that ‘a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared’. But yes, there’s an increasing suspicion that the wind is indeed coming from the east, though blowing more strongly on the United States at present, often via companies that specialise in harvesting data from social media and personalising election messages based on that data.

Scottish-miners-strike-17-June-1926-001

(Scottish miners strike, 17 June 1926: http://historycollections.blogs.sas.ac.uk/ ©Bishopsgate Institute)

Samuel Hynes, writing of the conclusion of the General Strike of 1926, observed that it was ‘more than simply the end of an industrial action; it was the end of hope that the war might still have some positive consequences in the lives of the men who had fought it.’[3] The Great War was seen by many of the survivors as a terrible gap in their lives. Wyndham Lewis wrote of it as a bridge: ‘Of course the bridge is symbolic. The bridge stands for something else. The bridge, you see, is the war.’[4] David Jones remarked that ‘for us amateur soldiers’, ‘the war itself was a parenthesis’.[5] Hynes notes that after the gap of the war, the General Strike could be seen as ‘war’s echo in society’, forcing another gap in the continuity of history.[6]

Literary types are (or should be) always alert to echoes—which are not the same as duplications. (The comments I’ve read from people who assure us that there’s no element of fascism in any of the recent political upheavals in the world because there aren’t endless rows of men in black shirts continually raising their right arms are beside the point.).

Echoes, yes. In Anthony Burgess’s novel, Napoleon Symphony, Lebrun remarks of Napoleon: ‘the new thing is lui, Bonaparte. What I mean is he doesn’t express any separable idea – you understand me? He’s not there to personify some new notion of absolutism or democracy or what you will. He’s there to turn the age into himself.’[7]

David Moody, author of a recent three-volume biography of Ezra Pound—who was often casually and carelessly referred to as ‘anti-democratic’ or ‘fascist’—remarked of Pound’s economic campaigns: ‘He found it infamous that the governments of those democracies should put saving the banks, and saving the financial system responsible for the crisis and the depression, before the welfare of their people. He held it as axiomatic that a democratic government should serve the interests of the whole people, not the interests of the few who controlled the nation’s wealth’.[8]

Dangerfield_Strange_Death

George Dangerfield, in his classic study, The Strange Death of Liberal England (first published in 1935), writing of the years 1910-1914, referred to ‘the spectacle it affords us of a democracy passing from introspection to what looks very like nervous breakdown.’[9]

The most famous phrase from Mrs Dale’s Diary, the drama serial broadcast every weekday on BBC Radio for more than twenty years (1948-1969), was Mrs Dale’s remarking of her husband that she was ‘rather worried about Jim.’ A great many people must now be ‘rather worried’ about democracy—or should be. A form of government ‘in which the people have a voice in the exercise of power, typically through elected representatives’, the Oxford dictionary has it. In the UK, we bypassed those elected representatives in the 2016 referendum. The official party policy of all the major parties was to remain in the European Union but David Cameron’s government went directly to ‘the people’. The total ‘Leave’ votes represented 37% of the electorate. In the 2015 General Election, the total Conservative Party votes represented 24% of the electorate. It’s easy to understand why such phrases as ‘the will of the people’, which are thrown around so freely, are viewed with widespread scepticism, and the electoral system still current in the United States seems no less odd than ours.

Most recently, our local elections and the Metro mayoral elections were won on even more derisory turnouts. When we walked into our local polling station, I said to one of the two electoral officers sitting behind the tables: ‘I hope it’s been a bit busier than this most of the time.’ He said: ‘This is a flurry.’ My wife and I were the only voters in the room. The West of England mayoral election eventually produced a 29.3% turnout: the winning candidate took the votes of just 8% of the electorate. Line up thirteen voters and just one of them voted for the new Metro mayor. The ‘will of the people’ manifested here, the ‘democratic choice’, was—apparently—for nobody at all.

Where does this leave the democratic project, the system of government designed to represent the will of the people, when the people seem to have abandoned it? And how are such questions complicated by the rapidly accumulating evidence of covert, if not unambiguously illicit, interventions in both referenda and national elections, frequently by immensely wealthy men, with their own agendas, purporting to oppose ‘elites’?

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/07/the-great-british-brexit-robbery-hijacked-democracy

There have been a great many conspiracy theories in recent years—some of which have been used quite frankly as weapons of political power. And some, of course, are real. Are there conspiracies—or altered landscapes resulting from such conspiracies—that are almost too large to see?

We have a General Election approaching now, though it seems more like a presidential one because of the dogged and calculated focus upon individuals rather than policies. The Labour Party manifesto has been leaked (though none of the others, naturally). From what I read about it, there seemed—finally—something to vote for (after the many years of voting against things and generally being on the losing side). The right-wing rags duly foamed and flailed about Jeremy Corbyn ‘dragging us back to the seventies’, which was quite amusing, since many on the right seem to be yearning for the 1950s while others are clearly looking back longingly to the nineteenth century. And then, come to think of it, whatever the trials and troubles so beloved of political historians—and everyone will pick and choose to suit his or her preferred narrative—I remember, for example, how easy it was to find a job in the 70s, how easy—and affordable—it was to find a flat, how higher education was not yet limited to the wealthy or the massively indebted, how public libraries were properly stocked and staffed.

Still, for now we have the relentless bombardment by inane slogans. The EU referendum and the US Presidential election confirmed that, even if—or especially if—meaningless, phrases repeated ad nauseam will do the job: ‘In general, there is evidence that repetition of political frames tend to be effective, especially when the aim is to reach an audience that is not highly knowledgeable about politics.’[10]  And we are hearing a great deal more of Vox populi. It’s a cheap and handy option. Of course, broadcasters and newspaper journalists will tend to select those opinions which are most striking because of their forcefulness, dogmatism or sheer lunacy but, even knowing this, the spectacle is hugely dispiriting. Quite frankly, to look back at what has been done to this country in recent years and to be told that huge numbers of people are eager to vote for those who did it, are continuing to do it, and planning to do it even more, is mildly astonishing.

The reaction in this house tends to vary between the question addressed to newspaper, radio or television screen (‘Are you completely insane?’) or the statement addressed to the air (‘We’re doomed’).

As, indeed, we seem to be.

 

References

[1] Tove Jansson (who didn’t write only about Moomins), The Summer Book (1972; Sort of Books, 2003), 105.

[2] ‘His Last Bow: An Epilogue of Sherlock Holmes’: The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, edited by Leslie S. Klinger, two volumes (New York & London: W. W. Norton, 2005), II, 1443. The editor notes (1425) that the subtitle in the Strand Magazine, where the story first appeared, was ‘The War Service of Sherlock Holmes’.

[3] Hynes, A War Imagined (1990; London: Pimlico, 1992), 412.

[4] Lewis, Blasting and Bombardiering (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1937), 2.

[5] Jones, In Parenthesis (London: Faber, 1963), xv.

[6] A War Imagined, 421.

[7] Burgess, Napoleon Symphony (London, Jonathan Cape, 1974), 80.

[8] David Moody, Ezra Pound: Poet. A Portrait of the Man & His Work. Volume II: The Epic Years 1921-1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2014), xi.

[9] The Strange Death of Liberal England (London: Granada Publishing, 1970), 75.

[10] Dr Aleksandra Cichocka, political psychologist at the University of Kent, quoted in Steven Poole, ‘Stuck on Repeat’, Guardian (11 May 2017), 7. The ‘American strategist’, Jim Messina, is, apparently, ‘fond of saying that the average person thinks about politics for just four minutes a week’: mentioned by Stephen Bush, in his ‘Politics’ column: New Statesman (12-18 May, 2017), 9. How cheering is that?

Champagne, oysters and last tales

‘I have always rather enjoyed being with mad or slightly dotty people; there is something liberating about being able sometimes to get away from the unspeakably worn-down, conventional paths, for the mind as well. I understand so well how it was that great folk in the old days felt their ménage to be incomplete without a jester, who should preferably not be quite all there’.[1]

Blixen

(Karen Blixen with one of her deerhounds, via http://blixen.dk/?lang=en)

We are still in the early stages of the book cull. Thirteen carrier bags to the charity shop so far; more to go. A small terraced house is (allegedly) not the most comfortable container for thousands of books (gathered over a long period: my wife and I were both booksellers for years). Some of this culling comes easily; some is hard; some impossible. A few of my solutions have been highly suspect. Recently, a second Library of America edition of work by Carson McCullers breezed in: those two volumes can now replace, yes, three paperbacks. One book less. It’s true that the two volumes take up more space than the three they replace; and they were more expensive. But damn! they do look good.

McCullers.VolumesJPG

This second volume contains the complete stories, plays, essays, poems and autobiographical writings. After I’d ordered it—but before it arrived—I ordered a secondhand copy of Isak Dinesen’s Anecdotes of Destiny. I have other books by Dinesen: Last Tales, Seven Gothic Tales, Shadows on the Grass, Winter’s Tales, her Letters From Africa and, of course, Out of Africa, as well as the biography of Dinesen by Judith Thurman (who also wrote a very good one of Colette )—but I was missing that collection. What prompted me to order it was looking at a list of films I wanted either to watch or to watch again and remembering that I’d never actually seen the 1987 film Babette’s Feast (based on one of the stories in Anecdotes of Destiny), a Danish production directed by Gabriel Axel.

Babettes_Feast_Poster

Babette’s Feast film poster via http://www.cine-vue.com

When the McCullers volume arrived, a few days ago, I opened it at random and immediately saw the name Isak Dinesen. Is there a unique category, a dedicated name for this sort of synchronicity specific to the world of books? Or is it just that, if you have a highly associative mind (one which retains a high density of that sort of material), those connections are apparent more widely and more frequently? I know that the moment for my reading a book I may have owned for months or even years is quite often decided by two or three references to it in different contexts. It’s a bit like the famous quote from Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger: ‘“Mr Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: ‘Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action’.”’ (Fleming used these categories as section titles in the novel: the quotation comes at the end of the second section.)

McCullers has two short pieces on Dinesen in this Library of America collection, the first on the volume called Winter’s Tales, the other an account which begins with McCullers being given, and reading, Out of Africa, published under the author’s real name, Karen Blixen. She realises that this is ‘one of the most radiant books’ of her life.[2] Subsequently, and unsurprisingly, she moves on to other books by that author: ‘When I was ill or out of sorts with the world, I would turn to Out of Africa, which never failed to comfort and support me—and when I wanted to be lifted out of my life, I would read Seven Gothic Tales or Winter’s Tales or, much later, The Last Tales.’[3]

Untitled

‘“Madame,” he said, “I have been telling you a story. Stories have been told as long as speech has existed, and sans stories the human race would have perished, as it would have perished sans water.”’[4]

The essay moves on to McCullers’ recollection of the Academy of Arts and Letters dinner in January 1959, at which Dinesen—in fact, the Baroness Karen Blixen-Finecke—was a guest of honour. They sat next to one another at dinner and, asked by Dinesen if she could arrange a meeting with Marilyn Monroe, McCullers said she could. On 5 February, Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe called for Dinesen and her companion Clara Svendsen, arriving ‘with the unpunctuality Marilyn was famous for’, and they all lunched with Carson McCullers, a meal including oysters, white grapes, champagne and a soufflé, laid out on McCullers’ ‘black marble table.’ Miller expressed concern about the extremely frail Dinesen’s standard menu—she’d said that, when oysters were out of season, she turned to asparagus—and recklessly mentioned ‘protein’. Dinesen replied that she didn’t know anything about that but she was old; she ate what she wanted and what agreed with her.[5]

Blixen_MM_McCullers

(Marilyn Monroe, Isak Dinesen, Carson McCullers)

Dinesen died on Friday 7 September 1962, of emaciation. Monroe had died barely a month before, on 5 August. Dinesen and McCullers had long admired one another’s work and Dinesen ‘loved’ McCullers but it was Marilyn Monroe who had made the deepest impression on her. ‘It is not that she is pretty,’ she wrote, ‘although of course she is almost incredibly pretty—but that she radiates at the same time unbounded vitality and a kind of unbelievable innocence.’[6]

USA. Long Island. US actress Marilyn MONROE reading James Joyce. 1955.

This is one of my favourite photographs of Marilyn Monroe, by Eve Arnold. (‘She doesn’t have to pose, we don’t even need to see her face, what comes off the photo is absolute concentration, and nothing is sexier than absolute concentration’, Jeanette Winterson wrote of this photograph.)[7]

Marilyn’s holding a copy of Ulysses and the book is open almost at the end, so she’s reading the final chapter, Molly Bloom’s soliloquy: ‘and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms round him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.’[8] Continue reading “Champagne, oysters and last tales”