Coups, cakes, canvases

executioner-with-axe

Boris Johnson’s crude assault on parliamentary democracy has, unsurprisingly, provoked hours of interviews, comment and analysis unspooling across various screens, plus the reliably depressing vox populi, shifty Tory ministers hastily backtracking on their previous opinions and a few suited spear-carriers bleating that it was really just business as usual. Among the worst moments was a rather revolting interview, through which the Prime Minister girned and smirked and waffled his way, making it painfully obvious that he thought this whole government thing a bit of a lark. It was, I suppose, the old Bullingdon Club habit: you have a rip-roaring time and smash the place up and somebody else comes along the next day and pays for the damage. Of course, we’ll be the poor sods picking up the bill on this occasion, for decades to come.

Vuillard, Jean Edouard, 1868-1940; Deux ouvrieres dans l'atelier de couture (Two Seamstresses in the Workroom)

(Vuillard, Two Seamstresses in the Workroom, 133mm x 194mm
National Galleries of Scotland, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art)

We escaped for a while to more civilized things, catching a train to Bath to buy a few books, have coffee and cake, and look at some pictures, the small and appropriately intimate exhibition of around thirty paintings and lithographs from the earlier part of Édouard Vuillard’s career—had I forgotten or did I never know that Vuillard’s Two Seamstresses in the Workroom is tiny? Walks, blackberrying and wine can also help to stave off reminders of the state we’re in. What else is there to do? Sign the petitions, join the protests if you can, cultivate or maintain a sceptical mind. ‘The uncritical mind is a prey to credulity’, Guy Davenport once observed, ‘and without skepticism there can be no democracy.’

I notice that today is the birthday of Raymond Williams, novelist, literary critic and cultural studies scholar. I always think of Williams as a representative figure in a tradition of historical and cultural analysis of which I was almost entirely ignorant until I began a university course as a mature student, never having been exposed to it at school, nor anywhere else. Had that tradition—radical, questioning, clear-sighted—been more widely taught and more centrally positioned, we might all be in a more secure place now, with an electorate rather better-informed about some of the matters that so closely affect them.

The Bank Holiday last week reminded me of the May Bank Holiday on which we went to Clodock, the parish church of St Clydawg, some of it dating back to the 12th century, though the present tower dates from the 15th century and the interior underwent a lot of restoration in the 17th century. On one wall is a decalogue – the ten commandments –which was repainted most recently in the late 1980s, dedicated to Williams (who died in January 1988) by his wife Joyce. They’re now buried together in the new churchyard there.

Decalogue

In a recent column, Nesrine Malik wrote that, over the past few years, there had been many, many opportunities for Trump supporters to see exactly who and what they’d voted for: ‘There really are no more excuses. A Trump voter in 2020 is a voter who can no longer plausibly pretend, to themselves or others, that their reasons are down to economic anxiety or some “left behind” resentment.’
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/26/trump-2020-democrats-identity-politics

And in this country? Are we there yet? Three years ago, many people could reasonably claim that they were frankly lied to and more generally misled (true), that they knew next to nothing about the European Union or what ‘leaving’ would actually entail (also true). But now they do know. Yet the Conservative Party is ahead in the polls and, as John Harris comments today, ‘too much of the country remains uninterested, and plenty of other people have concluded that Johnson has done the right thing.’
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/30/parliament-johnson-prorogue-democracy

Thank all the gods there are, then, for Marina Hyde:
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/30/sajid-javid-dominic-cummings-prorogation-government

 

 

Belief: a world of a word

Knox, Archibald, 1864-1933; 'In preachings of apostles faiths of confessors'

(Archibald Knox, ‘“In preachings of apostles faiths of confessors” (from Knox’s illuminated manuscript “The Deer’s Cry” or “Saint Patrick’s Hymn”’: Manx Museum, Douglas, Isle of Man)

Sitting before the evening news, the Librarian remarks that, if we’d been told ten or fifteen years ago that the world would be like this—the Artic and the Amazon forest on fire, the extreme Right resurgent in Europe again, the widespread mainstream dissemination of racist and supremacist views, this country’s prolonged and painful foundering, the President of the United States in a snit because he couldn’t buy another country and suggesting nuclear strikes to combat hurricanes—we wouldn’t have believed it.

Believe. What a world of a word. ‘I do not believe in Belief’, E. M. Forster wrote in his 1939 essay, ‘What I Believe’. And, ‘Faith, to my mind, is a stiffening process, a sort of mental starch, which ought to be applied as sparingly as possible. I dislike the stuff’.[1] I also own a curious volume called What I Believe, edited by Mark Booth, ‘curious’ not in its contributors (W. H. Auden, Albert Einstein, Jacques Maritain, Rebecca West, Bertrand Russell and, yes, Martin Sheen among them) but in its publishing history, issued in Britain by Firethorn Press, ‘an imprint of Waterstone and Company Limited’, of 193 Kensington High Street, London W8. A Waterstones branch is still at that address, thirty-five years on.

What-I-Believe

‘The brute necessity of believing something so long as life lasts does not justify any belief in particular’, George Santayana wrote.[2] And Shirley Jackson’s observation seems increasingly pertinent: ‘The question of belief is a curious one, partaking of the wonders of childhood and the blind hopefulness of the very old; in all the world there is not someone who does not believe something. It might be suggested, and not easily disproven that anything, no matter how exotic, can be believed by someone.’[3] These days, of course, that ‘anything’ is believed with greater volume and stridency.

T. S. Eliot famously declared of the essays in For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order, that: ‘The general point of view may be described as classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion.’[4] The previous year, he had published ‘A Note on Poetry and Belief’, responding to an essay by I. A. Richards: ‘But I cannot see that poetry can ever be separated from something which I should call belief, and to which I cannot see any reason for refusing the name of belief, unless we are to reshuffle names altogether.’[5] Responding to Eliot’s musing about what his friend ‘believed’, Ezra Pound recommended reading Confucius and Ovid, but advanced a few years later to a more precise statement: ‘I believe the Ta Hio.’[6] This—The Great Learning—became, some years later, Ta Hsio: The Great Digest, its most often quoted lines (certainly by me) perhaps: ‘Things have roots and branches; affairs have scopes and beginnings. To know what precedes and what follows, is nearly as good as having a head and feet.’[7]

Certain beliefs—and I pause on the ironic savour of the word ‘certain’ in this context—are, or have been, pretty well obligatory. Northrop Frye writes that: ‘The Christian mythology of the Middle Ages and later was a closed mythology, that is, a structure of belief, imposed by compulsion on everyone. As a structure of belief, the primary means of understanding it was rational and conceptual, and no poet, outside the Bible, was accorded the kind of authority that was given to the theologian. Romanticism, besides being a new mythology, also marks the beginning of an “open” attitude to mythology on the part of society, making mythology a structure of imagination, out of which beliefs come, rather than directly one of compulsory belief.’[8]

I recall, quite specifically, the moment in which I ceased to be a Christian believer, though I may not have then become a Romantic. It was a bright, dry Sunday morning in a village a few miles from Bath. I boarded at a nearby college, though continuing to attend school in the city and, every Sunday morning, the boarders were ferried by the college’s ramshackle coach to the village church. While I stood on the side of the hot road, that belief fell off me like a solid object, as though I’d dropped a stone or a coin, one I wouldn’t bend to pick up again.

‘Lord, I believe’, the father cries out in St Mark’s Gospel, ‘help thou mine unbelief’ (Mark 9: 24).

Palma il giovane, Jacopo, 1544/1548-1628; Saint Mark

(Jacopo Palma il giovane, Saint Mark: Hatton Gallery)

Anne Carson writes:

‘Where does unbelief begin?
When I was young

there were degrees of certainty.
I could say, Yes I know that I have two hands.
Then one day I awakened on a planet of people whose hands
occasionally disappear—’[9]

Religious belief clearly doesn’t require buildings and clerical collars. In Of Human Bondage, Somerset Maugham’s Norah tells Philip that she doesn’t believe in ‘churches and parsons and all that’ – but, she adds, ‘I believe in God, and I don’t believe He minds much about what you do as long as you keep your end up and help a lame dog over a stile when you can.’[10] There are, too, very individual manifestations of God. ‘Binding up these sheaves of oats’, Ronald Duncan wrote in his record of wartime smallholding, ‘I am certain I believe in oats. The stalks falling behind the cutter which we draw behind an old car, the monk binding methodically, the new members binding enthusiastically, women with coloured scarves round their heads are gleaning and one cannot glean ungracefully. If one cannot see God in an oatfield one will never see. For, here is the whole of it.’[11]

Palmer, Samuel, 1805-1881; The Gleaning Field

(Samuel Palmer, The Gleaning Field: Tate)

Kate Atkinson writes of Jackson Brodie in her recent novel: ‘He didn’t let the fact that he was brought up as a Catholic interfere with his beliefs.’[12] Beliefs or faith? In what I suspect has now become my favourite Penelope Fitzgerald novel, she writes of the feast of St Modestus, patron saint of printing, and the blessing of the ikons by the parish priest. ‘Because I don’t believe in this, Frank thought, that doesn’t mean it’s not true.’ Then: ‘Perhaps, Frank thought, I have faith, even if I have no beliefs.’[13]

As to the secular world, who can say? Faith in facts, in political systems, in international law, in human rights? Belief seems sometimes rampant, sometimes inert, stunned, left for dead. It’s a long time since Proust wrote: ‘Facts do not find their way into the world in which our beliefs reside; they did not produce our beliefs; they do not destroy them; they may inflict on them the most constant refutations without weakening them.’[14] Remembering the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, now more than forty years ago, Lavinia Greenlaw asserted that ‘England was no longer England, at least not the England it persisted in believing itself to be.’[15]

And now? Here we are. There they are. So I turn to the Librarian and say yes, I believe you’re right.

 

Notes

[1] E. M. Forster, Two Cheers for Democracy (London: Edward Arnold, 1951), 77.

[2] W. H. Auden and Louis Kronenberger, The Faber Book of Aphorisms: A Personal Selection (London: Faber and Faber, 1964), 334.

[3] Shirley Jackson, The Sundial (1958; London: Penguin, 2015), 33.

[4] T. S. Eliot, ‘Preface’, For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order (London: Faber and Gwyer, 1928), ix.

[5] T. S. Eliot, ‘A Note on Poetry and Belief’, The Enemy, 1 (January 1927) 15-17.

[6] Ezra Pound, ‘Credo’ (1930) in Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 53; ‘Date Line’ (1934) in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 86.

[7] Ezra Pound, Confucius. The Unwobbling Pivot; The Great Digest; The Analects (New York: New Directions, 1969), 29.

[8] Northrop Frye, A Study of English Romanticism (Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1983), 16

[9] Anne Carson, ‘The Glass Essay’ in Glass, Irony & God (New York: New Directions, 1995), 31.

[10] Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage (1915; Penguin Books, 1963), 318. Readers of Ford Madox Ford nod sagely at this point—‘I remember my grandfather laying down a rule of life for me. He said: “ Fordie, never refuse to help a lame dog over a stile.”’ See Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911), 197.

[11] Ronald Duncan, Journal of a Husbandman (London: Faber 1944), 52-53.

[12] Kate Atkinson, Big Sky (London: Transworld, 2019), 10.

[13] Penelope Fitzgerald, The Beginning of Spring (London: Everyman, 2003), 378.

[14] Marcel Proust, The Way by Swann’s, translated by Lydia Davis (London: Allen Lane, 2002), 149.

[15] Lavinia Greenlaw, The Importance of Music to Girls (London: Faber & Faber, 2017), 114.

Plus ça change: editing, comedy, politics

Harry-dozing 1

A flurry of activity, since we are—finally!—in the last throes of preparing for the printer the second issue of Last Post: A Literary Journal from the Ford Madox Ford Society. Before that – days of depressing weather and weathering depression as British politicians plot, plod, falsify, feint and fail, some of them apparently paralysed while others are clearly willing to jeopardise not only the wellbeing of the United Kingdom as a whole but the still fragile peace in Northern Ireland too.

Still, there was my elder daughter’s birthday, though on the actual day she was—not exactly abroad but offshore, that region so favoured by the rich—aboard a small train bound for Laxey in the Isle of Man, and then on another train up a mountain. On the other hand, her sister, who lives in Barcelona, arrived in Bristol to stay with the Librarian and I—and, crucially, Harry the house cat—for a few days before heading off to Scotland to unleash some stand-up comedy at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with a group of friends. (Such familial displays of extrovert behaviour might offset, to a degree, my increasingly wary view of the world out there and the people in it.)

The second issue of Last Post includes a reprinted article by Ford, dating from 1936, when he revisited London, a relatively rare event in the post-war years, since he lived first in Sussex, then Paris, then Toulon, with trips to New York and other parts of the United States – but not often to London.

Fordie-BBC

http://www.fordmadoxfordsociety.org/last-post-journal.html

In the world-before-the-war, he’d been based in London for a decade and his first commercially successful book (at least since his first, a fairy tale illustrated by his grandfather Ford Madox Brown) was devoted to the city: The Soul of London appeared in 1905. And, though Ford didn’t live there much after 1915, he continued to write about the city or to draw upon it in many of his later books. More than eighty years old, then, that article but I was struck by his characterisation of the politicians of the day:

‘It was impossible to imagine a more impressive collection of dumb-bells and left-overs than were provided by H. M. Government and H. M. Opposition between them. A photograph of the lot of them impressed you with the idea that you were looking at a group-picture of the better-behaved inmates of Bellevue—as who should say Bethlem Hospital. And their political records were none of them more cheerful.’

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as they say in some quarters, I believe.

 

The sneezer as hero – is it ok?

Greek-chorus

(The Bacchai at the National Theatre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton via The Guardian)

The back page ‘N.B.’ column in last week’s Times Literary Supplement (2 August 2019) discussed, not without irony, the question of what is ‘ok’ to read in these days of widespread outrage, citing the recent report that a Professor of History and Philosophy of Biology at University College London had refused to teach in the lecture theatre named after Francis Galton, whose name is ‘linked with racist, misogynist and hierarchical ideologies’. Galton was indeed a pioneer in eugenics and psychometrics. He also developed a method of classifying fingerprints, initiated scientific meteorology, devised the first weather map and invented a means of testing differential hearing ability. He died in 1911. The First International Eugenics Congress, held in London the following year, was dedicated to Galton. Attendees included the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Chief Justice, the ambassadors of France, Greece and Norway, and Winston Churchill who, two years earlier, had written to the Prime Minister: ‘I am convinced that the multiplication of the Feeble-Minded, which is proceeding now at an artificial rate, unchecked by any of the old restraints of nature, and actually fostered by civilised conditions, is a very terrible danger to the race.’

Is it ok, J. C. goes on to ask, to read Vladimir Nabokov (Dan Franklin of Jonathan Cape has said that he wouldn’t publish Lolita now)? Or T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Philip Larkin, William Faulkner? Burroughs, Chester Himes, Mailer, Miller? Mention is made of a recent (very good) TLS piece by Claire Lowdon, which concluded that yes, it is okay to read Updike and, ‘in the course of the article, also cast forgiving glances in the direction of Bellow, Roth and other big male beasts.’ Then how about Maupassant, Flaubert, Kipling, Camus? Céline could certainly have been added, probably Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence and Wyndham Lewis too. ‘Perhaps it’s safer not to read at all’, J. C. concludes, ‘which is what lots of people are doing anyway.’

I know there are some complex questions about commemoration, statuary, flags, the names of buildings, the placement of pictures and poems. Our local example is the Colston Hall, named (but not for much longer) after the philanthropist and member of parliament – who was also a slave trader. But pulling down statues, changing names, I’ve always been uneasy with, preferring less ignorance to more. If it’s really news that human beings do both good and bad things and that people in earlier historical periods seem, from our perspective, to have done more bad things than good, then add plaques and placards, pile on the contextual information, enlighten, educate.

When it comes to policing reading – then no, I have a more definite line and it’s not a complex question. I’ve had my share of people rolling their eyes at my reading Ezra Pound. ‘How can you–?’ Well, I’d think, with a good deal of effort and concentration, reference works and, frankly, cribs of various kinds. But that may not be what they meant.

It’s okay for me to read absolutely anything and anyone I want to since, being an adult, I can make up my own mind about such matters. I don’t read modern literature for political pointers or an ethical framework or tips on manners. And, alas, perhaps a hangover from younger days, any suggestion that it might not be ‘ok’ to read certain authors sends me straight back to them, most recently Philip Roth, whom I’ve been rereading in the Library of America edition. Whenever I don’t read Roth for a while, I forget how funny he is. Today, I enjoyed again The Anatomy Lesson’s Dr Kotler, formerly of Newark, now living in retirement in New York, detailing his current activities to Nathan Zuckerman in the bank queue, beginning with his study of Rembrandt’s masterpieces, ‘a foot at a time’:

Anatomy-Lesson-DrNicolaesTulp

(Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp: Mauritshuis, The Hague)

‘Also studying Holy Scriptures. Delving into all the translations. Amazing what’s in there. Yet the writing I don’t like. The Jews in the Bible were always involved in highly dramatic moments, but they never learned to write good drama. Not like the Greeks, in my estimation. The Greeks heard a sneeze and they took off. The sneezer becomes the hero, the one who reported the sneeze becomes the messenger, the ones who overheard the sneeze, they became the chorus. Lots of pity, lots of terror, lots of cliff-hanging and suspense. You don’t get that with the Jews in the Bible. There it’s all round-the-clock negotiation with God.’

The ones who overheard the sneeze becoming the chorus. Yes, a pretty neat summary of Greek drama, I thought.

Perhaps one more: ‘Life and art are distinct, thought Zuckerman; what could be clearer? Yet the distinction is wholly elusive. That writing is an act of imagination seems to perplex and infuriate everyone.’

In a world of perplexed and infuriated people, imaginative writing may not be the only culprit, of course.

 

 

‘A gathering web of insinuations’: Henry Green

B0KGC2  Loving_Henry_Green

(Henry Green via the TLS; jacket of first edition, Loving)

‘This writer is unique’, Sebastian Faulks remarked. ‘No fiction has ever thrilled me as the great moments in Living and Loving; I have been moved by Tolstoy, Lawrence, Proust and others, perhaps more so, but not in the same way.’[1]

Faulks is writing here about Henry Green, whose admirers have included John Updike, W. H. Auden,  Elizabeth Bowen, Kingsley Amis, Rebecca West, Anthony Burgess, V. S. Pritchett, Angus Wilson, Olivia Manning, L. P. Hartley and Julian Maclaren-Ross.[2] Edmund White apparently rereads Green’s 1950 novel Nothing every year.[3]

Green – real name Henry Yorke – worked in his family’s engineering firm, after Eton and Oxford, eventually becoming its managing director. His second novel, Living (1929), set in a Birmingham iron foundry, cast a cold eye on the definite article and focused closely on the rhythms of its characters’ speech and behaviour.

‘Lily Gates and Jim Dale, who was Mr Craigan’s young man in iron foundry, stood in queue outside cinema on Friday night. They said nothing to each other. Later they got in and found seats. Light rain had been falling, so when these two acting on screen walked by summer night down leafy lane, hair over ears left wet on his cheek as she leant head, when they on screen stopped and looked at each other. [ . . . ] Later her head was leaning on his shoulder again, like hanging clouds against hills every head in this theatre tumbled without hats against another, leaning everywhere.’[4]

Written during the war, when Green served in the Auxiliary Fire Service, his fifth novel—exactly midway in that sequence of nine, spread over twenty-seven years—was Loving, set in an Irish country house, staffed by English servants, during the Second World War. Those circumstances are conveyed early in the book with great economy, as the old butler lies dying: ‘The pointed windows of Mr Eldon’s room were naked glass with no blinds or curtains. For this was in Eire where there is no blackout.’[5]

Green memorably recalled his novel’s genesis—it certainly stuck in my mind anyway—in a 1958 Paris Review interview with Terry Southern:

‘I got the idea of Loving from a manservant in the Fire Service during the war. He was serving with me in the ranks, and he told me he had once asked the elderly butler who was over him what the old boy most liked in the world. The reply was: “Lying in bed on a summer morning, with the window open, listening to the church bells, eating buttered toast with cunty fingers.” I saw the book in a flash.’[6]

Loving’s central character is Charley Raunce, the footman promoted to butler after Eldon’s demise—or rather, one of the central characters, since the novel concerns in large part the coming together of Raunce and Edith, beautiful and sweet-natured, one of the two under-housemaids, who, when we first encounter her, has ‘stuck a peacock’s feather above her lovely head, in her dark-folded hair’ (19). The Tennants’ two hundred peacocks play a recurring part in this novel, as practical elements in the story as much as in symbolic force. Green’s working-class characters are sometimes untruthful or dishonest or selfish or conniving—fully human, that is to say—but they tend to come off immeasurably better than their social ‘superiors’ who, though of Green’s own class, are often mercilessly anatomised to reveal their shallowness, amorality and hypocrisy. Green denied any socio-political programme in his work: with Living, he said, ‘I just wrote what I heard and saw’. A group of workers at the factory put in a penny each and bought a copy. ‘And as I was going round the iron-foundry one day, a loam-moulder said to me: “I read your book, Henry.” “And did you like it?” I asked, rightly apprehensive. He replied: “I didn’t think much of it, Henry.” Too awful.’

Burne-Jones, Edward, 1833-1898; A Peacock

(Edward Burne-Jones, A Peacock: Victoria and Albert Museum)

I’ve always been drawn to Green in part because he seems unlike any other writer (though Ivy Compton-Burnett is sometimes cited: the social class of many characters and the dominance of dialogue); and critics seem not to know where to put him, if they put him anywhere. His first novel appeared in 1926, just four years after Ulysses; his second in 1929, the year of The Sound and the Fury—and, though Green said he hadn’t read Ulysses until after he’d completed Living, he did profess great admiration for Faulkner. So, as a novelist, he was a contemporary of Joyce, Ford, Faulkner, Wyndham Lewis, Woolf—but rarely crops up in discussions of ‘modernism’.[7] In the Paris Review interview, Southern commented on the difficulty of tracing Green’s work to sources of influence, noting that V. S. Pritchett had tried to place it ‘in the tradition of Sterne, Carroll, Firbank, and Virginia Woolf’, while Philip Toynbee had gone for ‘Joyce, Thomas Wolfe, and Henry Miller’. When the question of influence was put directly to him, Green answered rather splendidly: ‘I really don’t know. As far as I’m consciously aware I forget everything I read at once including my own stuff.’ (He then admitted to ‘a tremendous admiration for Céline.’)[8]

Here are Edith and her fellow-maidservant Kate, discovered by Charley dancing in the ballroom, in a part of the great house now closed: ‘They were wheeling wheeling in each other’s arms heedless at the far end where they had drawn up one of the white blinds. Above from a rather low ceiling five great chandeliers swept one after the other almost to the waxed parquet floor reflecting in their hundred thousand drops the single sparkle of distant day, again and again red velvet panelled walls, and two girls, minute in purple, dancing multiplied to eternity in these trembling pears of glass’ (65).

Green-Pack-My-Bag

There are many moments of startling beauty and poignancy in Green’s books – and innumerable moments of comedy. There are, too, tiny, distinctive touches such as Raunce’s regular letters to his mother in Peterborough, first written in pencil—as is the envelope—then carefully inked in (and the money order added).

‘Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself alone at night, and it is not quick as poetry but rather a gathering web of insinuations which go further than names however shared can ever go’, Green wrote in his ‘mid-term autobiography’. ‘Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone, and feelings are not bounded by the associations common to place names or to persons with whom the reader is unexpectedly familiar.’[9]

‘A long intimacy between strangers’ sounds about right—and pretty characteristic of its author too. A touch enigmatic and paradoxical, with that hint of contradiction which seems to dissolve on closer inspection.

 
Notes

[1] Sebastian Faulks, introduction to Henry Green, Loving, Living, Party Going (London: Vintage, 2005), 13.

[2] Julian Maclaren-Ross’s Bitten by the Tarantula and other writing (London: Black Spring Press, 2005), includes both his essay on Green ‘A Poet of Fear’ (291-297) and his parody of him (481-484).

[3] Rachel Cooke, review of The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jul/02/the-unpunished-vice-life-reading-edmund-white-review

[4] Henry Green, Living, 216-217.

[5] Henry Green, Loving, 13.

[6] The interview is reprinted in Surviving: The Uncollected Writings of Henry Green, edited by Matthew Yorke, introduction by John Updike (London: Chatto and Windus, 1992), 234-250. A headnote quotes a letter from Southern: ‘No, there is no real trouble over our interview. There is some vague and preliminary dissension among the staff over the use of the word “cunty”, but nothing concrete.’ A little later, this exchange occurs: INTERVIEWER: And have you ever heard of an actual case of an Irish household being staffed with English servants? MR GREEN: Not that comes quickly to mind, no. (249).

[7] Although James Wood stated that Lawrence, Woolf and Green ‘were the last great English novelists, the last true magi of language, the last serious European modernists’; see ‘Martin Amis: The English imprisonment’, in The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief (London: Jonathan Cape, 1999), 186.

[8] Surviving, 236, 243.

[9] Henry Green, Pack My Bag: A Self-Portrait (1940; The Hogarth Press, 1992), 84.

[10] Henry Green, Nothing (1950), in Nothing, Doting, Blindness (London: Vintage 2008), 60.

[11] Henry Green, Loving, 109.

August: fevers, agues, life

Arnos-3 .  Arnos-2

Right on schedule, August arrives, the month in which ‘Choler and Melancholy much increase, from whence proceeds long lasting Fevers and Agues not easily cured. Avoid immoderate exercise this month’, dear me, ‘especially the recreations of Venus.’[1]

Literary folk are celebrating two hundred years of Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, or, The Whale, who wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne in November 1851, ‘A sense of unspeakable security is in me at this moment on account of your having understood the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb.’[2]

Against a couple of centuries, I look back fondly just a few weeks, to the period I might term BB—before backache—but for the confusion it might cause to those of a certain age and predilection, for whom the initials will always conjure Brigitte Bardot; or certain literary historians who will bring to mind only the poet Basil Bunting. And there was also the author of The Little Grey Men: A story for the young in heart, Carnegie winner in 1942, ‘the greatest book about gnomes in the English language’, as the website dedicated to him has it:

https://www.bbsociety.co.uk/bb-the-author.php

This was the author and illustrator Denys Watkins-Pitchford, his book published under the pseudonym ‘BB’, though he illustrated it under his real name. The Little Grey Men clearly owed a good deal to Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, though it ‘makes a better use of the god Pan’ than Grahame did, Victor Watson writes in The Cambridge Guide to Children’s Books in English, while adding that the author’s ‘messages about the environment were mixed, rooted in a conservative hunting-and-fishing ethos that many contemporary young environmentally-aware readers would find unacceptable.’[3]

Still, definitely now in recovery mode, on a dry, slightly cooler and breezier day, I take time off from communing with the literary dead to walk and, perhaps, commune with the dead in another setting: Arnos Vale, the local Victorian Garden cemetery covering some 45 acres. I might even commune with the living – though careful not to overdo it.

Moby-Dick-Rockwell-Kent

En route to the cemetery, I cut through Perrett’s Park, generously populated by women with small children and a wide selection of dog walkers, one of whom exchanges greetings with me on the straight path above the slopes and terraces running down to the natural amphitheatre with the playground in the far corner. On the near slope, a man is lying on his back; his companion leans above him, her slow fingers stroking his face with extravagant tenderness.

At Arnos Vale, there are so many paths to choose from that, should another walker be glimpsed, fifty yards off, ducking under outspread branches, there are always reliable means of avoidance close at hand. In fact, the flickering instability of the sunlight breaking often through dense foliage, the briefly seen figures who duck and veer as you yourself do, the long avenues colliding with sudden turns and side-lines, conjure up sequences in a film version of Alice in Wonderland—probably Jonathan Miller’s.

Returning via the park, I find even more children, and even more dogs, the couple on the near slope now rearranged, she sitting in front with head leant back, he with his arms wrapped around her. The last of the cloud burned off, the view across the city stands up and out like a tourist brochure.

‘For there is no faith, and no stoicism, and no philosophy, that a mortal man can possibly evoke, which will stand the final test of a real impassioned onset of Life and Passion upon him’, Melville wrote. ‘Then all the fair philosophic or Faith-phantoms that he raised from the mist, slide away and disappear as ghosts at cock-crow. For Faith and philosophy are air, but events are brass. Amidst his gray philosophizing, Life breaks upon a man like a morning.’[4]

 

 

References

[1] Richard Saunders, Apollo Anglicanus, The English Apollo, quoted by Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 315.

[2] The Portable Melville, edited by Jay Leyda (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976), 453.

[3] Victor Watson, editor, The Cambridge Guide to Children’s Books in English (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 432.

[4] Melville, Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852; New York: Signet 1964), 327.

 

Uncooperative circumstances

PGW-Ethel-Paris-Review    Tolstoy-1897-Wiki

(P. G. Wodehouse and his wife Ethel via Paris Review; Leo Tolstoy via Wikipedia)

‘Unfortunately, however, if there was one thing circumstances weren’t, it was different from what they were’, Bertie Wooster reflects with his usual keen insight into the nature of things, as he bowls along with Jeeves in the old two-seater on the way to Totleigh Towers.[1] There is too a warning from Tolstoy in Kutuzov’s reflection that, ‘With his sixty years’ experience he knew how much dependence to put upon hearsay, knew how apt people are when they want anything to arrange all the evidence so that it appears to confirm what they desire, and how ready they are in such circumstances to overlook anything that makes for the contrary.’[2]

So this is where we are. ‘We find ourselves in a fantastical place: deep in the mire of post-Brexit politics before Brexit has happened’, James Meek writes. ‘Brexit used to be about leaving the European Union. The contest for the Tory leadership [ . . . ] has been a glaring signal that quitting the EU may not be the referendum’s gravest outcome.’ And he adds that ‘the true winners in a Johnson victory are the insurgents who have worked inside and outside Parliament to make their version of the ideas propelling the Brexit cause into a ruling ethos for the nation.’[3]

Simon Heffer, noting that Amber Rudd, ‘apparently desperate to retain her cabinet seat, suddenly became reconciled to a no-deal Brexit’, comments: ‘Many former Remainers did a Rudd some time ago and decided to support Johnson, their ambition trumping anything that might hitherto have impersonated a principle.’[4] And certainly such phrases as ‘the public interest’ and ‘servants of the people’ are looking pretty outmoded these days.

We have had, today, Dominic Raab—now Foreign Secretary, it seems—claiming on the BBC that negotiating a good trade deal with the EU could be ‘much easier’ after a no deal Brexit. I’ve tried reading that slowly, quickly and upside down – but nothing really helps. (He is also busily talking up the fiction that the EU’s ‘intransigence’ has been the real obstacle to those fabled sunlit uplands, something already gleefully embraced by our sycophantic and xenophobic press.) We have, then, Monsieur Johnson lumbering towards the no-deal Brexit that his richest and most influential backers so desire. We can expect the pretence at negotiation, carefully scuppered in advance, the pained recognition that we can’t negotiate with these people, then the general election to secure a mandate to cut us free from that awful European Union, which has held us captive for so long.

This, Martin Kettle opined recently, ‘is a hard Brexit coup dressed up as politics as usual.’
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jul/25/power-brexit-boris-johnson-radical-conservative-party

‘To call this a coup is wrong’, suggests Matthew d’Ancona, on the basis that, apparently, no rules have been broken. ‘But it is certainly a hostile takeover.’
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jul/29/boris-johnson-vote-leave-eu-exit

Well, the significant number of people who have, from the beginning, seen the whole Brexit business as a right-wing coup are unlikely to have been shaken in that belief by recent events, not least the make-up of Johnson’s cabinet and some of the other figures implicated in The Project. Still, the mystery remains. There was, unnecessarily and unwisely, a referendum on staying in the European Union or leaving it. It was an advisory and non-binding referendum, narrowly won in crude numbers by those voting to leave, that total representing just over one-third of the electorate, while two of the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU. The vast majority of those who voted (and those who didn’t) knew nothing whatsoever about the European Union (surely including the majority of British MPs) and never gave it a moment’s thought from one month’s end to the next. (I gauge this by remembering just how little I myself knew – and I follow politics and have been known to study history.) Yet, three years on, it has consumed people’s lives: many Conservative Party members would willingly suffer financial damage, the loss to the union of Northern Ireland and Scotland, the destruction of their party to secure this separation. Individuals in streets and pubs and markets, microphones thrust in their faces, declare that the most important thing of all is that we should leave the EU by 31st October.

Rob-Ryan-poster

(Rob Ryan poster: https://shop.robryanstudio.com/ )

The most important thing. Not the climate crisis, the millions in deep poverty, the crises in health care, social care, education, transport, housing and the rest, the relationships with the United States, Russia, Iran but – leaving the European Union.

‘With the spectacle of madness before one’s eyes’, Lawrence Durrell once wrote, ‘one feels the odds shorten. The eclipse of reason seems such an easy affair, the grasp on sanity so provisional and insecure.’ And the conservative thinker Allan Bloom observed: ‘It may well be that a society’s greatest madness seems normal to itself.’[5]

I take some comfort from the fact that it doesn’t seem normal to me just yet.

 
References

[1] P. G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters (1937), in The Jeeves Omnibus: 1 (London: Hutchinson, 1990), 217.

[2] Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, translated by Rosemary Edmonds (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982), 1214.

[3] ‘The Two Jacobs’: James Meek on Post-Brexit Britain, in London Review of Books, 41, 15 (1 August 2019), 13-16.

[4] Simon Heffer, ‘A great betrayal’, New Statesman (26 July – 1 August 2019), 29-31.

[5] Lawrence Durrell, Monsieur: or, The Prince of Darkness (1974), in Avignon Quintet, one-volume edition (London: Faber and Faber, 2004), 25; Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), 75.