Mayday, or Mayday!

Hayman, Francis, 1708-1776; Mayday (The Milkmaids' Garland)

Mayday (‘The Milkmaids’ Garland’): Studio of Francis Hayman. English Heritage: Marble Hill House, Twickenham.

‘To Westminster, in the way meeting many milkmaids with their garlands upon their pails, dancing with a fiddler before them, and saw pretty Nelly standing at her lodgings door in Drury lane in her smock-sleeves and bodice, looking upon one – she seemed a mighty pretty creature.’ Samuel Pepys makes a Mayday note, 1667.

Nell_gwyn_peter_lely_c_1675

(Nell Gwynn by Sir Peter Lely)

May Day! Or, given the state we’re in: Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Although—newsflash—the cavalry will not be coming. It’s up to us, which may be good news or bad, depending on your perspective.

The cavalry often didn’t arrive in the past, or almost not. ‘And suppose the cavalry had not been able to ford that river? They almost did not, almost, almost. It is in the region of Almost that the blood sings.’[1] So Anthony Burgess, alluding, surely, to the conversation between his most admired author, James Joyce, and one of the best writers on that author, Frank Budgen, to whom Joyce is reading:

“After he woke me up last night same dream or was it? Wait. Open hallway. Street of harlots. Remember. Haroun al Raschid. I am almosting it. That man led me, spoke . . .”
“Almosting!” I said.
“Yes,” said Joyce. “That’s all in the Protean character of the thing. Everything changes: land, water, dog, time of day. Parts of speech change, too. Adverb becomes verb.”[2]

Budgen-Joyce

The settled conviction that the cavalry were, and would continue to be, the trump card in the British land army was slow to recede; and sceptics were regarded with wariness or hostility. Barbara Tuchman recorded that, ‘In the Russo-Japanese War an English observer, the future General Sir Ian Hamilton, reported that the only thing the cavalry could do in the face of entrenched machine guns was to cook rice for the infantry, causing the War Office to wonder if his months in the Orient had not affected his mind.’[3] In the event, of course, ‘The first and last British cavalry charge on the western front took place at Audreques on 24 August 1914.’[4]

By the Second World War, the cavalry had fled the scene but heroes were still in evidence, riding—or sailing—to the rescue: ‘There was high drama in May 1941 when a parachute mine went through the roof of the London Palladium, and hung entangled and unexploded in the flies. The Naval officer who successfully defused the mine (since these were sea-mines they were the responsibility of the Navy) was given free tickets to the Palladium for life.’

The envy of his colleagues, no doubt. Elsewhere on the cultural spectrum, ‘The Tate Gallery was hit in September, October and December, and again once a month from January to May 1941, but the only painting damaged was Richard Wilson’s Destruction of the Children of Niobe, which had been brought to London to be cleaned. The British Museum suffered damage to the Pediment Hall in November, and much more serious damage in May 1941, when 150,000 books in the Library were destroyed.’[5]

In fact, the cavalry occasionally call here, to take away a few boxes of books, sift them for items of personal interest, then pass the rest on to Good Causes. Against such occasional and partial thinning, logic demands that we set occasions like this last weekend, when the Librarian, glimpsing a few days off on the horizon, made a compelling argument for the whole of the 2018 Women’s Prize shortlist.

NewBks-290418

A few rogue titles have evidently slipped in here: there’s probably a reasonable explanation for that but I’m unable to access it just at the moment.

References

[1] Anthony Burgess, Napoleon Symphony (London, Jonathan Cape, 1974), 24.

[2] Frank Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of ‘Ulysses’ and other writings, enlarged edition (1934; London: Oxford University Press, 1972), 55. Joyce is reading from the third chapter of Ulysses, ‘Proteus’.

[3] Barbara Tuchman, in The Guns of August (1962; edited by Margaret MacMillan, New York: Library of America, 2012), 214.

[4] Mark Girouard, Life in the English Country House (London: Penguin Books, 1980), 289.

[5] Robert Hewison, Under Siege: Literary Life in London, 1939-45 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 29.

 

Writing, healing and the First World War at The Authors’ Club

(Vivien Whelpton’s biography; Louisa Garrett Anderson:
https://www.londonremembers.com/subjects/dr-louisa-garrett-anderson )

Yesterday, pausing from doggedly extracting nails and staples from the newly exposed floorboards in the old kitchen, I took a crowded train to London, in the company of Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy—always impressive but we’ll never be close friends.

I went to the Authors’ Club in London for an event entitled ‘Writing, Healing and the First World War’. There were three panellists: Sara Haslam, Chair of the Ford Madox Ford Society and author of—among other things—Fragmenting modernism: Ford Madox Ford, the novel and the Great War; Vivien Whelpton, who published a recent biography of poet, novelist, translator and biographer Richard Aldington; and Sunny Singh, novelist and lecturer in Creative Writing and English Literature.

Sara Haslam talked about her recent research: first, into the Endell Street Military Hospital started by Louisa Garrett Anderson and Flora Murray, doctors and suffragettes, run and staffed entirely by women and dealing almost exclusively with male patients, revolutionary facts in the context of that time; then into the War Library started by Helen Mary Gaskell to distribute free books to wounded servicemen, a scheme that produced a staggering number of volumes donated by the public, with one individual contribution of 35,000 titles and huge deliveries of new stock that often brought traffic to a standstill.

Vivien Whelpton talked very knowledgeably and engagingly about Aldington, particularly his poetry and his 1929 novel, Death of a Hero; also his marriage to H. D., and association with Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, T. S. Eliot and others, damaged, as was so much else in Aldington’s life, by his experience of war. His 1955 book on T. E. Lawrence, then still idolised by many, effectively wrecked Aldington’s standing with the literary establishment in this country and his autobiography, Life for Life’s Sake, published in the United States in 1941, finally emerged here in 1968.

Sunny Singh discussed a tale by Chandradhar Sharma Guleri, later translated as ‘The Troth’—famous among a domestic audience though little known in this country—apparently the first short story in Hindi, published early in the war (1915) and highly suggestive in its handling of the complex issues around Imperial subjects fighting in a war which did not directly affect them, highlighting too the often degrading treatment suffered by the Indian troops. Perhaps as many as a million and a quarter Indian soldiers served on the Western Front and in Africa, a huge majority of those in combat roles, almost 75,000 of whom were killed.

A fascinating – and informative – evening.

Sara Haslam talking about Endell Street Military Hospital: A Suffragette story, in a short Open University film, is here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kEDRAv9NlY0

Her recent essay, ‘Reading, Trauma and Literary Caregiving 1914-1918: Helen Mary Gaskell and the War Library’, appeared in the Journal of Medical Humanities: http://oro.open.ac.uk/54285/

 

 

 

 

Beetroot, vertigo, re-reading

Beetroot

Someone tweeted the headline of a Daily Mail article by David Pierce about the Jeremy Corbyn not-much-of-a-story (the left-wing Labour leader having accepted an invitation to Passover Seder from a left-wing Jewish group, which he attended in a personal capacity): ‘They raised a beetroot in the air and shouted f*** capitalism’. The Librarian observed, with some justice, that it sounded like an ordinary family lunch at her parents’ house when we visit. Although, at the risk of seeming pedantic—moi?—it sounds, more specifically, like the Librarian at an ordinary family lunch at her parents’ house.

Post-Easter, the hot cross buns are gone but a few bottles of wine have survived thus far, stoically resigned to their fate. While the Librarian paints the newly plastered walls of the Space formerly known as the Kitchen, I make coffee and busy myself elsewhere, precluded from such things, being a reluctant beneficiary of benign paroxysmal positional vertigo. This means that, for instance, tipping my head to look directly upwards can trigger an intense and disorientating giddiness. Painting ceilings or the upper reaches of walls is not, then, the ideal pastime.

Now I recognise the symptoms—and know it’s only temporary—it’s less alarming. The first time it happened, in the early hours of the morning—and it was the worst attack I’ve had—I thought I was having a stroke. Curiously, the two ambulance-men, who arrived very quickly (I doubt if they would be able to do so now), were the only people I’ve had direct contact with whom I thought genuinely deserved—though they were less likely to be interested in—the crazy sums that are routinely paid to business executives, stockbrokers, university vice-chancellors and the like. With most of the latter, too, it’s clear what they’re taking out of the world but often rather less evident what they’re putting in.

Meanwhile, having reached the end of my re-reading Penelope Fitzgerald phase and moved on to my re-reading Elizabeth Bishop one, I still frantically plug gaps or read books that I could have sworn I’d read years ago, currently Antoine Saint-Exupéry and Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, the oh-my-God-have-you-really-not-read-this-yet pile continues, unaccountably, to grow. It would be delusional to pretend I’m winning.

 

Geoffrey Not Maynard

 

Geoffrey-Keynes

‘Just now I am very proud because I recently acquired a wonderful edition of Sir Thomas Browne’, Elizabeth Bishop wrote to Donald E. Stanford in 1934, ‘very elegant, once selling for $36 and now remaindered at $12. It’s edited by Geoffrey Keynes and has a lot of charming portraits.’[1]

Geoffrey Keynes may be less well known than his famous economist brother Maynard but is of extraordinary interest on his own account. He was at Rugby School with Rupert Brooke, becoming the literary executor of Brooke’s estate after the poet’s death in 1915: his huge Letters of Rupert Brooke finally appeared in 1968. When a house surgeon at St Bartholomew’s, Keynes played a major part in saving the life of Virginia Woolf after her first suicide attempt in 1913 (and so prior to publishing any of her novels).[2] During the war, he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps and, in 1917, married Margaret Elizabeth Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grand-daughter and younger sister of Gwen Raverat, the artist and author of Period Piece, constantly in print since its first appearance nearly seventy years ago:


‘Once I was taken out of bed and carried down to the front door in my nightgown to see the water covering the road and the Green, when a flood had risen suddenly one night. My parents had gone out to dinner on foot, but the frightened maids sent a four-wheeler to fetch them back in a hurry. The water came up to the hubs of the wheels, but was not very deep on the pavement. The cellars were awash, and my father had to wade out into the garden to rescue a cat which was marooned on top of a wall. We had several very delightful floods in my youth, but unfortunately the water never quite came into the house; nor did it in the Great Flood of 1947.’[3]

Keynes was a close friend of Jacques Raverat (who married Gwen in 1911), knew Eric Gill, and arranged publication of several limited editions of Siegfried Sassoon’s work, as well as compiling a Sassoon bibliography. He became an eminent medical figure, particularly notable for his advocacy of blood transfusion and his treatment of breast cancer. But he’s most commonly celebrated as the bibliographer of Donne, John Evelyn, Thomas Browne and, especially, William Blake. His bibliography of Blake, together with his editions of Blake’s writings, paved the way for the great rise in Blake scholarship and the general revaluation of his works in the twentieth century.

Keynes met Francis Meynell, founder of the Nonesuch Press, in 1923, the year in which the press produced its first title, an edition of John Donne’s Love Poems. They became, and remained, friends for over fifty years. Meynell later remarked that Keynes had produced, in whole or in part, sixteen books for the Nonesuch Press, though Keynes comments that he ‘had a finger in a great many more besides’.[4]

Many people will own, or at least remember, Nonesuch Press volumes. I also have to hand a ‘Prospectus and Retrospectus of the Nonesuch Press 1932/ 16 Great James Street WC2’. Glancing through it in search of Keynesian input, I find, firstly, The Writings of William Blake, edited in three volumes by Geoffrey Keynes: 1500 sets at £5 11s. 6d. and 75 copies in one volume at £10. This may have been the edition that Elizabeth Bishop mentioned in her letter, though, on balance, perhaps more likely is another Keynes production, The Works of Sir Thomas Browne, in six volumes, published in 1928 by Faber & Gwyer. (The firm traded under that name from 1925 to 1929, when the Gwyers and Geoffrey Faber parted ways and Faber devised the new firm’s impressive name by simply doubling his own.

)Nonesuch

Also in the Nonesuch catalogue:
Evelyn’s Instructions for the Gardiner at Sayes Court, edited by Geoffrey Keynes (Ready in June)
Ten Sermons by Dr John Donne, chosen by Geoffrey Keynes (725 copies at £1 7s. 6d.)
Memoirs for my Grand-son by John Evelyn, edited by Geoffrey Keynes
Blake’s Pencil Drawings: eighty-two collotype reproductions, chosen and annotated by Geoffrey Keynes
De Motu Cordis by Dr William Harvey, edited by Geoffrey Keynes
The Compleat Walton, edited by Geoffrey Keynes, illustrated by C. Sigrsit and T. L. Poulton
Bibliography of Jane Austen, compiled by Geoffrey Keynes
Bibliography of William Hazlitt, compiled by Geoffrey Keynes
Among the ‘Unlimited Editions’ of the Nonesuch Press, Keynes edits a one-volume Poetry and Prose of William Blake and a Selected Essays of William Hazlitt.

So eleven  books in (at most) nine years, some of them involving enormous labour.
All the while, he was putting in a tremendous amount of work at Bart’s Hospital – and pursuing other cultural interest (music, ballet). Were the hours just longer in those days? As for that Nonesuch list. Other stray, non-Keynesian, items catch the eye: Charles Ricketts on Oscar Wilde; an edition of D. H. Lawrence’s Love Among the Haystacks with a memoir by David Garnett; Montaigne edited by J. I. M. Stewart; Herbert Farjeon’s edition of Shakespeare in seven volumes. . . .

And there is an odd sense of dislocation. Knowing perfectly well that the catalogue is eighty-six years old and that the prices are in a form of currency extinct for more than forty, I still catch myself fashioning a short shopping list. The quoted review from the Manchester Guardian of an earlier volume in the series devoted to John Dryden’s dramatic works, edited by Montague Summers, has this: ‘His introduction, too, is in many ways a new survey of Dryden’s literary career. But it is, we regret to say, not infrequently disfigured by irrelevant and tasteless remarks…’ Who wouldn’t want to know what those remarks were? Here, in any case, is the Letters from W. H. Hudson, edited by Edward Garnett; and Peter Warlock’s selection of songs from the eighteenth-century pleasure gardens of London. Add the three-volume Blake and perhaps Cobbett’s Life and Adventures of Peter Porcupine, the Walton and possibly that handsome edition of North’s Plutarch. Then this brief note swims into focus: ‘Of the complete tally of Nonesuch books printed in the Retrospectus…only the last to be published is still available [a book on the death of Marlowe]; all the other editions are exhausted. . . ’

Browne

Fine printing and attractive, carefully designed books have not, of course, vanished from the world. Far from it—the book as desirable physical object has steadily became one of the primary defences against those invading digital hordes. And, unlike the holiday that turned out badly, the lavish celebratory meal that didn’t quite cut the mustard or the latest piece of whizz-technology that will be mutton-dead in a year or so, they can last—still beautiful and still useful—for a hundred years or so.
Thomas Browne (to end with him) wrote: ‘’Tis opportune to look back upon old times, and contemplate our Forefathers. Great examples grow thin, and to be fetched from the passed world. Simplicity flies away, and iniquity comes at long strides upon us. We have enough to do to make up our selves from present and passed times, and the whole stage of things scarce serveth for our instruction. A compleat peece of vertue must be made up from the Centos of all ages, as all the beauties of Greece could make but one handsome Venus.’[5]

References

[1] Elizabeth Bishop to Donald E. Stanford, 21 January 1934: One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 15.

[2] Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (London: Chatto and Windus, 1996), 330.

[3] Gwen Raverat, Period Piece: The Cambridge Childhood of Darwin’s Granddaughter (1952; London: Faber and Faber, 2002), 43.

[4] Geoffrey Keynes, The Gates of Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 180.

[5] Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia, or Urn-Buriall, in Selected Writings, edited by Geoffrey Keynes (London: Faber and Faber, 1970), 116.

 

Strait Expectations

Snow-1802-2

It seems unreasonable to charge the weather with bad faith – but somehow I persuaded myself that we had a deal. After the snow two weeks ago, which was more than enough to slake the appetite of the Librarian for such stuff (‘we never get snow’), I thought that was it. We could proceed peaceably enough* towards a convincing Spring. Clearly not.

So today turned out to involve shuffling to the newsagent; reading at length about the harvesting of Facebook data; brief forays to the bird table with suet pellets; making soup; browsing in a few books; and not having a drink just yet.


And tomorrow – ah, perhaps not ‘fresh Woods, and Pastures new’ but certainly a return to what was previously called ‘normality’. The last scheduled University staff strike day was on Friday. Everyone involved is profoundly hopeful that they can simply get on with their work, that there won’t be a need to schedule any more stoppages but, given that the circumstances which brought this situation about have not substantially changed, any natural optimism is being held firmly in check.

‘But our expectations are always higher than the tallest cathedral, the mightiest wave in a storm, the highest leap of a dancer’, Proust wrote (in James Grieve’s translation).

Not this time, Marcel.

 
* Insert dry smile.

Noises off, spell checkers on

Burne-Jones, Edward, 1833-1898; Love Among the Ruins

(Edward Burne-Jones, Love Among the Ruins
National Trust, Wightwick Manor: photo credit National Trust)

A few days ago, I could hear a frequent but unidentifiable noise: upstairs as well as downstairs. Washing-machine? Sewing-machine? Drill? Just at the edge of the range of my hearing, so that I couldn’t identify the source of it either. Surely from one of the neighbouring houses but which one? Mechanical or electrical; varying duration; it had stopped; no, it hadn’t, it kept on happening. I finally decided that it was workmen taking down the scaffolding from a house thirty or forty metres along the road. But the salient point was that, once aware of the sound, even though it was barely audible, I couldn’t ignore it: the fact of it had lodged in my head and wouldn’t be shifted.

Now an impressive commotion at the door heralds the arrival of a copy of the 1975 edition of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Edward Burne-Jones: A Biography, supplied with promptness and efficiency by G. & J. Chesters of Tamworth. After finishing, The Knox Brothers, Penelope Fitzgerald’s remarkable group biography of her father and three uncles, the only one of her books that I’d not read was Edward Burne-Jones: I’d dipped into it but never read it through properly. Having determined to reread all her fiction—which I’d thought wonderful the first time around even while I was convinced that I’d missed at least half of what there was to see—I added the biographies, intending to start at the beginning.

Penelope_Fitzgerald_A_Life

I had the paperback edition, published by Sutton in 2003, with a brief preface by Christopher Wood. By the time I reached page twenty-five, which mentioned the French city of ‘Chatres’, I was so aware of the errors in the text that it had become as serious a distraction as bolt-removing workmen. But was it just a case of errors carried forward from the original publication? I found a limited preview of that on Google Books and checked a couple of examples. No, these were all Sutton’s own work, so I placed an order for the first edition. Just after I’d done so, I found an endnote in Hermione Lee’s superb biography of Fitzgerald, which mentioned the publishing history of her life of Burne-Jones: it had ‘two reissues, by Hamish Hamilton in 1989, and by Sutton Publishing in 2003, a bad edition full of misprints.’[1] Ah yes.

Long before I did any editorial work, I was a freelance proof-reader for a few years, always desperate for a little extra money. If you take to proofreading and sub-editing, and you have the type of eye and mind that lock on to errors of that sort, it’s impossible to shake the habit off (sometimes tiresome, no doubt, to those not afflicted in the same way). I was once moved to write to the American publisher of an edition of William Faulkner’s Collected Stories that I was reading, pointing out the appalling state of the text; on another occasion, I wrote to John Calder about a Wyndham Lewis novel, suggesting that Lewis’s writing was quite challenging enough without  the addition of occasional gibberish because the proof-reader (if there was one) had nodded off or had recourse to the bottle. In neither case did I hear back. Years later, when I read Pursuit, subtitled ‘The Uncensored Memoirs of John Calder’, I thought ‘unedited too: you should have let me—or, at least, somebody—proofread this, Mr Calder.’[2]

Spalding-Piper

Most recently dispiriting was the case of Frances Spalding’s joint biography of John and Myfanwy Piper, published by Oxford University Press.[3] It’s a beautiful book, six hundred pages long, with an extensive range of illustrations, both in colour and in black and white, well-designed and produced (although, despite my care, several of the colour plates were working themselves loose by the time I’d finished the book). A successful and highly-regarded biographer and art historian; an eminent university press; yet, in the first three pages, I read of a ‘Librian’ (this may be something vaguely astrological but it isn’t a keeper of books and manuscripts) and a sentence that started: ‘After this begun book was begun’, which seemed overgenerous with beginnings. Subsequently, among other delights, there was an antiquarian named William Stukley (referred to again, correctly spelt, within a few lines), an institution called the Royal Collage and a novelist named Henry Greene. Indefinite articles were missed out several times, there was an unsettling reference to Piper’s ‘panting’, Keynsham was shunted into another county and a village named Layock, near Melksham, was  invented for the occasion.

All of which, once again, only served to distract this reader from the text. It is, I know, an open secret that, while publishers generally used to see to this sort of thing, a great many now. . . don’t. Perhaps there’s some uncertainty as to where the burden of responsibility ultimately lies, which makes it all very twenty-first century—but there, I feel a bit of politics coming on. Perhaps better not. . .

References

[1] Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (London: Chatto and Windus, 2013), 457, n.25.

[2] Looking back now, I note Michael Horowitz’s comment, when reviewing the book in The Telegraph (18 March 2002): ‘Calder’s unimpeachable commitment to the defence of literature is heavily sabotaged by misspellings and glaring errors of fact, grammar, punctuation and attribution throughout the memoirs.’ I see that a paperback edition came out at the end of 2016, perhaps proofread for the occasion.

[3] Frances Spalding, John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

 

Advancement of learning: visiting the library

Rylands-Reading-Room

(John Rylands Reading Room: via www.manchester.ac.uk )

‘Libraries,’ wrote Francis Bacon in 1605, ‘are as the shrines, where all the reliques of the ancient saints, full of true virtue, and that without delusion or imposture, are preserved, and reposed.’ Quoting this, Jennifer Summit, in Memory’s Library: Medieval Books in Early Modern England, presents libraries rather ‘less as inert storehouses of written tradition and rather more as volatile spaces that actively shaped the meanings and uses of books, reading, and the past’.[1]

In Manchester, apart from the Wyndham Lewis exhibition and the Ford Madox Brown murals in the town hall (that attempt failed: there was a one-day event in the Great Hall and it was closed to visitors), Chetham’s and the John Rylands Library were the main items on the menu.

Chethams-3

Chetham’s Library was founded in 1653, established under the terms of the will of Humphrey Chetham, ‘a prosperous Manchester textile merchant, banker and landowner’, and is the oldest surviving public library in Britain. In the superb Reading Room, we paused by the famous desk at which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels worked, when the latter was employed at his father’s cotton manufacturing firm ­– and giving financial support to the Marx family.

Chethams-1

In the nineteenth century the library moved to specialise in the history and topography of the north west of England. Its holdings include 120,000 printed items, manuscripts and a huge quantity of ephemera: postcards, theatre programmes, posters, broadsheets and music. Among the individual items are Ben Jonson’s copy of Plato, first editions of Newton, Robert Hooke, Johnson’s Dictionary and Milton’s Paradise Lost, and, in manuscript, Horace Walpole’s account of money spent on his house at Strawberry Hill.[2]

Chethams-2

(Volumes of Francis Bacon’s works)

The librarian was properly—and professionally—impressed by all this. So, unprofessionally, was I—but then, who wouldn’t be? And so to the famous John Rylands Library, taking in their Reformation exhibition, with a copy of Luther’s 95 theses, and a handwritten letter from him.
http://www.library.manchester.ac.uk/rylands/whats-on/reformation/

The standard response to the Reading Room in John Rylands was exemplified by the man who came in while I was standing near the exit. ‘Wow’, he said; and once more, for luck, ‘Wow!’ Then the camera phone came out and he clicked continually, like most of the other people there. If I’d thought I could achieve pictures of anything other than light reflected off polished surfaces, I might have done the same. Easier, though, to borrow the Library’s own.

Today is, I notice, the birthday of Elaine Feinstein, poet, biographer, playwright, novelist and translator, who has published over forty books now. Curious the ways by which we come to some writers: relatively recently, I was reading Feinstein’s terrific versions of Marina Tsvetaeva:

this is the last bridge
the last bridging between

water     and firm land
and I am saving these
coins for death
for Charon, the price of Lethe

this     shadow money
from my dark hand I press
soundlessly into
the shadowy darkness of his

shadow money it is
no gleam and tinkle in it
coins for shadows:
the dead have enough poppies[3]

Tsvetaeva

Before Tsvetaeva and her biography of Ted Hughes and scattered pieces in PN Review, it was probably the famous 1959 ‘Letter to Elaine Feinstein’ from Charles Olson (‘Let this swirl—a bit like Crab Nebula—do for now’), addressed to E. B. Feinstein.[4] There was an exhibition at John Rylands Library with some choice morsels from their celebrated collections: they have the Elaine Feinstein archive there:
http://www.library.manchester.ac.uk/search-resources/guide-to-special-collections/atoz/elaine-feinstein-collection/ 
and there were some tantalising examples in a glass cabinet, including a letter from Allen Ginsberg which began ‘Dear Mr Feinstein’ (those initials again).

In Walden, Henry Thoreau remarked that, ‘The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly.’[5] A good way to preserve the bloom while also strengthening roots and branches, is to light the fire in the belly and brain of boy or girl and set them loose in a library. It’s becoming more difficult, of course, to find one or to find one that’s open or to find one that’s open and has a good stock of books in it. (‘He had read everything’, David Garnett remembered of the novelist and short story writer H. E. Bates, ‘having found most of the world’s literature in Kettering and Rushden public libraries’.)[6]

Governments are notoriously careless or irresponsible about such things and libraries—the common or garden, indispensable neighbourhood libraries—have had a particularly tough time of late, seen by councils of all stripes and sizes as ‘soft’ targets. Those politicians who actually read have their own solid bookshelves, or access to parliamentary facilities, no doubt. But they also seem uncertain about what a library—and, for that matter, a professional librarian—actually is and does. Here’s a clue. A library run by unqualified volunteers is, alas, no longer a library: it has become instead a space containing some books, some computers and some well-meaning people.

Library

(via American Libraries Magazine)

Still, perhaps we have a population as well-educated, knowledgeable and well-informed as it could possibly be? If so, we can probably afford to be so neglectful, ungenerous and short-sighted as to cut education budgets and limit access to learning and run down public libraries, allowing local councils to degrade them as a first response—rather than a last resort—to budget squeezes by central government. If not, not. We should consider, anyway, the possibility that not everybody has access to the internet twenty-four hours a day. Perhaps we should consider another: not everything that people need to know, let alone want to know, is available on the internet in any case, and not every skill can be learned there.

References

[1] Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, address to the King at the opening of the Second Book; Jennifer Summit, Memory’s Library: Medieval Books in Early Modern England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 13.

[2] Details from Chetham’s Library: Three Centuries of the Written Word, edited by Sandra Pisano (London: Scala Arts and Heritage Publishers, reprinted 2016).

[3] Marina Tsvetaeva, ‘Poem of the End’, section 8 (1924), in Selected Poems, translated by Elaine Feinstein, fourth edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 78-79.

[4] See Charles Olson, The Collected Prose, edited by Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 250-252.

[5] Henry David Thoreau, Walden, edited by J. Lyndon Shanley (Princeton and London: Princeton University Press, 1974), 6.

[6] David Garnett The Familiar Faces (London: Chatto & Windus, 1962), 100.