Noises off – and on


A bright, chilly day. In a neighbouring garden, workmen are making a truly fantastic noise. If they were in competition to produce the greatest number of decibels without mechanical assistance, I would have to rate their chances highly. Their relentless cacophony is overlaid from time to time by ambulance sirens and aircraft noise.

The sirens are probably connected with the fact that cases of Covid-19 are climbing dizzily again in this country but the government narrative demands official pretence that the pandemic is over. Accordingly, the Health Secretary assures those eager to hear such complacent nonsense that there is no cause for concern because vaccination will protect us. The production and distribution of vaccines, the scientists and the NHS, have certainly been hugely impressive; and I see every day the latest percentages of the population to have had two doses of the vaccine and the booster shot, also looking impressive. Yet translating those percentages into numbers, as accurately as I can, it seems that nearly thirty million people in the UK have not had a booster; and at least eighteen million haven’t even had two jabs—the last figure presumably including those that have had none at all, for whatever reason, none of them reassuring.

The aircraft noise, much though not by no means all of it from helicopters, may be connected with the tragedy taking place on the far side of Europe. This country is not officially on military alert but it would be naïve to suppose that no preparations, adjustments and relocations are taking place.

‘It is vain to torment oneself over sufferings that one cannot alleviate’, Somerset Maugham wrote—and by ‘vain’ I take him to mean ‘profitless’ rather than ‘conceited’—which is probably true but not easy at a time like this.[1] These are not restful days. We don’t have enough space to accommodate refugees; nor are we rich. So we donate what money we can and, along with countless others, sit and watch sickening images on television and laptop screens, as hospitals, schools, theatres and cars full of fleeing children are deliberately targeted by Russian bombs, shells and missiles. 

‘The acts of people are baffling’, Edward Dahlberg observed, ‘unless we realize that their wits are disordered.’[2] True again, often enough, though some cannot take refuge in such an explanation. And it’s too easy to dissipate energy in fruitless railing against malign or spectacularly dim politicians, proxies and useful idiots, and governments that must be dragged, kicking and screaming, in the general direction of a minimally humanitarian response to such a crisis.

Mary Wollstonecraft: ‘It is justice, not charity, that is wanting in the world.’ (Jug from Sussex Lustreware)

Luckily, I have four projects in train at present—related but often not quite closely enough. I mean that some glittering prize of a detail, lifted from one of the books I’m reading or, more often, rereading, may benefit two of those projects but never all. And there are the other things, often mislabelled ‘small’, which go to make up the civilised life. A handful of grapes, daffodils in the Mary Wollstonecraft jug, a cherry tree, a glass of wine, a cat in the garden, a voice on the stairs. Can I read Geoffrey Grigson while kneading bread dough? Why yes, if the book is placed at exactly the right angle. I can also find a use for the jar of roasted peppers that has been in the pantry far too long; connect a piece in Ford Madox Ford’s Provence with a passage in Doris Lessing’s In Pursuit of the English; add twenty lines to an essay I’m working on and take only a dozen of them out again.

Warily, I recall Guy Davenport’s assertion, more than thirty years ago—and not, of course, in the later stages of a pandemic—that ‘We must move away from Sartre’s “Hell is other people”. The crux is this: that instead of asking the world not to threaten our solitude, our personal and solipsistic order, we should so behave ourselves as not to threaten the world’s order. This involves our understanding, and agreeing to, the world’s order, a process of complex immensity, but one in which culturally the arts have a great, mediating role.’[3]

‘The world’s order’: an irresistible, mysterious, hazardous phrase. I don’t think he was talking of political arrangements but something simpler, something larger. ‘“We can’t put it together,” as Stewart Brand said of the universe; “it is together.”’[4]

The workmen have fallen unaccountably silent. It must be that time of day. A welcome respite but probably temporary. Probably.


Notes

[1] Maugham, ‘A Man with a Conscience’, in Collected Short Stories: Volume 4 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1963), 203.

[2] Edward Dahlberg, The Carnal Myth: A Search into Classical Sensuality (London: Calder & Boyars, 1970), 24.

[3] Guy Davenport, A Balthus Notebook (New York: Norton, 1989), 70-71.

[4] Quoted by Hugh Kenner, ‘Retrospect: 1985’, 7: this is the preface to a new edition of The Poetry of Ezra Pound, first published in 1951.

Bells, books, Brussels sprouts

(Frank Spenlove-Spenlove, Vespers, New Year’s Eve in the Low Country, Glasgow Museums Resource Centre)
Ours is not a low country, of course – not in that sense, at least

The year has little to show, will leave a heavy
Overdraft to its heir;
Shall we try to meet the deficit or passing
By on the other side continue laissez-faire?[1]


New Year’s Eve, though—strictly speaking—that’s not until later on today. Hogmanay, north of the border: though it seems from news reports that Scots will be streaming over that border to celebrate more freely than in their home country, this government having opted once again to make sure that English citizens take the blame themselves for any increased harm they come to in their revels. In Spain and a lot of Latin American countries, I gather, the habit of eating twelve grapes, one on each stroke of the midnight clock, is well-established. And in Japan, on Ōmisoka – I’ve seen it translated as ‘Grand Last Day’, which manages to sound simultaneously splendid and a touch apocalyptic[2] – there is joyanokane, the ringing of the temple bells 108 times, a number linked to the prayer beads used by most Japanese Buddhists, signifying the totality of the world and the heavens, and now the number of sins or negative forces to be expelled from the self in order to enter the New Year cleanly.

(Via http://www.japanstyle.info/ )

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, pinned his hopes on the bells (the bells! the bells!), several stanzas seeming particularly relevant now—or are they always relevant, alas?

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of true and right,
Ring in the common love of good.[3]

I see that the Chinese New Year, which falls on 1 February, will usher in the Year of the Tiger. My birth year was also of that same stripe, which is, I suspect—and hope—a good omen. We could all do with a few of those.

So those that are able to—and who also wish to—can hibernate for a while longer, probably with less regret in the current weather. I must settle down to some real work. Then, too, if I run out of my own books to read, I can cast my eye again over the Librarian’s combined birthday and Christmas hoard and purloin something on the sly.


Halfway to Twelfth Night, the Christmas tree is lasting well and Harry the cat is settled back into his routines after a few days in Somerset, where he spent some time on the stairs, a useful vantage point, which surprisingly resulted in no fatalities or serious injuries. In common with a great many other people, we passed a few hours in the company of the Beatles—the Peter Jackson documentary, the book edited by John Harris, reminiscences, the Librarian’s dad working out several tunes on his guitar and the final triumphant group rendering of ‘Get Back’. There were, too, important conversations, sometimes in the kitchen with the Librarian’s mum:

‘Do you use butter or olive oil?’
‘Both, usually. A bit of each.’
‘Blanch them, then whizz them round the pan in a bit of oil and butter with chopped garlic.’
‘Yes.’

That’s how we cook Brussels sprouts these days. . . I could never warm to them simply boiled – perhaps I’d suffered too much from the Christmas meals of my childhood, in the days when grandparents knew for a fact that, if you were dining at one o’clock, you started cooking the vegetables about three hours earlier. What vegetable could survive such an ordeal? Brassica oleracea: known in French and English gardens from the late 18th century, and in the United States not long afterwards, when Thomas Jefferson planted some in his garden in 1812.[4] That was the year, of course, that saw the beginning of the war between Britain and the United States, arising from British violations of American maritime rights – which may remind some of us of the current disputes between France and the United Kingdom over fishing rights. Jefferson, as noted Francophile (as well as noted slaveholder), trade commissioner in France, then US minister, succeeding Benjamin Franklin, would likely have sided with the French.


Still, I was never as hostile to that particular vegetable as Ford Madox Ford, who declared in Provence that ‘what Eve ate sinfully was not an apple but a dish of brussels sprouts boiled in water that lacked the salt of the Mediterranean’, adding, judiciously: ‘Let that at least serve for a symbol.’ And, on the plus side: ‘somewhere between Vienne and Valence, below Lyons on the Rhone the sun is shining and, south of Valence, Provincia Romana, the Roman Province lies beneath the sun. There there is no more any evil for there the apple will not flourish and the Brussels sprout will not grow at all.’[5] The sprout as root of all evil – exaggeration from Ford Madox Ford. Who’d have thought it?

Without exaggeration, then, perhaps a little warily, I raise a glass to everyone that happens by here: 2022, ready or not, here we come. Apparently.


Notes

[1] Louis MacNeice, Autumn Journal in Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 146.

[2] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 540.

[3] Tennyson: A Selected Edition, edited by Christopher Ricks (Harlow: Longman Group, 1989), 453-454.

[4] Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food, Second Edition by Tom Jaine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 110.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Provence (London: Allen & Unwin, 1938), 79, 80.

High summer, locally


Frankly, I didn’t think much of July. It used to be a favourite month of mine: it contained my birthday, school holidays, reliably fine weather, test cricket on the BBC. Now it just contains my birthday. And leaks in the kitchen. And worries about the cat. And other leaks in the kitchen. And bodily aches and pains generously distributed, a bad leg here, a repetitive strain injury there; plumbers that don’t get back to you; misnamed ‘freedom days’; our shoddy, barrel-scraping media; weather that was either oppressively hot or relentlessly wet; plus the reliable constants of a global pandemic and half the world seemingly on fire and a government much less keen on democratic rights and free speech than it pretends.

On the other hand, there were books. I reread Ford Madox Ford and the wonderful Stella Bowen, and books by Inez Holden, Jonathan Coe and Elizabeth Taylor, the anthology of weird stories by women edited by Melissa Edmundson, Juliet Nicolson’s Frostquake—and strolled through the first few volumes of Simon Raven’s Alms for Oblivion series, reminded more than once, especially by some of the characters in the early books, of the sentiment expressed by John Dowell in Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier: ‘The instances of honesty that one comes across in this world are just as amazing as the instances of dishonesty.’

But we have, of course, moved on, and August—no, August seems not to have received the note about ‘marked improvement’. Endless rain, an unwell librarian, an internet connection with the strength of a day-old kitten. The plumbers continue not to return calls as I work on through the list. I make contact with a plasterer—my next bout of self-indulgence—but silence has descended since.


And yet—here is Douglas Goldring, Ford Madox Ford’s sub-editor on the famous English Review, a friend of thirty year’s standing and Ford’s first biographer. I’ve been rereading his books and, although he gets some things wrong and is a little too romantic in his view of Stalin’s Soviet Union—as so many people were, in reaction against fascism and the English establishment’s tolerance of, or even enthusiasm for, fascism—he is right about things surprisingly often. I do like Goldring. Always aware of Ford’s absurdities, they never obscure his view of Ford’s literary genius and his many personal qualities, what Pound called his ‘humanitas’. Goldring is opinionated, vigorous, wonderfully convinced and convincing on the changes that became visible after the First World War, the slaughter on the Western Front and the radical change in the complexion of those in power. ‘There was no longer any room in the Establishment for men with traditions of unselfish public service who regarded those who made money out of wars as the scum of the earth.’

Librarians recover; cats perk up; internet speeds revive; daughters can visit, sometimes after long, long pauses; rain can ease and blackberries offer themselves to ready fingers. August can improve—locally, yes, always locally. Julian Barnes, in his ‘Preface’ to Richard Cobb’s Paris and Elsewhere, remarked on his ‘very English taste for the particular and the local’. Unlike some recent manifestations of nationalist zealotry, the Francophile Cobb’s taste was grounded, rather, in a considerably wider range of knowledge and sympathies. David Jones (in ‘James Joyce’s Dublin’) remarked that, ‘of all artists ever, James Joyce was the most dependent on the particular, on place, site, locality.’ Joyce too, though always intensely Irish, was also a citizen of the world, to coin a phrase. As far as improvement goes, then, I am trusting only to the local – just for now.

Reading at the kitchen table

June days. The opened back door at breakfast time now my choice as well as the cat’s. The butter in the dish more malleable; the heating never coming on because the temperature doesn’t drop below the thermostat setting. It seems only a short time since the postman emerged from determined rain to deposit a parcel at the front door: beautifully wrapped and containing attractive – ah, books, yes. The whole affair, including the books themselves, such a class act that it could only have been my order from Kate Macdonald’s Handheld Press. Three more then, to be steered firmly past beckoning flat surfaces and upstairs to the front bedroom, where the chest of drawers has three separate piles on top of it: five, ten and twenty-four volumes respectively. Other nearby piles total another thirty-one and there are more on the tops of the bookcases as well as in them. I am losing the battle here, several battles by the look of it, never mind the loft, which the occasional plumber or roofer will survey with odd and slightly strained expressions.

(I once saw a letter quoted from someone who said they never bought a new book unless they’d finished reading all the books they already had. I could see what the words in the letter meant—as defined in a dictionary—but couldn’t make any real sense of them put together in that way.)


The postal delivery coincided with my attempt to clear the kitchen table, finding, among the journals, catalogues, empty envelopes, papers left over from the local and mayoral elections last month, six books, in various stages of being-read: Peter Vansittart’s A Literary Companion to London (I’d been combing through this for any Ford Madox Ford-related details that I’d missed elsewhere); Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water (the sequel to A Time of Gifts); Jim Down’s fine, unsettling Life Support, which the Librarian was reading (I’d read it a couple of months ago); Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia (essays, interviews, letters); Derek Jarman’s Garden (the Librarian again, following up Olivia Laing’s essays); and Deborah Levy’s just-published Real Estate.

Another recent arrival is an expanded—and rather handsome—edition of Greg Gerke’s See What I See: Essays, issued by Zerogram Press of Los Angeles, with a prefatory piece by Steven Moore. There are six new essays, shared among the three sections in proportions commensurate with distribution over the whole volume: three essays in ‘The Writing Life’; two in ‘The Silver Screen’; and one in ‘Real Life’.

Moore’s ‘Foreword’ begins by describing Gerke’s collection as ‘a splendid example of the return of the personal in modern literary criticism’ and ends by terming it ‘a beguiling collection of belletristic essays meant for those of us for whom art is a passion, not a profession or a pastime but a way of life.’

Both of these judgements are well-observed. The reader does indeed get a sense of a mind and body behind the words: the ‘personal’ could easily be misconstrued in this context given that we often seem to be suffering from little else. Opinions batter us from all directions – many of them unimpeded by any knowledge of, or insight into, the things they pronounce upon. But that’s not the case here (indeed, Gerke has his own opinion of opinions paraded as something else).


See What I See: imperative or interrogative? Or collaborative? We are offered, in the main, enthusiasms: writers and painters and directors whom Gerke has thought about and responded to. Some, clearly, are of long standing, some newly discovered, some returned to, seen afresh in the light of changes, not least in the writer’s—or viewer’s—own life.

Moore’s second observation about those ‘for whom art is a passion, not a profession or a pastime but a way of life’, nicely points up the classic distinction between ‘serious’ and ‘solemn’. Gerke, a New York-based fiction writer as well as essayist, does indeed take this stuff seriously. The subjects of his essays—William Gass, Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein, Geoffrey Hill, William Gaddis, Louise Glück, Henry James, Eric Rohmer, Ingmar Bergman—are not lightweights; but Gerke is never po-faced about them. He can be funny, odd, quirky, confiding (I’d say that all these terms can be applied to his short fiction too)—but his focus, for his readers as for himself is, ultimately, pleasure. And it is—for the reader and the viewer—something more thoroughgoing, more engaging of the senses than a quick kiss behind the bike sheds or a caress on the way upstairs: it is, rather, a full-on, grown-up affair.

In ‘On Influence’, he remarks: ‘If one hasn’t read a lot of Shakespeare, why hasn’t one read a lot of Shakespeare? If one doesn’t “get” Henry James, one must ask why one doesn’t “get” Henry James. While licks of love are sweet, little can compare with full immersion.’ Then: ‘And the connection between art and love is not some tenuous, new-age conceit; rather, it is as real as rain. Love takes time because we don’t know what we love until the bloom retires and we are left with a presence not endowed with a glow, but a cast-iron reality.’

I note again, in ‘A Year With Wallace Stevens’: ‘His answers were not easy—they weren’t even answers, but patterns, conquests of thought, of tomfoolery, with music and word motion contained inside swerving ideas both raw and cooked.’ And, in ‘Mr. Turner, Boyhood, and Criticism’, ‘Everyone bellows how life is unfair, but does everyone know life is unfair and beautiful, often at the same time?’

They say—among the things they say—that one test of a writer’s quality is an ability to engage and hold your attention even when they’re discoursing on subjects of which you know little or nothing; and, sometimes, on subjects in which you have no acknowledged interest. Gerke’s knowledge of cinema, his passion for it, outstrips mine within a couple of sentences – but his discussions of Rohmer, Rossellini, Kubrick, Antonioni, are arresting not least because of the intimacy of that knowledge, the closeness of identification between writer and subject— the title of one piece is ‘Does Eric Rohmer Have the All of Me?’ while, in one of the recently added essays, he writes: ‘Yes, I took Antonioni into my life and he affected how I saw the world’, a statement which is immediately anatomised though not retreated from.

Again, some of his chosen writers are not exactly mine but I see one crucial affinity, highlighted in that phrase ‘total immersion’. While I frequently admire single books there’s just no substitute for a corpus—the mot juste—a body (not a limb, not an isolated feature, such eyes! such lips!) with all its imperfections, the failures and near-misses and try-outs that make sense of the triumphs, the personal oddities or traits or weaknesses that go to making the work of interest in the first place. I am not sympathetic to the voices that mutter or shout ‘if only’ – if only Lawrence hadn’t been in love with his mother, if only Pound hadn’t discovered economics or moved to Italy, if only Woolf hadn’t been a snob, if only Yeats hadn’t had those notions of aristocracy and spirit companions, if only James had had a satisfying sex life, if only Emily Dickinson had got out more – my strong conviction being that you would not then have had Lawrence or Pound or Woolf or Yeats or James or Dickinson at all, or rather some version of them rendered so innocuous and uninteresting as to surrender all claim to our attention anyway.

Gerke is certainly drawn to full immersion: ‘A Year with Wallace Stevens’, ‘Going Steady with Gertrude’ (Stein, of course), ‘The Patrick White Experience’, ‘Bergman’s Spell’—which asks, along the way: ‘How is a spiritual life possible in a techno-Gomorrah such as we inhabit?’—and ‘Nearer My Hong Sang-soo to Me’, an essay on the prolific South Korean film director and screenwriter, which ends with the reflection that: ‘As the years go by and Hong’s filmography swells, his biography [ . . . ] lessens. The work stands for the person—the goal for most artists.’

In his introduction, Steven Moore mentions Gerke’s two books of short fiction and also alludes to ‘a lengthy novel in the works’. I shall look out for updates on that news—and go on reading at the (oddly, if temporarily, tidy) kitchen table.

Every book in its season


‘You’re reading Zola now?’ the Librarian asks in a slightly disbelieving tone, one surely coloured by unsettling memories of undergraduate courses in European literature, with beckoning names like ‘Realism’ and ‘Naturalism’. ‘Why would you put yourself through that?’

She sits down to lunch with Modern Nature—Derek Jarman’s 1989-1990 journals—while I consider the question. I felt I needed a novel – to go with the pile of current not-novel reading; I thought I was due a ‘classic’; a quick survey of the fiction titles unread by me that we currently own didn’t throw up one to snag my attention in the right way (yes, there are hundreds of those but many of them sitting in boxes in a storage unit) and this one was close to hand; I haven’t read Monsieur Zola for years; he crops up a lot elsewhere, when you read about Cézanne or Dreyfus or dip into the Goncourt Journals; Ford Madox Ford remembers coming across him in Hyde Park—an anecdote about hairpins—and also riding with him in a hansom cab. So I’m reading Zola.


Though not, as it turns out, for very long. La Bête Humaine (1890), set in the 1860s, is the seventeenth (out of twenty) in the Les Rougon-Macquart series. It’s an odd and uncomfortable mixture, ‘a curious hybrid’ the jacket announces: a railway novel and a story of murder. Less than twenty pages in and Roubaud is attacking his wife with ferocious violence – because she was sexually exploited by her distinguished guardian when a teenager and victim-blaming clearly comes easily—naturally?—to him. ‘In three years he had never laid a finger on her and now he was murdering her’ – surprisingly, he isn’t, quite. But a few pages on and Jacques Lantier, in the company of Flore, is afflicted by some ‘madness’ which ‘seemed to be taking possession of him, some ferocity making him cast his eyes round for a weapon, a stone, anything to kill her with.’ He suffers, it seems from some ‘hereditary taint’, from ‘sudden attacks of instability in his being’. ‘At such times he lost all control of himself and just obeyed his muscles, the wild beast inside him.’ And: ‘He was coming to think that he was paying for others, fathers, grandfathers who had drunk, generations of drunkards, that he had their blood, tainted with a slow poison and a bestiality that dragged him back to the woman-devouring savages in the forests.’

At which point even the translator, Leonard Tancock, notes that the paragraph ‘stretches probability to breaking-point’, though he’s referring to the fact that, since Zola ‘invented Jacques as an afterthought’, he has to pile in the back story and familial connections. Whereas I, still musing over Séverine’s apparent recovery from her husband’s enthusiasm for throwing her across the bed in order to rain ‘blow after blow on her, anywhere’, am now edging away from that ‘tainted’ blood and those ‘woman-devouring savages in the forests’.

(https://powerpop.blog/)

‘To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven’, Ecclesiastes says (3, i-viii)—so too do The Byrds (and I notice in passing the topical  ‘a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing’). Similarly, I’ve always thought there was a right time to read a book, for me to read a book at any rate. My early enthusiasm for Dylan Thomas was strong enough to make it difficult now to get on a sensible footing with him, Henry Miller too (though The Colossus of Maroussi apparently presents no such difficulties). Some books I tossed aside two or even three decades years ago and was glad to find my way back to in the last few years. But what I always thought of as a Protestant reading ethic meant I usually ploughed on, with only a handful of abandoned books. There’ve been quite a few more lately.

When you’re younger, there may not be complete autonomy: reading lists, deadlines, course requirements. Decades later, the real authority is time: age and time, the one increasing, the other decreasing. Then, too, the profusion of box sets and streaming services mean that viewers have developed a sixth sense, not necessarily unerring but a sense they’ve learned to trust, as they sit down before a new series. We have it down to around five minutes in a lot of cases: the sideways glance at the Librarian, sometimes a muttered ‘Anything?’ or ‘What d’you think?’ Occasionally returned by an ‘I’ll watch it on my own’. Something comparable has happened with the reading: it – the click, the connection – has to come sooner. I have five hundred books in my head that I still want to read – plus the ones that haven’t been published yet – and I tend not to set things aside for a couple of decades now. If it’s gone, it’s probably gone. But I also seem to have shaken off that dutiful sense. Nothing now that I must read let alone must finish. The pleasure principle has conquered, it stands with legs astride on a battlefield heaped with the discarded dustjackets of a hundred duty-reads.

In short (or medium?), that particular Zola is returned to the shelf. There might be another one at some stage (a return to Germinal, most likely). For the moment, Patrick Leigh Fermor (and Artemis Cooper’s biography of him), the stellar Stella Bowen, Frank O’Hara and—just arrived—Shirley Hazzard’s stories, will keep me going for a while. Plus, of course, a good many volumes, scans, transcriptions and notes related to a certain Ford Madox Ford.

Vale of tears

Gustave Doré, Vale of tears (Petit Palais, Paris)

The poet and painter David Jones wrote to his friend René Hague from Sidmouth in March 1935: ‘This bar, where we used to come, is absolutely choked with chaps talking awful balls—God it is depressing—what a world—heavenly lovely nice wodged in with bloody desolate old lachrymarum valle.’[1]

Our ‘heavenly lovely nice’ just now would be the Covid-19 vaccination programme, a triumph for the National Health Service. The vale of tears would be – the rest.

I have a part in a major project now, though one still at an early stage; and, if it’s of interest primarily to readers of Ford Madox Ford and other modernists – that’s a pretty big constituency these days, isn’t it? So I have an impressive reading list – often books to be reread, in fact, though a little differently this time around, imprinting dates and names and other invaluable details on the mind, heart or skin. And yet, and yet – much of the time I can be found upstairs (or sometimes down), turning the pages of Mary Butts (yes, certainly relevant), chunks of Elizabethan history (possible but unlikely), Joan Didion (doubtful), James Merrill (also unlikely), Ruth Rendell and Josephine Tey (surely not).


‘This bad habit of absorption in anything other than the work that was my immediate duty has persisted all my life, and I have been most unjustly rewarded for it.’ So Arthur Ransome wrote in his absorbing autobiography, thinking of the highly successful books he had made out of remembering and describing the things that he really liked doing anyway: savouring the natural world of the Lake District and elsewhere, as well as the fishing and sailing.[2] (I won’t be holding my breath for rewards, whether just or unjust: a few admiring words from people I admire will do nicely when the job’s done.) In John Buchan’s 1927 novel, Maclean asks: ‘Where is this magic country?’ To which Midwinter replies: ‘All around you – behind the brake, across the hedgerow, under the branches. Some can stretch a hand and touch it – to others it is a million miles away.’[3]

A magic country – just off the beaten track. The shimmering attractions, the mirage of refreshment, enlightenment or merely a saving silence. My straying from the alleged centre – not pandemic-related, merely life-related – has a long history but hasn’t proved too harmful on the whole: I still usually meet deadlines, anyway. It is, I suppose, distantly related to a much less innocuous practice, often found in government circles, the diversion or smokescreen, such as conjuring up a phoney threat to statues to direct attention away from large, lethal failures or instances of rampant hypocrisy or the nasty habit of breaking international law or non-proliferation treaties.

No, my sometimes wayward reading habits do not, in contrast, represent a clear and present danger to this country. So I’ll probably go on much the same. . .


Notes


[1] René Hague, editor, Dai Greatcoat: A self-portrait of David Jones in his letters (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), 67.

[2] The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome, edited with prologue and epilogue by Rupert Hart-Davis (London: Jonathan Cape, 1976), 59.

[3] John Buchan, Midwinter (1927; Edinburgh, Black &White Publishing, 1993), 115.

The turning of the year, the turning of the pages

(Anthony, Henry Mark; Stonehenge; Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/stonehenge-19092)

St Thomas grey, St Thomas grey,
The longest night and the shortest day.[1]

‘I might be lost’, Adolfo Barberá said to Iain Sinclair, ‘but I know where I am.’[2] Many of us can say, with confidence, that we’re lost. Do we know where we are? We now appear to be quarantined on an island off the coast of Europe. There are features discernible in this winter solstice landscape and the main one is probably recurrence, repetition, things going round again. I find the same quotations running through my head, for sure, such as Guy Davenport’s, ‘In our time we long not for a lost past but for a lost future’, or this from Charles Olson:

What has he to say?
In hell it is not easy
to know the traceries, the markings[3]

In England, the pattern is established, if not one to emulate. Receive the advice, ignore it, then eventually act on it—too late—and retreat from it too soon. Repeat. Even the—what is the latest euphemism, ‘low information voters’?—yes, it must surely be dawning on even those co-operative souls that the Leave UK gang hasn’t handled matters quite as well as they might have done. The news from Kent, on the other hand, must be hugely reassuring to those who voted for that Brexit thing.

(Via BBC)

Has this country ever been governed so badly? As we edge, run or career towards the end of 2020, it occurs to me that I’ve been reading for dear life these last months, as if the relentless turning of pages could offset to some degree the idiocy and dishonesty of this government and, frankly, the sheer insanity of the United States administration and many of its supporters.

‘Prose is the devil’, Ezra Pound once remarked in a letter to Alice Corbin Henderson, poet and assistant editor to Harriet Monroe at Poetry magazine. ‘ALL prose is the devil, except perhaps a little of Flaubert and De Maupassant.’[4] Nevertheless, pace Ezra—who was, I note in passing, a clue in yesterday’s speedy crossword, ‘troubled US poet’, though why he should be described as ‘troubled’, more so than Robert Lowell or Anne Sexton or John Berryman or Sylvia Plath or a hundred others, who can say?—it’s been mainly prose that I’ve been reading, although, in conjunction with Roy Foster’s incisive book on Seamus Heaney, I found myself reading (or sometimes rereading) the first six books of Heaney’s poetry.[5]

Some tremendous books have passed before my eyes this year, though it still feels hugely pleasing to be back with Maigret—in Antibes at the moment. There have been jaunts avec M. Simenon in previous months, and a few Golden Age authors such as Margery Allingham but, beyond those, I took in several of the year’s high profile titles. Still, not for the first time, some of the best things were older – but, in either case, most seemed to be by women this time around.

Some of them cropped up on several Books of the Year lists: Maggie O’Farrell’s impressive Hamnet and Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light (I added her collection of pieces from The London Review of Books, Mantel Pieces, and—one I’d missed—her fine memoir, Giving Up the Ghost). Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting was a blast and Helen Macdonald’s collection of essays, Vesper Flights, was marvellous, one of my books of the year for sure. After Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults, I read her earlier, very unsettling The Lost Daughter.


Not quite so new but add Annie Ernaux and Mary Gaitskill, just about anything by either of them:  Ernaux seems to have reinvented or recast the genre of autobiography (Fitzcarraldo Editions have done five of hers in translation now); while Gaitskill seems to possess something like perfect pitch.

Maybe the most fun was either Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time, six hundred plus pages which I ripped through in a couple of days; Ysenda M. Graham’s British Summer Time Begins; or Paraic O’Donnell’s two novels, The Maker of Swans and The House on Vesper Sands, which came recommended on Melissa Harrison’s podcast, ‘The Stubborn Light of Things’, also the title of the collection of her monthly nature diary columns in The Times, certainly another of my books of the year.

‘The year’, ‘the year’ – an endlessly recurring phrase, often in conjunction with such optimistic sentiments as ‘the next one can’t be worse’ and ‘soon be over’.

Ah, well.

Notes


[1] Quoted in Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 505.

[2] Iain Sinclair, ‘Diary’, London Review of Books, 21 May 2020), 40.

[3] Guy Davenport, Apples and Pears (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), 63; Charles Olson, ‘In Cold Hell, in Thicket’, in The Collected Poems of Charles Olson, edited by George F. Butterick (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 155.

[4] The Letters of Ezra Pound to Alice Corbin Henderson, edited by Ira B. Nadel (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993), 43.

[5] R. F. Foster, On Seamus Heaney (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020).

The reader’s share; the reading shared

Readers-share

‘I hope you will bring some books along’ Elizabeth Bishop wrote to her friend Frani Blough in 1936, adding: ‘The books I really like to read best are always those I take away from someone else who is halfway through them. . . ’[1]

We manage to avoid that problem here for the most part: priority, though occasionally resented, is generally accepted once the bid is in. Still, I remember offering half a dozen reminders over several months before Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent was grudgingly disinterred from the Librarian’s work locker (one of them: there seemed to be several). Since then, our tastes haven’t converged too much. Last month, reading Penguin translations of Georges Simenon downstairs—and Hugh Kenner upstairs—I was safe enough from territorial encroachment. More recently, when I’d happened upon the fact that reading a novel on the one hand and, say, a book of modern classic travel on the other stimulates the appetite for both, I could feel reasonably secure, since the Librarian had read my downstairs book, Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle, years ago, and was some distance further back in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy than my upstairs book, The Mirror & the Light. Now Eric Newby has perfectly happily shared reading space with Kamila Shamsie in peaceful co-existence, the Librarian having already read both of these.

Day 142—is it?—of lockdown. I realise some people are not locked down at all; in fact, if you have 50,000 close friends, you can all go to the beach together. But I don’t know that many people and though I’d like to go to the beach. . . not like that.

And, picking our way through the shambles of the government’s scattergun responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, we find, of course, that risk assessments are to be undertaken, in all practical senses, by us. My personal risk assessment is that some of my fellow-citizens have done no risk assessments at all, so interactions remain on the cautious side: my elder daughter a couple of times so far; and the Librarian’s parents, also a couple of times. We shall take a trip soon, though – somewhere, definitely, probably, more than likely – once the Librarian’s mastery of the hairdressing arts is complete.

Next: possibly another Newby or Patrick Leigh Fermor, to go with Lore Segal’s Other People’s Houses and Ali Smith’s Summer (if I can prise that away) or—not a novel but worth breaking the sequence for—Helen Macdonald’s Vesper Flights, once that arrives, should I get to the door first.
Notes

[1] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 44.

A plague on all your books – or some of them

Turner, Joseph Mallord William, 1775-1851; The Tenth Plague of Egypt

(J. M. W. Turner, Tenth Plague of Egypt: Tate Britain)

I’ve seen several reading lists of pandemic- or virus-related books lately, some of the titles familiar to me, if not already sitting in the pile on the nearby chest of drawers: Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, Boccaccio’s Decameron, a couple of books by John Christopher, Katherine Anne Porter’s ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’, written in the 1930s—she herself, hospitalised with Spanish flu in the 1918-19 pandemic, had almost died—and, of course, Camus’ The Plague. They’re ready and waiting just in case I want to read all about it – again.

I haven’t done so yet. I know a lot of people have found it hard to concentrate on reading in the current circumstances. I don’t have that exact problem but I am reading pretty erratically, dipping into things, sampling anthologies, drifting onto other things, attention or stamina flagging too quickly. And, in the course of that grazing, I’ve stumbled over a striking number of instances of plague or reminders of things I’ve come across before.

I did remember that the Black Death ‘came in a ship through the Dorset port of Melcombe Regis’, on 24 June 1348—which seems remarkably precise[1]—and I’d recently come across Llewellyn Powys’ remark, in ‘A Montacute Field’, that my current home, Bristol, ‘was in the fourteenth century the second city of England, and, with the exception perhaps of Norwich, it became more plague-stricken than any other town of the realm.’[2] I also knew that Michel de Montaigne, who began a four-year term as Mayor of Bordeaux in 1581, ‘escaped the plague, which killed nearly half the inhabitants of the city.’[3]

Montaigne

Then, a couple of weeks ago, turning the pages of a history of Tudor England, I found: ‘In 1485 a new and terrifying epidemic had swept through England, and only England. This was the sweating sickness; sudor Anglicus, the “English sweat”.’[4]

The sixteenth century’s sufferings are generally better-known, probably because of Mr Shakespeare in the later part of it. Not that the earlier part was all gas and gingerbread. ‘The years 1527 and 1528’, Alexandra Harris writes, ‘were the wettest anyone could remember, with sodden spring fields jeopardizing crops and breeding illness. The sweating sickness arrived in the summers, apparently unleashed by the warmth; it reached epidemic proportions in 1528, inflicting hellish microclimates on its victims in their final hours.’[5]

‘If not technically endemic,’ Susan Brigden notes, ‘plague was recurrent in Tudor England’.[6] Certainly, in Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel, Hamnet, plague is tragically central to the family of a literary man working in the London playhouses while they remain in Stratford-on-Avon. ‘For the pestilence to reach Warwickshire, England, in the summer of 1596, two events need to occur in the lives of two separate people, and then these people need to meet.’[7]  They did. They do.

But I’ve also been dipping into an anthology of English ghost stories – and here was Arthur Gray, in ‘The True History of Anthony Ffryar’: ‘The summer of 1551 was a sad time in Cambridge. It was marked by a more than usually fatal outbreak of the epidemic called “the sweat”, when, as Fuller says, “patients ended or mended in twenty-four hours.”’ A little further on and Edith Wharton’s ‘Mr Jones’ has a plaque appended to a sarcophagus in a country chapel, ‘“Born on May 1st, 1790, perished of the plague at Aleppo in 1828.”’[8]

One more: R. H. Mottram’s Geoffrey Skene who, arriving at Dunkirk, ‘enquired for Uncle. It took him all the afternoon. By accident he heard that he was in that Canadian hospital on the dunes where hundreds lay, stricken by influenza, while they waited for the boat to take them home.’[9]

Samuel_Pepys

(Samuel Pepys)

If the virus is everywhere in the world now, viruses have been just about everywhere in literature too, an element in a great many people’s history and in many writers’ real and imagined nightmares. As the current English government eases the lockdown—very prematurely, in many people’s view—I notice this in Samuel Pepys’ diary: ‘Then comes Mr Caesar, my boy’s lute-master, whom I have not seen since the plague before, but he hath been in Westminster all this while very well – and tells me how, in the heighth of it, how bold people there were to go in sport to one another’s burials. And in spite to well people, would breathe in the faces (out of their windows) of well people going by.’[10] Something unpleasantly familiar there.

So end with Flannery O’Connor, writing to Elizabeth Bishop, 1 June 1958.’We went to Europe and I lived through it but my capacity for staying at home has now been perfected, sealed & is going to last me the rest of my life.’[11]

You may be on to something there, Ms O’Connor.

 
Notes

[1] Michael Wood, In Search of England (London: Viking, 1999), 239.

[2] A Baker’s Dozen, with an introduction by John Cowper Powys and decorations by Gertrude Mary Powys (1941; London: Village Press, 1974), 86.

[3] Stuart Hampshire, introduction to Montaigne’s The Complete Works: Essays, Travel Journal, Letters, translated by Donald Frame (New York: Everyman, 2003), xvi.

[4] Susan Brigden, New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors (London: Allen Lane, 2000), 26.

[5] Alexandra Harris, Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015), 90.

[6] Brigden, New Worlds, 298.

[7] Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet (London: Tinder Press, 2020), 166.

[8] The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories, edited by Michael Cox and R. A. Gilbert (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 278, 355.

[9] R. H. Mottram, The Spanish Farm Trilogy (London: Chatto and Windus, 1927), 547.

[10] Samuel Pepys, entry for 12 February 1666, in The Shorter Pepys, edited by Robert Latham (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1993), 582-583.

[11] Flannery O’Connor, Collected Works, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Library of America, 1988), 1073.

 

Locked down – and down

Organic-Forms-2

(Walter Poole, Organic Forms 2: private collection)

The combination of lockdown and a crocked back contrives to make whole weeks drain away before you can get a grip on them. My trouble has an eye on the calendar and nips in smartly in case I think it’s waiting for the anniversary of the last bout. So I’ve been spending a good deal of time on the floor lately, wondering why the painkillers seem not to be killing the pain and the various gels are proving themselves laughably ineffective. Perhaps ‘laughably’ is not the word I want.

Every so often, a passing Librarian puts the cat’s dish down in the kitchen, picks up the mail from the mat, ties my shoelaces for me. What if you don’t have a passing Librarian to offer such assistance? Wear slip-ons, I suppose. I’m thankful at least that there’s no visual record of me putting on a pair of socks. I try five or six positions, none of them elegant, because I can never remember which one finally worked last time. The soundtrack too is distressing.

So the floor, yes, on a folded duvet cover which, unfortunately, the cat has taken a liking to. There have been one or two undignified run-ins. At this level, anyway, I can see—and reach— Modern Women’s Stories, an anthology edited by Patricia Craig; Modern Art in Britain 1910-1914, edited by Anna Greutzer Robins; and the Handheld Press edition of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Of Cats and Elfins: ‘“Surely she has grown smaller,” thought the baker. “Or do my eyes deceive me?” Looking at her more attentively he saw that his daughter had changed into an owl.’[1] Further off, there’s a shockingly miscellaneous pile that I can just about ignore; and closer, the state of the carpet, which I can’t ignore for much longer.

Cats-and-Elfins

It’s a few days now since I attempted the early morning walk. We moved at very different speeds. At one stage, the Librarian paused to photograph something—chalk drawings on the path, a squirrel, an abandoned child’s jacket caught in a bush—until she was a good hundred and fifty metres behind. She ran past me, murmuring ‘Dutch study! Dutch study!’ to which I could offer no adequate response.

So the latest misjudgement in our government’s catalogue of misjudgements has made no difference to me: locked down physically at present as well as by choice. There was already visible evidence of other choices in the park at the weekend: the sort of people who never take their rubbish home with them had been out in force, so bottles, ‘Disposable Barbecue’ packaging, cans, balls of greasy paper and cardboard scraps were scattered everywhere across the grass.

‘Odd’, Edward Dahlberg remarked, ‘one cannot hold onto pleasure but pain stays with you until it has given up its last breath.’[2]

Thanks, Ed.

 
Notes

[1] ‘Bread for the Castle’, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Of Cats and Elfins: Short Tales and Fantasies (Bath: Handheld Press, 2020), 188.

[2] Edward Dahlberg, The Confessions of Edward Dahlberg (New York: George Braziller, 1971), 176.