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.

 

Acts of Attention

Vermeer-Lacemaker

(Johannes Vermeer, The Lacemaker)

Concentration: the focusing of all one’s attention; the keeping of the mind fixed on something.

Towards the end of the first year of the Great War, Friday 16 July 1915, Vera Brittain noted in her diary, ‘I find it very difficult to read just now, especially fiction; the immense realities of the present crowd in upon my mind, making concentration almost impossible & fictitious events quite trivial.’[1]

The present certainly offers plenty of ‘immense realities’—not all of them likely to foster optimism—though I’m not finding it difficult to read. Still, concentration is a little trickier these days. There’s the matter of intensity; but also the question of duration. The rate at which I read varies wildly—a crime novel, however good, demands a different kind of attention from, say, The Anathemata of David Jones—but on average, if I manage a hundred or a hundred and fifty pages in a day, that’s pretty good going. Yet I remember—how many years ago?—reading a Dickens novel, perhaps Little Dorrit or Our Mutual Friend, and reading four hundred or four hundred and fifty pages in a day.

So I seem to have lost that ability to stick to a single task, a single object of interest, for that length of time; but, of course, this is in large part because of the various distractions that can break my concentration and the habits I’ve lapsed into of allowing myself to be distracted.

Still, when I read of people who go crazy after eight hours without a phone, or who check their texts or emails every five minutes, a hundred and fifty times a day, I feel entirely dissociated from such patterns of behaviour. I’m not so easily distracted, am I? Just how often do I check the damned thing? In any case, here, sitting by the back door, reading, yes, Michel Leiris (‘Like many men, I have made my descent into Hell, and like some, I have more or less returned from it’),[2] my attention is caught—too easily caught—by a movement outside. And I mean this as a serial event: wind in the leaves, birds on the fence or on the bird table or, perhaps, this—neither a bird nor a plane:

Cat-tree

That cat—the visiting cat—is absurdly prone to distraction: a leaf, a fly, a cloud, gulls passing overhead, any of these will do. We have confidently diagnosed ADHD or the feline version of it. Yet, come to think of it, such behaviour has become typically human.

I was remembering—and getting almost right, from memory—an early passage in Aldous Huxley’s Island, when Will Farnaby, hearing the mynah bird utter its one-word message—‘Attention’—yet again, turns to Doctor MacPhail:

“Attention to what?” he asked, in the hope of eliciting a more enlightening answer than the one he had received from Mary Sarojini.
“To Attention,” said Dr MacPhail.
“Attention to attention?”
“Of course.”[3]

Paying attention: a transaction. We hand over a portion of ourselves and receive in return—what? It varies, of course, but, ideally, an addition, an augmentation, an enlargement of the self. Colette lamented that ‘We do not look, we never look enough, never attentively enough, never excitedly enough.’[4] What is enough? As John Ames, the narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, observes, ‘This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.’[5]

Not that it is simply a question of giving it attention. Don Gifford recalled the tale of Thoreau’s young friend Ellery Channing being reduced to tears because, as he himself admitted, ‘he knew so little about what merited recording that he returned home from his nature walks day after day with an empty notebook.’[6] And Robert Richardson writes of Thoreau ‘eagerly’ reading Ruskin and Gilpin, ‘whose work starts from the often ignored fact that the uneducated eye simply does not notice most of what is in front of it. Until our attention is called to this detail or that feature, we rarely scrutinize our surroundings, “in the full, clear sense of the word, we do not see.”’[7]

EstruscanPlaces

Attention at such a pitch is sometimes seen as a sacramental act: the Latin root of the word means an oath or a pledge. Of Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses, Declan Kiberd observes, ‘To each and every detail of the surrounding world he gives that close attention which is the nearest modern equivalent of prayer.’[8] D. H. Lawrence, writing of augury and divination, pointed out that there is ‘no other way when you are dealing with life.’ You may pray to a personal god or rationally mull things over but it amounts to the same thing in the end: ‘it is all the same process, ultimately: of divination.’ And he asserts that: ‘All it depends on is the amount of true, sincere, religious concentration you can bring to bear on your object. An act of pure attention, if you are capable of it, will bring its own answer. And you choose that object to concentrate upon which will best focus your consciousness. Every real discovery made, every serious and significant decision ever reached, was reached and made by divination. The soul stirs, and makes an act of pure attention, and that is a discovery.’[9]

An act of pure attention seems like something to aim at. Or, failing that, a hundred or so pages in a day punctuated by phones, emails, whirring birds and treed cats.

 
References

[1] Vera Brittain, Chronicle of Youth: Vera Brittain’s Diary 1913-1917, edited by Alan Bishop (London: Gollancz 1981), 221.

[2] Michel Leiris, Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility, translated by Richard Howard (1939; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 6. I’m still in the midst of it—it may not all be as cheerful as that quotation suggests.

[3] Aldous Huxley, Island (1962; London: Vintage, 2005), 21.

[4] Colette, Looking Backwards: Recollections [Journal à rebours and De ma fenêtre], translated by David Le Vay (London: Peter Owen, 1975), 149.

[5] Marilynne Robinson Gilead (London: Virago 2008), 32.

[6] Don Gifford, The Farther Shore: A Natural History of Perception (London: Faber, 1990), 11-12.

[7] Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 53.

[8] Declan Kiberd, Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), 89.

[9] D. H. Lawrence, Etruscan Places (1932), in D. H. Lawrence and Italy (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 54-55.

 

 

 

Making Hay

Hay-Castle-2

Hay-on-Wye, a small town in the Welsh Marches, has a couple of dozen bookshops—and, curiously, that’s more or less the number of books that we bought during our stay there.

There are probably two useful guidelines in such a situation: firstly, if you’re trying to cull the absurd quantity of books in your house, don’t choose a place famous as ‘the town of books’ in which to spend a few days; secondly, if you do go anyway, don’t pretend that you’re not going to buy books while you’re there. Take a list rather than scrabble around to produce one, on a creased half-sheet of paper, while moaning ‘I can’t think, I’ve gone blank’, in the face of acres of packed shelving.

Firbank

We simply needed—one of us rather more than the other—a change of scene and a chance to relax. It was certainly a change; and she did relax. Hay was a good choice: the right size, the right location, the right atmosphere; a couple of good places to eat; some fine walks within easy reach. The rented apartment was ideally placed and pleasant to be in: unfussily but well furnished and equipped. Looking out on a castle, its high wall often lined with jackdaws, suited me pretty well.

Imagists-1930

There are some indifferent, and a few very good, bookshops among Hay’s two dozen. Richard Booth’s Bookshop (and café and cinema) is extraordinary but our best haul was probably in the Hay Cinema Bookshop—and the laurel wreath, appropriately, must go to the wonderful Poetry Bookshop.

Poetry_Bkshp_via_Biblio.com

(Poetry Bookshop via biblio.com)

 

Walking among graves (with just a touch of Whitman)

After my walk yesterday to the old haunts near the Tobacco Factory where, until the end of last year, we spent our civilized, productive days in an office on the ground floor—bonjour, Andrew, ça va bien?—I was tempted to rewrite it in the form of a political fable.

I had, as raw material, those motorists whose IQ plummets by forty points when they get behind the wheel; the cats sauntering across roads, taking appalling risks for no good reason; and . . . luckily, I resisted the temptation.

Path

Today, I walk via Baked (for a dark rye loaf) up the Wells Road to the extraordinary Arnos Vale cemetery, 45 acres, established in the year of Queen Victoria’s accession (its first burial two years later), the birdsong practically deafening on some of the innumerable leafy paths that lead off in all directions from the paved road that runs through it. You can spend quite some time here and will find yourself walking slowly, however briskly you set out. . .

https://arnosvale.org.uk/

Grass_Graves

Cemetery grass brings to mind—not every mind, I grant you—what is, I think, one of the finest images in Whitman’s Song of Myself: ‘And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.’[1]

Leaves of Grass. I consider, briefly, the oddness of that title. We speak of blades of grass, usually, not leaves. Still, the reader’s attention is constantly directed to the leaf as single sheet of paper, or thickness of paper, the page of a book; and precious metals beaten thin, gold leaf and silver leaf: these uses are often highlighted or implied. Perhaps the main force of the title, though, is to collapse those assumed barriers between poet and reader, the world inside and outside the book, either the actual barriers (print, physical distance) or metaphorical ones (conventional roles of reader and writer, of literature itself):

Come closer to me,
Push close my lovers and take the best I possess,
Yield closer and closer and give me the best you possess.

This is unfinished business with me. . . how is it with you?
I was chilled with the cold types and cylinder and wet paper between us.[2]

The repetitions, the lengthening lines, the insistent murmuring of sibilants in those lines mime a rising erotic excitement. This is not a genteel, decorous reading, turning the pages in the library. This is a physical embrace.

Sunshine_Corner

I sit at a table on the café terrace with an Americano and the sun is, briefly, so warm on my back as to be uncomfortable; but I sit long enough to read Richard Holmes’ wonderful account of the discovery of a trunk belonging to Scrope Davies, in the private deposit vault of what became Barclays Bank, left there by Davies in 1820, as he fled the country following his financial ruin. ‘Everything that Scrope valued, and much that he did not, was hurled into the trunk’ on the evening of its owner’s hurried departure. In addition to clothes, letters, a lock of hair, tailor’s bills and betting slips, there were found—when the trunk was finally opened in 1976—twenty previously unknown letters from Byron to Scrope; a notebook containing Byron’s fair copy of the third canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (which Davies should have delivered to Byron’s publisher but did not); and notebooks from the Shelley circle, containing a fair copy of Byron’s Prisoner of Chillon as well as four of Shelley’s own poems, including two unknown sonnets.[3]

One of my favourite sentences in the whole piece, in the course of Holmes’ charting the history of Number 1, Pall Mall East and the name changes of the banks that occupied it: ‘Time passed, as it does in England.’ Which word would you care to stress here?

Sidetracks

Admittedly an unrelated photograph now, since this visiting cat is glancing not at Sidetracks but at the last few pages of William Boyd’s Sweet Caress, under the mistaken impression that its previous four hundred pages can be skipped.

Cat_Reading

No reading stamina. Wrong diet, probably.

 

References

[1] Walt Whitman: The Complete Poems, edited by Francis Murphy (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986), 68.

[2] These are the opening lines of the poem—untitled, as were all the poems in the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass—which was later called ‘A Song for Occupations’, though these lines were dropped: see Whitman: Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, edited by Justin Kaplan (New York: Library of America, 1982), 89.

[3] Richard Holmes, ‘Scrope’s Last Throw’, Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer (London: Harper Collins, 2000), 271-282.