Scholars and other fungi

(John Wainwright, Still Life with Mushrooms, Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council)

Browsing the latest issue of the London Review of Books, I came across this, in Colin Burrow’s notice of the new Christopher Ricks book, Along Heroic Lines: ‘The line between seeing things (in the sense of observing things which are there) and seeing things (in the sense of imagining things which are not there) is a finer one in literary criticism than it is in life in general.’[1]

I was drafting a piece the other day that took off from the word ‘scholar’ (but also the word ‘mushrooms’)’, before realising that I would be straying into areas more thoroughly covered in the next issue of Last Post: A Literary Journal from the Ford Madox Ford Society – so desisted. 

Still, that talk of ‘lines’ recalled the toothsome passage from Anne Carson that I’d previously turned up: ‘A scholar is someone who takes a position. From which position, certain lines become visible. You will at first think I am painting the lines myself; it’s not so. I merely know where to stand to see the lines that are there. And the mysterious thing, it is a very mysterious thing, is how these lines do paint themselves. Before there were any edges or angles or virtue—who was there to ask the questions? Well, let’s not get carried away with exegesis. A scholar is someone who knows how to limit himself to the matter at hand.’[2]

I’m not sure that Dominick Medina, in John Buchan’s The Three Hostages, can be said to do that. ‘“He is a deity of les jeunes and a hardy innovator”, MacGillivray says. “Jolly good, too. The man’s a fine classical scholar.”’ But the matter in hand for Medina—‘an Irish patriot crossed with a modern poet—a modern poet who resembles a cross between A. E. Housman and T. S. Eliot rather more than he resembles W. B. Yeats’—is his role as the villain of the novel, which keeps him pretty busy.[3] Rudyard Kipling—no mean Latinist himself, with a lifelong devotion to Horace—suggested that:  ‘One learns more from a good scholar in a rage than from a score of lucid and laborious drudges’.[4]

(A few Buchan books)

Tricky word, ’scholar’ – at one time, it was often understood to mean simply someone who could read and write – which may bring to mind the famous, or infamous, lines from William Butler Yeats:

Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,

Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.

They’ll cough in the ink to the world’s end;
Wear out the carpet with their shoes
Earning respect; have no strange friend;
If they have sinned nobody knows.
Lord, what would they say
Should their Catullus walk that way?[5]

Others are more generous or, at least, discriminating. The narrator of Jane Gardam’s Crusoe’s Daughter remembers of her teenage self: ‘I could understand the whole of Middlemarch. The passion for a scholar. It was a bit like Jo marrying Dr Bhaer in Little Women: you felt sick about it, but you understood.’[6]

Now that is certainly recognisable – feeling sick about things but understanding: more or less a basic requirement these days, to be sure. And it occurs to me that there are aspects of the scholarly life which are insufficiently appreciated. Reading the second volume of Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography, I learned that, through her acquaintance with Michel Collinet, whom she met in Rouen, she discovered that André Gide ‘was a highly skilled performer with a yo-yo. This was the current craze and extraordinarily popular. People walked down the streets yo-yo in hand, and Sartre practised from morning to night, with sombre perseverance.’[7] I found this oddly cheering. Between being and nothingness lies – the yo-yo.

(Simone de Beauvoir via the New York Times)

Ford scholars hold at arm’s length the suspicion – the conviction? – that our man would recoil in horror from our activities. They may also, of course, recall Ford’s famous remarks on Impressionism, ‘which exists to render those queer effects of real life that are like so many views seen through bright glass—through glass so bright that whilst you perceive through it a landscape or a backyard, you are aware that, on its surface, it reflects a face of a person behind you. For the whole of life is really like that; we are almost always in one place with our minds somewhere quite other.’[8]

That is, we can see and take note of that – probable – unease, while also looking through it and beyond it, to the greater good, the promised land of complete and annotated Ford Madox Ford. You’ll love it when it’s finished, Fordie! You have our word. . .

In the meantime, scholars on mushrooms (and more)! See Last Post, issue 5 (due soon).


[1] Colin Burrow, ‘Ti tum ti tum ti tum”, London Review of Books, 43, 19 (7 October 2021), 10.

[2] Anne Carson, ‘The life of towns: Introduction’, in Plainwater: Essays and Poetry New York: Vintage, 2000), 93.

[3] John Buchan, The Three Hostages (1924; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 51; Karl Miller, ‘Introduction’, x. Medina is in the western part of Saudi Arabia; its ‘Prophet’s Mosque’ is a major Islamic pilgrimage site. The word itself is Arabic for ‘town’ and often refers to the ancient native quarter in North African cities, usually a walled area with many narrow streets.

[4] Rudyard Kipling, Something of Myself (1937; London: Penguin Books, 1987), 51.

[5] W. B. Yeats, ‘The Scholars’ (1915): The Poems, edited by Daniel Albright (London: Everyman, 1994), 190, and see notes, 563-564.

[6] Jane Gardam, Crusoe’s Daughter (1985; London: Abacus, 2012), 79.

[7] Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life, translated by Peter Green (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965), 120.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, Critical Writings, edited by Frank MacShane (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964), 41.

Lesson one, lessen won

 (Alfred Sisley, The Bell Tower at Noisy-le-Roi, Autumn’: The Burrell Collection)

In the absence of coherent or effective guidance from government, people are edging back to offices, often cautiously or tentatively, not knowing what to expect, what is expected of them or how others will behave. The Librarian also ventures in, for the first time in eighteen months, to explore the lay of the land.

‘I think that’s “lie of the land”’, I say.

She thinks not. Naturally, having an iPad to hand, she looks the phrase up and begins reading: the current situation, the features of an area. Yes, yes. She gets to ‘North American: lay’ and I make a gesture intended to signify that I rest my case. It means the same thing, she explains, while I point out that we are not North American but English.

‘I’m receptive and welcoming to other cultures’, the Librarian remarks, clearly regarding this as a knockout blow.

Left with Harry the cat and the collected and uncollected works of Ford Madox Ford, I gauge the lie of the land. The first lesson of research is—there must be almost as many versions as there are researchers. One lesson could be: keep things tidy. Or, at least, tidy things up every so often. Lessening chaos, in fact. Lesson and its homophone, lessen, offer one of those minor distractions or deflections so necessary to the diversion from Work. Writers will often sharpen twenty pencils, polish windows, vacuum an already-vacuumed carpet, anything to put off the moment of naked confrontation with a naked sheet of paper. Thinking about words, though, is surely in a different category: a diversion that may prove productive, that may turn out to be no diversion at all, like Ford Madox Ford’s ‘digressions’.

(Research: lesson one)

These make a long, intricate—digressive—trail through his work. I first thought ‘path’ but a path, laid out, is very simple to follow; ‘trail’ implies a little more effort, a little more awareness. So the early Ford of the English Review period (1908-1910) praises, neither for the first nor the last time, Joseph Conrad and Henry James, as the pre-eminent imaginative writers of the day, in his view. But he goes on to point out: ‘The defect of each as an artist is his too close engrossment in the affair he has in hand. In each case this leads to what is called digressions.’ (A digression might be offered at this point by mentioning that on or beside the trail that the ‘digression’ hunter is cautiously negotiating, other figures may sometimes be glimpsed, pursuing an ‘engrossment’ trail.) Ford explains that James, in his desire ‘to build up round his figures an immense atmosphere of the complexities of relationships’, sometimes ‘loses hold’ of ‘the faculty of selection’. In Conrad, it leads to excessive ‘justification’ (another trail), the minute details deployed to thicken and strengthen the reality of the character or situation depicted, by a writer who—sometimes—seems not to know when to stop with those details.[1]

By the 1930s, considering the lengths to which the novelist must go to seize and retain the attention of a reader, Ford observed that: ‘Of course, you must appear to digress. That is the art which conceals your Art.’ Since the reader, ‘you should premise, will always dislike you and your book’, he or she will welcome a digression which countenances removing attention from the book, such as lunch or a ringing doorbell. So provide your reader with what appear to be digressions, Ford advises. ‘But really not one single thread must ever escape your purpose.’ and then: ‘I am—I may hazard the digression!—using that principle of technique in writing this book.’[3]

A few years later, noting how he wanted to inspire in his reader a sense of the whole sweep of the journey and inspire them with a ‘feeling of its oneness’, he offered an example of a digression serving practical and positive ends, recalling his time spent lecturing British troops and finding that ‘a sudden digression from the subject in hand would very much waken group attentions that were beginning to wander.’[4]

As to what lessons actually lessen: ignorance, darkness, certainly – until you reach that point at which you know just enough to begin to grasp how much there is to know and how little of it you will ever learn. This realisation may be a crushing disappointment or powerfully liberating, depending on character. Samuel Johnson might have looked into almost every book that came off the press: you will not. In a long lifetime of relentless, intensive reading, you could read perhaps half as many books as are published in a single year in the United Kingdom. The most accomplished linguist might hope to master well under 1% of the world’s languages. Henry Adams remarked that ‘the profoundest lessons are not the lessons of reason; they are sudden strains that permanently warp the mind.’[5]

(Henry Adams: photograph by Marian Hooper Adams)

Perhaps ‘warp’ is not that encouraging. Try Aldous Huxley: ‘The most important lesson of history . . . is that nobody ever learns history’s lesson.’[6] A more recognisable scepticism, even textbook stuff. Perhaps something a little more literary, then. Joan Didion: ‘My father advised me that life itself was a crap game: it was one of the two lessons I learned as a child. The other was that overturning a rock was apt to reveal a rattlesnake. As lessons go those two seem to hold up, but not to apply.’[7]

Talking to a friend the other day, we were having that conversation, not new but perhaps more frequent lately, about the need for people who saw and felt and viewed and valued things as we did to stick together, to look out for one another and to stand up for what we believed in. I was reminded briefly of James Salter on Graham Greene, an observation more than forty years old that has not lost its relevance. ‘Like Malraux, he asks to be read as a political writer and has set his fiction firmly in that world. The lesson in the books of Graham Greene is the great lesson of the times: one must take sides.’[8]

There’s a lesson we can all learn from. When I say ‘all’, of course, I mean those I want on my side.


[1] Ford Madox Ford, The Critical Attitude (London: Duckworth, 1911), 89-90.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Henry James: A Critical Study (London: Martin Secker, 1914), 161.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 192-193.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, Great Trade Route (London: Allen & Unwin, 1937), 46.

[5] Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1918; New York: The Modern Library, 1931), 108.

[6] Aldous Huxley, Science, Liberty and Peace (1947), quoted in Sybille Bedford, Aldous Huxley: A Biography (London: Pan Macmillan, 1993), 451.

[7] Play It As It Lays (1970), in Joan Didion: The 1960s & 70s, edited by David L. Ulin (New York: Library of America, 2019), 524.

[8] James Salter, ‘Like a Retired Confidential Agent, Graham Greene Hides Quietly in Paris’ (January 1976), in Don’t Save Anything: Uncollected Essays, Articles, and Profiles (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2017), 29.


The summer has made a last-gasp effort, a last hurrah, last rites, last trump, with a handful of hot and sunny days – just as a lot of people were beginning to eye up the thermostat on their heating system or at least hunt out the blankets. Hurrahs have been thin on the ground these past few weeks, at least in the wider world, given the retreat from, and betrayal of, Afghanistan; and then the latest phase in the war against women, perpetrated in Texas and ratified by a Supreme Court stacked with anti-choice zealots.

In the (slightly) smaller world of Ford Madox Ford studies, research moves on with the huge task of editing his letters, generally inch by inch through dense thickets, a process punctuated by occasional short sprints over unexpectedly open ground. And the new issue of Last Post, the Ford journal, has emerged, looking very good and ecologically sound, and now sent out to all subscribing members.

In that other world, of varying size, sometimes circumscribed, sometime dizzyingly limitless, a world of bodies, minds, cats, dreams, food, wine, books and walks—that is, home life in the twenty-first century—the blackberry season has come and (almost) gone. We found several excellent sites very close to us: parks, verges, pathways have been cut back much less this year and plant life—including the blackberries—has flourished, helped too by the odd weather that has dominated so much of our summer, rain and sun locked in an endless dance, a close embrace, taking turns to dominate a dozen times in a day.

A lot of supermarket shelves are currently empty and more emptiness is apparently on the way—largely courtesy of Brexit, less the gift that keeps on giving than the rift that keeps on riving—so I find I have no objection whatsoever to free food, literally growing on trees (or bushes), fruit to be served up hot in pies and crumbles or bagged up in the freezer for later rainy days.

As for the Ford letters project, I only have a few dozen books to reread, a few hundred letters to transcribe and a few thousand annotations to make. When you retire from full-time work, you need something to fill the days.

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.

Travels, not Keatsian

From 25 June to 6 August 1818, John Keats went walking with his friend Charles Brown, to the Lake District, Scotland, briefly to Northern Ireland and back to Scotland. 42 days, 642 miles. On 29 June, setting off at four in the morning, they climbed Skiddaw, the sixth highest summit in England, just north of Keswick in Cumbria : ‘I have an amazing partiality for mountains in the clouds.’

I myself have an amazing partiality for staying at home of late, walled in by books. Nevertheless we ventured, the Librarian and Harry the cat and I, as far as Somerset (and Dorset and Wiltshire: meandering roads), and stayed the night—actually three nights—in A Different Place, for the first time since Christmas 2019. Not quite a Keatsian trip but quietly impressive on its own terms, I thought.

Once there, we talked, ate, read, walked, drank a little wine. At the Chalke Valley History Festival, the Librarian and I mooched about and necked a salted caramel ice-cream while her parents went to see Tom Stoppard and his biographer, Hermione Lee, discourse before a rapt audience in a large tent. Slightly unsettled by our earlier view of combatants wielding sticks, apparently in their underwear (‘Look! People fighting in their pants!’), we stayed to watch Dan Snow, with a smattering of other historians and willing helpers, re-enact the Battle of Agincourt.

But the main business, apart from the company, was to see the sea, again for the first time in too long. It was a quiet stretch of coast—having no facilities—offering sea, sand, sea cabbage, occasional dog walkers, a distant angler, a wheeling gull or two, pebbles, mysterious flowers, mysterious stone circles.

As for literary connections—Keats aside—there was the village of Broad Chalke, familiar to John Aubrey, author of Brief Lives, and home to historical novelist and poet Maurice Hewlett (1861-1923), who lived in the Old Rectory. In 1904, recovering from a breakdown, Ford Madox Ford spent time at Winterborne Stoke, three miles from Stonehenge. He met and walked with W. H. Hudson, who had recommended that area as one to which Ford might escape from his situation in London. He later remembered standing for half an hour with Hudson watching a rookery near Broad Chalke. He saw a good deal of Hewlett too. At Christmas 1911, Ezra Pound also stayed with Hewlett, an occasion poignantly recalled—ghosts and shadows—as he sat in the military detention centre near Pisa:

and for that Christmas at Maurie Hewlett’s
Going out from Southampton
they passed the car by the dozen
     who would not have shown weight on a scale
               riding, riding
                     for Noel the green holly
     Noel, Noel, the green holly
     A dark night for the holly

May Day, jay day

Our local Victorian cemetery is pretty quiet, certainly early on a Saturday—Mayday—morning. Good walking, orchestral birdsong. The sparrows en route are noisy, even clamorous in two or three specific bushes, but it’s chatter, sociability. Some of the cemetery birdsong smacks more of performance.

At one point, the Librarian and I conduct a highly technical ornithological exchange.

—What’s that bird up there?
—Where? Oh, just a pigeon, isn’t it?
—Is it? I thought there was something about the beak.
—Oh yes, looks like a finch.
—I thought perhaps a jay.
Tiring of this, the bird launches itself into space.
—Oh yes! You can see now. Beautiful colours. It is a jay.

In Ford Madox Ford’s 1923 novel, The Marsden Case, the narrator is found ‘gazing through a plate-glass window set in granite at a blue straw hat trimmed with jay’s wings pointing backwards so that it resembled a helmet of Mercury’.[1] ‘The jay, the “British Bird of Paradise”, displaying his vari-coloured feathers at a spring-time gathering’, W. H. Hudson wrote in one of his catalogues of the birds which ‘give most delight to the aesthetic sense’.[2]

(Benjamin Haughton, Jay:  Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services)

Ford was a great admirer of—and well acquainted with—Hudson, who devoted a great deal of time in his later years to combatting the barbaric treatment of birds, which slaughtered hundreds of thousands and drove many species to extinction. ‘Rare visitors were shot on sight. In May 1870 a flock of forty golden orioles, arriving in woods near Penzance, was quickly wiped out: “everyone in the place was up and after them.”’ This ‘spirit of destruction prevailed everywhere’, in town and country and ‘running through all classes.’ Fashionable women wore hats ‘trimmed with gulls’ wings or the plumes of great crested grebes, or a ball dress set off by a spray of goldfinches or robins.’ Hudson was closely involved with the founding in the late 1880s of the Society for the Protection of Birds, which was incorporated by Royal charter in 1904.[3]

‘The wilderness is near as well as dear to every man’, Henry Thoreau wrote, ‘The very uprightness of the pines and maples asserts the ancient rectitude and vigor of nature. Our lives need the relief of such a background, where the pine flourishes and the jay still screams.’[4]

As well it might.


[1] Ford Madox Ford, The Marsden Case (London: Duckworth, 1923), 22-23.

[2] Hudson, Birds and Man, (1901); see  Ruth Tomalin, W. H. Hudson: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 150.

[3] Tomalin, 144, 145, 146-149; RSPB website:

[4] Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (New York: Crowell, 1961; Apollo, 1966; Library of America edition, 1985), 138.

The local exotic

‘Come, come, now, my blonde darling, I may not have written for a little longer than usual, but it couldn’t have been that “over a month” you mention. And you mustn’t worry about not hearing from me now and then. A lot of things can happen in a wartime Army to make writing difficult, and they don’t all have to be bad. If anything should happen to me, the good old USA would notify you, your name and address are on my dog tag. (The new dog tags, not yet issued to us, have no name and address of next-of-kin on them.)’

Dashiell Hammett was sending reassurances (after a fashion) from the Aleutians to his older daughter Mary, in February 1944.[1] Over a month! Still, it was, as he says, the Aleutians in wartime. ‘Darling’, Ford Madox Ford wrote to Stella Bowen in November 1918, ‘I haven’t had a word from you for three days—& you can imagine how long a time that seems to me’.[2]

There are people now that we haven’t had a word from for six months, people that we haven’t seen for a year – or more. So how would this work? That the people we haven’t seen for the longest period are the ones we most want to see? Of course not – or not necessarily. We are, after all, human animals, so we have, most of us, some of us, a few of us, lived in that magical state where we miss people the moment they leave us, more, even before they leave us since we can predict the moment when that separation will occur and feel it on our skin before it happens.

I see that people are pining away for the loss of a sight of Athens, Paris, New York, Sydney, Prague, Bilbao. I have been to some, though not all, of those places but, to be frank (to be earnest), the places I am plagued by pictures of—unannounced, unprompted, unasked for—are palpably absurd. Absurd and banal and not to be mentioned in the context of these discussions of exotic and far-flung locations.  They are the corners of streets not far from here; the road leading to a park in Bath; the hill running down to the Librarian’s parents’ home; a lane in Clifton, three miles away.

The local is lodged in my brain in a way that those others are not. Even the marvels of that apartment in Prague, that we talked of this evening. Even the baguette and Brie and glass of red wine on a pavement in Paris, bringing to mind the letter that Ford Madox Ford writes to Henry Goddard Leach, the editor of Forum and Century, in 1938, about the pieces he is thinking of drafting: ‘Another I meditate treating very soon is simply the fact that France—from the point of view of culture and the arts—manages everything so infinitely better than either branch of Anglo-Saxondom that the sooner we acknowledge the fact the sooner we shall be out of the wood.’[3]

And that was it, more or less. I remember thinking at the time, as I sat on that pavement in Paris: If we can’t even manage to provide bread and cheese and a glass of wine at this sort of level, how the hell can we manage anything else?

The answer was, of course: we can’t. And so it proved. Proves. Has proven. Will prove. Will prove to have proven.


[1] Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett, 1921-1960, edited by Richard Layman with Julie M. Rivett (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2001), 281-282.

[2] Correspondence of Ford Madox Ford and Stella Bowen, edited by Sondra J. Stang and Karen Cochran (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994), 38.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 288.

‘A Lady Asks Me’

Italian (Venetian) School; Portrait of an Unknown Young Woman; Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives;

‘A Lady asks me’, as Ezra Pound begins Canto 36, borrowing from his own translation of Guido Cavalcanti’s ‘Donna mi prega’, ‘I speak in season’. In fact, here, the season is undeniably autumn – and it’s the Librarian, asking what I’m finding the worst thing about the pandemic – ‘apart, obviously, from huge numbers of people dying’.

I know already that she misses, often very keenly, her library, the beautiful physical space itself and her colleagues—the greetings on a staircase, words exchanged in a corridor, on the phone or round the edge of a door, those brief moments that, tabulated and totalled, make up a significant proportion of any working day, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

For me, though, the shape of the days is much less changed. I read, I write, I walk, I cook, I feed the cat. The things that huge numbers of my fellow-citizens are apparently frantic for don’t really bother me. In another age, we would go to the cinema occasionally and to restaurants a little more often: but a large part of going out to eat—and of being in the cinema—is being able to relax. I certainly couldn’t relax in those settings at the moment, so why would I do it? Going on holiday: yes, but we’d be doing the same things, just in a different setting and at a substantial cost, and the logistics of any such trip make my head hurt. I’d really like to walk by the sea again – but now, as always, I don’t want to do it in the company of several thousand others.

There’s a world out there of worsening political chaos, lethal incompetence, thousands of avoidable deaths (and how many more in the United States, whose president is waging war against his own country); after the schools failures, now the universities fiasco, students imprisoned while administrators rearrange deckchairs on an ever more steeply tilting deck amidst ignorant comments from politicians and tabloid journalists.

Louis MacNeice writes in Autumn Journal:

It is this we learn after so many failures,
The building of castles in sand, of queens in snow,
That we cannot make any corner in life or in life’s beauty,
That no river is a river which does not flow.

Even in lives superficially unchanged or little changed, this has changed. Life at present does not flow. Watching moving water, the fact of it moving becomes less and less its dominant feature; the currents that make our own lives flow are often invisible, unremarked. So perhaps one of the worst things is the simplest. We can go out, we can walk, other people can and do take buses or trains – but never now in an untroubled way, never wholly spontaneous, never unthinking, never without watchfulness, wariness, a readiness to take evasive measures. It’s the old literary metaphor of the poem as a field of action, of moving through hostile territory, always on the qui vive. A potentially productive conceit, you might argue, but probably not how you want to live your – civilian – life.

On this day in 1916, Ford Madox Ford published a piece called ‘Trois Jours de Permission’, about a three-day leave granted to him a little earlier that year, which he spent in Paris, much of it waiting for some grand fromage or other. ‘Yes, one learns to wait’, Ford wrote. ‘The most impatient temperament, somewhere in France, will be strait-waistcoated into inaction, into introspection.’

So here I am, somewhere in England, inactive and introspective, waving goodbye to September – though mentally active and prospective enough to expect little better of October. . .

‘Inversions of phrase’

(Thomas Hardy, 1899)

It being August, and some nights seeming unusually long, I was reminded of the short Thomas Hardy poem, ‘An August Midnight’, written at Max Gate in 1899.[1]

A shaded lamp and a waving blind,
And the beat of a clock from a distant floor:
On this scene enter—winged, horned, and spined—
A longlegs, a moth, and a dumbledore;
While ’mid my page there idly stands
A sleepy fly, that rubs its hands… 

Thus meet we five, in this still place,
At this point of time, at this point in space.
— My guests besmear my new-penned line,
Or bang at the lamp and fall supine.
“God’s humblest, they!” I muse. Yet why?
They know Earth-secrets that know not I.

Only twelve lines, seemingly simple enough, but not without interest. A small drama, which ‘this scene’ emphasises. Four indefinite articles in the first two lines – and one definite article, tied to the word ‘beat’, in the most strongly stressed line of the poem, because of those two strategic monosyllables, ‘beat’ and ‘clock’. ‘Dumbledore’ might momentarily trip up the Harry Potter generation; and commentators on the poem don’t always agree: is it a bumblebee or a cockchafer – or cockchafter? F. B. Pinion says bumblebee, Claire Tomalin says ‘a cockchafter or maybug’.[2]

(Cockchafer via

I pause on ‘Thus meet we five’, partly because of the implied equalising of the lives involved here, partly because of the inversion of natural word order and partly because of the number in this context. One of the mystic numbers, as Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable explains, the pentad ‘being the sum of 2 and 3, the first even and first odd compound. Unity is God alone, i.e. without creation. Two is diversity, and three (being 1 and 2) is the compound of unity and diversity, or the two principles in operation since creation, and representing all the powers of nature.’

The conjunctions of ‘still’ and ‘point’ (and time and space) prompt a forward glance to T. S. Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’: ‘At the still point of the turning world’ and:

Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.

‘I muse’ is another of these teasing touches, Hardy being his own muse, providing context, content, then text himself, from the materials in his immediate vicinity, the subjects of his poem entering the poet’s territory, the page, physically—‘My guests besmear my new-penned line’—as well as in the mind and memory. Tomalin comments on Hardy’s ‘appreciation that life is lived on different scales’, that the poem ‘shows him at his most tender, at ease in what still sometimes seemed to him to be God’s creation’.

The poem ends: ‘They know Earth-secrets that know not I.’ Pinion remarks that: ‘The inversion of the last line is perhaps an extreme example of the awkwardness and disregard for sound that Hardy sometimes accepted for the sake of verse pattern.’

Inversion: a change in order or position, a recurring theme in critical commentary, mainly but not always with reference to modern poets who, it’s implied, should know better or should, at least, reflect the habits of their own day. We expect to find it in Victorian poetry but not in modern poetry. Where—when—does the change come?

‘Poetry must be as well written as prose. Its language must be a fine language, departing in no way from speech save by a heightened intensity (i.e. simplicity)’, Ezra Pound wrote in January 1915, in a letter often cited, to Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry magazine. ‘There must be no book words, no periphrases, no inversions. It must be as simple as De Maupassant’s best prose, and as hard as Stendhal’s.’[3]

(Harriet Monroe, 1920)

Ford Madox Ford, whose ideas this letter largely repeated (as Pound himself subsequently acknowledged), had written in 1905 of how modern poets were barred from certain subjects by that dialect then accepted as the proper language for poetry. ‘We wait, in fact, for the poet who, in limpid words, with clear enunciation and without inverted phrases, shall give the mind of the time sincere frame and utterance.’[4] Twenty years on and Ford, in some ‘Notes for a Lecture on Vers Libre’, explained: ‘You see I hate—and I hated then—inversions of phrase. A line like A sensitive plant in a garden grew filled me with hot rage. If the chap wanted to say that a sensitive plant grew in a garden, why didn’t he say it—or if he could not find a rhyme for garden, let him for Heaven’s sake hold his peace.’[5]

Did Pound and Ford not use ‘inversions of phrase’ in their early poetry? Of course they did. But in the quest for both modernity itself and a definition of modernity which could separate your tribe from the others (and occasionally be brandished like a broadsword), word order—along with archaisms, ‘hath’, ‘thou’—was an early bone of contention (and remains so). Often, of course, the driving factor was the need for a rhymeword, until that need too fell away for many. And the First World War brought its own complications, the urgency and intensity of the subject matter sometimes crowding out concern with technique or ‘modernity’—besides, some of the soldier-poets died so young that they had little time to dwell on them.

Here’s Charles Sorley, probably in 1915 – he was killed by a sniper in October of that year at the Battle of Loos, aged twenty, and the manuscript of this poem was found by his father among Sorley’s personal effects:

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise.[6]

The inversions are probably not what you’d first notice there…

Ford ended, in Buckshee, with very free and colloquial verse:

We shall have to give up watering the land
Almost altogether.
The maize must go.
But the chilis and tomatoes may still have
A little water.

Pound, in some respects, circled round upon himself, his concerns, images – and diction, the earliest sometimes bleeding into the latest. Canto CX begins: ‘Thy quiet house’ and, a few lines on:

Hast’ou seen boat’s wake on sea-wall,
                        how crests it?

And some just kept going regardless, such as the prolific, popular and long-lived Walter de la Mare. His biographer noted that the critic Forrest Reid advised de la Mare to aim for simplicity of expression, however subtle the thought. ‘He thought this, with some justice, de la Mare’s greatest temptation, and condemned his inversions as a growing mannerism [ . . . ] De la Mare defended himself rather vaguely on the grounds that inversion either came off or it didn’t, and could not be defended or attacked on principle. He doubted anyway “whether ordinary talk is necessarily the best or most forcible or most attractive form of expression”’.[7]

(Walter de la Mare)

And yes, opening the book almost at random, de la Mare’s 1950 volume begins with ‘Here I sit, and glad am I’. There’s ‘The Changeling’: ‘Come in the dark did I’ and ‘Here’: ‘Forgave I everything’. Although I also catch sight of ‘Unwitting’:

This evening to my manuscript
Flitted a tiny fly;
At the wet ink sedately sipped,
Then seemed to put the matter by,
Mindless of him who wrote it, and
His scrutinizing eye –
That any consciousness indeed
Its actions could descry! . . .

Silence; and wavering candlelight;
Night; and a starless sky.[8]

Half a century apart, poets working late, their pages encroached upon by insect visitors.

Hardy’s last line doesn’t jar that much to me, probably because the inversion—as is not unusual—produces that flickering moment of uncertainty to offset it, as if, as well as the narrator not knowing those Earth-secrets, they don’t know him either.

First rule of poetic inversion: there’s no absolute rule.


[1] Thomas Hardy, The Complete Poems, edited by James Gibson (London: Macmillan, 1976), 113.

[2] F. B. Pinion, A Commentary on the Poems of Thomas Hardy (London: Macmillan, 1976), 51; Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man (London: Viking, 2006), 281.

[3] Ezra Pound, Selected Letters, 1907-1941, edited by D. D. Paige (New York: New Directions, 1971), 48-49.

[4] ‘A Literary Causerie: On Some Tendencies of Modern Verse’, Academy, 69 (23 September 1905), 982-984, reprinted in Critical Essays, edited by Max Saunders and Richard Stang (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 28-32.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, ‘Notes for a Lecture on Vers Libre’ (1920s), in Critical Writings, edited by Frank MacShane (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964). The words quoted are from Shelley’s ‘The Sensitive Plant’.

[6] Charles Sorley, ‘[When you see millions of the mouthless dead]’, in Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology, edited by Tim Kendall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 191.

[7] Theresa Whistler, The Life of Walter de la Mare: Imagination of the Heart (London: Duckworth, 2003), 323-324.

[8] Walter de la Mare, Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), 349-355.

‘England have my bones’

(T. H. White on Alderney: BBC)

‘Heaven take my soul, and England keep my bones!’ are Arthur’s last words in Shakespeare’s King John (IV.iii.10), as he leaps from a castle wall. T. H. White, author of The Goshawk and The Once and Future King (another Arthur), among many other books, had a slightly different version, the last four words of which gave him the title of his 1936 volume: ‘God keep my soul/ And England have my bones.’ It ended up, he said, as ‘a book about the tangible side of country life’, adding that: ‘Fishermen will be maddened by the flying, aviators by the snakes, zoologists by the instructions for playing darts.’ Trying to imagine ’the kind of person who will bear with every digression’, he concluded that, should such a person exist, ‘he will be an amateur like myself: a reader with a forgiving mind, not a critical one: somebody not fascinated by sherry parties, who can see the point of an England defined by negatives.’[1]

White’s letter to David Garnett (his second) asking Garnett to look at England Keep My Bones marked the beginning of their nearly thirty-year friendship, ‘a friendship which, reversing the usual order, ripened into acquaintance’, Sylvia Townsend Warner explained, ‘for they met seldom, and never for long at a time. In fact, they were better apart. When they met, they got on each other’s nerves.’

(Sylvia Townsend Warner via NYRB; and her biography of White)

But then, with strangers, as another friend remembered, White ‘could be quite odious; rude and suspicious if he thought they were lionizing them, still more if he thought they weren’t; shouting down anyone who disagreed with his more preposterous assertions or even ventured to interrupt.’[2]

White’s book is often lyrical, but also marked by frequently pugnacious or arresting statement—‘Nowadays we don’t know where we live, or who we are’ (3), ‘I felt happy and interested, as if I had been condemned to death’ (20-21), and ‘Even sitting in the same chair rots one’s soul. Decent men ought to break all their furniture every six months’ (65). There are curious anecdotes and details, such as the origins of Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter (42) and, writing of ‘the shire’ in which he lives, located about half-way between ‘the doze of Norfolk and the fierce friendliness of Gloucestershire’ (4), he notes that it boasted the first recorded beheading and the last person to be gibbeted (110). But there are also evocative statements such as ‘Falling in love is a desolating experience, but not when it is with a countryside’ (22), which seem expressly designed to be plundered by people like me – and have been. The book’s devotion to ‘outdoor pursuits’ prompted the reviewer James Agate to remark—quite understandably, I think—‘It is about subjects in which I am not even faintly interested. It is entrancing’ (quoted by Warner, 87).

It was on this day 85 years ago, 18 August 1935, that White scored 180 with three darts—‘for the first and last time in three or four thousand games of darts’—in The Rose and Crown at Burwash, ‘of which the proper pronunciation is Burridge’ as Henry James remarked to Ford Madox Ford (who already knew).[3] ‘It was not a landlord’s board’, White added, by which I take him to mean that if the target areas for the highest scoring darts are slightly enlarged there is a correspondingly larger chance of successful, happy, and thus higher-spending, punters. ‘Burwash’ may, though, be pronounced ‘Burrish’: it certainly was by a helpful National Trust volunteer, to whom I put the specific question on my one visit to Bateman’s, the fine Jacobean house in which Rudyard Kipling—a story of whom was the occasion of James’s pronouncing the name to Ford—made his home between 1902 and his death in 1936. I bought a bag of flour from the 17th century—and still working—mill which could at that time be seen in action most Wednesday and Saturday afternoons.

(Batemans: National Trust)

The setting is remarkable: the house itself, the garden, the 1928 Rolls Royce Phantom 1 – and the mill. Kipling installed a turbine generator in 1902 and, in the autumn of that same year, published a short story, ‘Below the Mill Dam’. The story, collected in Traffics and Discoveries (1904), largely comprises a conversation between the cat and the rat and is widely seen as a political fable expressing Kipling’s dislike of the attitudes and policies exemplified by Arthur Balfour. David Gilmour, author of The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling, thinks the cat is Balfour (or at least talks like him): ‘there is no problem identifying the prototype of the Grey Cat’.[4]

That memorable visit to East Sussex was heavily Ford Madox Ford-related: he lived for years in the area, and his books—ten, fifteen, twenty years later—are saturated with its place-names and roads and buildings and outlooks. But, with an hour or two to spare in the afternoon, with Bateman’s on the route back to the station, Kipling-world became irresistible. Perhaps I’ll get back there – sometime – for a longer, slower look.


[1] England Have My Bones (1934; London: Macdonald Futura, 1981), v-vi.

[2] Sylvia Townsend Warner, T. H. White: A Biography (New York: Viking, 1968), 86; John Verney in the ‘Foreword’, 6.

[3] Ford, Return to Yesterday (London: Gollancz, 1931), 7.

[4] David Gilmour, The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling (London: John Murray, 2002), 181.