Talking hats



( via  )

An abandoned hat on a garden wall reminded me again of how visible an indicator of historical periods hats are. In old film footage of cinema audiences, the most glaring feature is the fact that almost every man and quite a few women are smoking. In old footage of urban street scenes, everyone is wearing a hat – not only workmen, cardinals and private detectives.


(Humphrey Bogart as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe)

Useful to raise when meeting a female acquaintance, to remove when a funeral cortège passed, and on Remembrance Day. Some people still wear them—I have three myself, two that don’t fit while the third is a faltering Panama—but it’s a positive and individual choice these days. As to why such a widespread habit died out – suggestions include changes in social class, baldness and increased car ownership. A few years ago, en route to a crematorium, I saw a youngish man, sitting down on the kerb at a bus stop, catch sight of the cortège and emphatically make the sign of the cross on the frayed jacket buttoned over his chest. Religion was a complicating factor there but a hat to doff would have simplified matters. Philip Larkin, famously, ‘hatless’, took off his cycle-clips ‘in awkward reverence’.[1]

In one of his autobiographical volumes, David Garnett remembers his friend Ralph Wright, who had fought at Gallipoli and had one of his brothers killed beside him; then fought in France. Once, on a bus, passing the Cenotaph, he was deep in a book ‘and an old gentleman tapped him angrily on the shoulder. “Take your hat off, young man. Why don’t you pay some respect to our glorious dead?”

“I am one of our glorious dead,” replied Ralph in a mild voice. Mark Twain would have called this a gross exaggeration but there was a truth in it which applied to thousands of survivors of the war. It was not only the body and the brain that could be killed or wounded, but the spirit.’[2]

A hat is a minor plot device in James Joyce’s story, ‘Counterparts’, when Farringdon is slipping out to the pub – again. ‘The chief clerk glanced at the hat-rack but, seeing the row complete, offered no remark. As soon as he was on the landing, the man pulled a shepherd’s plaid cap out of his pocket, put it on his head and ran quickly down the rickety stairs.’ Farringdon is soon in the snug of O’Neill’s shop, downing a glass of porter – and a caraway seed to take away the smell of the alcohol.[3]


(Rose Macaulay via Times Literary Supplement)

Penelope Fitzgerald thought that Rose Macaulay was ‘most characteristically English’ in part because she was ‘given to wearing flat tweed caps, or hats like tea cosies’.[4] By the early years of the Second World War, Mollie Panter-Downes was commenting that Englishwomen ‘have never looked prettier than they do these days when they are dressing more simply, often going hatless, and working so hard that sleep comes easy at night, bombers or no bombers.’[5]

Haydon, Benjamin Robert, 1786-1846; Wellington on the Field of Waterloo

(Benjamin Robert Haydon, Wellington on the Field of Waterloo: Walker Gallery)

The Duke of Wellington seems to have been very attached, sentimentally as well as (usually) physically, to his hat. Benjamin Haydon had borrowed it because he was painting the Duke’s portrait (the last of several). On the morning after Haydon had shot himself, not very successfully, having to finish the job by cutting his throat, Wellington sent a servant round to Burwood Place to recover his hat, having seen the news in The Times.[6] I find this strongly reminiscent of the Tommy Cooper joke about the man calling round to his neighbour’s, being told he’s died the previous night and, after a lengthy pause as if digesting the news, asking the widow: ‘Did he say anything about a pot of paint?’

The Victorian clergyman and diarist Francis Kilvert recalled that, ‘when people were going to market on Thursday mornings they would exhort one another to come back in good time lest they should be led astray by the Goblin Lantern, and boys would wear their hats the wrong way lest they should be enticed into the fairy rings and made to dance.’[7] (Is this why so many men still wear baseball caps the wrong way round? Get into those fairy rings and dance!) Julian MacLaren-Ross wrote of an acquaintance called Nott: ‘He had one of those faces that once seen is never remembered. In London I used to identify him only by a green tweed hat: of such a shape that, in order to wear it correctly, he’d been obliged to print “BACK” and “FRONT” in ink on the lining, afterwards adding “SIDES” (at my suggestion) to preclude any possibility of error.’[8]

William Gaunt writes that, in the 1830s, ‘The intellectuals of Paris wore the steeple-crowned hats and sinister cloaks of Italian brigands and cultivated disdain for the law-abiding citizen.’[9] This image fed into the various versions told of Wyndham Lewis’s first encounter with Ford Madox Ford, then editing The English Review:

‘He seemed to be Russian. He was very dark in the shadows of the staircase. He wore an immense steeple-crowned hat. Long black locks fell from it. His coat was one of those Russian-looking coats that have no revers. He had also an ample black cape of the type that villains in transpontine melodrama throw over their shoulders when they say “Ha-ha!” He said not a word.’

The mysterious stranger establishes himself ‘immovably against the banisters’ because the editor is attempting to push him down the stairs, and begins ‘fumbling in the pockets of his cape. He produced crumpled papers in rolls. He fumbled in the pockets of his strange coat. He produced crumpled papers in rolls.’[10]

These crumpled rolls of paper resolve themselves into ‘The Pole’, Lewis’s first published story, which appeared in The English Review in May 1909. Opening his book on Lewis with the tale of this encounter, Hugh Kenner comments that, ‘The magician’s gestures owe their meaning to the fact that the rabbit from the hat—like the story from the cape—has no history.’[11] Yes, a man with no history appearing to another man, Ford, who was carrying a great deal of it, some of which he sought to shed.

The Gallery of HMS Calcutta (Portsmouth) c.1876 by James Tissot 1836-1902

(Tissot, The Gallery of H. M. S. Calcutta (Portsmouth): Tate)

From hats to hatters. James Tissot (born Jacques Joseph in Nantes in 1836 – he changed his name to signal his fondness for England and English things – moved from Paris to London in 1871, partly to avoid possible trouble following his participation in the defence of the Paris commune. His mother designed hats, a background that surely influenced the content of many of his paintings: women, often society women, in gorgeous clothes and hats, with details expertly rendered.

The Mad Hatter is inextricable now from Lewis Carroll, who never actually refers to his Hatter as mad, though the chapter is called ‘A Mad Tea-Party’. The phrase ‘as mad as a hatter’ preceded Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as did ‘mad as a March hare’. T. H. White wrote confidently of the man who was, he said, the original of Lewis Carroll’s Hatter, a seventeenth-century eccentric named Robert Crab, ‘a haberdasher of hats at Butterbury’, who subsisted on a diet of dock leaves and grass, and gave all his goods to the poor. Martin Gardner refers to Tenniel basing his drawing on Theophilus Carter, who owned a furniture shop in Oxford, though also detailing other candidates. Carter was mentioned in a letter to The Times from the Reverend Gordon W Baillie: ‘All Oxford called him The Mad Hatter. He would stand at the door of his furniture shop…always with a top hat at the back of his head, which, with a well-developed nose and a somewhat receding chin, made him an easy target for the caricaturist.’[12]


(John Tenniel, ‘A Mad Tea Party’)

Sharing with William Maxwell another helping of hat lore, Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote to him: ‘Your bedroom fireplace should have had a fire in it. When family pews meant anything, they had fireplaces in them, and the eldest son of the family poked them up before the sermon. At that date you never saw a gentleman on his knees. He remained seated & prayed into his hat. My poor father couldn’t, because if he went to church it was to the school chapel, dressed as such; and for some deep mystical reason you can’t pray into a mortar-board.’[13]

Talking into your hat, that is, rather than talking through it.




[1] Philip Larkin, ‘Church Going’, Collected Poems, edited by Anthony Thwaite (East St Kilda: The Marvell Press and London: Faber, 2003), 58.

[2] David Garnett, The Flowers of the Forest (London: Chatto & Windus, 1955), 236.

[3] James Joyce, Dubliners (1914; introduction and notes by Terence Brown, London: Penguin Books, 2000), 84.

[4] Penelope Fitzgerald, ‘A Student of Obliteration’, an introduction to Macaulay’s The World My Wilderness, in A House of Air: Selected Writings, edited by Terence Dooley with Mandy Kirkby and Chris Carduff (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 299.

[5] Mollie Panter-Downes, London War Notes (1971; edited by William Shawn, new preface by David Kynaston, London: Persephone Books, 2014), 29.

[6] Alethea Hayter, A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (1965; London: Robin Clark 1992), 103-104.

[7] Francis Kilvert, Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, Three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969): I, 247.

[8] Julian MacLaren-Ross, Bitten by the Tarantula and other writings (London: Black Spring Press, 2005), 155.

[9] William Gaunt, The Aesthetic Adventure (1945; revised edition, London: Sphere Books, 1975), 10.

[10] Ford Madox Ford, Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 407.

[11] Hugh Kenner, Wyndham Lewis (New York: New Directions, 1964), 6.

[12] T. H. White, England Have My Bones (1934; London: Macdonald Futura, 1981), 42; Martin Gardner, The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition (Harmondsworth: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 2000), 72-73; The Times, March 19, 1931.

[13] Letter of 9 January 1972: Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 227.


Walking with a purpose


You pass them everywhere in Bristol now—and in what town or city do you not? In residential porches and corporate doorways, on benches and in bus shelters, living in tents, living in vans. Homelessness, the raw, incontrovertible evidence of fractured social policies and failed governance, is visibly, palpably increasing. A man that my wife spoke to had just been discharged from hospital. Though a friend had kindly paid for one night’s stay at a bed and breakfast, his address thereafter was, once again, a tent pitched on a strip of grass above the river. The hospital staff knew he would have no roof over his head but had no choice in the matter. The Secretary of State for Health assures us that there’s no crisis in the National Health Service and, since the United Kingdom is currently the world’s fifth largest economy by GDP, it can’t be a question of money—so it’s a puzzling business. It’s also a moral quandary for the individual walker. With my limited resources, if I give change to this person, what about the next—and what about the fifth and the tenth and the twentieth after that? Who do I choose—and how? And should I really have to?

There’s a moment in Richard Cobb’s essay, ‘Pre-Revolutionary Paris’, when he remarks of the abbé Germain Brice, author of the early eighteenth-century Description de la ville de Paris, that he ‘provided a completely comprehensive tour of the city; and he was not afraid of exposing his more delicate princelings to some of the filthiest, most stinking, and most overcrowded quarters of Paris; it was not just a Tournée des Grandes Ducs of the high spots, of the new centres of luxury. Perhaps his walks were also to have a moral purpose.’[1]

‘A moral purpose.’ Yes, this in turn recalls George Eliot, in a letter of 3 November 1851, telling the anecdote of Thomas Carlyle, ‘angry with [Ralph Waldo] Emerson for not believing in a devil’, in a determined effort ‘to convert him took him amongst all the horrors of London – the gin shops etc. – and finally to the House of Commons, plying him at every turn with the question “Do you believe in a devil noo?”’[2]

‘More delicate princelings’? Certainly, some of those wealthy and cushioned politicians so enthusiastic about penalising the undeserving poor or forcing invalids into morale-boosting work as roadmenders or steeplejacks, should be forcibly steered around a few choice areas of our inner cities.

‘Do you believe in a devil noo?’ Devils, like angels, are difficult to disentangle from religion. ‘The devil’, Hugh Kenner wrote, ‘it used to be thought, could only move in straight lines; pious Christians could thwart him by moving in zigzags. They did that on their knees, praying their way along labyrinths diagrammed on the floors of churches: there are still fine ones in Chartres cathedral and in the parish church of St. Quentin, in the Loire Valley. Meant to humble but not bewilder the faithful, such mazes have no branchings. They spiral haltingly inward, as if to Jerusalem.’[3]

The Simoniac Pope 1824-7 by William Blake 1757-1827

(William Blake, Dante’s Simoniac Pope: Tate)

Though often in touch with religious concerns, evil can, like good, occupy determinedly secular territory. Great wickedness and immorality, the dictionaries say, especially—but not necessarily—when regarded as a supernatural force. And to be sure, from time to time, in my agnostic fashion, I picture the architect of the pernicious Universal Credit scheme (among many others, admittedly) placed by Gustave Doré or William Blake in an extremely hot environment, illuminated by a luridly flickering light, and subject to the relentless and gleeful attention of gigantic figures wielding toasting forks.

And what might we set against the intellectual vacuity so demonstrably prevailing in several citadels of power as the year closes? There’s always poetry, of course.


The Devil – had he fidelity
Would be the best friend –
Because he has ability –
But Devils cannot mend –
Perfidy is the virtue   
That would he but resign
The Devil – without question
Were thoroughly divine[4]

Yes, devilish tricky things, devils. Stories, then, perhaps the inexhaustibly quotable Sylvia Townsend Warner, writing to William Maxwell, 31 December 1966:

‘It was the kind of hotel which has a great many old ladies in it, and as a writer of short stories I was enthralled to discover how a single sentence can place a character—“Mrs Walker has China tea”—or rouse one’s deepest curiosity, as when one of the two Miss Grays (sisters but they don’t often meet) said informingly to the other, pointing to an empty table with a paper napkin in a tumbler on it, “That’s Mrs. Washbourne.” Valentine said it was like living in one of my stories but worse.’[5]

Whose story we are living in just now will no doubt become clearer as we lurch or tiptoe into 2018. I’ve heard several people say that next year can’t be worse than 2017. I hope they’re right. Always remembering that resistance is fertile, as I think I heard somebody say.


[1] Richard Cobb, ‘Pre-Revolutionary Paris’, in Paris and Elsewhere: Selected Writings, introduction by Richard Gilmour, preface by Julian Barnes (New York: New York Review Books, 2004), 154.

[2] Mentioned by Rupert Christiansen, The Visitor: Culture Shock in Nineteenth-Century Britain (London: Chatto & Windus, 2000), 118.

[3] Hugh Kenner, the title essay (1986) of Mazes (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 250.

[4] The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown, 1961), 624-625.

[5] Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 169.


Blue writing on the wall

unknown artist; Writing on the Wall

(The Writing on the Wall, Unknown artist: Southampton City Art Gallery)

I’ve been thinking a bit about blue just lately. Not just because of capricious and mercurial weather, clear brilliance lurching to rain or snow or hail but also because of the death earlier this month of William Gass. He wrote a book some forty years ago called On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry and offered a strikingly honest answer to the question of why he wrote: ‘I write because I hate. A lot. Hard.’[1]

I never read much of his work, apart from a couple of stories, and was occasionally guilty of mixing him up with William Gaddis, whose gargantuan novel, The Recognitions, I wrestled with decades ago, but Gass did write a very distinctive essay about Ford Madox Ford’s Fifth Queen trilogy and I was familiar with that.[2]

Then came the recent excitement over the plan to reintroduce the blue passport for United Kingdom citizens. Predictably, while the Prime Minister referred to it as an expression of ‘independence and sovereignty’ that reflected ‘citizenship of a proud, great nation’, and other right wing politicians made similar noises, neither they nor the tabloid press made clear that Britain could have simply retained the blue passport while in the EU, nor that it was the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher that elected to adopt the burgundy EU passport in 1988—though never obliged to do so. Several commentators have pointed this out while wondering about the fuss over such a detail, prompting the Daily Mail, for example (26 December), to huff: ‘How typical of such people to deride something that will be a potent, everyday symbol of Britain’s independence from the EU come 2019.’ Yup.


Passport size is mandated by the International Civil Aviation Organization, an agency of the UN. Most of the recent changes to British passports have been at the behest of the United States, sometimes via the EU, and this includes its imposition of more stringent photo requirements and biometric features, as the historian James Baldwin explained last week:

Woke up this morning with the passport blues. Was it really worth inflicting this scale of damage on the country to change the colour of something that its government chose thirty years ago? Blue, bleu, blau. George Dangerfield wrote of the occasion when David Lloyd George, addressing a group of bankers at the Guildhall, assured them that, ‘In the matter of external affairs the sky has never been more perfectly blue.’[3] The date of that confident assertion? 17 July, 1914.

So this is where we are; this is what we’ve come to. The sense of an ending—and let’s hope the ending is just of 2017, a year remarkably light on laughter but heavy on bad manners, bad faith, bad politics and bad economics.

In Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, A. S. Byatt wrote of the god Loki that he was ‘the god of endings. He provided resolutions for stories – if he chose to. The endings he made often led to more problems.’ Loki was, of course, the trickster, a figure that recurs in countless stories in most cultures, from creation myths to cinema screens, from Brer Rabbit, Crow and Puck to the Pink Panther and The Joker.

In ‘Thoughts on Myths’, a final section of Ragnarok, Byatt comments: ‘But if you write a version of Ragnarök in the twenty-first century, it is haunted by the imagining of a different end of things. We are a species of animal which is bringing about the end of the world we were born into. Not out of evil, or malice, or not mainly, but because of a lopsided mixture of extraordinary cleverness, extraordinary greed, extraordinary proliferation of our own kind, and a biologically built-in short-sightedness.’[4]


Indeed. The Librarian drew my attention to two online items this morning, just to confirm that the writing is truly on the wall—one from a Conservative politician who evidently shouldn’t be allowed near social media without medical supervision, both for her sake and for ours; and one from the current President of the United States.

And that writing on the wall? Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin. As Daniel interpreted those words for the king, Belshazzar: God hath numbered thy kingdom and finished it; thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting; Thy kingdom is divided. and given to the Medes and Persians.[5]

We’re currently a little light on Medes and Persians in this neck of the woods but, apart from that slight anomaly, it’s clearly a Brexit thing.


[1] Interview with Thomas LeClair in Paris Review, 70 (Summer 1977).

[2] William Gass, ‘The Neglect of The Fifth Queen’, in Sondra J. Stang, editor, The Presence of Ford Madox Ford (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 1981), 25-43.

[3] George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935; London: Granada Publishing, 1970), 358.

[4] A. S. Byatt, Ragnarok: The End of the Gods (Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd., 2011), 44, 167.

[5] Daniel 5, 26-28.

Slouching towards Bedlam


Joan Didion via The Paris Review. The Review‘s 1978 interview with Didion is available here:

I was struck by an exchange in the recently printed Guardian interview with the BBC journalist and news presenter Clive Myrie:

You’ve worked all over the world. Which posting do you have the fondest memories of?
Being based in Los Angeles during the Clinton years. The USA, pre-9/11, was a much more carefree place and the Clinton White House was incredible to cover. Because I was based in Los Angeles, I wasn’t just covering hard news; I covered Central America, hurricanes in Honduras, the Oscars, three times, so there was a breadth of story-telling. Strangely enough, I would say America is the most alien place I have ever reported from. I think we have far more in common with northern Europeans than we will ever have with Americans.

Yes, that, ‘strangely enough’ and ‘the most alien place’. Recently, in the wake of President Trump’s offensive response to Theresa May’s characteristically restrained criticism of his irresponsible re-tweeting of extremist videos, a number of British politicians and commentators are finally interrogating the lazy platitudes surrounding ‘the special relationship’. It has dawned on some people that the relationship was always rather more ‘special’ in one direction than in the other.

In the United Kingdom, we watch a great deal of American film and television; some of us read a lot of American literature; and the language we speak is, in some regards, broadly similar. And yes, apart from my US cultural consumption, I have American friends and acquaintances. I even follow, with increasingly appalled fascination, American politics. But I also never quite lose that sense of distance, of strangeness, of great stretches of material never touched on, better left aside and not embarked upon. Two continents separated by divergent categories of insupportable weirdness, perhaps.

I recall Guy Davenport recounting a visit to Ezra Pound, when the latter was confined in St Elizabeths Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Washington. Pound had given Davenport a book by Leo Frobenius and asked how he was travelling. Learning that he was returning home by train, Pound reversed the dust jacket so that the title would be invisible to those likely to be ‘driven to fury that learning was being freely transported about the Republic.’ Having himself been born in Anderson, South Carolina, Davenport merely commented that ‘Southerners take a certain amount of unhinged reality for granted’.[1] And ‘unhinged’, yes, seems to be le mot juste, a fracturing of defences, a throwing open of doors to disorder and worse—much worse, as we see now.

(Leo Frobenius; Ezra Pound)

I’ve unsettled myself in an American context several times this year—I mean, apart from reading or watching the news in stark disbelief that such behaviour and such pronouncements can be tolerated in a Western democracy. What else has unsettled me? The Raoul Peck documentary, centring on James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, for one, mostly in the yawning space of time between now and then set against the—in many ways—pitiful progress made since the events that the film deals with. Then the ten-part documentary series on The Vietnam War, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: the political duplicity and deceitfulness, the casualness of the decision-making that doomed hundreds of thousands to unnecessary deaths, decisions in which the Vietnamese civilians weighed nothing at all, a blueprint for much that followed.


On the printed page, in various ways and to varying degrees: rereading Flannery O’Connor, though I note her comment that, ‘of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.’[2] Catching up on other titles, I finally read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which I was already embarked upon when O’Brien cropped up in the Burns/Novick series; and A. M. Homes’ Music for Torching. Of newer books, Mary Gaitskill’s book of stories, Don’t Cry, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and, perhaps in particular, Gabriel Tallent’s risky, brave and disturbing novel, My Absolute Darling.

And then, noting that today is Joan Didion’s eighty-third birthday, I should mention South and West: From a Notebook, dating to the summer of 1970 and largely comprising material for a piece on the South that was never written. I’ve just read this book, and also watched the documentary, The Center Cannot Hold, directed by Didion’s nephew, Griffin Dunne, currently available on Netflix, a film which will, of course, send me back to reread Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album.

Didion has long been admired for her prose style and her ability to write the history of her time through the medium of the essay, as David Hare remarks in Dunne’s documentary. I know people who have always resisted her work, largely on political grounds—a child of conservative Republicans parents, she apparently voted for Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election but would subsequently describe, in Political Fictions, ‘the abduction of American democracy’.[3] The political pieces that she gravitated towards, with the encouragement of Robert Silvers at The New York Review of Books, including Salvador, ‘Sentimental Journeys’, about the notorious trial and conviction of the five black boys accused of the rape of a white woman jogging through Central Park, and ‘Cheney: The Fatal Touch’, complicate that picture.


There are details and comments in South and West that seem to connect with the present time with startling directness, as if by underground cable. In Biloxi, Didion noted: ‘[t]he isolation of these people from the currents of American life in 1970 was startling and bewildering to behold. All their information was fifth-hand, and mythicized in the handing down.’ And, ‘[i]t occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken. Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody?’[4]

In Alabama, she sees signs supporting George Wallace’s campaign: he would serve two consecutive terms as governor from 1971-1979. The thought occurs to Didion that ‘the reason Wallace has never troubled me is that he is a totally explicable phenomenon.’[5] That question of explicability came up several times in Naomi Klein’s recent book. Looking back at some of the destructive trends that she’d researched over many years, she observed that, as she began to research Donald Trump, ‘he started to seem like Frankenstein’s monster, sewn together out the body parts of all these and many other dangerous trends.’ She added that, though Trump ‘breaks the mold in some ways, his shock tactics follow a script, one familiar from other countries that have had rapid changes imposed under the cover of crisis.’[6]

Joan Didion was also struck by ‘[t]he time warp: the Civil War was yesterday, but 1960 is spoken of as if it were about three hundred years ago.’[7] As Nathaniel Rich observes, ‘An unquestioned premise among those who live in American cities with international airports has been, for more than half a century now, that Enlightenment values would in time become conventional wisdom. Some fought for this future to come sooner. Others waited patiently. But nobody seemed to believe that it would never arrive.’ In such a view, he adds, ‘the past’ can in many ways be relegated to the ‘aesthetic realm’.[8] But, evidently, it is not safely dead: in fact, a great many people have never left it.

Not, of course, that such symptoms are confined to the United States. Alas.


[1] Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 174-175.

[2] Flannery O’Connor, ‘The Grotesque in Southern Fiction’, in Collected Works, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Library of America, 1988), 815.

[3] John Leonard, ‘Introduction’ to Joan Didion, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction (New York: Knopf, 2006), xv.

[4] Didion, South and West: From a Notebook, foreword by Nathaniel Rich (London: 4th Estate, 2017), 34, 55.

[5] South and West, 71.

[6] Naomi Klein, No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics (London: Allen Lane, 2017), 2.

[7] South and West, 104.

[8] Rich, ‘Foreword’, South and West, xviii.





August and blackberrying

Orpen, William, 1878-1931; Harvest

William Orpen, Harvest (1918), © Imperial War Museum.
The ambiguities of autumn enlarged: war and peace, life and death.

August. High summer, though you’d hardly know it as the rainclouds roll over the house and the showers come and go. The first day of August, in fact. Lammas, hlafmaesse, ‘loaf-mass’. First fruits, harvest. Hurry into your local church with the bread and the wheat.[1] ‘After Lammas corn ripens as much by night as by day.’[2]

The harvest (a word related in origin to ‘autumn’) has been, is still, quite literally a matter of life and death for a great many people. It’s been a rich source for the horror genre too, both on the screen and on the page (Stephen King, Thomas Tryon, The Harvest, Dark Harvest, Blood Harvest, and more, no doubt). And it has its visionary or mystical moments. Poet and playwright Ronald Duncan, a pacifist, ran a co-operative farm in Devon during the Second World War. He recalled of an August day in 1940 that, ‘Binding up these sheaves of oats, I am certain I believe in oats. The stalks falling behind the cutter which we draw behind an old car, the monk binding methodically, the new members binding enthusiastically, women with coloured scarves round their heads are gleaning and one cannot glean ungracefully. If one cannot see God in an oatfield one will never see. For, here is the whole of it.’[3]


West Mill, Welcombe, Devon:

‘Standing there in the morning happiness,’ T. H. White recalled, ‘with a saffron sky in the east and the moon in the south-west still lemon yellow, beside a field where the harvest had already begun, one saw in the mind’s eye the imaginary lines all over England: the roads coming up macadamized to the invisible threads, and going on as stone, the ditches suddenly changing from cut to uncut, the parishes and territories and neighbours’ landmarks: all slept at peace now, all this beautiful achievement of cooperation and forethought among our fathers who were at peace also, in dust.’[4]


Over the years, William Faulkner’s 1932 novel, Light in August provoked a good deal of discussion over the meaning of its title. Lena Grove is heavily pregnant at the novel’s opening and Faulkner was once asked at the University of Virginia whether his title did indeed refer to a ‘colloquialism for the completion of a pregnancy’. He said no, it was to do with the peculiar quality of light in that month.[5] In his biography of Faulkner, Joseph Blotner tells of the novelist sitting with his wife Estelle in the late afternoon. ‘“Bill,” she said, “does it ever seem to you that the light in August is different from any other time of the year?”’ In this account, Faulkner goes directly to his worktable, crosses out his working title for the novel, ‘Dark House’ and replaces it with ‘Light in August’. It has to be said, though, that Faulkner was largely responsible for the later uncertainty over the ‘meaning’ of his title.[6]

This morning, I noticed a tiny stain on the shoulder of the shirt I wore yesterday: blackberry juice. We’d been wading in among the brambles and nettles for the second time in a few days. Blackberrying is ‘the one almost universal act of foraging to survive in our industrialised island’, Richard Mabey writes.[7] The country in the city, so to speak. We pick them on a path which certainly isn’t hidden. There’s a fair amount of traffic but only by foot and bicycle—there’s no motor traffic nearby which is the main consideration, since we object to being poisoned. Still, it’s odd that quite a few passers-by seem baffled by what we’re doing and hurry their children past. (‘What are they doing, mummy?’ ‘Picking delicious free food, dear, I’ve no idea why.’) Blackberry and apple crumble: even the words taste good.

Gash, Walter Bonner, 1869-1928; Two Girls Picking Blackberries*

Walter Bonner Gash, Two Girls Picking Blackberries
© Alfred East Art Gallery Permanent Collection

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for

The speaker in Heaney’s poem recalls how quickly the blackberries would rot. ‘Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.’[8]


And we have thorn pricks, nettle stings, stained hands. Still—two and a half kilos of blackberries in the freezer. Kilos! What am I saying? That may be a little too foreign for these troubled time. Say five and a half pounds, avoirdupois—but there I go again. . .

I have, though, called to mind a story that Ford Madox Ford told, which seems to me to hint at why some people chose the option that they did in last year’s referendum (and perhaps in more than one election since). Ford was, for a brief time, working on a small farm on the outskirts of Philadelphia. His employer eventually hired another worker, which released Ford from his labours. He was stopping up a wasp’s nest one day, while the hired man was on the roof, fixing the shingles.

I heard him call:
“I’m coming down now.”
I said: “Wait while I fetch a ladder.” When I came back he was lying on the ground.
He said: “I’ve bruck me leg.”
I said: “What did you jump for?”
He answered: “Wal, I thought I’d see.”[9]



[1] Steve Roud, The English Year: A Month-by-Month Guide to the Nation’s Customs and Festivals, from May Day to Mischief Night (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 260-261.

[2] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 315.

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

[4] T. H. White, The Goshawk (1951; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975), 39.

[5] Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), 375.

[6] Joseph Blotner, William Faulkner : A Biography, two volumes (London: Chatto & Windus, 1974), I, 702 and ‘Notes’, 102.

[7] Richard Mabey, Flora Britannica (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996), 183.

[8] Seamus Heaney, ‘Blackberry-Picking’, Death of a Naturalist (1966; London: Faber and Faber, 2006), 8.

[9] Ford, Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 166-167.

Cultivating our garden


We are cultivating our garden—at least, my wife is. Watering, deadheading, repotting, composting. A small space, containing less than a dozen pots. Nevertheless, whether window-box or rolling acres, a garden is, both practically and symbolically, an almost inexhaustible resource.


‘When Voltaire ends Candide with the famous declaration “Il faut cultiver notre jardin,” the garden in question must be viewed against the background of the wars, pestilence, and natural disasters evoked by the novel’, Robert Pogue Harrison writes. ‘The emphasis on cultivation is essential. It is because we are thrown into history that we must cultivate our garden.’[1]

Indeed. It’s striking that two of the most interesting museums in London, the Garden Museum and the Imperial War Museum, are physically so close, a very manageable walk apart.


(Garden Museum, Lambeth, London)

Harrison’s book is an examination of the many ways gardens evoke the human condition, from the ancient world to the homeless people in contemporary New York. Throughout history, the garden has served as a check against the destruction and losses of history. In  the ancient world, gardens were associated with self-cultivation and self-improvement, both essential to serenity and enlightenment, and the association has endured.

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.[2]

The garden can be read and understood as this tiny, immediate space—and also as the city, the nation, the planet we inhabit. From the tiny to the immense and back again. That Latin root, colere, means both to till (to tend, to care for) and to worship. ‘Cultivate’ and ‘culture’ are not merely neighbouring words in the dictionary: to civilise. Civis, citizen. Caring for the citizens—all of them, not just a carefully selected few.

Edward Fitzgerald, translator of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and champion letter writer, certainly saw gardens in terms of art, of the cultivated. ‘I am quite sure gardens should be formal and unlike general Nature’, he wrote to Frederick Tennyson (elder brother of Alfred). ‘I much prefer the old French and Dutch gardens to what are called the English.’[3]

Samuel Johnson used the sense in which the garden, as domestic setting, may be contrasted with the agricultural one, to comment on an incident in which Methodist students were expelled from Oxford for constantly praying in public: ‘Sir, I believe they might be good beings; but they were not fit to be in the University of Oxford. A cow is a very good animal in the field; but we turn her out of a garden.’[4]

IWN_film_poster copy

(Film poster for the new documentary on Ford, directed by Paul Lewis and Ryan Poe)

Ford Madox Ford, himself a smallholder and accomplished gardener, often used gardening metaphors. He alluded once to his concern, not for the commercial novelist but for ‘a queer, not easily defined fellow. To him writing has the aspects of an art. One’s art is a small enclosed garden within whose high walls one moves administering certain manures and certain treatments in order to get certain effects. One thinks that people ought to like these effects, say of saxifrages against granite.’ He never tired of experimenting with potatoes. ‘Of, say, fifty different plants by the end of 1922 I had succeeded in selecting nine that seemed to be reasonably new varieties and two that apparently resisted all the diseases they were likely to meet.’[5]

Curiously, by the end of 1922, Ford had published just over fifty books.



[1] Harrison, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), x.

[2] Andrew Marvell, ‘The Garden’, in The Complete Poems edited by Elizabeth Story Donno (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1985), 101.

[3] The Letters of Edward Fitzgerald, edited by Alfred McKinley Terhune and Annabelle Burdick Terhune, four volumes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), II, 56.

[4] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, edited by R. W. Chapman, revised by J. D. Fleeman, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 490.

[5] Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 108.