Electricity and beefsteak

Sky-through-stone

‘His eyes followed the high figure in homespun, beard and bicycle, a listening woman at his side. Coming from the vegetarian. Only weggebobbles and fruit. Don’t eat a beefsteak. If you do the eyes of that cow will pursue you through all eternity. They say it’s healthier. Windandwatery, though. Tried it. Keep you on the run all day.’ So James Joyce writes in Ulysses. Apparently this passage refers to George Russell (‘AE’) but it’s a figure that makes me think of George Bernard Shaw. In Richard Garnett’s biography of his grandmother, Constance Garnett: A Heroic Life, he tells the story of Shaw inheriting £100 from his ‘ne’er-do-well’ father, who died in 1885. £15 was spent on a new suit produced by Dr Jaeger’s Sanitary Woollen System Company Limited. ‘Thereafter he looked like a toy made for a child by an inexpert knitter.’

As for the beefsteak. Ford Madox Ford, a great lover of wine – especially red wine – tried to persuade Joyce to drink it. Joyce preferred to drink white, comparing it to ‘electricity’ while regarding red wine as ‘liquid beefsteak’.

We’re fairly open-minded on the question in this house, though tending to Ford’s view of the matter rather than Joyce’s. There was a recent Q & A with Jodie Whittaker, the new Doctor Who, which included:

Jodie-Whittaker

What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Drinking wine every day. I have half a bottle a day. There’s a lot of pleasure in it and a lot of guilt, so it ticks both boxes.

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/sep/22/jodie-whittaker-q-and-a-drinking-wine-doctor-who

At that point, my wife made the noise that Librarians make when they come across a kindred spirit, though the word ‘guilt’ caused a moment’s bafflement.

Let me raise a glass, anyway, to my friends in America and send them all best wishes for tomorrow – and many tomorrows thereafter.

 

 

Paying respects

Angels

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright—so it was, and is. Passing the open front door of a house along our street, cement sacks propped against the wall, the whole building masked by scaffolding—one of several at the moment—I’m struck by how many workers in the building trade believe they can sing – I mean sing well, of course. The song that’s spilling from the radio is almost drowned out by their own near-miss whoops and roars. But then my standards have been skewed since work on the back of our house transformed them. For months, along with the drilling and hammering downstairs, I could hear Mark singing along with the radio. Not only could he sing in tune – and hold a tune – but he seemed to know the words and the melody of every song that came over the airwaves. More, he could sing every part and, frankly, anyone who can do all that and harmonise with himself, has earned respect, certainly mine.

That’s a word that detains me from time to time. ‘Respect’ – for the person, for the achievement, for the office. The last of these has fallen out of favour of late, tangled up with ‘the end of deference’, ‘deference’ being one of those trigger words that creates a certain restlessness in the room. In many countries, of course, respect continues to be accorded a particular office even if the holder is manifestly wholly unfitted for it and may even have brought the office itself into disrepute.

My own position is that, while respect has to be earned, so too does disrespect. Neither praising nor dispraising until the one or the other is warranted, by word or action; and, in the meantime, walk on by. Browsing in dictionaries, I’m fine with ‘a feeling of deep admiration for someone elicited by their qualities or achievements’, so too ‘due regard for the feelings or rights of others’: that’s ‘due regard’.

Vansittart

On the matter of balance between respect for the person and for the position held by that person, I like this from Peter Vansittart: ‘Classics, of course, have no monopoly of pertinent stories, and any age can learn from a French provincial governor, François de Montmain, replying to King Charles IX: “Sire, I have received an order from Your Majesty directing me to kill all Protestants in my province. I respect Your Majesty too much to believe that this order is genuine. But if, which God forbid, it should indeed be, I respect Your Majesty too greatly to feel it in my power to obey it.” Courage, dignity, wit and humanity in a handful of words.’[1]

Bridging the gap – Catholic to Protestant; king to commoner; invader to ‘native’. In his introduction to Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail, David Levin noted that ‘unlike Melville’s narrator, Parkman never learns to respect the people whose life he observes.’ He added: ‘He cannot transcend the invaders’ point of view.’ Indeed, for Parkman, the Native Americans he encountered and whose lands he ranged over, could only be ‘savages’: at one point, he writes, ‘No civilized eye but mine had ever looked upon that virgin waste.’[2]

In our time, it is the politicians who have most visibly and undeniably lost respect – which is hardly surprising, given current and recent events in the United Kingdom, the United States, Hungary, Italy, Brazil, Turkey, Yemen and Saudi Arabia—among many others. There seems no real likelihood of this changing any time soon.

There used to be a common phrase, less common now, I think, ‘paying respects’, a visit of a semi-formal or at least polite kind, while ‘paying one’s last respects’ expresses those sentiments through attending a person’s funeral—or, perhaps, visiting their graves. ‘During a quarter century of poetic folly’, Jonathan Williams muses, ‘I have become more and more goliardic, peripatetic, and simply bizarre.’ Poet, publisher and photographer, he carefully recorded his funerary pilgrimages: ‘I must have by now 300 slides of the resting places of human beings I much revere and whose works and persons nourish me.’[3]

Tait, Robert Scott, c.1816-1897; 'A Chelsea Interior' (The Carlyles at Home with Their Dog, 'Nero')

Robert Scott Tait, A Chelsea Interior (the Carlyles’ house)
© National Trust images

‘Never speaking ill of the dead’ is often used to enforce silence about failings, or used to be. Victorian ‘lives and letters’ were notoriously eulogistic if not sycophantic, one reason why J. A. Froude’s life of Carlyle was so controversial, with its revelation of what Froude viewed as Carlyle’s abrasive character and Jane Carlyle’s unhappiness. But, as Adam Sisman wrote of Samuel Johnson, ‘If biography was to teach men and women how to live, it followed that it should be realistic. Johnson did not share the general belief that respect for the dead required that their faults should be suppressed or glossed over.’[4]

Still, if you’re embarking on a biography, it’s surely advisable to harbour positive feelings—even respect—for your subject. Penelope Fitzgerald, biographer of Edward Burne-Jones, Charlotte Mew and her own extraordinary family, remarked in a letter to her American publisher Chris Carduff: ‘I also write novels (on the whole I think you should write biographies of those you admire and respect, and novels about human beings who you think are sadly mistaken)’.[5]

beachandjoyce-newyorker

(Sylvia Beach and James Joyce via The New Yorker)

Not that respect is, or need be, focused always on persons. It might be a text: Sylvia Beach recalled that Sergei Eisenstein was ‘an ardent admirer of Joyce. He would have liked to make a film from Ulysses but he had too much respect for the text, he told me, to sacrifice it for the sake of the picture.’[6] It might be something more mundane: ‘Whether religious or not (that was something she would not have breathed about, not even to Mrs Hunter asleep) Sister de Santis admitted to a belief in common objects. If you depend on something to any extent, you might as well learn to respect it; so she never kicked the furniture or threw the crockery about.’[7]

Lately, even given the profound and relentless provocation afforded me by the world’s destroyers and their useful idiots, I’ve managed to leave the crockery alone.

 
References

[1] Peter Vansittart, In Memory of England: A Novelist’s View of History (London: John Murray, 1998), 3.

[2] Francis Parkman, The Oregon Trail (1849; edited by David Levin, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982), 18, 21, 321.

[3] Jonathan Williams, ‘Paying Respects’ (1976), in Blackbird Dust: Essays, Poems, and Photographs (New York: Turtle Point Press, 2000), 11, 12.

[4] Adam Sisman, Boswell’s Presumptuous Task (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2000), 165.

[5] Letter of 7 December 1987: So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 490.

[6] Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Company (1959; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 109.

[7] Patrick White, The Eye of the Storm (London: Penguin Books, 1975), 165.

 

Among the trees

Trees-VP

‘This house looks out on a great rampart of trees; all day they are motionless in the strong sun’, Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote to Llewellyn Powys in the summer of 1933, from Frankfort Manor, Sloley, Norwich. ‘But at dusk they seem to creep silently across the lawn, until looking from my window I seem to see their enormous foreheads pressed to the pane. I have never lived with trees before. They take some mastering; but I think I shall be on good terms with them even before I see them naked.’[1]

In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the Ents are a race of huge tree-like beings who stride across the country to take part in the battle against Saruman. But the image of trees walking is an old one. In St Mark’s gospel, the blind man, his sight only partially restored when touched once by Christ, ‘looked up, and said, I see men as trees walking.’ His sight will be fully restored when touched for a second time, so that he sees ‘every man clearly’ (Mark 8:24-25). This is explicitly echoed in Elizabeth Bowen’s description of a young woman called Emmeline, at a party, looking down the hall. ‘There she saw men as trees walking, her mind already at home in the dusk of her white room outside the lamplight.’[2]

ent_Tolkien

(Tolkien’s Ents: from The Two Towers)

Shakespeare’s Macbeth, told that he’ll never be defeated until Great Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane to oppose him, says with understandable confidence: ‘That will never be./ Who can impress the forest, bid the tree/ Unfix his earthbound root?’ But every soldier in the approaching army carries a bough cut from the trees of Birnam Wood, to ‘shadow/ The numbers of our host, and make discovery/ Err in report of us’, as Malcolm says. Very much men as trees walking.

Trees are miracles of growth, sometimes reaching enormous heights from tiny beginnings. They bear fruit, shed leaves, are cut down and die, take on other forms. Unsurprisingly, they’re everywhere in the world’s religions and mythologies: Yggdrasil, the tree of life that connects the nine worlds of Norse cosmology; the Bo tree under which the Buddha sat and attained enlightenment; sacred fig trees in Jainism and Hinduism; the Christian tree of the knowledge of good and evil; the tree of life in the Kabbalah; many more.

They’re everywhere in literature too: oak, willow, laurel, olive, cypress, yew. The elm alone traces a path from Homer and Virgil through Chaucer and Milton to Thomas Gray and Tennyson.

‘I love the fitful gust that shakes/ The casement all the day’, John Clare declared:

And from the mossy elm tree takes
The faded leaves away,
Twirling them by the window-pane
With thousand others down the lane. (‘Autumn’)

Not everyone is, or remains, enamoured. ‘On the way’, William Carlos Williams wrote:

we passed a long row
of elms. She looked at them
awhile out of
the ambulance window and said,

What are all those
fuzzy-looking things out there?
Trees? Well, I’m tired
of them and rolled her head away.[3]

‘I wrapped my tears in an ellum leaf/ And left them under a stone’, Ezra Pound wrote in an early poem.[4] In a what leaf? Is that an Idaho thing – or Philadelphia, or New York? But then here’s Mr Faulkner of Mississippi: ‘The buggy was drawn by a white horse, his feet clopping in the thin dust; spidery wheels chattering thin and dry, moving uphill beneath a rippling shawl of leaves. Elm. No: ellum. Ellum.’[5]

Ah, these Americans. Perhaps one more. ‘“They come down like ellum-branches in still weather. No warnin’ at all.”’ This is in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘An Habitation Enforced’, an early example of his ‘healing’ stories, this one involving a very rosy picture of Edwardian England, where the death of Mr Iggulden prompts Mrs Betts to make that observation to Sophie Chapin (who has found the old man dead in his fireside chair).[6] The Chapins are American—her family there comes from Connecticut—but this is Mrs Betts speaking, a local woman, long resident here. So: Idaho, Mississippi —Sussex.

Swallowdale

At this time of year, walking on a slowly thickening carpet of leaves, with the odd branch fallen in an occasionally fiercer wind, the trees in my local park impress themselves even more closely than usual on my attention. They certainly have a positive effect on people—some people, most people?—and there’s something curiously heartening in the sight of newly-planted saplings. New growth but also a distinctive kind of latent energies, a gathering of strength.

‘“Sleep like young trees and get up like young horses, as my old nanny in Australia used to say”, their mother tells the Walker children in Arthur Ransome’s Swallowdale.[7]

 

References

[1] Sylvia Townsend Warner, Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 25.

[2] Elizabeth Bowen, To the North ([1932] Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1945), 26. In Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (1928; edited by John Greening, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 58, ‘Willow-trees seemed moving men.’

[3] William Carlos Williams, ‘The Last Words of My English Grandmother’, in The Collected Poems, Volume 1: 1900-1939, edited by A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1987), 465.

[4] ‘La Fraisne’, in Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 23.

[5] William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929), in Novels 1926-1929, edited by Joseph Blotner and Noel Polk (New York: Library of America, 2006), 972.

[6] Rudyard Kipling, Actions and Reactions (London: Macmillan and Co., 1909), 20.

[7] Arthur Ransome, Swallowdale (1931; London: Jonathan Cape, 1985), 30.

Elation, Misprints, Anthony Burgess

Ink-Trade

I’ve been poring over the intended final proofs of the first issue of the Ford Madox Ford journal, looking for misprints, of course, those tiny details that are capable of provoking rage or despair in some individuals, as I’m only too aware. I’ve reacquainted myself with the well-known phenomenon of staring at a word a dozen times before noticing, at the thirteenth attempt, that a letter is missing. Still, since I’ve come close on past occasions to dismissing out of hand people who can’t spell Ford Madox Ford’s name or who jam an apostrophe into Finnegans Wake, I can hardly rule out a similar intolerance in others, potential readers of our journal.

FMF-Logo

I’ve now reached the point where I tacitly assume that there will be errors in every book I read. Novels are less affected by the virus but anything with a lot of names, places and book titles is at risk. Usually, these are minor lapses, probably invisible unless you have that proofreading or editorial predilection – but not always. I’ve just been reading a highly enjoyable selection of journalism by Anthony Burgess, The Ink Trade (edited by Will Carr, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2018) and, while ‘the playgoing pubic’ is mildly amusing, to be told that, in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘The Windhover’, the word ‘buckle’ ‘resents a forceful ambiguity which is at the root of the strength of the poem’, gives me pause to frown. Resents? Presents? Represents? Interesting, anyway, to learn that, apart from Shakespeare, the two writers that have meant much to him are James Joyce – hardly a secret, that one – and Hopkins.

In any case, the book offers so many pleasures that it warrants a high degree of tolerance to such errors. There are sixty items, uncollected and several unpublished, with numerous reminders of Burgess’s energy, erudition, wit and wide-ranging enthusiasms. On censorship, Henry Miller, Nabokov, Erica Jong, A. S. Byatt, Evelyn Waugh and Malcolm Lowry; Ellmann on Wilde, V. S. Naipaul, Graham Greene and Kingsley Amis. Burgess is always readable, often provocative, generally engaging. Remembering Earthly Powers, whose main protagonist was reputedly based on, or drew upon, Somerset Maugham, it’s salutary to be reminded of Burgess’s considerable and genuine regard for Maugham’s writing. He describes Cakes and Ale as ‘a textbook of literary criticism as well as a superb novel’ and, though he proposes to modify that to ‘a superb work of fiction’, since the book may be seen as an inflated short story, he adds that some of Maugham’s stories are ‘among the best in the language.’ Of his first reading of The Waste Land: ‘I was only fifteen, and I understood very little of the poem, but I recognised that it was important. I seemed to hear a door, a long way down one of my mind’s corridors, trying to creak open but not quite making it.’ That last sentence is right on the money.

He writes often and well on Joyce, of course, is consistent in his championing of Ford—‘without doubt the greatest British novelist of the century’—offers some clear and often compelling insights into the writing of fiction (‘The problem for all fiction writers is to decide who is telling the story’), is always fascinated by language, slang, class differences in speech and pronunciation. I liked this, from an unpublished piece (a version of a speech given at the Tate in 1991): ‘I say that a thing portrays beauty when it induces a feeling of elation which is unrelated to the biological or the utilitarian. The orgasm produces elation because that is nature’s bribe to ensure the continuation of the race, even through that bribe is thwarted. The elation of health, or its recovery, or financial success, the winning of a difficult game doesn’t call into being the praise or near-worship of an artefact. The elation is probably the elation of a kind of metaphysical discovery, and that discovery is very frequently a sense of unity which only the arts can convey.’

Burgess

(Anthony Burgess via theconversation.com)

That word ‘elation’ caught my eye because it recurs in several Jonathan Williams contexts, usually when he was quoting Louis Zukofsky to the effect that the function of poetry is ‘to record & elate’ (or, on occasion, ‘to elate and record’), while Elite/Elate was the title of his 1979 Selected Poems. It’s ironic that Burgess is mentioned in a Williams essay only in a negative context: ‘In one of the Sunday papers, Mr. Anthony Burgess considered it withering and simple enough to call [Zukofsky] “a New Yorker, a Communist, a Jew, and a poet” (I think in that order)’.

Still, Burgess and Zukofsky at least have in common the valuing of ‘elation’ as a desirable effect of literature or the arts and an indispensable element in the perception of beauty.

My other recent Burgess-spotting came in my fat volume of Patrick White’s letters. Writing to Marshall Best, his American publisher, in 1970, White commented that Burgess had seemingly ruffled a gathering of Australian writers with a talk given at the Adelaide Festival, in which he asserted that, ‘A country is only remembered for its art. Rome is remembered for Vergil, Greece for Homer, and Australia may be remembered for Patrick White.’ According to the newspaper report, no one clapped. ‘How I wish I had been watching and listening at a hole in the wall’, White remarked.

 

Dog Days

Dog

We’ve had a dog as houseguest for the past few days while her owners disport themselves in Portugal – quite an old dog now, a little doddery and pretty set in her ways but still fine company. This means that the Librarian is rousted from her bed at an unearthly hour to share with me the joy of walking to the park before sunrise, clutching small black bags, a torch and pockets full of dog treats.

During the very hot summer of 1925, the poet Charlotte Mew spent some time in a cottage near Rye, in Sussex, with Alida Munro, the wife of Harold Monro, poet, proprietor of the Poetry Bookshop, and publisher of The Poetry Review, Poetry and Drama and The Chapbook. He also produced, at his own expense, volumes by several poets, including both Pound’s Des Imagistes and the Georgian Poetry anthologies. After his death a few years later, Pound wrote: ‘I doubt if any death in, or in the vicinity of, literary circles could have caused as much general regret as that of Mr Harold Monro’.[1] The Monros went through a succession of weekend cottages, in Essex and Hampshire as well as Sussex.[2] ‘All of them had earth closets and well-water, and had to be adapted to the needs of six dogs and a cat. Harold Monro, meanwhile, was often abroad, seeking cures for what Alida called “the enemy” though she also felt that the continent, where wine was sixpence a bottle, was “not the place to fight such a battle”.’[3]

Six dogs. One, two, three. . .But this can only recall Beatrix Potter’s tale:

Flopsy-Bunnies

‘Mr. McGregor climbed down on to the rubbish heap—
“One, two, three, four! five! six leetle rabbits!” said he as he dropped them into his sack. The Flopsy Bunnies dreamt that their mother was turning them over in bed. They stirred a little in their sleep, but still they did not wake up.’

Do dogs in literature outnumber cats? A glance at the index to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations suggests that they do – by quite a margin. Walking with dogs, hunting with dogs, playing with dogs in ways that are impossible with cats—it seems likely enough. Certainly dogs in literature, as in life, fill many roles. Roger Grenier includes one in his title, begins with a reference in his preface to Odysseus’ dog Argos—who recognises his returned master as several people who know him signally fail to do—and opens with the story of how, ‘A few years ago, whenever a tourist visited Paul Valéry’s famous oceanside cemetery at Sète and asked the caretaker to show him the location of Paul Valéry’s tombstone, the caretaker would wake up his dog and give the command, “Valéry!” Whereupon the dog, all on its own, would lead the tourist to the poet’s grave.’[4]

Familiarity with canine expressions, characteristics and perceived associations with both social classes and individuals, are also fertile ground. In Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September, Gerald ‘turned in thought to confident English country, days like the look in a dog’s eye, rooms small in the scope of firelight, neighbourly lights through trees.’[5] In Henry Green’s novel Nothing, Mrs Haye considers whether it would not be kinder to have Ruffles, the old, blind dog, put down: ‘Yet he had been such a good servant, for ten years he had barked faithfully at friends. And the only time he had not barked was when the burglars had come that once, when they had eaten the Christmas cake, and had left the silver.’ Almost immediately afterwards, when the aged retainer William comes in, ‘carrying one of the silver inkstands as if it had been a chalice’, the same sentiments are rehearsed. William is so old and feeble that he can barely do his share of the work. ‘But what could one do? He had served her for years, he had been a most conscientious servant, and it was only the night when the burglars did come that he had been asleep. However, they had only eaten the Christmas cake, they had left the silver.’[6]

Kipling-TSAD

‘Thou good and faithful servant’. Rudyard Kipling made good use of dogs in several of his stories while the 1930 volume, Thy Servant a Dog, contained three stories told from the dogs’ point of view. Collected Dog Stories (1934) gathered them all.

In Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, Norah claims not to believe in churches and parsons but accepts God, not believing that he ‘minds much about what you do as long as you keep your end up and help a lame dog over a stile when you can.’[7]

Just so, Ford Madox Ford remembered his grandfather, the painter Ford Madox Brown, ‘laying down a rule of life for me. He said: “Fordie, never refuse to help a lame dog over a stile. Never lend money: always give it. When you give money to a man that is down, tell him that it is to help him to get up; tell him that when he is up he should pass on the money you have given him to any other poor devil that is down. Beggar yourself rather than refuse assistance to any one whose genius you think shows promise of being greater than your own.”’ Ford adds: ‘This is a good rule of life. I wish I could have lived up to it.’[8]   To a surprising degree, he did.

Then too, while authorial comment may be frowned upon, a fictional dog can be persuaded to stand in for its creator. In Patrick White’s story, ‘A Cheery Soul’, the dreadful Miss Docker, so noisily ‘doing good’ all over the place, in fact does immense harm. But when, at the end of the story, she tries to attract a blue cattle-dog, offering to allow it ‘every licence’ if it will come home with her, ‘the dog turned, and lifted his leg on the suppliant, and walked stiffly off.’[9] I think ‘stiffly’ is the indispensable word there.

Our period of stewardship ends soon. There will no longer be the unwavering scrutiny of my every move in the kitchen; urination and defecation will not be quite so prominent in my thoughts; I shall feel a little disorientated for a while, leaving the house without reaching for the dog’s lead, the bags and the treats; and the Librarian will stay in bed a little longer.

 
References

[1] Ezra Pound, ‘Harold Monro’ (1932), in Polite Essays (1937; New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1966), 3.

[2] Joy Grant, Harold Monro and the Poetry Bookshop (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 209.

[3] Penelope Fitzgerald, Charlotte Mew And Her Friends (1984; London: Flamingo, 2002), 209.   Fitzgerald tried for years to interest a publisher in a book on The Poetry Bookshop but never succeeded in doing so.

[4] Roger Grenier, The Difficulty of Being a Dog (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), vii, 1.

[5] Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September (1929; Collected edition, London: Jonathan Cape, 1948), 123.

[6] Henry Green, Nothing (1950; in Nothing, Doting, Blindness, London: Vintage Books, 2008), 382-383.

[7] Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969), 318.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911), 197-198.

[9] Patrick White, The Burnt Ones (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968), 188.

 

Gammon and spinach. Ha!

Millais, John Everett, 1829-1896; Autumn Leaves

(John Everett Millais, Autumn Leaves, 1856: Manchester Art Gallery)

Autumn Leaves. Autumn, on the contrary, now definitely arrives in a flurry of contradictory weather, though, really, we need to borrow the American term, ‘fall’.

‘Let us stop this war’, Edmund Blunden wrote, ‘and walk along to Beaucourt before the leaves fall. I smell autumn again.’[1]

‘But, my Marguerite, how strange it all is!’, Colette wrote to her friend Marguerite Moreno, ‘I have the fleeting confidence of people who fall out of a clock tower and for a moment sail through the air in a comfortable fairy-world, feeling no pain anywhere . . . ’[2]

‘What are the chances’, the Librarians wonders aloud, ‘of an adult standing up and saying: This Brexit business was a terrible, terrible idea, which everyone surely realises by now, if they didn’t know already. So let’s just scrap the whole thing.’ Not good, I think, the chances are not so good. I recall the note I came across a few days ago, from a William Faulkner novel: ‘They all talked at once, their voices insistent and contradictory and impatient, making of unreality a possibility, then a probability, then an incontrovertible fact, as people will when their desires become words.’[3]

Magpie

I was also remembering the magpies in the park last week. It began with an evident squabble between two birds, who kept fluttering a few feet off the ground, jabbing at one another and coming to earth again: a couple of minutes later, they were racing around above my head, one obviously pursuer and one pursued but keeping only inches apart, however abruptly the lines of their flight paths veered and soared. But the most striking thing was the way in which the dispute spread and the speed at which it did so: at least two more pairs were scuffling with one another almost immediately, while more and more magpies kept arriving, then gathered in groups of three or four in the branches of surrounding trees. And all the while, their distinctive chatter, more than twenty of them by the end, scattered over four or five locations. They all had something to shout about, they all insisted on outshouting others and weren’t above getting physical if they disagreed.

Doctor-maggotty

I stood on the path for a good ten minutes, thinking: magpie Brexit? In Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan, the local doctor is a magpie by the name of Dr Maggotty. He has the disconcerting habit of shouting ‘Gammon!’ or ‘Spinach!’ and, ultimately, ‘Gammon and spinach! Ha ha HA!’ Why does that last ejaculation oddly suggest a sly commentary on our current political woes?

Still, I’ve always liked magpies and been impressed by their acumen, as well as the wealth of folklore and superstition associated with them. Patrick White’s biographer reveals that, by the end of his second year at university, White realised that he didn’t have ‘a scholar’s mind’ and wouldn’t get a brilliant degree. ‘This discovery hurt him at first’, Marr writes, ‘and he was nagged by a sense of intellectual inadequacy until he came to see that he had another kind of intelligence, a “magpie mind” that found ideas as he needed them and seized any image that caught his eye.’[4]

Magpies-Bagpipe

Then, very recently, in the Jonathan Williams festschrift I was reading, I came across the writer and folklorist Gary Carden’s remark that, over the years, he had ‘often searched for a fitting icon or symbol’ for Williams. Carden focused on Williams’ ability to perceive talent and to spot what others missed. ‘Finally, I can pick my icon’, Carden announced. ‘Jonathan is a magpie!’ He wrote of watching a magpie stalking through a landfill site and extracting something that caught his eye, to carry home and give it ‘a choice setting’, while Williams, he added, did much the same thing, having ‘waded through the wreckage of our culture’, sometimes finding ‘the real thing’.[5]

Indeed, Williams published his first book of essays under the title of The Magpie’s Bagpipe (1982) – and the avian theme continued with his second essay collection, Blackbird Dust (2000).

‘Gammon and spinach! Ha ha HA!’ Hold that thought. I am certainly holding that thought.

 
References

[1] Edmund Blunden, Undertones of War (1928; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), 90.

[2] Letter of 11 June 1925: Letters from Colette, selected and translated by Robert Phelps (London: Virago Press, 1982), 90.

[3] William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929), in Novels 1926-1929, edited by Joseph Blotner and Noel Polk (New York: Library of America, 2006), 967.

[4] David Marr, Patrick White: A Life (London: Vintage, 1992), 128.

[5] Gary Carden, ‘The Bard of Scaly Mountain’, in Jeffery Beam and Richard Owens, editors, Jonathan Williams: The Lord of Orchards, (Westport: Prospecta Press, 2017), 49.

 

 

Sleep and his brother Death

Turner, Joseph Mallord William, 1775-1851; Death on a Pale Horse (?)

(Turner, Death on a Pale Horse (?): Tate Britain)

On 28 August 1967, after hearing the news of her friend Alyse Gregory’s death, Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote in her diary, ‘As for me, I think sadly that my store of congenial minds is running very low. Never mind, so am I. And she is safe at least. Sleep and his brother Death have seen to that.’[1]

‘Sleep and his brother Death’. That sibling naming, though not the sentiments, recall David Jones’ In Parenthesis: ‘But sweet sister death has gone debauched today and stalks on this high ground with strumpet confidence, makes no coy veiling of her appetite but leers from you to me with all her parts discovered.’[2]

Allyson Booth writes of the etymological relationship between sleep and death—‘bed’ derived from the word meaning ‘to bury’, ‘cemetery’ derived from a word meaning ‘a place to sleep’, and of how the First World War literally undermined ‘a soldier’s confidence in the stability of death and a corpse’s embodiment of death’ in the churned-up ground of the Western Front as men walked and slipped and fought on the bodies of the fallen.[3]

But this is, so they say, a time of peace; and the fact is that, certainly once we reach a certain age, we are increasingly likely to witness or commemorate the death that is viewed as relief rather than tragedy. Some deaths, seeming to occur absurdly early, can still fall into that category – though some, of course, are simply an affront, a spitting in the eye of the universe and an insult to nature.

Only with the 18th century did the number of births gain over that of deaths; and this became the pattern regularly thereafter.[4] It was in 1918 that deaths overtook births again. ‘Coffins that had been stockpiled during the war, as there were no bodies to put in them, were suddenly in short supply. The Leicester railway workshops turned to coffin manufacturing and Red Cross ambulances were employed as hearses.’[5]

Self-Portrait 1914 by Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959

(Stanley Spencer, Self-Portrait: Tate Gallery)

Sometimes, death constitutes no serious interruption to a process possessing its own rules and impetus. Stanley Spencer’s correspondence with his former wife Hilda continued after her death, beginning with a December 1950 letter and continuing until his own death nine years later. There was never any reference to her being dead and some of his letters ran to scores of pages.[6]

And the approach of death is sometimes neither feared nor unwelcome. In Patrick White’s novel The Riders in the Chariot, though Himmelfarb is near death in Mrs Godbold’s house, ‘He was as content by now as he would ever have allowed himself to be in life. Children and chairs conversed with him intimately.’[7] The importance of chairs – and tables – as solid, honest, real is a recurrent motif in White’s work.

Walter Savage Landor does a nice line in stoic acceptance of the inevitable ending:

To my ninth decad I have tottered on,
And no soft arm bends now my steps to steady;
She, who once led me where she would, is gone,
So when he calls me, Death shall find me ready.

Landor

And perhaps one more:

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife;
Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of life;
It sinks, and I am ready depart.[8]

And Ali Smith writes of how ‘many things get forgiven in the course of a life: nothing is finished or unchangeable except death and even death will bend a little if what you tell of it is told right’.[9]

That’s something to aim for: bend death a little. Tell it right.

 
References

[1] Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner, edited by Claire Harman (London: Virago Press, 1995), 312.

[2] David Jones, In Parenthesis (1937; London: Faber and Faber, 1963), 162.

[3] Allyson Booth, Postcards From the Trenches: Negotiating the Space Between Modernism and the First World War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 59-63

[4] Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, 15th – 18th Century. Volume I: The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible, translated from the French and revised by Sîan Reynolds. (London: Fontana Books 1985), 73.

[5] Juliet Nicolson, The Great Silence, 1918-1920 (London: John Murray, 2009), 94.

[6] Maurice Collis, Stanley Spencer: A Biography (London: Harvill Press, 1962), 214.

[7] Patrick White, Riders in the Chariot (1961; Harmondsworth: Penguins Books, 1964), 432.

[8] Nick Rennison and Michael Schmidt, editors, Poets on Poets (Manchester: Carcanet Press, in association with Waterstones, 1997), 231; Daniel Karlin, editor, The Penguin Book of Victorian Verse (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 18.

[9] Ali Smith, How to be both (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2014), 95.