Bowling mangel-wurzels across the lawn

(James Eckford Lauder, The Parable of Forgiveness: Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool)

‘It was Janet’s view’, Elspeth Barker wrote of her stubbornly individual young heroine, ‘that forgetting was the only possible way of forgiving. She did not believe in forgiveness; the word had no meaning.’[1] Janet has, you might say, a lot to put up with – and the Calvinist harangues of Mr McConochie are hardly designed to stimulate the more generous Christian virtues in the bosoms of his flock. Still, other approaches are, as they say, available.

‘After such knowledge, what forgiveness?’, T. S. Eliot wrote.[2] It’s a question that’s cropped up several times in the news just lately. In Ukraine, unsurprisingly, they ask if they can ever forgive Russia, though that question often focuses more specifically on Putin. Some Russians are themselves wondering whether they can ever forgive their President for what he has done to their country, its neighbours, its standing in the world. In England, many of the relatives of those who died in hospitals and care homes in the earlier stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, unvisited, isolated from their families because of the rules made by a government that itself habitually failed to keep them, have stated that they will not forgive the man ultimately responsible for the whole lethal mess: the Prime Minister.

Forgiveness can also be given, or withheld, on a rather smaller scale. Of their gardener—until the family moved to another house—Henry Green wrote: ‘Poole, so they say, could never forgive my mother when soon after marriage she made him bowl mangel wurzels across one lawn for her to shoot at.’[3] Smaller or more frequent, up to that final point, as Ali Smith observed: ‘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’.[4]

The news at the moment—none of it good—is of large events on a large canvas. But those events, whatever their size and nature, began elsewhere: in a room, in a bed, on a screen, in a garden, in a bar, in a grave. The direction of travel may vary. In Ezra Pound’s Confucius, he has this:

The men of old wanting to clarify and diffuse throughout the empire that light which comes from looking straight into the heart and then acting, first set up good government in their own states; wanting good government in their states, they first established order in their own families; wanting order in the home, they first disciplined themselves; desiring self-discipline, they rectified their own hearts; and wanting to rectify their hearts, they sought precise verbal definitions of their inarticulate thoughts [the tones given off by the heart]; wishing to attain precise verbal definitions, they set to extend their knowledge to the utmost. This completion of knowledge is rooted in sorting things into organic categories.[5]

In the bath with Elizabeth Bowen (so to speak), I read about Jefferies listening to Jameson as he declaims about the New Jerusalem to the aunt and the young mother, as they wait for the young husband who will not, perhaps, come home. ‘After all, it all came back to this – individual outlook; the emotional factors of environment; houses that were homes; living-rooms; people going out and coming in again; people not coming in; other people waiting for them in rooms that were little guarded squares of light walled in carefully against the hungry darkness, the ultimately all-devouring darkness. After all, here was the stage of every drama.’[6]

Walking briefly on the main road before turning off again into quieter places, at seven o’clock in the morning, I watch car after car go by, each containing one person, and am reminded of the final question that the New Statesman asks of its interviewee on the Q & A page each week: ‘Are we all doomed?’ The answers are sometimes considered, sometimes flippant. Here, now, the world presents itself as a peculiar version of, say, a golf course produced by a team of deranged designers or architects: they create some hazards, to make the course a little more difficult or challenging or exciting or unpredictable – bunkers, some cunning slopes, water (ideally a lake deep enough to drown in), a few awkward corners where many players will slice or hook into undergrowth or trees. Then they take away all those smooth greens and fairways, leaving only the hazards. No, wait, they put back a couple of greens and call them, what, foreign holidays or television streaming services or barbecues on somebody’s terrace. Then tee off. Fore! Playing is, of course, mandatory. As Pascal didn’t quite say: you must bet; you are in the game. But you might get lucky. So – you have to ask yourself – do you feel lucky? Well, do you?[7]

(Charles Lees, ‘A Golf Match’: National Galleries of Scotland, Scottish National Portrait Gallery)

It’s often, as they say, relative. The conduct of the present English government generally disgusts me – but I live in a wealthy country which is privileged by position, climate, history and the rest. So I hold the country and its government to high standards, with correspondingly high expectations of liberal, enlightened, equitable governance – and they fall woefully short. By almost every measure of a civilized nation, the current state of the country is a disgrace. Yet I’m still hugely – relatively – lucky by many measures. I would far rather be here, an angry and disappointed Englishman, than in a score of countries that come only too swiftly to mind, where having the wrong religion, skin colour, racial heritage or gender can all too easily leave you dead in a ditch.

‘Darknesse and light divide the course of time’, Sir Thomas Browne wrote, ‘and oblivion shares with memory a great part even of our living beings; we slightly remember our felicities, and the smartest stroaks of affliction leave but short smart upon us.’[8] I don’t know. We have machines and social media to help us remember our grievances now and those strokes of affliction leave long-lasting scars, while slightly remembered felicities probably reside on Instagram or crop up as random and unprompted ‘memories’.

‘The uncritical mind is a prey to credulity’, Guy Davenport commented, ‘and without skepticism there can be no democracy.’[9] Yes, there’s that, the gullibility which people seem oddly reluctant to admit to, retrospectively. But there comes a point, certainly in those countries that have any pretensions to a democratic system, when voters can no longer claim ignorance since they know now the nature of the ones they opted for last time. And it comes to this, that huge numbers of citizens, in many countries, say, in effect: yes, these people are corrupt, hypocritical, untruthful bastards but we’re giving them our support, so they can continue to wage war against democratic freedoms or public services or immigrants or women or universities or the poor. . .

After such knowledge, what forgiveness?


Notes

[1] Elspeth Barker, O Caledonia (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2021), 116.

[2] T. S. Eliot, ‘Gerontion’, The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 32.

[3] Henry Green, Pack My Bag: A Self-Portrait (1940; London: The Hogarth Press, 1992), 3.

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

[5] Ezra Pound, Confucius. The Unwobbling Pivot; The Great Digest; The Analects (New York: New Directions, 1969), 29-31.

[6] Elizabeth Bowen, ‘Human Habitation’, in The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, with an introduction by Angus Wilson (London: Vintage, 1999), 166.

[7] Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, translated by Honor Levi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 154; as rendered, or polished, by John Fowles, in The Aristos (London: Pan Books, 1968), 220.

[8] Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia, or Urn-Buriall, in Selected Writings, edited by Geoffrey Keynes (London: Faber  and Faber, 1970), 152.

[9] Guy Davenport, ‘Wheel Ruts’, in The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996), 133.

On the other hand


There was, is, a saying:
‘Till April is dead
Change not a thread’

Perhaps less a suggestion to heavy users of social media than a body blow to personal hygiene. All Fools’ Day, I finally troubled to find out, is of French origin, the poisson d’avril—April fish—persons to be hoaxed or have a cardboard fish attached to their backs or simply to be sent on some ridiculous errand. The April fish, because of its abundance in that month, is the mackerel – and the French maquereau also meaning ‘pimp’, occasional complications, or extensions of the idea, were always likely to arise.[1]

‘Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote’ or no, rather, as has been very often quoted of late, ‘the cruellest month’. Some days begin well enough. After breakfast, sitting at the kitchen table with Wodehouse or Lawrence or Mary Wollstonecraft (‘more tea, Mary?’), the cat at the back door or already upstairs again, sprawled on the bed with the Librarian, who is speaking French back at her iPad or looking at her timetable, clouds on the breezier days moving, steadily stately galleons, above the trees and houses, maybe the quick crossword done, even a sentence written that stays written.

But the news is always there, whether just arriving or already waiting. The worst is still from Ukraine, of course, the continued targeting and murder of civilians, and names that will not be forgotten by historians of atrocity: Borodyanka, Bucha, Mariupol, Kramatorsk.

‘Far from his illness’, W. H. Auden wrote of W. B. Yeats, ‘The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests’.[2] To those deluged in grief or fighting for their lives, it’s often shocking that things go on elsewhere – perhaps not as normal, or as before, but they go on. Apsley Cherry-Gerrard, youngest member of Scott’s second Antarctic expedition, who had gone to the war with his health still shaky, was invalided out of the army with what was eventually diagnosed as ulcerative colitis. While men died in their hundreds of thousands on the other side of the channel, Cherry found himself, in 1916, alone in the family home for the first time. ‘There, in the stillness behind the high yew hedge, he watched the oaks and beeches flower and observed the progress of a family of robins nesting in the willow. He noted the arrival of a hen sparrowhawk, and listed the species of tits hovering around the fruit trees. It was a stay against the chaos of the war, and he absorbed himself in the smallness of his garden while the world went mad.’[3]

A few months after the end of that war, Aldous Huxley—who had, in fact, volunteered but was, inevitably, rejected on health grounds because of his famously poor eyesight, following a serious infection years before—wrote to his brother Julian: ‘great events are both terrifying and boring, terrifying because one may be killed and boring because they interfere with the free exercise of the mind—and after all, that freedom is the only thing in the world worth having and the people who can use it properly are the only ones worthy of the least respect: the others are all madmen, pursuing shadows and prepared at any moment to commit acts of violence. The prospects of the universe seem to me dim and dismal to a degree.’[4]

Well, yes. On the other hand – there are goldfinches in our garden. . .


Notes

[1] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 140, 142-143.

[2] Auden, ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats (d. Jan. 1939)’, W. H. Auden, The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, edited by Edward Mendelson (London: Faber, 1977), 241.

[3] Sara Wheeler, Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Gerrard (London: Jonathan Cape, 2001), 185.

[4] Aldous Huxley, Letters of Aldous Huxley, edited by Grover Smith (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969), 173-174

Advice Notes

(James Campbell, Waiting for Legal Advice: Walker Art Gallery)

Writing to Hugh Kenner on 30 March 1970, Guy Davenport remarked: ‘Strategy to be recommended to any bright young mind: stray, wander, and meander, and pay attention to what things look like not only from here, but also from there.’[1]

Paying attention – that’s pretty much always sound advice, and not subject to today’s date on the newspaper. Sarah Bakewell, noting that Plutarch’s Moralia was translated into French in the same year that Michel de Montaigne began writing his Essays, observed that, on the question of how to achieve peace of mind, ‘Plutarch’s advice was the same as Seneca’s: focus on what is present in front of you, and pay full attention to it.’[2]

Many of us are far readier to proffer suggestions and recommendations than to accept them from others. But of course – who knows us better than we know ourselves? Answer: it varies, from practically nobody to practically everybody. Continuity is a good thing – except when it’s not. To a young woman writer who sought her advice, Colette responded: ‘When you are capable of certifying that today’s work is equal to yesterday’s, you will have earned your stripes. For I am convinced that talent is nothing other than the possibility of resembling oneself from one day to the next, whatever else befalls you.’[3] And Joan Didion commented: ‘I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.’[4]

Perhaps the best advice—if, practically, the most unhelpful—was Elizabeth Bishop’s take on Pascal. Writing to Robert Lowell (30 March 1959), she commented on John Keats that, ‘Except for his unpleasant insistence on the palate, he strikes me as almost everything a poet should have been in his day. The class gulf between him and Byron is enormous. As Pascal says, if you can manage to be well-born it saves you thirty years.’[5]

‘If you can manage’ – this to Mr Lowell of Boston, where a good many people were familiar with the famous verse by John Collins Bossidy:

And this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells talk to the Cabots,
And the Cabots talk only to God.

A nice sense of humour, Ms Bishop had.


Notes

[1] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 1300.

[2] Sarah Bakewell, How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer (London: Vintage 2011), 32.

[3] Judith Thurman, Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2000), 409

[4] Slouching Towards Bethlehem, in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction (New York: Knopf, 2006), 106.

[5] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 372.

Funerary matters, mutters, meters


In a letter of 19 October 1972 to William Maxwell, following the death of his stepmother, Sylvia Townsend Warner asked: ‘Did you quarrel at the funeral? I rather wish you had, for I’m sure that when you quarrel you do, you quarrel like a tarantula. Nothing can make a funeral satisfactory: the person one wants to meet at it is underground.’[1]

What a resource funerals are to the writer! Leopold Bloom at Paddy Dignam’s in Joyce’s Ulysses, Hamlet at Ophelia’s, Beowulf, the ancient Greeks. Weddings are too, of course, but the central business there is proleptic rather than retrospective. Funerals, though: a collision or at least a gathering of memories, regrets, resentments, fragments of conversation, a blurring and slurring of times, places, still and moving images, words thought or spoken, intended or achieved, compliments and curses, intimacies, betrayals.

William Faulkner spends most of As I Lay Dying’s fifty-nine chapters on the hazardous business of actually getting Addie Bundren’s body to Jefferson, where she wanted to be buried. That forced hiatus has its effects, not least olfactory ones. William the Conqueror’s funeral was so delayed, Peter Vansittart reports, that ‘his over-corpulent body suddenly exploded’.[2]

‘How convenient a good old traditional funeral is!’ Simone de Beauvoir reflects in the closing pages of The Prime of Life. ‘The dead man vanishes into the grave, and his death goes with him. You drop earth on him, you walk away, and that’s the end of it; if you like, you can return from time to time and shed tears over the spot where death is pinned down. You know where to find it.’ She was thinking of her young friend Bourla, a victim of the Nazis, and of two young women she knew who also vanished without trace into the camps, their faces ‘never erased from my memory: they symbolized millions of others besides.’[3]


As for funeral-related stories – Guy Davenport told of the funeral of Charles Olson, a poet of famously large stature. Allen Ginsberg, then, intoning kaddish but apparently unsure of some of the words, ‘stepped in his confusion on the pedal that would lower the outsized coffin into the grave. A soft whirr, the coffin tilted, lurched, and stuck before Ginsberg could leap away from the pedal.’ It transpired that the coffin was wedged ‘neither in nor out of the grave.’ Splendidly, Davenport’s footnote reads: ‘This account, I’m told, is not wholly accurate. I had it from Stan Brakhage, who had it secondhand. I leave it as an example of the kind of folklore about himself that Olson inspired and encouraged.’[4] In fact, a letter from William Corbett, published in the minutes of the Charles Olson Society in June 1998, recalled Corbett’s own attendance at the funeral and Ginsberg’s rendition of kaddish, but continued: ‘The officiating minister who strode up to conduct the burial seemed spooked by the congregation of long hairs some of whom were bearded. He hurriedly waved his silver instruments over the coffin. In doing so, he stumbled and hit the pedal that was to lower the coffin. He quickly took his foot away, and the coffin lurched, tilted sideways and stuck.’[5]

Arthur Ransome remembered the funeral of Peter Kropotkin, whom he had last seen some three years earlier. ‘Then, as now, my attention was caught by his nose, so finely cut, so proud, the very index of the old fighter’s character.’ And of the disciples, he wrote: ‘There were some who had imitated his hair, some who had grown beards like his, but not one had a nose worth looking at.’[6] Clearly, a man with an eye for a nose.

And after the funeral? The wake, the celebrations, the drinks, snacks, exchanges, jokes, stories, occasional tactful silences. Or:

            mule praises, brays,
Windshake of sailshaped ears, muffle-toed tap
Tap happily of one peg in the thick
Grave’s foot, blinds down the lids, the teeth in black,
The spittled eyes, the salt ponds in the sleeves,
Morning smack of the spade that wakes up sleep[7]

And after Harry Lime’s second funeral, in the closing sequence of Carol Reed’s The Third Man, there is that celebrated, sustained shot of Anna’s long walk past the waiting Holly Martins, favouring him with neither glance nor pause, all to the plangent soundtrack of Anton Karas’s zither.

(The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed, written by Graham Greene)

At the end of William Faulkner’s ‘A Justice’, a story (containing a story told by Sam Fathers) told by Quentin Compson looking back at his young self, the children are riding back from the farm with their grandfather. Caddy and Jason have been fishing down at the creek. ‘Caddy had one fish, about the size of a chip, and she was wet to the waist.’ So there is a strong connection with what Faulkner described as the initial image of Caddy with wet and muddy drawers climbing the peach tree to look in through the window at her grandmother’s funeral, the germ of The Sound and the Fury – which began as a story, centred on Caddy, with the working title of ‘Twilight’. ‘A Justice’ too employs ‘one of the most persistent images’ in the writer’s mind, as Joseph Blotner explains: Quentin recognising his lack of sufficient knowledge to penetrate fully the mystery of what he sees and hears, comparing it to twilight. ‘I was just twelve then, and I would have to wait until I had passed on and through and beyond the suspension of twilight. Then I knew that I would know. But then Sam Fathers would be dead.’[8]

As for looking forward rather than back, try T. H. White, author of The Goshawk and The Once and Future King among many others, writing to his friend David Garnett on 19 December 1938 (the year in which The Sword in the Stone appeared), from The New Inn, Holbeach St Marks, Lincolnshire. ‘I don’t know the marsh a bit, and only have the tides in my head, but I go alone. Will you arrange the funeral when I am washed ashore? Stick some goose feathers up my arse and I will fly to my heavenly mansion. There, there. Enough.’[9]

Goose feathers, yes. He did enjoy his outdoor pursuits.


Notes

[1] Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 242. See 44-45 for her account of T. F. Powys’s funeral.

[2] Peter Vansittart, In Memory of England: A Novelist’s View of History (London: John Murray, 1998), 44.

[3] Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life, translated by Peter Green (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965), 605, 535.

[4] Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 80, 81.

[5] http://charlesolson.org/Files/Corbett.htm (accessed 18 October 2021)

[6] The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome, edited with prologue and epilogue by Rupert Hart-Davis (London: Jonathan Cape, 1976), 299.

[7] ‘After the Funeral (In Memory of Ann Jones’: Dylan Thomas, The Poems, edited and introduced by Daniel Jones (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1971), 136.

[8] William Faulkner, ‘A Justice’, in Collected Stories of William Faulkner (New York: Random House, 1950), 343-360; Joseph Blotner, William Faulkner: A Biography, two volumes (London: Chatto & Windus, 1974), I, 566-569.

[9] David Garnett, editor, The White/ Garnett Letters (London: Jonathan Cape, 1968), 37.

Devilish Warnings


‘For years of our lives the days pass waywardly, featureless, without meaning, without particular happiness or unhappiness’, says the narrator of Jane Gardam’s 1985 novel, Crusoe’s Daughter. There are, of course, exceptions – yesterday, for one instance, when I received both Covid booster and flu jab, emerging, as they say, fully armed.

‘‘Hello, good-looking’, the Librarian says—addressing neither me nor, a little more surprisingly, Harry the Cat, the usual object of her admiration—but my new computer. After several years of engaging with a Desktop that felt no sense of obligation—‘Would you please open this file?’ ‘Nah.’ ‘How about that website?’ ‘Not now!’—I’ve invested (interest-free deal!) in new hardware: a MacBook Pro, which is now set up with most basic necessities, thanks to my 5% input and the Librarian’s 95%. There have been very few problems, apart from her tendency to stroke the MacBook—and to murmur compliments in its direction—‘So shiny, so new’. I presume, perhaps unwisely, that this is a passing phase, together with her veiled threats—‘You should watch it very closely: these things have a habit of disappearing.’

(Not a MacBook)

Also disappearing is the summer, since the weather is turning – again, yes, but with serious intent this time. Still trying to wean myself off my appalled fascination with the daily totals of new cases—probably significantly underestimated now—hospitalisations and deaths, I sit listening to ambulance sirens on the distant main roads. Are they more or less frequent now than six months or twelve months ago? Did we just get so used to them then that they all but vanished into a familiar aural background?

In the park and the cemetery, the blackberries are mostly shrivelled or gone. There has long been a widespread belief in this country that they shouldn’t be picked after a certain date, usually Michaelmas but with some regional variations, up to about 10 October, which, as Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud point out, ‘allowing for the eleven-day calendar shift of 1752, is the same thing.’[1] The berries are said to be bad because the Devil has spat on them, stamped on them or, alas, pissed on them. On a walk a few days ago, I noticed a bush in the park still boasting several plump and very black berries and pointed them out. In defiance of devilish warnings, the Librarian’s mother picked one off, popped it into her mouth and pronounced it ‘delicious’.


‘I like to remind myself of the Dorset proverb’, Patrick White wrote, ‘“God gave us meat, we have to go to the Devil for sauce”.’[2] An astonishing number of people now not only want but apparently require sauce.

The Gardam quote I began with continues: ‘Then, like turning over a tapestry when you have only known the back of it, there is spread the pattern.’[3] Some of us are uncommonly fond of patterns. Also in 1985, Anthony Burgess published a piece called, ‘The Anachronist Strikes Back’, in which he remarked: ‘The point is, I think, that the past is made by the present. The pattern we call history is not in history: it’s made by us.’[4] This will not sit well with those for whom ‘history’ is fixed, unchanging and manifesting no need whatsoever for questioning or examination. But still, but still – in the individual life, as in the collective, the past is constantly reappraised, revised, reconfigured. How could it not be?


Notes

[1] Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 24.

[2] Patrick White, ‘The Reading Sickness’ (1980), in Patrick White Speaks, edited by Paul Brennan and Christine Flynn (London: Jonathan Cape, 1990), 75.

[3] Jane Gardam, Crusoe’s Daughter (London: Abacus, 2012), 270.

[4] Anthony Burgess, The Ink Trade, edited by Will Carr (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2018), 157.

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).

Notes

[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.

Leg trouble


Near the top of the hill, I pause.

‘Is it bad?’ the Librarian asks with well-worn concern, referring to my left ankle and lower leg, which have been behaving peculiarly in recent weeks. Ankle arthritis, we’ve decided.

But: ‘No’, I say, ‘higher up, seems to be my hip.’

‘Oh’, she says, clearly envisaging a whole new trajectory of complaint.

‘It’ll get easier, I expect.’ Do I believe this? Of course not. But it may. In any case, walking and its attendant ingredients here, trees, dogs, squirrels, the magpies, the children yelling in the school playground, the sudden panoramic view over Bristol that opens up suddenly on our left-hand side as the path sweeps round to run beneath close branches, all distract attention from a mere hip.

Trouble with legs. I remember the Reverend Francis Kilvert: ‘I preached in some discomfort for although the Vicar had assured me the pulpit would be almost up to my chin it was scarcely above my waist and in order to see to read my sermon I was obliged to crouch down in it and stick one leg out behind.’[1] At least he had two: the writer Colette’s father, an ex-captain of the select Zouave infantry, born in Toulon and trained at Saint-Cyr, had lost his left leg in Italy in 1859.[2] I recall too Theresa Whistler’s account, in her biography of Walter de la Mare, of a surgeon named Kidd offering his solution to the writer’s insomnia: ‘an eccentric Irish hypnotist named Leahy, who had a hot temper and a false leg, which proved a disadvantage. Climbing to his patient’s room, sporting a Leander tie [rowing club] and a little drunk, he would succeed in inducing slumber, and would then descend – step, thump, step, thump. Before he had reached the ground floor the nurse was speeding down to recall him. “The bloody man!” he would explode, and rushed up again, bursting in on the patient: “You bloody well go to sleep!”’[3]

In the First World War, those men unable to distinguish left from right were given a hay band and a straw band to tie round each leg. The drill instructor would call out ‘Hay, straw’ instead of left, right. On the back of the envelope of one of his letters to Edward Chapman, the poet and composer Ivor Gurney wrote: ‘Would you like a hay band or a straw – ? I’ve finished with mine.’[4]

Benjamin Robert Haydon, The Mock Election (Royal Collections Trust)

It’s often noticed that artists have trouble with hands – but often enough there are leg problems too. Alethea Hayter wrote of Benjamin Haydon’s inconveniently small studio—‘and he could never get far enough away really to see the effect of the whole picture, and his defective eyesight produced the errors of proportion—particularly the shortness of leg—which give a fatally ludicrous look to so many of his heroic figures.’[5] And, while artists often sketch their own hands, legs come into it too. On Valentine’s Day, 1938, David Jones writes to Harman Grisewood: ‘I think if I could only get not having the worst type of nerves and could work at painting or writing (Bugger—O did not know this had a drawing on the back—it is my leg. I drew it as a study for a thing I’m doing—bugger! I want it, but can’t write this letter over again—well, I shall have to send it as it is and do my leg again if I want it) I should be quite happy alone always.’[6]

At home, I download ankle arthritis exercises and sternly ignore any promptings from the hip. What a trouper. . .

Notes


[1] Entry for Wednesday 4 October 1871: Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, Three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969), Volume Two (23 August 1871—13 May 1874), 53.

[2] Colette, Earthly Paradise: An autobiography drawn from her lifetime writing by Robert Phelps (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), 15.

[3] Theresa Whistler, The Life of Walter de la Mare: Imagination of the Heart (London: Duckworth, 2003), 344.

[4] Letter of early 1915: Stars in a Dark Night: The Letters of Ivor Gurney to the Chapman Family, edited by Anthony Boden (Gloucester: Alan Sutton, 1986), 17 fn.

[5] Alethea Hayter, A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (London: Faber and Faber, 1965), 59.

[6] René Hague, editor, Dai Greatcoat: A self-portrait of David Jones in his letters (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), 84.

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.


Notes


[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.

A little mad about good letters

(Elizabeth Bishop)

On 8 July 1971, Elizabeth Bishop wrote to her friends Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale: ‘I have to get to Cambridge early in September to arrange my new flat—and do some work on my new seminar, on “Letters”!’ She mentioned Jane Carlyle, Anton Chekhov, ‘my Aunt Grace’, John Keats, a letter found in the street, and asked for suggestions, ‘just on the subject of letters, the dying “form of communication.”[1]

‘Dying’ — already, fifty years ago.  My pronounced appetite for reading letters must be nearly as old, from Ackerley to Zukofsky. Is that a clue to why, though? Remnants, often receptacles, of a disappearing world, the attraction of the receding, the vanishing, the casualties of cultural, social and economic history. Prose is often just written – letters are at least always written to, addressed to, someone, an individual, which seems to offer something to grasp, to hang onto. They may appear written with eventual publication in mind, as is sometimes the case with diaries. But they’re often revealing and go to forming the autobiography that the writer may have declined to write, or never got around to writing.

I like, too, the ways in which letters themselves become the subject of letters, or of anecdotes (in letters), strands of biography or criticism. ‘Historians don’t go where sources don’t lead,’ Maya Jasanoff remarks, ‘which means they usually stop at the door to somebody’s mind. Even when diaries or letters seem to “tell all,” historians typically treat what happened as one thing, and what somebody made of it as another. Novelists walk right in and roam freely through a person’s feelings, perceptions and thoughts. What happened is what you make of it. That, Conrad argued, could make fiction the truer record of human experience.’[2] In his preface to Lawrence Durrell’s ‘Mediterranean’ writings, Alan Thomas mentioned that: ‘The debt of future literary scholars to Hugh Gordon Porteous might well have been greater, for he received many letters from fellow poets and accumulated a good deal of material when writing his excellent life of Wyndham Lewis. He sorted all this original material into two groups, important and less important. Unfortunately, he placed the former in a paper bag similar to the kind he used for the disposal of garbage. He returned home one evening to find that his charlady had given this to the dustmen.’[3]

To J. Howard Woolmer (21 March 1997), Penelope Fitzgerald wrote: ‘How nice to get one of your laconic letters which say exactly what you mean and no more – and after all that’s what letters are for.’[4] Twenty years before, she had recorded the rather gloomy scenario of the painter Edward Burne-Jones burning ‘many hundreds of letters, though he hated to lose Swinburne’s.’[5]

One of the earliest bestsellers that I recall when I started in the book trade was The First Cuckoo, an anthology of letters to the Times and Claire Tomalin, in her biography of Thomas Hardy, noted among the Reverend Henry Moule’s many activities that ‘He wrote letters to The Times about the potato.’[6]

(Sylvia Townsend Warner via NYRB editions)

Sylvia Townsend Warner reflected more than once on the value—and the mutual pleasure—of letters. To William Maxwell, she remarked: ‘The people who were attached to me might, however, like a collected volume of my Letters. I love reading Letters myself, and I can imagine enjoying my own.’[7] And, to David Garnett, little more than a week earlier: ‘You enjoy my letters, I enjoy yours. We are like those Etruscan couples who sit conversing on their tomb. We belong to an earlier and more conversational world, and tend to finish our sentences and tie up our shoelaces.’[8]

My favourites volumes would include:
D. H. Lawrence, without a doubt.
Guy Davenport, correspondence with Hugh Kenner and with James Laughlin
Letters between James Salter and Robert Phelps.
Sylvia Townsend, correspondence with William Maxwell, with David Garnett, with anybody.
Patrick White.
Edward Fitzgerald – and Penelope Fitzgerald, come to that.
Eudora Welty, to Maxwell again and to Ross Macdonald.
Nancy Mitford.
Elizabeth Bishop herself.

I am currently spending a great deal of time peering at Ford Madox Ford’s often execrably handwritten letters – or staring at words and phrases in previously published versions that annotation has smoothly sidestepped thus far. What is that? Quotation? Misprint? Misremembering? Joke? And what does that mean? The shocking news—I jest but it would, I suspect, be genuinely shocking to some people—is that not everything exists on the world wide web. Not every book and journal has been digitised—even when they have been, often in fuzzy scans, the original books have misprints, missing pages, wrong pagination, transposed chapters, startling variations between UK and US editions.

Ford, recalling Hokusai, an old man mad about painting, ‘humbly’ wrote himself down as a man ‘a little mad about good letters’.[9] There are certainly some good letters above his signature. So this promises to be endless fun. Almost endless, that is, since a deadline will certainly come calling.

Notes

[1] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 544.

[2] Maya Jasanoff, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World (London: William Collins, 2017), 10-11.

[3] Alan G. Thomas, editor, Spirit of Place: Mediterranean Writings (1969; London : Faber and Faber, 1988), 13.

[4] Penelope Fitzgerald, So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 365.

[5] Penelope Fitzgerald, Edward Burne-Jones (London: Michael Joseph, 1975), 227.

[6] Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man (London: Viking, 2006), 50.

[7] Letter of 23 June 1976, Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 301.

[8] Richard Garnett, editor, Sylvia and David: The Townsend Warner/ Garnett Letters (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994), 213.

[9] Ford Madox Ford, Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911), 296.

A word about the dromedary

(Thomas Bewick, ‘Dromedary’)

‘Yesterday you awaked very bad’, James Boswell wrote in his journal, Monday 9 April 1764. ‘You got up as dreary as a dromedary. . . . ’[1]

I suspect that—‘dreary as a dromedary’— we’ve all been there. Not to bask in the alliteration but to glimpse the dromedary’s view of a day: plod, plod, plod – then a nosebag at the end of the day, if you’re lucky.

‘Arras’ used to signify a tapestry, a hanging screen, of the sort that Renaissance heroes or villains were forever thrusting swords through or maids or villains were pressing their ears against to overhear crucial intelligence—until I first read about the First World War. Then it became a battle, most famously—for literary historians—the battle in which the poet Edward Thomas was killed, on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917. So too was Tommy Nelson (Thomas Arthur Nelson), to whom John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps is dedicated—they were both partners in the publishing company—while Buchan’s brother Alastair was also fatally wounded there, though not on the same day.[2]

The poet Ivor Gurney was wounded on Good Friday night and sent to the hospital at 55th Infantry Base Depot, Rouen, so two days before Edward Thomas’s death;[3] while Siegfried Sassoon at Basseux on that Easter Monday was close enough to hear the guns at Arras, where Thomas was killed that morning by the blast from a shell.[4]

104 years on, though, I suspect we’re largely back behind the arras: eavesdropping, occasionally subject to Renaissance villains thrusting blades through, tragedies of blood, the old stories. . .


Even in a country still largely in denial about the Brexit fiasco—and many people who predicted exactly how this would turn out are finding that there’s very limited satisfaction in being proved right about a disaster, as we’d already learned from predicting more or less how the invasion of Iraq, lacking legality and hard evidence, would turn out—even given all that, I say, there’s been an extraordinary amount of utter nonsense unleashed on us recently.

A highly suspect report exonerating the measures taken by the Metropolitan Police at Clapham Common—notably, male violence against women peacefully protesting the death of a victim of male violence—followed by a widely-criticised report which concluded that there was no institutional racism in this country, all in the teeth of the evidence or rather, picking the teeth of the evidence and carefully ignoring the bits of expert testimony that didn’t fit the predetermined narrative. Then there was— there is!—the ludicrous business of statues, policemen and policewomen milling around a statue of Winston Churchill. And flags. Lots of flags. Very small politicians, sometimes with very small flags, but sometimes with very large ones.

https://centenariestimeline.com/1912_AHR.html

There was a famous meeting at Balmoral, 9 April 1912, attended by Bonar Law, Walter Long, Sir Edward Carson and other luminaries. In the centre of the show grounds was a signalling tower with a flagstaff ninety feet high. The Union Jack unfurled was forty-eight feet by twenty-five. ‘It was the largest ever woven’, the historian George Dangerfield remarked, adding dryly: ‘Patriotism could do no more.’

A little later, he remarked: ‘There was a method in the Unionist madness. Such was the state of English nerves in those days, that violence made a stronger appeal to the public than any other form of speech and action.’[5]

And here we are. Hard to believe, of course, given what we—what some of us, why not all of us?— know and have known but. . . here we are.

I wonder, sometimes, why my only reliable guides to the current state of things are Devi Sridhar, Marina Hyde and Cold War Steve. But I look at the front pages of the national newspapers every morning on the BBC website — and that reminds me.

Notes


[1] Boswell in Holland, 1763-1764, edited by Frederick A. Pottle (London: William Heinemann, 1952), 205.

[2] John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915; edited by Christopher Harvie, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 112.

[3] Michael Hurd, The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 96.

[4] Harry Ricketts, Strange Meetings: The Poets of the Great War (London: Chatto and Windus, 2010), 101.

[5] George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935; London: Granada Publishing, 1970), 98-99, 106.