Reading, rallying, resisting

Demo1

Rereading The Solid Mandala, I come across this snatch of dialogue between the two brothers, Waldo—competent, rational, self-professed writer of genius who hasn’t actually written anything much—and Arthur, regarded as mentally challenged, ‘short of a shingle’, a hopeless burden on his brother.

‘He said: “One day perhaps I’ll be able to explain – not explain, because it’s difficult for me, isn’t it, to put into words – but to make you see. Words are not what make you see.”
‘“I was taught they were,” Waldo answered in hot words.
‘“I dunno,” Arthur said. “I forget what I was taught. I only remember what I’ve learnt.”’

A good many people forget what they’ve been taught, of course. And a fair number seem not to have learnt anything much: some of them, oddly, are in important political positions.

Patrick-White-Speaks

White, in contrast, learned and remembered an extraordinary amount. And, in the last twenty years of his life, he became increasingly active politically, both writing and speaking, against the depredations of developers and local politicians, cultural provincialism, the mining and export of uranium, the continued mistreatment and exploitation of Australian Aborigines, hostility to immigrants, the Vietnam War and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

White-Hiroshima

(Patrick White and Tom Uren, Hiroshima Day demonstration, Sydney, 1984)
https://www.portrait.gov.au/magazines/26/the-activist-a-list

So I read Patrick White on the train, en route and coming home again. In between, in the company of wife and elder daughter, I move slowly from Regents Park to Trafalgar Square, along with a hundred thousand other people [update five days later: I was far too restrained: more like 250,000], of all kinds, classes, ages and nationalities (quite a few Americans). It was tremendously encouraging to see so many individuals and families opposing racism, misogyny, the forcible separation of young children from their parents, serial untruths, environmental vandalism and the degradation of the office of United States President – and restating the case for decency, truthfulness, peace, justice, honesty, equitable treatment of individuals: all quite reasonable standards and expectations, you might think, and so inevitably trashed by rags like the Daily Mail.

Demo3 Demo2

Still, it may finally have dawned on a few more of those people who have been mouthing the words ‘US trade deal’ with semi-religious fervour that, while the United States has historically been an ally of Great Britain, this President is not. His main concern is to fracture alliances, treaties and agreements, and to separate nations if he can from positions of collective strength to positions of individual weakness, so they can be more easily bullied and exploited. And on we go.

 

In search of coolness

blue gentian (gentiana clusii)

In search of coolness, I think usually of green; of, say, Lawrence Durrell and Panos heading for Klepini to gather cyclamens. ‘Though it was only a few hundred feet up we had moved into different air. The faint luminous tremble of damp had gone from the sky, and the sea which rolled below us among the silver-fretted screen of olives was green now, green as a Homeric adjective.’[1] Or W. H. Hudson’s ‘green refreshing nooks’.[2] Or Andrew Marvell’s doubled greenness, ‘green thought in a green shade’.[3]

But is blue, in some of its variations, even cooler?

In one of his essays, Geoffrey Grigson wrote of the spring gentian, ‘which properly is an alpine; and which I first saw like the flash of a sapphire ring lost in the grass as a car took me quickly along the sea road from Ballyvaughan around Black Head. Its colour is deep and clear enough for one to be able to pick it out in that way, pick out a mere single flower in the grass as one goes by at forty miles an hour. The spring gentian is one of several flowers, most of them blues, whose colour seems to have depth, like the colour coming from a jewel stone.’[4]

‘Most of them blues’: yes, depth and richness. The title of Penelope Fitzgerald’s last published novel, The Blue Flower, drawing on the brief life of Friederich von Hardenberg, who used the pseudonym of ‘Novalis’ and died at the age of twenty-eight, already seems to carry the kind of resonance that greater specificity will not further enrich.

Cruel-Way

Ella Maillart inventively extends the context of the flower Grigson terms ‘properly an alpine’, writing that, ‘The higher you climb on mountains, the deeper is the cobalt of the gentian, the green of the turf, the scarlet of the alpine rose. The same seems to apply to Asian mosaics the further one climbs back in time. Then at a certain altitude, ice and rock prevail, all vegetation having disappeared. So, before the twelfth century, as far as I know, there is no coloured enamel: ascetic plain brick reigns supreme beside the snow of stucco-work.’[5]

Famously, D. H. Lawrence writes of Bavarian gentians, native to the European Alps:

Not every man has gentians in his house
in soft September, at slow, sad Michaelmas.

Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark
darkening the day-time torch-like with the smoking blueness of Pluto’s
gloom,
ribbed and torch-like, with their blaze of darkness spread blue
down flattening into points, flattened under the sweep of white day
torch-flower of the blue-smoking darkness, Pluto’s dark-blue daze,
black lamps from the halls of Dis, burning dark blue,
giving off darkness, blue darkness, as Demeter’s pale lamps give off
light,
lead me then, lead the way.

Reach me a gentian, give me a torch!
let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of this flower
down the darker and darker stairs, where blue is darkened on blueness.
even where Persephone goes, just now, from the frosted September
to the sightless realm where darkness was awake upon the dark
and Persephone herself is but a voice
or a darkness invisible enfolded in the deeper dark
of the arms Plutonic, and pierced with the passion of dense gloom,
among the splendour of torches of darkness, shedding darkness on the
lost bride and her groom.[6]

In her introduction to Lawrence’s 1920 novel The Lost Girl, Carol Siegel remarks that ‘The most important referent for Alvina’s experience is the myth of Persephone.’ She points to this 1928 poem and comments that, ‘Many of Lawrence’s other writings refer to the myth less directly.’ Well yes, just a few. She mentions his Twilight in Italy and cites Virginia Hyde’s essay, ‘”Lost” Girls’ as providing ‘a full discussion of the recurrence of references to the Persephone myth in Lawrence’s work’.[7]

Persephone-Bks

Cool enough in the underworld, surely, all that damp earth – though conditions vary dramatically. In Dante’s Hell, the third circle offers perpetual icy rain and the ninth an icy lake, though with a bit of infernal flaming in between.

Lawrence’s Lydia, originally Polish, feels a rather different chill after her husband’s death in The Rainbow: ‘She was like one walking in the Underworld, where the shades throng intelligibly but have no connection with one. She felt the English people as a potent, cold, slightly hostile host amongst whom she walked.’[8]

Yes, that would cool the blood, for sure.

And in the end there is always cool blues—or cool jazz—as reported by Lew Archer when he visits The Listening Ear, which is ‘full of dark blue light and pale blue music. A combo made up of piano, bass fiddle, trumpet, and drums was playing something advanced. I didn’t have my slide rule with me, but the four musicians seemed to understand each other. From time to time they smiled and nodded like space jockeys passing in the night.’[9]

 

References

[1] Lawrence Durrell, Bitter Lemons (London: Faber and Faber, 1959), 221.

[2] W. H. Hudson, Afoot in England (1909; London: Dent, 1924), 32. The phrase ‘green nook’ recurs in the work of his friend Ford Madox Ford: Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 105; The Cinque Ports (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1900), 360; No Enemy (1929; edited by Paul Skinner Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 112.

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

[4] Geoffrey Grigson, ‘The Melancholia of Burren’, in Country Writings (London: Century Publishing, 1984), 156.

[5] Ella K. Maillart, The Cruel Way: Switzerland to Afghanistan in a Ford, 1939 (1947; Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2013, with a new foreword by Jessa Crispin), 123-124.

[6] D. H. Lawrence, ‘Bavarian Gentians’, The Complete Poems, edited by Vivian de Sola Pinto and F. Warren Roberts (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1977), 697; for a variant version, see 960.

[7] D. H. Lawrence, The Lost Girl, edited by John Worthen, with an introduction and notes by Carol Siegel (Cambridge edition, 1981; London: Penguin, 1995), xxiii, xxiv, xxix; Virginia Hyde, ‘“Lost” Girls: D. H. Lawrence’s Versions of Persephone’, in Elizabeth T. Hayes, editor, Images of Persephone: Feminist Readings in Western Literature (Gaines: University Press of Florida, 1994). Andrew Radford has since published The Lost Girls: Demeter-Persephone and the Literary Imagination, 1850-1930 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007): Chapter 6 is ‘Lawrence’s Underworld’.

[8] D. H. Lawrence, The Rainbow, edited Mark Kinkead-Weekes, introduction and notes Anne Fernihough (Cambridge, 1989; Penguin edition with new editorial matter, 1995), 50.

[9] Ross Macdonald, The Galton Case (1959), in Four Novels of the 1950s, edited by Tom Nolan (New York: Library of America, 2015), 700.

 

One thing leading to another

Light-in-August-Penguin

An online image of the jacket of the Penguin edition of William Faulkner’s Light in August that I used to own caught my attention. In the background there, E pluribus unum, the one out of many, or many made one. A painful, if not tragic, irony now, in this time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’, as Thomas Hardy wrote in another context—and the phrase with which George Oppen headed his poem ‘The Lighthouses’, for his once close and now estranged friend Louis Zukofsky: ‘(for L. Z. in time of the breaking of nations)’.[1]

So, the one, the one thing, a phrase to dwell upon. ‘The real unum necessarium [the one thing needful] for us’, Matthew Arnold wrote in Culture and Anarchy, ‘is to come to our best at all points.’[2] Emily Dickinson, continuing to resist the extreme pressure at her college to convert and be ‘saved’, in the midst of a religious revival, wrote in a letter of May 1848: ‘I have neglected the one thing needful when all were obtaining it.’[3]

Views on that one needful thing tend to differ, depending on circumstance and character. In Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel Innocence, ‘They were talking about their bowel movements. Loyalty from that quarter was the one thing necessary, said Ricasoli, for absolute peace of mind.’[4] Well, if not the one thing, certainly a contender. And Sarah Bakewell tells us that Montaigne, in his main chamber, had the roof beams painted with classical quotations, including this from Pliny the Elder: Solum certum nihil esse certi / Et homine nihil miseries aut superbius [Only one thing is certain: that nothing is certain / And nothing is more wretched or arrogant than man].[5]

Our best selves; our bowels; uncertainty. In other contexts, that ‘one thing’ is immutability: ‘Strange how, when you are young, you owe no duty to the future; but when you are old, you owe a duty to the past. To the one thing you can’t change.’[6] Or it might be clarity: ‘this book, and my manner of writing it, should make one thing about my life clear: that everything I have lived through either has been completely forgotten or is as yesterday. There is no blue to the horizon of Time.’[7]

EW-WM

Eudora Welty and William Maxwell:
https://www.cleveland.com/books/index.ssf/2011/05/eudora_welty_and_william_maxwe.html

But, it hardly needs saying, one thing tends to lead to another. ‘Ever since Christmas, I have had such an appetite for reading that one thing leads off to another, to the point of madness’, William Maxwell wrote to Eudora Welty.[8] ‘All this really began’, Penelope Fitzgerald wrote to her editor Richard Ollard, ‘when I tried to find out who really discovered the blue poppy, meconopsis baileyi, as it seems not really to have been Colonel Bailey at all, and one thing led to another, but never mind that now.’[9]

‘All this’ was Fitzgerald’s last novel, The Blue Flower, drawing closely on the early life of the German Romantic writer Friedrich von Hardenberg, who took the name ‘Novalis’. His young brother, known as ‘The Bernhard’, reflects on the first chapter of the story that Friedrich has written:

‘He had been struck – before he crammed the story back into Fritz’s book-bag – by one thing in particular: the stranger who had spoken at the dinner table about the Blue Flower had been understood by one person and one only. This person must have been singled out as distinct from all the rest of his family. It was a matter of recognising your own fate and greeting it as familiar when it came.’[10]

The singular, the distinct, the discrete. But the mind moves on, cannot do other than move on. Sebastian Barry wrote in A Long Long Way: ‘Funny how a person thought of one thing and then thought of another thing. And then another thing. And was the third thing brother at all to the first?’[11] A good question. Delano, in Robert Lowell’s play, ‘Benito Cereno’, says:

‘I wish people wouldn’t take me as representative of our country:
America’s one thing, I am another;
we shouldn’t have to bear one another’s burdens.’[12]

One-Thing

In the title story of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s collection, One Thing Leading to Another, Helen Logie accidentally adds snuff instead of curry powder to the dish she serves up to Father Green and his curate, Father Curtin, the two Catholic priests for whom she keeps house. Their lack of response prompts her to a few more culinary experiments, still without getting any reaction. When rheumatism prevents her from pinning up her abundant red hair, its luxuriant looseness is deemed unacceptable. She gets a local lad, Willy Duppy, to help her pin it up but enlisting such aid is also beyond the pale and an impasse is reached. ‘So that was the secret! All a woman need do to get herself attended to was to have a fit of rheumatism that would make it impossible for her to put her hair up.’ Helen moves towards self-assertion and a final exasperated bid for freedom: she gives notice and ultimately reappears in a new guise: ‘soon after Easter, Mr Radbone’s redecorated shop opened its doors for the sale of light refreshments, cooked meats, cakes, jams, scones, and bannocks, and there was Helen presiding over it, assisted by Willy Duppy.’[13]

Temperamentally, I’d say I’m definitely in the one-thing-leading-to-many-others camp; I doubt if I could settle convincingly or consistently on the one thing needful. Perhaps that requires extreme youth; or the kind of certainty that grows increasingly difficult to keep in focus.

 
References

[1] Thomas Hardy, ‘In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”’, in The Complete Poems, edited by James Gibson (London: Macmillan, 1976), 543; George Oppen, New Collected Poems, edited by Michael Davidson (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2003), 256.

[2] Matthew Arnold, Culture And Anarchy (1869; edited by J. Dover Wilson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 150.

[3] Quoted by Lyndall Gordon, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds (London: Virago Press, 2011), 43.

[4] Penelope Fitzgerald, Innocence (London: Flamingo, 1987), 148.

[5] Sarah Bakewell, How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer (London: Vintage 2011), 29.

[6] Julian Barnes, The Only Story (London: Jonathan Cape, 2018), 168.

[7] Richard Wollheim, Germs: A Memoir of Childhood, (London: Black Swan, 2005), 40.

[8] William Maxwell to Eudora Welty, 7 January 1979, Suzanne Marrs, editor, What There Is to Say, We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 346.

[9] Letter of 14 September [1994], in So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 416.

[10] Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower (London: Everyman, 2001), 448.

[11] Sebastian Barry, A Long Long Way (London: Faber and Faber, 2005), 124.

[12] Robert Lowell, The Old Glory (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), 149.

[13] Sylvia Townsend Warner, One Thing Leading to Another (London: Chatto and Windus, 1984), 45-63.

 

Talking hats

 

kensington-high-street-royal-celebration-1903-rchm-copy

( via https://rbkclocalstudies.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/kensington-high-street-royal-celebration-1903-rchm-copy.jpg  )

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.

Bogart-Marlowe

(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]

M00968701

(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]

Tenniel-mad-hatter

(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.

 

 

References

[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.

emily-dickinson

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.

 
References

[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.

Blue-passport

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:
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/dec/22/blue-passports-taking-back-control-imposed-league-of-nations-burgundy-passport-eu

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]

Stone-wall

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.

References

[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

Joan Didion via The Paris Review. The Review‘s 1978 interview with Didion is available here: https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3439/joan-didion-the-art-of-fiction-no-71-joan-didion

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.
https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/dec/03/clive-myrie-bbc-should-be-treasured-interview-bbc-yemen

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.

Tallent

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.

South-and-West

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.

References

[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.