Snow gone, strike on


“Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?” Villon wrote, which Dante Gabriel Rossetti famously translated as ‘But where are the snows of yesteryear?’ We, of course, are wondering where the snows of last Thursday and Friday have gone, as water streams along the gutters, so plentifully, in fact, that there must be a burst main somewhere..

The university was officially shut on Friday, due to the weather. The weekend passed with reading, phone calls and emails; and with the Librarian making bread while I counted the birds coming for food in the garden, a little anxious about how many of the regulars had survived what was reported to be the coldest March day since such records began at the start of the twentieth century. But there have been no obvious casualties: both the male and female blackbirds, the sparrows, the blue tits, the robin and the not-quite-definitely-identified bird (very sparrow-like but with a black cap) have shown up, however briefly And snow outside the back door, deeper than the average cat, whittled down their risk.

Now the world tilts back to whatever passes for normal lately. At the moment, this means the Librarian setting off, with placard and badge, for the picket line. Like most of her colleagues, she would rather be putting her skills and experience to work and, again like most of her colleagues, resents being forced into this position by recalcitrant employers with, pretty evidently, other priorities than their staff or the education of their students.

Those students were sufficiently unimpressed by their vice-chancellor to have occupied his office this morning; and the marches are still demonstrating a high level of support for the strike by university staff:

And some lecturers are also less than enthusiastic about recent developments:

Everyone (except, perhaps, the hawks and hardliners) must hope that the scheduled talks move things towards a resolution. But, as the poet said, ‘Today the struggle.’ So for now the strike goes on.





Foxes, Graces, Fatal Flowers

Maitland, Paul Fordyce, 1863-1909; Boats Moored on the Thames

(Paul Fordyce Maitland, Boats Moored on the Thames: York Museums Trust)

On a cold and blue and almost cloudless day, I pass through the park, between the bobbing magpies. Once you recognise the sight and sound of them, they’re everywhere. In our small garden yesterday, I watched a magpie take into its beak three, four, five suet pellets, and was put in mind of the fox.

Six or seven years ago, looking out of the window of my mother’s first-floor flat in Sutton, I would sometimes see foxes jogging along beside the railway line, about fifty metres away. At the end of the short garden was a garage with a flat roof and the downstairs neighbour used to throw food up onto it. One morning a fox appeared there – the roof was accessible from a low wall nearby. It took up items of food into its long jaws, meat and vegetables, five, six, seven pieces and, at the last, added a whole egg. Then it made its way down off the roof and emerged at the side of the track, all the food still apparently in place, undamaged, before padding off in the direction of home where, presumably, its cubs were waiting.

There are times when something occupying our minds or strongly present for a while—and it might be anything, from a car, a song or a woman’s name to a painting, a terrace of houses or a body of writing—exerts a powerful centripetal force. Details of things seen or heard fly to it and stick like burrs. Sounds and sights, images, phrases, connect with an audible click.

Since I’m reading or, mostly, rereading Penelope Fitzgerald’s books at present, when I walked in the park yesterday and heard the skirl of bagpipes launching into ‘Amazing Grace’, it was enough to recall the novel I’d just finished. Offshore, which won the Booker Prize in 1979, is set on the barges moored on Chelsea Reach and is dedicated ‘To Grace and all who sailed in her’. Grace is the name of the central character Nenna James’s barge, as it was the name of Fitzgerald’s, ‘a battered, patched, caulked, tar-blackened hulk’. The ‘great consolation was that a Thames barge, because of the camber of the deck, never sinks completely.’ On this point, Fitzgerald remarked, she could ‘give evidence, because we went down twice, and on both occasions the deck stayed just above water’, although Grace was finally ‘towed away to the Essex marshes to be broken up.’[1] After one of those disasters, Fitzgerald ‘went back to her teaching the next day, looking more than usually dishevelled, and said to her class: “I’m sorry I’m late, but my house sank.”’[2]


Similarly, thoughts of that fox recalled Fitzgerald’s letter in response to Frank Kermode’s review of her final novel, The Blue Flower, which centres on the life of the German Romantic poet Friedrich von Hardenberg, who wrote as ‘Novalis’. ‘I hope you won’t mind me writing to thank you for your review of The Blue Flower. I started from D. H. Lawrence’s “fatal flower of happiness” at the end of The Fox, having always wondered how DHL knew it was blue, and never quite managed to find out all I wanted to, partly because Novalis’ letters to Sophie have disappeared, buried in her grave I daresay.’[3]

Kermode had written of Fitzgerald: ‘She has the gift of knowing, or seeming to know, everything necessary, and as it were knowing it from the inside, conveying it by gleams and fractions, leaving those who feel so disposed to make it explicit.’ And, of the object of Fritz’s quest, ‘The visionary blue flower dominates his imagination, but in the waking life of Fritz von Hardenberg the part of the flower was played by Sophie von Kühn’.[4]

Sophie was the twelve-year-old girl with whom the poet fell in love. They became engaged on her thirteenth birthday but she died of tuberculosis just two years later. Novalis himself died before reaching thirty.

The end of ‘The Fox’ has ‘poor March’ musing on how, ‘The more you reached after the fatal flower of happiness, which trembles so blue and lovely in a crevice just beyond your grasp, the more fearfully you became aware of the ghastly and awful gulf of the precipice below you, into which you will inevitably plunge, as into the bottomless pit, if you reach any further. You pluck flower after flower – it is never the flower.’[5]

And the ending of Offshore? The two weakest characters, drunk and more than usually incapable, drift off in the storm, when the anchor comes clear and the mooring-ropes pull free under the strain. ‘It was in this way that Maurice, with the two of them clinging on for dear life, put out on the tide.’[6]

A craft that should be firmly linked to those of its close neighbours becoming unmoored and drifting off into the open sea because of intoxicated incompetence. Not a fable for our time, obviously.


[1] Penelope Fitzgerald, ‘Curriculum Vitae’, in A House of Air: Selected Writings, edited by Terence Dooley with Mandy Kirkby and Chris Carduff (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 477-478.

[2] Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (London: Chatto and Windus, 2013), 158.

[3] Penelope Fitzgerald to Frank Kermode, 3 October [1995], in So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 453.

[4] Frank Kermode, ‘Dark Fates’, review of The Blue Flower, London Review of Books, 17, 19 (5 October, 1995), 7.

[5] D. H. Lawrence, ‘The Fox’, in The Complete Short Novels, edited by Keith Sagar and Melissa Partridge (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 203.

[6] Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore (1979; London: Everyman, 2003), 131.


A Turn around the Cemetery


2 October. Taking time away from news bulletins detailing mass murder, police brutality, terrorism and gross political irresponsibility, I take a turn around the cemetery, where the dead seem quite peacefully disposed.

They were calmer times in Westmorland, even though Britain and France were at war, when Dorothy Wordsworth recorded details of her day (and William’s) that Thursday, 2 October 1800. ‘A very rainy morning. We walked after dinner to observe the torrents. I followed Wm to Rydale, he afterwards went to Butterlip How. I came home to receive the Lloyds. They walked with us to see Churnmilk force and the Black quarter. The black quarter looked marshy, and the general prospect was cold, but the Force was very grand. The Lychens are now coming out afresh. I carried home a collection in the afternoon. We had a pleasant conversation about the manners of the rich—avarice, inordinate desires, and the effeminacy unnaturalness and the unworthy objects of education. After the Lloyds were gone we walked—a showery evening. The moonlight lay upon the hills like snow.’[1]

In Arnos Vale, I can hear, from far off, the workmen busy at the end of Sydenham Road. Wind buffets the trees. A woman in dark glasses walks three dogs towards me, one black, two matching white. We exchange half-smiles, nothing too risky.


The wind pauses and the birdsong is more audible. Two, three Red Admirals in as many minutes pass me. The wind was only drawing breath. Gathered again, it gusts, leans, stills. There’s a sudden rush of children’s voices as the doors of the nearby school slap open and they spill into the playground.

On another 2 October, 1940, into the second year of another war, Josie Brinton wrote from Alexandria to her mother in Tennessee, ‘I know how worried you must be and it’s useless to tell you not to be but what else can I say. If you saw the carefree life everyone leads here you’d wonder what all the excitement was about’. Italian troops had crossed the border from Libya into Egypt three weeks earlier. Josie went on to recount the story current in Alexandria that ‘in the Mediterranean now all the English sailors had to do was lean over the side of their ships and shout “waiter” to have an Italian submarine come to the surface!’[2]


(Alexandria, 1940 via

I used to be friends with a man who drove a Volkswagen Beetle. Drivers of this car would salute—or at least, acknowledge—one another, hooting, flashing their lights or simply waving. As a consequence, the whole world seethed with Beetle drivers: they were everywhere. Just so, romantic love will narrow all the people in the world to women with red hair or blue dresses, to men with slight stoops or yellow scarves. Now the streets are full of men of about my age, all equipped with rucksacks exactly like mine, all walking purposefully (when I am) or sauntering unhurriedly, without direction (when I am).

But there are no such men in the cemetery today: men with matching dogs, yes, but nothing more (I have no dog to match). And I notice again how often here the magpies are in pairs, as though companionship were more necessary, or at least a little more desirable, in the company of the dead.


[1] Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, edited by Mary Moorman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), 41.

[2] Michael Haag, Alexandria: City of Memory (Yale University Press, 2004), 180.


The Sea – and James Agee


We have been to see the sea. We see it fairly often in any case but this time it was for a long, hard look, the window of the sitting-room of the rented apartment giving straight out onto the smaller beach and a wide view of the sea.

We are, of course, acquitted of the need to fashion trenchant or memorable remarks about it. It has all been done so many, many times before. ‘MER: N’a pas de fond. Image de l’infini. Donne de grandes pensées,’ Gustave Flaubert wrote, a hundred and fifty years ago, in his posthumously published Dictionnaire des idées reçues. Bottomless, a symbol of infinity, prompting deep thoughts.[1] That more or less covers it.

The fact is that gazing at a calm sea or, indeed, a restless one, is as transfixing as staring into an open fire, far more so, in fact. I might have added ‘watching other people work’ but this is often oddly gender-specific: men will watch for hours while other men dig a hole but perhaps they are ex-diggers themselves, so the watching is simply an exercise in nostalgia. Certainly, I can regard the open sea for a considerable period of time without strain; and have seen innumerable other people—regardless of gender—doing the same.


(© Walker Evans, 1937; via Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Writing of summer evenings in Knoxville, 1915, James Agee describes at length ‘the fathers of families’ all ‘hosing their lawns.’ After closely describing the varied sounds emitted by the hoses, singly and in concert, and then the dwindling and final ceasing of such activity, he notes that the locusts ‘carry on this noise of hoses on their much higher and sharper key.’ There is, again, the doubled effect, of the individual and the choral:

‘They are all around in every tree, so that the noise seems to come from nowhere and everywhere at once, from the whole shell heaven, shivering in your flesh and teasing your eardrums, the boldest of all the sounds of night. And yet it is habitual to summer nights, and is of the great order of noises, like the noises of the sea and of the blood her precocious grandchild, which you realize you are hearing only when you catch yourself listening.’[2]

That wonderful sentence is echoed for me, in another book published that same year, Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons, in which he stands with the Hodja (teacher) as darkness falls over the sea. ‘It was a blessed moment—a sunset which the Greeks and Romans knew—in which the swinging cradle-motion of the sea slowly copied itself into the consciousness, and made one’s mind beat with the elemental rhythm of the earth itself.’[3]


That ‘great order of noises’ evokes for me a faint tang of the divine, as of a religious order, which may not be fanciful, since religion played a significant part in Agee’s development: from the age of about ten, he lived for years in the dormitory at St Andrew’s School, established by Episcopal monks of the Order of the Holy Cross. His short novel The Morning Watch is set in such an institution, and centres on the thoughts and emotions of a young boy, Richard, in the early hours of Good Friday.

‘Knoxville: Summer 1915’ now stands as a brief prologue to Agee’s major novel, A Death in the Family. The central event, the death of the father in an automobile accident, is drawn from Agee’s boyhood: his own father died in just that way when James was seven. It’s an uneven but often very powerful book. The unevenness, or variations in control, focus and intensity, derive in part from the fact that Agee did not live to effect final revisions, which means, on occasion, that choices haven’t been made and words or phrases overlap and blur into one another. Then, too, the first editors chose to italicise sections of the book which they feel are not strictly part of the story: these are the reflections of the boy, Rufus, but it’s highly problematic to decide what is or is not ‘part of the story’ when that story largely comprises an intense recall of the events and its consequences: psychological, emotional and religious. The italics, anyway, are a little disconcerting at first – though only at first – recalling Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Agee explores the reactions (and fears and repressions) of several members of the extended family, sometimes with a startlingly close-up, penetrative stare. Not formally perfect then, not aesthetically neat, but very effective, often strong, sometimes delicate.

Agee worked on A Death in the Family for several years from the late 1940s. When he died in 1955, it was completed, with the addition of ‘Knoxville : Summer 1915’, by the editors at McDowell, Obolensky (Agee’s friend David McDowell, was one of the co-founders), who also produced books by Hugh Kenner and William Carlos Williams, among others. Published in 1957, Agee’s novel won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. The University of Tennessee Press published a scholarly edition of the ‘restored’ manuscript ten years ago, edited by Michael A. Lofaro, professor of American literature and American and cultural studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

There’s a nice photograph by Helen Levitt, dating from 1939, which sat on my desktop for a while: Agee sitting at the wheel of his convertible beside his second wife, Alma, with, in the back seat, the young Delmore Schwartz.


Walker Evans Archive, Metropolitan Museum of Art © Estate of Helen Levitt (1913-2009)

Clouds of cigarette smoke, inevitably, drift up from the front seat; and all three are facing forward, Agee in what looks like a corduroy cap, Schwartz with his intent, distinctive profile; Alma, with her headscarf slipping back a little, gazing slightly down and, perhaps, inwards, maybe already sensing trouble to come. Here’s another photograph of Alma, by the great Walker Evans, taken in Brooklyn in 1939.


Walker Evans Archive, 1994 © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Evans took the photographs which are so integral a part of the classic book he produced with Agee, published as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (included in the Agee volume together with A Death in the Family and Agee’s shorter fiction: his novella The Morning Watch and a handful of short stories).

Much of Agee’s creative energy went into his film criticism (and co-writing the screenplay for The African Queen; he wrote the script for Charles Laughton’s 1955 The Night of the Hunter too, though Laughton cut it substantially). Agee also adapted ‘The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky’ by Stephen Crane. He appeared in a minor role in the film, which was released in a two-part Face to Face, the second section being an adaptation of Conrad’s The Secret Sharer.

That last detail interests the Ford Madox Ford scholar, because of Ford’s very specific allusions to Crane’s story,[4] and because several commentators have seen in Conrad’s novella evidence of his complicated attitude towards the collaboration with Ford (which produced two full-length novels and a long short story) and its ending.[5]

When her marriage to Agee broke down, Alma moved to Mexico with their young son, Joel; then back briefly to New York, then Mexico again, where she finally married the writer and political activist Bodo Uhse. She had some interesting encounters while working in a Mexico City Gallery, coming to know Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros and Pablo Neruda. In 1948, Alma, Bodo and Joel moved to East Germany. Joel later wrote a memoir called Twelve Years: An American Boyhood in East Germany (2000), published by the University of Chicago Press. Also for Chicago, Joel Agee has translated from German a number of volumes by writers including Rilke and Hans Erich Nossack, but principally, Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The Pledge, The Assignment, The Inspector Barlach Mysteries and the three-volume Selected Works.

Alma lived into her mid-sixties, dying in 1988: her memoir, Always Straight Ahead, appeared in 1993. But one striking fact about Agee’s generation of writers is how many of them failed even to attain that age. Agee himself died at 45, suffering a massive heart attack in a New York taxicab, while Delmore Schwartz died in a shabby hotel at 52. Weldon Kees was 41, John Berryman managed 57, and Robert Lowell 60. The slightly older R. P. Blackmur died – very slightly older – at just 61.


[1] Published in 1913: Robert Baldick’s translation of The Dictionary of Received Ideas is included in the A. J. Krailsheimer translation of Bouvard and Pécuchet (London: Penguin Books, 1976).

[2] James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family, and Shorter Fiction, edited by Michael Sragow (New York: Library of America, 2005), 470, 471.

[3] Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons (London: Faber and Faber, 1957), 240.

[4] See Ford, Thus to Revisit (London: Chapman & Hall, 1921), 108; and, particularly, ‘Stevie and Co.’, in New York Essays (New York: William Edwin Rudge, 1927). 29.

[5] See Frederick R. Karl, Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), 673; letter from Thomas C. Moser, quoted in Zdzisław Najder, Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle, translated by Halina Carroll-Najder (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 361; Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), I, 149.


Sorrows, joys, magpies


Watching a magpie on the garden fence, trying to identify the memory that its gestures and movements called to mind, I realised that it was Jacques Tati, in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. (One of my earliest visits to the cinema: the only time I ever saw my father crying with laughter.) The abrupt uplifting and lowering of the head, the stiff yet rapid leaning forward from the waist, the quick flicks of the head to left and right: mais oui, c’est Monsieur Hulot!


Their distinctive staccato chatter sounds from the roof, the fence, the tree, the neighbouring chimneys. It’s everywhere in the nearby park, though generally singly. There was a period during which we would see five or six in a group, strutting, leering, looking distinctly thuggish. But lately it’s one at a time. More than a dozen years ago now, my wife was walking to work over the park and had just noted two magpies when she slipped on black ice and fractured her wrist. Since then, we have been wary of rhymes’ prophetic validity. Two may not be lucky but do the loners necessarily signify misfortune?

One for sorrow, two for joy
Three for a girl, four for a boy

That’s the version most people know, at least if of a certain age and able to recall the television programme. What is, presumably, the older rhyme runs:

One’s sorrow, two’s mirth,
Three’s a wedding, four’s a birth[1]

This survives in the version – from a sixteen-year-old Birmingham schoolgirl, recorded by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey:

One for anger, two for mirth,
Three for a wedding, four for a birth

This version gets ‘saltier’ (their word) as it progresses:

Five for rich, six for poor
Seven for a bitch, eight for a whore[2]

The origin of the name runs back through Shakespeare’s Macbeth (‘maggot-pie’) to ‘Margaret’ or ‘Margot the pye’, from a French equivalent. Iona and Peter Opie have a nice story of the poet laureate, Henry James Pye, appointed in 1790, whose first (very poor) ode was for the king’s birthday, and was guyed by a punster named George Steevens (‘when the PYE was opened’), unimpressed as he was by Pye’s feeble effort. The Opies quote a version of ‘Sing a song of sixpence’, the rhyme published in 1784, which ends with ‘Up came a magpie and bit off her nose.’ The maid still suffers, then, but at the hands – beak, rather – of a different bird.[3]

‘Pie’ is ‘pied’, of course, the black and white plumage, and bishops were sometimes termed ‘magpies’ because of the similarly contrasting colours of their vestments. The magpie’s occurrences in literature include one in Ezra Pound’s ‘Canto 81’:

Pull down thy vanity
Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,
A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,
Half black half white
Nor knowst’ou wing from tail[4]

The black and the white together is a handy representation of the opposing strains of interpretation of this passage and the question of just who is being addressed here (‘Pull down thy vanity’): some say it’s Pound himself, others the U.S. Army (Pound’s captors at that time, in the Disciplinary Training Center at Pisa).[5]


In ‘House and Man’, Edward Thomas recalls a man in his house amidst ‘forest silence and forest murmur’, the only house for miles:

But why I call back house and man again
Is that now on a beech-tree’s tip I see
As then I saw – I at the gate, and he
In the house darkness, – a magpie veering about,
A magpie like a weathercock in doubt.[6]

This is, as you’d expect from Thomas, quite accurate: I’ve watched magpies, precisely, veering about; and ‘a weathercock in doubt’ is wonderfully suggestive.

John Fowles had a bookplate which showed his name surrounded by magpies, a pictorial representation of his habits as both reader and buyer of books. ‘A quite literal pair of magpies breed in my garden every year,’ he closes his essay on the subject. ‘Wicked creatures though they are, I let them be. One must not harm one’s own.’[7]

‘Wicked’? The magpie certainly has a justified reputation for being omnivorous: eggs and nestlings feature among many other food sources. It’s a famously intelligent bird, sociable, mischievous and, I’d venture, with a strong sense of humour. Pretty widespread too: Jonathan Trouern-Trend, who served in Iraq, notes sightings of grebes, egrets, kites, vultures, bustards and avocets galore but, happily, our friend Pica pica is also there: ‘Seen year round at LSAA [LSA – Logistics Support Area is my guess – Anaconda, his home base], seemed more common at higher elevations.’[8]



[1] The version quoted by Sylvia Townsend Warner, in a letter to Julius Lipton, 21 October 1935: Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 36-37.

[2] Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, Birds Britannica (London: Chatto & Windus, 2005), 400.

[3] The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, edited by Iona and Peter Opie, second edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 471, 472.

[4] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 521.

[5] So, for instance, Christine Froula—‘self-accusations’—in A Guide to Ezra Pound’s Selected Poems (New York: New Directions, 1983), 236; and A. David Moody—‘humbled’—Ezra Pound: Poet: A Portrait of the Man and His Work: Volume III: The Tragic Years 1939-1972 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 159; as against Jerome McGann—‘not himself but the US Army’—in Towards a Literature of Knowledge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 114.

[6] Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems, edited by Edna Longley (Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2008), 60.

[7] John Fowles, ‘Of Memoirs and Magpies’, in Wormholes: Essays and Occasional Writings, edited by Jan Relf (London: Jonathan Cape, 1998), 33.

[8] Jonathan Trouern-Trend, Birding Babylon: A Soldier’s Journal from Iraq (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2006), 79.


August and blackberrying

Orpen, William, 1878-1931; Harvest

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

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

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


West Mill, Welcombe, Devon:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Butterflies in ruins

Small White - Male

In our small back garden, I doubt whether I’ve seen more than half a dozen butterflies so far this summer, perhaps fewer than that. It’s hardly surprising in the light of recent research, which suggests that 2016 was one of the worst on record for butterflies in this country, with nearly three-quarters of all species experiencing a decline in numbers.

A rare sighting of butterflies now often brings back memories of a holiday in Greece nearly twenty years ago in Ayía Efamía, on the island of Kefaloniá, but with a week on the mainland. Against the scarcity of England now, profusion and abundance then: the wild flowers, the scutter of lizards, the columns of ants—and butterflies everywhere, starting up in clouds as you stepped along the grassy lane, red and yellow and white, one with paper thin white wings with, at their base, an intricate pattern like leaves and branches, in vivid green.

The Greek word psyche meant both ‘butterfly’ and ‘soul’. Some vase paintings contain images of butterflies emerging from the mouths of the dead. ‘To have heard the farfalla [butterfly] gasping as toward a bridge over worlds . . . ’ Ezra Pound writes of that hazardous terrain between life and death.[1]

And butterflies were always there among the ruins, at Delphi, Mystras, Mycenae, flickering above and around broken blocks of stone, fallen pillars, fractured arches. Butterflies amidst the ruins of empire.


Olympia via

The collapse of empires recurs through history, as does the collapse of financial systems. We, of course, continue to add those contemporary extras, not only terminal climate change, but also the rapid extinction of species—butterflies among them.

In the Romantic era, poets, philosophers, artists, travellers had ruins often on their minds. Romanticism, Raphael Samuel remarks, was built on time’s ruins. Its idea of memory was premised on a sense of loss.[2]

In the midst of the revolution which made or unmade France, Comte de Volney, a deputy in the National Assembly, published Les Ruines, Paris 1791. (That same year, the sixteen-year-old J. M. W. Turner was working in Bristol; he was always, Peter Ackroyd remarks, fascinated by fire and ruins.)[3] In 1818, the eighteen-year-old poet Victor Hugo’s mother came to live on the third floor of 18 rue des Petits-Augustins. ‘An elderly visitor who frequently climbed the stairs of No. 18 was a cousin of Mme. Hugo, the Comte de Volney.’[4]

The Ruins of Kirkstall Abbey at Night c.1799 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

(J. M. W. Turner, ‘The Ruins of Kirkstall Abbey at Night’, c.1799, watercolour and graphite on paper: ©Tate Britain)

In an essay on Walt Whitman, Guy Davenport remarks that: ‘It is [ . . . ] worth reading Whitman against the intellectual background he assumed his readers knew and which is no longer remembered except sporadically: the world of Alexander von Humboldt, from which Whitman takes the word cosmos, Louis Agassiz, for whom Thoreau collected turtles, Volney’s Ruins, the historical perspective of which is as informative in Whitman as in Shelley, Fourier, Scott. A great deal that seems naif and spontaneous in Whitman has roots and branches.’[5]

‘Things have roots and branches’, Ezra Pound wrote in his later version of Confucius, ‘affairs have scopes and beginnings. To know what precedes and what follows, is almost as good as having a head and feet.’[6]

Volney crops up in a wide variety of contexts. Of Shelley’s ‘Philosophical poem’, Queen Mab, Richard Holmes remarks that ‘The conception of such a total approach to human knowledge was encouraged in Shelley by the reading of Count Volney’s notorious vision of corrupt society, The Ruins of Empire, and Erasmus Darwin’s poems of science and society.’[7]

Curran, Amelia, 1775-1847; Percy Bysshe Shelley

(Amelia Curran, Percy Bysshe Shelley, oil on canvas, 1819.
Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, London)

Shelley’s famous ‘Ozymandias’ has a word or two to say about the ruins of hubristic ambition and the delusions of the powerful:

‘And on the pedestal, these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’[8]

But not only ruins. Just today, The Observer’s tribute to the photographer David Newell-Smith included one of his shots of the Rolling Stones performing in Hyde Park, 5 July 1969.

(A gallery of Newell-Smith’s photographs for The Observer is here:

Planned as both a return to live performance and the debut appearance of new guitarist Mick Taylor, the Hyde Park concert became in large part a memorial for Brian Jones, who had died just two days earlier. Famously, Mick Jagger read an extract from Adonais, Shelley’s elegy for John Keats, before hundreds of cabbage white butterflies were released (there had been around 2500 but, in the hot weather, many had died).


Rolling Stones on stage, Hyde Park, 5 July 1969

Out of interest, I looked back at what Mick Jagger actually read. Adonais is not a short poem: it consists of 55 stanzas, each of nine lines (so almost 500 lines in all). Jagger read stanza XXXIX and part of stanza LII (he left out the last two and a half lines): he also departed quite a few times from what Shelley actually wrote, usually adding short words—probably to make it easier both for him to read and for the audience to grasp.

And yet—ruins, after all. The two and a half lines that Mick Jagger omitted, probably because of the momentary confusion that mention of ‘Rome’ would cause, run:

Rome’s azure sky,
Flowers, ruins, statues, music, words, are weak
The glory they transfuse with fitting truth to speak.[9]

Around the time that he was writing Queen Mab, Shelley also wrote a long poem called ‘The Retrospect: Cwm Elan, 1812’, contrasting his mental and emotional state of the time with that of a year earlier:

Changed!—not the loathsome worm that fed
In the dark mansions of the dead,
Now soaring through the fields of air,
And gathering purest nectar there,
A butterfly, whose million hues
The dazzled eye of wonder views,
Long lingering on a work so strange,
Has undergone so bright a change.[10]

Just two years before the Hyde Park concert, there had, of course, been another celebrated Mick Jagger link with Lepidoptera, when William Reese-Mogg, quoting (almost) a line from Alexander Pope’s ‘Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot’, headed his Times leader article ‘Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?’ This was in the wake of the dubious court case, in which the judge, Leslie Block, had imposed prison sentences on Jagger and Keith Richards for drug offences.[11]

‘We Love You’, the Jagger-Richards song that followed shortly after that court case, and that begins with the crash of prison cell doors closing, was released on 18 August 1967.


[1] ‘Notes for CXVII et seq.’, The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 802. See also Canto XCII, 619: ‘farfalla in tempesta/ under rain in the dark: / many wings fragile’.

[2] Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory (London: Verso, 1996), ix.

[3] Ackroyd, Turner (London: Vintage Books 2006), 9.

[4] Christopher Woodward, In Ruins (London: Chatto and Windus, 2001), 158-159.

[5] ‘Whitman’, in Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (London: Picador, 1984), 70.

[6] Confucius. The Unwobbling Pivot; The Great Digest; The Analects (New York: New Directions, 1969), 29.

[7] Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit (London: Penguin, 1987), 202.

[8] The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by Thomas Hutchinson (London: Oxford University Press, 1909), 546. On this poem, see Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination, 278-281.

[9] The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 438.

[10] The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 865.

[11] The Times, 1 July 1967. Pope’s line has ‘upon’ rather than ‘on’.