Something in the west

The Scarlet Sunset circa 1830-40 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/D24666

‘We could go for a later walk’, the Librarian said, ‘and try to catch a sunset – if there is one. It’s a bright, clear day at the moment.’ The sunset time on the BBC weather site was 16:34. I remembered being on the Dorset coast a couple of years ago, when we could watch the sun slip out of sight at exactly the predicted time. Science: knowledge ascertained by observation and experiment, critically tested, systematised and brought under general principles, derived from the Latin, to know – so not popular with everyone.

I suspect that there are dawn people and sunset people – and, needless to say, a huge number of others that will take both or neither or who, in any case, are never up sufficiently early to take a balanced view of the matter. Wordsworth’s dawn (in which it was bliss to be alive) in The Prelude embraced both youth and the initial promise of revolutionary France. A red sky at night, the proverb says, has shepherds capering about in sheer glee. Certainly my mother, who was a keen amateur painter, could never get enough of sunsets – but then she lived for a few years in the Far East, and a vista of junks picking their way through a dazzling sunset across the South China Sea was absurdly romantic to western eyes. A more prosaic question is probably: does your day stretch awfully ahead of you in some deadening job that barely puts food on the table after a ten-hour stint or is the prospect rather more alluring?


The narrator of Henry Green’s first novel, Blindness, lingers on an approaching sunset. ‘The sun was flooding the sky in waves of colour while he grew redder and redder in the west, the trees were a red gold too where he caught them. The sky was enjoying herself after the boredom of being blue all day.’[1] John Ruskin, writing in the early 1870s, was a little more agitated: ‘I…cannot any more look at a sunset with comfort, because, now that I am fifty-three, the sun seems to me to set so horribly fast; when one was young, it took its time; but now it always drops like a shell, and before I can get any image of it, is gone, and another day with it.’[2]

Guy Davenport observed that ‘Turner’s violent sunsets can be traced to a volcano in the Pacific, which loaded the air with dust and made chromatic changes in the sky. An element in romanticism can thus be traced to tectonic plates. From Turner, Ruskin; from Ruskin, Proust; from Proust, Beckett. Our sense of history can always be activated by such connections, whether they’re dependable or not. Every age’s past is a chosen one, and tells as much about the age as about the history it recovers.’[3]

Writing to his friends Geoffrey and Ninette Dutton, the Australian novelist Patrick White mentioned that his story, ‘Being Kind to Titina’, was based on his partner Manoly’s ‘childhood and youth in Alexandria and Athens’, and that he wanted to write a novel ‘about a boy growing up in those places, in a large family and ending with the German invasion of Greece. I think of it under the title of “My Athenian Family”, and see it as a kind of Greek version of a Turner sunset’. One of his favourite paintings was Turner’s ‘Interior at Petworth’ and, in a letter to Mary Benson (30 June 1971), he wrote that he used to go and look at it almost every Sunday when living in London: ‘besides being a subtle painting, I feel it taught me a lot about writing.’ Late Turners, he told another friend, Penny Coleing (23 June 1971), made him ‘grow breathless with delight every time I see them’.[4]


I was trying to remember the title – of a book or a section of a book – to do with sunsets, or the sinking of the sun in the west. I could remember the rhythm: the something of the something in the west but got no further. The Decline of the West seemed a possible part of it – Spengler? David Caute? – but no. The closest I got was the latter half of the title of a Cormac McCarthy novel I’d read years back: Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West – and noticed that he’d written a play called The Sunset Limited. Of the novel, I mainly recalled a great deal of blood, scalping and general mayhem.

To Hugh Kenner, Davenport wrote on 18 January 1974: ‘Cormac McCarthy, the Gothic nuvvlist of Sevier County, Tennessee, has begun sending back his Xerox copy of Tatlin!, page by page, with the socks of my prose pulled up. He is right most of the time, but he has made me feel so unsure of my ability to write even a simple English sentence that I’ve had dark and despairing thoughts of withdrawing the manuscript altogether.’ To which Kenner sent his reassuring reply five days later: ‘Pay no ultimate heed to Cormac McCarthy. No hand is surer than your’n with English syntax and epithet.’[5]

There was, of course, no sunset on our walk: no sun to begin with by the time we went out, barely any light at all in fact. It had become a day determined to give a new edge to the word ‘dull’. Still, it was good exercise.


Notes

[1] Henry Green, Nothing, Doting, Blindness (London: Vintage Books, 2008), 421.

[2] Ruskin, Fors Clavigera (New Edition: 4 volumes, 1896), I, 373.

[3] Guy Davenport, ‘Wheel Ruts’,  Grand Street, 7, 2 (Winter, 1988), 246.

[4] Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 202, 203n.

[5] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 1503, 1504.

Some like it hot; some do not

Overlooking the Bay 1921 by Juan Gris 1887-1927

(Juan Gris, Overlooking the Bay: Tate)

In Anne Carson’s translation of Agamemnon, the messenger says, ‘I could tell you stories of winter so cold it killed the birds in the air.’ By way of seasonal contrast, I remember reading back in 2012 that birds had been falling from the sky in Iraq, where the temperature had breached 50 degrees Celsius.

It was 50 degrees in Basra yesterday; 42 in New Delhi, 40 in Cairo and in Florence too. Temperatures of 45 are predicted in the South of France and parts of Spain in the next few days.

Yesterday marked exactly eighty years since the death of Ford Madox Ford. Scheduled for tomorrow and Saturday, there is a conference taking place on the Mediterranean coast of southern France, ‘Ford and Toulon: Biography, Culture and Environment in the 1920s and 1930s’, under the auspices of the Université de Toulon and the Ford Madox Ford Society. Ford visited Toulon in 1925 with Stella Bowen, and again the following year. According to the dates and places of composition that he gives in the books, he began A Man Could Stand Up— in Toulon, and finished both A Mirror to France and New York Is Not America there. He socialised with the painter Juan Gris and his wife Josette, and Stella Bowen recalled that their group at the café was often joined by the art critic Georges Duthuit and his wife – Duthuit’s dialogues with Samuel Beckett (drawn from their correspondence) would first appear in 1949. Ford later lived with Janice Biala in the Villa Paul on Cap Brun in the last decade of his life. Further details of the conference are on the Ford Society website:
http://www.fordmadoxfordsociety.org/upcoming-events.html

I won’t be in Toulon – which is probably just as well. Even if the temperature doesn’t reach 45, it will be at least 20 degrees above my comfort level these days: I’ll go a couple of degrees higher if there’s a stiff breeze; maybe a few more if I were in Greece, where the heat seemed to bother me less –­ though it’s 33 degrees in Athens today and, given our aversion to flying, will we ever get back?

Harry

So, deep shade for me – some reading, a little wine, a little conversation (two-way with the Librarian, one-way with the cat). And perhaps some material from that conference might find its way, by and by, into Last Post: A Literary Journal from the Ford Madox Ford Society. . .

 

Using your loaf

Jean_Francois_Millet_-_Woman_Baking_Bread_12x16_jdscqy__80810.1486481549

(Jean-Francois Millet, Woman Baking Bread)

Yesterday, after a night of rain had put paid to the snow and the bird chorus in the park was at full stretch again, I walked uphill in mizzle or, better, dringey—‘the kind of light rain that still manages to get you soaking wet’—which I borrow from the back pages of Melissa Harrison’s splendid Rain: Four Walks in English Weather, even though she indicates that its usage is mainly in Norfolk, Suffolk and Lincolnshire. I should also nod to her ‘Scotch mist’, noted here as ‘the kind of fine rain a Scotsman will barely notice but which will wet an Englishman to the skin (Northamptonshire, Scotland)’.[1]

In fact, there were still sad heaps of snow—or rather, heaps of sad snow—scattered about the slopes, some the remains of snowmen, others less artistic, never being more than heaps, just bigger ones for a while. The rest had melted away more quickly—much more quickly—than a fantasy Brexit.

Snow-pile

With that in mind, today I reach for flour and yeast. One small step for man—actually no, not for this particular man. Decades since I made bread but it seems, at this juncture, a handy skill to have. Not that I’m paranoid, you understand—though I recall with fondness the days when certain people were only on the early pages of the How to Fuck your Country Up Handbook, Part One, initial indicative wish list: lorry queues from Dover to Dartford, empty supermarket shelves and bodies strewn along the sides of the roads—and we’ve normally bought bread from a local baker anyway. But making your own is just a very satisfying thing to do. Carpentry would be too – but I have no talent for it and can barely cut paper straight. Mastery of a foreign language would be, yes – but I’ve shown little aptitude for it thus far and it’s a bit late now. I can, though, bake a loaf of bread.

This baking business is no mundane matter. In 1917, there was a Royal Proclamation, a call from the King to his people, to eat less bread, in the face of unrestricted U-boat warfare.[2] A world war later, here was poet and playwright Ronald Duncan, then working on the land and railing against the false division of things into different ‘departments’, singling out the baking of a loaf of bread: ‘Is this an economic action, a spiritual ritual, a biological necessity or a work of art? Is it not obvious that the whole is contained in any part?’[3] I think I’m aiming for the first and last of these, though when you get into the rhythm of kneading, the idea of ritual is a feasible one.

Bread

Then, too, there’s a pleasing language to roam around in: wholemeal, sourdough, banana bread, rye, flatbread, brioche, crumpet, muffin, pretzel, pumpernickel, focaccia, scone, split tin, cottage loaf, bagel, ciabatta, Bannock, Soda bread, spelt, teacake, Bara brith, Lardy cake, oatcake. . .

‘Give us this day our daily bread’, I intoned for years as a child before experiencing what was, I suppose, the opposite of what Saul of Tarsus experienced, though also on a dusty road, in my case walking to a summer Sunday service from the school where my father had chosen to board me while he occupied himself with a new job a hundred and fifty miles away—and, concurrently, divorce from my mother.

James Joyce seems to have had a properly elevated view of such things, Stephen Dedalus seeing himself as ‘a priest of eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life.’[4]

I probably won’t aim quite so high – but I do need to advance beyond that two pound loaf tin. I feel it’s cramping my style a little. Today the tin but tomorrow – the baking sheet.

 

References

[1] Melissa Harrison, Rain: Four Walks in English Weather (London: Faber and Faber, 2017), 90, 93.

[2] E. S. Turner, Dear Old Blighty (London: Michael Joseph 1980), 229.

[3] Ronald Duncan, Journal of a Husbandman (London: Faber 1944), 87.

[4] James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916; edited with an introduction and notes by Jeri Johnson, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 226.

 

Still feeling the heat – but smelling the rain

Sultry-month

It was ‘the hottest summer month that anyone could remember. For the first twenty-two days of the month the average day temperature was 84° in the shade, 105° in the sun. Kent had had six weeks without rain and midday temperatures of 104° to 116°.’ Alethea Hayter is writing here, in A Sultry Month, about June 1846, though the period covered by her book extends over the first two weeks of July as well.

It was, she adds, ‘murderous weather. Wherrymen, out in boats on the Thames all day, died of sunstroke; farm-labourers died of heat-stroke after a day’s mowing; many people all over the country were drowned while bathing.’ But there were also ‘sudden and violent storms all over the country, many people were killed by lightning, in some places the very air smelt of fire, and the raindrops that fell were the largest ever seen.’[1]

It’s been murderous weather enough in Greece and Japan, to name but two. Still, we tend to look at temperatures with a comparative eye. Only 86°F? In the past few days, I see that Arizona has been running up temperatures of 111° while Basra recorded 45C (113°F). But in 1846 there was no refrigeration; workers’ rights were minimal or non-existent; and in many places the water was quite unfit to drink: a Royal Commission, reporting in 1844 and 1845, inquired among much else into the water-supply of fifty large towns and found that it was good in only six cases.[2]

As for the dangers—no sun cream and no health professionals advising you to slap it on. Half a century after Hayter’s sultry month, Roy Porter notes, the Danish physician Niels Finsen (1860-1904) suggested ‘that ultraviolet rays were bactericidal, and so could be useful against conditions like lupus. Many early hospital radiology departments provided both radiation and ultraviolet light therapy, and Finsen’s researches stimulated high-altitude tuberculosis sanatoria and inspired the unfortunate belief that sun-tans were healthy.’[3]

Sun-tans. Sunbaths. Sun. In his story of that title, D. H. Lawrence writes of a woman and her child sent away to the sun. ‘It was not just taking sunbaths. It was much more than that. Something deep inside her unfolded and relaxed, and she was given.’ Naked by the cypress trees when the husband, in his suit and tie, returns after many weeks. ‘She had always been mistress of herself, aware of what she was doing, and held tense for her own power. Now she felt inside her quite another sort of power, something greater than herself, flowing by itself. Now she was vague, but she had a power beyond herself.’ She becomes intimate with a peasant, seen from a distance—though her next child will be her husband’s.[4]

‘It is strange how different the sun-dried, ancient, southern slopes of the world are, from the northern slopes’, Lawrence wrote in another context. ‘It is as if the god Pan really had his home among these sun-bleached stones and tough, sun-dark trees. And one knows it all in one’s blood, it is pure, sun-dried memory.’[5]

Lawrences-Bynner-Teotihuacan-1923

D. H. Lawrence, Frieda and Witter Bynner at Teotihuacan, Mexico, 1923: site of the Pyramid of the Sun

He was not always so positive about the beneficial effects of the sun. Immediately following ‘Sun’ in the Collected Stories is ‘The Woman Who Rode Away’: the sun reaching a certain point in the sky is the moment at which the woman will be sacrificed under the knife of the old priest. ‘The Shadow in the Rose Garden’ has a woman encountering her ex-lover Archie, the rector’s son, now a lunatic after contracting sunstroke during military service in Africa.

Rupert Brooke’s death from blood poisoning in 1915 was first reported as sunstroke. Lawrence attributed this to the sun-god, Phoebus Apollo: ‘He was slain by bright Phoebus shaft – it was in keeping with his general sunniness [ . . . ] Bright Phoebus smote him down. It is all in the saga.’[6]

In Patrick White’s Voss, Laura Trevelyan takes charge of Rose Portion’s baby. Her relationship with the child wonderfully exemplifies Laura’s own complex and courageous character: ‘They were the baby’s days. There was a golden fuzz of morning in the garden. She could not bring herself to tread upon the tender flesh of rose petals that were showered at her feet. To avoid this, she would walk round by another way, though it meant running the gauntlet of the sun. Then her duty was most delicious. She was the living shield, that rejoiced to deflect the most savage blows. Other pains, of desert suns, of letters unwritten, of the touch of his man’s hands, with their queer pronounced finger-joints, would fluctuate, as she carried her baby along the golden tunnels of light.’[7]

Vlaminck-maisons-et-arbres

Maurice de Vlaminck, Maisons et Arbres, 1906.

Julian Barnes remarks that Fauvism was ‘all about heat’ and that ‘the journey towards analytic and then synthetic cubism also plays out in terms of temperature.’ Fauvism ‘is all pinks and mauves, with shouty blues and hilarious oranges: the sun is ferocious, whatever the sky in the picture may pretend.’ Classical Cubism was suspicious of colour, Braque embracing rich browns, greens, greys. ‘By 1910-11 you could have any colour you liked, so long as it was grey, brown or beige.’[8]

HD-via-ND

(H. D. via New Directions)

‘O wind, rend open the heat’, H. D. wrote:

cut apart the heat,
rend it to tatters.

Fruit cannot drop
through this thick air—
fruit cannot fall into heat
that presses up and blunts
the points of pears
and rounds the grapes.

Cut the heat—
plough through it,
turning it on either side
of your path.[9]

But now the cloud is thickening and darkening, and the quickening wind smells of rain, all of this perfectly natural, since I’ve just watered the tomato plants. . .

 
References

[1] Alethea Hayter, A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (London: Faber and Faber, 1965), 47.

[2] Llewellyn Woodward, The Age of Reform: 1815-1870, second edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962), 463.

[3] Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present (London: Harper Collins, 1997), 607.

[4] D. H. Lawrence, ‘Sun’, in The Collected Short Stories of D. H. Lawrence (London: William Heinemann, 1974), 493-508.

[5] D. H. Lawrence, Twilight in Italy, in D. H. Lawrence and Italy (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 163.

[6] Paul Delany, The Neo-Pagans: Friendship and Love in the Rupert Brooke Circle (London: Macmillan, 1987), 211; Letters of D. H. Lawrence II, June 1913-October 1916, edited by George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 330-331.

[7] Patrick White, Voss (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1957), 247.

[8] Julian Barnes, Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art (London: Jonathan Cape, 2015), 195.

[9] H. D., ‘Garden’, in Collected Poems 1912-1944, edited by Louis L. Martz (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1984), 25.

 

Squeaky toys, Punch and Judy

Nobody-for-tennis

(Nobody for tennis?)

The weather continues hot, certainly by British standards. I recall the opening of Samuel Beckett’s first novel as ‘The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. Murphy sat out of it’, pausing there because I can’t remember what comes next (my copy is in a box ‘at another location’, as they say in the storage business), except that it places Murphy somewhere in London, a hundred and twenty miles from my desk. But certainly, as far as is possible, I sit out of it.

If I need to go out, I go as early as I can. In the park, small groups, especially the ones with small children, arrange themselves sensibly under the trees,. A few reckless or uninformed individuals sprawl asleep on unprotected slopes of grass. Small dogs race after balls and squeaky toys. A man and a woman are sitting together on the bench beside the path I’m walking down, with home almost in sight. A terrier races back towards the bench with a rubber ring between its teeth. “Good boy’, says the man. ‘Good girl’, says the woman. Good grief, I think, even the dog has gender issues.

Fourth of July, America’s Independence Day, has been and gone, largely drowned here by the roars of football fans and the smack of racquet on ball at Wimbledon; and muffled too, perhaps, by uncertainty about what precisely independence signifies, truth, equality, liberty and happiness having become so oddly complicated of late.

‘And the American dream isn’t dead, either – we just have no idea what it means any more.’ Sarah Churchwell wrote in Behold, America, reviewed in this week’s TLS.

Behold-America

Brexit, alas, is not dead either: but then nobody—whether unemployed metal workers, rural Tories, billionaire fixers, market traders, Scottish trawler men, barstool economists or, indeed, the people supposedly in charge of the process—ever really knew what that meant and certainly couldn’t agree on what it meant.

‘The acts of people are baffling unless we realize that their wits are disordered’, Edward Dahlberg once wrote. Reviewing the latest sequence in our long-running Punch and Judy show, one can only nod and raise a glass to the man Jonathan Williams called ‘the Job of American Letters’.

 

Strait Expectations

Snow-1802-2

It seems unreasonable to charge the weather with bad faith – but somehow I persuaded myself that we had a deal. After the snow two weeks ago, which was more than enough to slake the appetite of the Librarian for such stuff (‘we never get snow’), I thought that was it. We could proceed peaceably enough* towards a convincing Spring. Clearly not.

So today turned out to involve shuffling to the newsagent; reading at length about the harvesting of Facebook data; brief forays to the bird table with suet pellets; making soup; browsing in a few books; and not having a drink just yet.


And tomorrow – ah, perhaps not ‘fresh Woods, and Pastures new’ but certainly a return to what was previously called ‘normality’. The last scheduled University staff strike day was on Friday. Everyone involved is profoundly hopeful that they can simply get on with their work, that there won’t be a need to schedule any more stoppages but, given that the circumstances which brought this situation about have not substantially changed, any natural optimism is being held firmly in check.

‘But our expectations are always higher than the tallest cathedral, the mightiest wave in a storm, the highest leap of a dancer’, Proust wrote (in James Grieve’s translation).

Not this time, Marcel.

 
* Insert dry smile.

Snow gone, strike on

Snow-Park.2

“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:

https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/live-bristol-students-occupy-university-1297803

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

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/04/letters-universities-deans-lake-district-churchill-ed-sheeran-impress

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.

 

 

 

 

Snow business

Hurley-Mertz leaving hut by trapdoor

Frank Hurley: Mertz leaving the hut via the trapdoor
(Via http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/stories/antarctica-frank-hurley/home-antarctica )

It’s the first day of spring, meteorologically speaking. It’s also the first day for a while that the Librarian hasn’t held out her arms to the east—or, perhaps, to the south-west—while demanding: ‘Send us snow!’ Today being a pause in the strike (caused by the proposed swingeing cuts to university staff pensions), she set off through falling snow on the two-mile walk to work, possibly thinking that was enough of the white stuff to be going on with, though Storm Emma is expected later today and the Met Office has now issued a red weather warning (signifying ‘danger to life’) for south-west England and south Wales from this afternoon.

I accept that, in the Scandinavian countries, in Canada, Mongolia, Russia, Japan, the United States, Austria, Switzerland, Peru, Bolivia and many more, they look askance at the British habit of cities, roads, airports, schools and railways seizing up whenever seven or eight inches of snow falls. But we have a temperate climate and it’s not economically viable to equip a nation, and adapt its infrastructure, for atypical conditions which occur so rarely. That’s the argument I’ve heard many times, anyway, though the phrase ‘economically viable’ is not a stable one in this country at present, given the prevailing order of priorities.

Worldturndupsidedown . Tenniel-Mad-Hatter

In our neck of the woods, anyway, it’s the mere sight of snow, rather than the fact of snow in March, that’s unusual. Other places—Scotland, the North, parts of Wales, traditionally run on different snow tracks. Late in March, near the Anglo-Welsh border, the Reverend Francis Kilvert recorded: ‘A snowy Palm Sunday. Snow on the Palms. Mr. Venables went to Bettws in a dense snowstorm.’ He discerned compensations though. ‘In the afternoon I had the happiness to have all the poor people to myself. None of the grand people were at Church by reason of the snow. So of course I could speak much better and more freely.’[1]

In London too, again in late March, Ezra Pound reported to his father in 1916 ‘the blizzard, 80 big trees down in the park. Counted twenty from bus-top first day I went down to Piccadilly.’[2]

Not yet having reached The Beginning of Spring in my grand revisiting of Penelope Fitzgerald’s work —it’s set in Moscow just before the First World War, anyway—I’m still able to spot that this first day of English spring is far from springlike. Having made the short trip to the newsagent and back in overcoat and boots (via the front entrance, eschewing all trapdoors), though it was hardly matter for a photograph by Frank Hurley or Herbert Ponting, I decided that was probably enough. Go out to gambol through the snow in the park— or stay in with coffee, reading Julian Barnes on Manet, Courbet and Cézanne?

No need even to toss a coin.

References

[1] Entry for 24 March 1872: Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, Three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969), Volume Two (23 August 1871—13 May 1874), 157.

[2] Letter to Homer Pound, 7 April 1916: Ezra Pound to His Parents: Letters 1895–1929, edited by Mary de Rachewiltz, David Moody and Joanna Moody (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 366.

 

Wintry discontents

Winter

It was St Matthew who observed that God ‘maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust’ (Matthew 5:45). Still, some people—very few of whom will fall into such clear-cut categories—get a lot more sun than others; or a lot more rain; or snow; or just weather, generally.

BBC weather reports mention strong winds disrupting events at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang; a tropical storm threatening the Phillipines; and, just over a week ago, the extreme weather in Moscow. The Russian capital had seen its heaviest snowfall in a day since records began, with more than 2000 trees brought down and air travel disrupted, according to official statements. This followed the breaking of another record in December, when the city registered the least amount of sunshine ever seen in a month there.

And here, in the mild South? Glumly dutiful rain today: no snow, of course (though more Northern parts of the country have had plenty), and it’s not even that cold. I turn the thermostat up one degree and it’s comfortable enough. But yes, some days lately have been pretty murky. ‘We just sat and grew older’, Frank Kermode recalled of his early naval experience in the Second World War, parked off the coast of Iceland, ‘as lightless winter followed nightless summer and the gales swept down the funnel of the fjord’.[1]

Patrick Hamilton was probably right to observe that, certainly in the twentieth century, ‘Wars, on the whole, are remembered by their winters.’[2] In the First World War, 1916-17 was claimed to be ‘the coldest winter in living memory.’[3] And the next year? Holidays for some. ‘Even in the doom-struck winter of 1917-18’, E. S. Turner observed, ‘British newspapers carried advertisements headed, “Where to Winter: Monte Carlo.”’[4]

Friedrich, Caspar David, 1774-1840; Winter Landscape

(Caspar David Friedrich, Winter Landscape:
photo credit, The National Gallery)

In war or peace, though, winters take their toll, physically, financially, psychologically, emotionally. ‘Wynter wakeneth al my care’, an anonymous medieval (early fourteenth century) lyricist wrote – or sang, sighing and sorely mourning, ‘When hit cometh in my thoht / Of this worldes joie, hou it geth al to noht.’

Nou hit is, and nou hit nys,
Al so hit ner nere, ywys[5]

(Now it is and now it is not,
As though it had never been, indeed)

White-GWHouse

(http://gilbertwhiteshouse.org.uk/ )

It might well seem that the world’s joy (and much else) was pretty fleeting when the average life expectancy for a male child was not much more than thirty years. In later centuries, people would take a longer view: Gilbert White could look back almost the length of that medieval lifespan when, writing of the winter of 1767-8, he noted that there was ‘reason to believe that some days were more severe than any since the year 1739-40.’[6]

On to Victorian England, where the Reverend Francis Kilvert can record in his diary for Septuagesima Sunday, St Valentine’s Eve, 13 February 1870: ‘the hardest frost we have had yet.’ Arriving at the Chapel, he writes, ‘my beard moustaches and whiskers were so stiff with ice that I could hardly open my mouth and my beard was frozen on to my mackintosh.’[7]

Ah, that old beard and mackintosh combo.

VW-Hut-Int

A little later still: though Virginia Woolf defined ‘the greatest pleasure of town life in winter’ as ‘rambling the streets of London’,[8] the disquieting character of the first winter of the war certainly unsettled her. ‘It’s a queer winter—the worst I ever knew, & suitable for the war & all the rest of it’, she wrote in her diary for Friday 22 January 1915. And, three weeks later: ‘I am sure however many years I keep this diary, I shall never find a winter to beat this. It seems to have lost all self control.’[9]

It was in the winter of the next year that D. H. Lawrence retrospectively placed the apocalyptic moment from which there was no real coming back. ‘It was in 1915 the old world ended. In the winter of 1915-1916 the spirit of the old London collapsed, the city, in some way, perished, perished from being a heart of the world, and became a vortex of broken passions, lusts, hopes, fears, and horrors.’[10]

Lady_Ottoline_Morrell

(Ottoline Morrell by George Charles Beresford, 1864-1938)

That was through the eyes, or in the voice, of his protagonist, Richard Somers, still traumatised by his encounters with officialdom. Lawrence’s letters of the time are not, though, hugely different. To Harriet Monroe, he wrote on 15 September 1915:‘This is the real winter of the spirit in England.’ Less than two months later, though, to Ottoline Morrell, he wrote with—if not optimism, then at least a crack of light—‘There must be deep winter before there can be spring.’

DH-Lawrence

(D. H. Lawrence)

No, definitely not optimism. He is advising her to drift and let go. His postscript reads: ‘Only do not struggle – let go and become dark, quite dark.’[11]

References

[1] Frank Kermode, Not Entitled: A Memoir (London: Harper Collins, 1996), 125.

[2] Patrick Hamilton, The West Pier (1951; in The Gorse Trilogy, Black Spring Press, 2007), 30.

[3] Michael Hurd, The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 94.

[4] E. S. Turner, Dear Old Blighty (London: Michael Joseph 1980), 49.

[5] The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1918, edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), 9, 10.

[6] Gilbert White, The Illustrated History of Selborne (1789; London: Macmillan, 1984), 46.

[7] Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, Three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969), Volume One (1 January 1870—19 August 1871), 34.

[8] Virginia Woolf, ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’, in Selected Essays, edited by David Bradshaw (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 177.

[9] The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume 1: 1915-19, edited by Anne Olivier Bell (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979), 26, 33.

[10] D. H. Lawrence, Kangaroo, edited by Bruce Steele, with an introduction and notes by Mac Daly (1923; Cambridge edition, 1994; London: Penguin, 1997), 216.

[11] Letters of D. H. Lawrence II, June 1913-October 1916, edited by George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 393, 469.

 

Sweet Thames, run softly

Callow, William, 1812-1908; The Rialto Bridge, Venice

(William Callow, Rialto Bridge, Venice. Photo credit: Williamson Art Gallery and Museum, Birkenhead)

Sunday. Slower breakfast, slower survey of the morning’s paper, just to see how hugely 2018 is improving on the previous year. Alas, alas. There seem to be remarkable numbers of people that our rich, highly developed democracy is failing in its basic duty of care. Taking in, among others, the very young, the very old, the poor, the sick, the mentally unwell, the homeless and, oh, women, we appear to be looking at the larger part of the population. Clearly, I must have miscalculated. Then a glance at the foreign news prompts the reflection that, were someone to announce in my hearing that he was a stable genius, I would be simultaneously checking the exits, counting the spoons and making very sure that I didn’t turn my back on him. But again, others clearly take a different view.

Still on the subject of floods and deluges. . . Ninety years ago, I was reading just recently, in the early hours of 7 January 1928, the River Thames flooded, as a result of a storm in the North Sea, which ‘created a tidal surge that raised the waters of the river to their highest recorded level.’[1]

‘As the river wall opposite Tate Britain collapsed the water surged across the road flooding the nine lower ground floor galleries and the basement.’ As for the artworks stored there, 18 were ‘damaged beyond repair, 226 oil paintings were badly damaged and a further 67 slightly damaged. The J. M. W. Turner works on paper stored in the basement were saturated and covered in mud although fortunately their colours hadn’t run. Incredibly, the newly completed Whistler mural in the Tate Restaurant remained undamaged although it too had been completely submerged.’
http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/blogs/day-thames-broke-its-banks-and-flooded-tate-britain

Tate Britain after flood of 1928

© Tate Archive, 2003

Thomas Dilworth mentions that Jim Ede (H. S. Ede), then assistant curator at the Tate—subsequently an early biographer of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and founder of the wonderful Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge—was keeping some of David Jones’s watercolours in that basement, as well as the drawings and watercolours by Turner. They were ‘submerged but kept dry by ark-tight carpentry of a set of cabinets.’ Jones, he adds, ‘appreciated the feat of carpentry as only a poor carpenter can.’

In this context, Dilworth also discusses Jones’s commission for The Chester Play of the Deluge—‘one of the great illustrated books but not as printed in 1927’—asserting that Jones ‘cannot have worked on these engravings for half a year without associating the biblical flood with the Thames flood’—but he then gives the date of the flood as January 1926, which I take to be a simple error.[2]

The Golden Cockerel Press edition appeared in 1927 but it was 1977 before Clover Hill Editions ‘for the first time printed Jones’s wood engravings with the care they should have received (and did not) in the Golden Cockerel edition of 50 years earlier.’[3]

david-jones-animals-going-to-the-ark

(David Jones, engraving number 5, ‘Animals going into the Ark’, via https://chesterculture.wordpress.com/ )

The casualties were not, of course, only among artworks. The Houses of Parliament and the Tower of London were also swamped, as were ‘many of the crowded basement dwellings into which the city’s poorest families were crammed.’
(Jon Kelly, ‘The great 1928 flood of London’: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-26153241 )

An estimated four thousand people were left homeless and, as Sylvia Townsend noted in her diary the following day: ‘Fourteen people were drowned in basements, poor souls, and a fish was caught in the kitchen of Battersea police-station. The basement of the Tate Gallery was filled, which may help to settle the question of the 20,000 Turner sketches. In the basement also were some Rowlandsons, and I suspect my Callow of Venice. Very watery and homelike for it.’[4]

Flood-1928-rescue-via-Guardian

(Flood of 1928 via The Guardian)

‘My Callow of Venice’ puzzled me a little. William Callow was a watercolour painter who died in 1908. The Tate now shows only an 1880 ‘Grand Canal Venice’, watercolour and graphite on paper, ‘presented by the artist’s widow’ in 1909. There is, though, a letter from Sylvia to David Garnett, which elucidates ‘my Callow’:

‘Talking of slighted works of art, have you ever been in the underground of the Tate? A long time ago I lent the Tate a small William Callow, and in 1964 I felt it my duty to see how it was getting on. So I wrote to the Curator and was given an appointment. There was a proper person, who took me down in a lift, and led me through this extraordinary graveyard, crammed with marble nudes wrapped in sheets of cellophane, great furry seascapes and lowering landscapes, portraits of pop-eyed children, blessed damozels, Derby winners; and paused in front of a very incompetent late Victorian nymph clutching some shred of muslin and made entirely of vinolia soap, saying, This, I think, is yours. There was a moment of black panic when I thought I should find myself obliged to make her mine. But in the end my William Callow was found in excellent condition, and quietly on show.
‘If you should ever feel inclined for a little Mortality, behold and fear, do go to the Tate underground.’[5]

 

 

References

[1] Peter Ackroyd, Thames: sacred river (London: Chatto and Windus, 2007), 227.

[2] Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), 97-98.

[3] Roderick Cave, The Private Press, Second Edition (New York: R. R. Bowker, 1983), 227; see Arianne Bankes and Paul Hills, The Art of David Jones: Vision and Memory (Farnham: Lund Humphries, 2015), 34-37.

[4] The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner, edited by Claire Harman (London: Virago Press, 1995), 10.

[5] Letter of 3 March 1968: Richard Garnett, editor, Sylvia and David: The Townsend Warner/ Garnett Letters (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994), 139.