On a postcard, please


Blackberrying again: working our way down bushes on the slopes of the park, filling plastic containers, taking them home, rinsing the fruit in a colander, transferring them to compostable bags and sticking them in the freezer. It seems, oddly, like a blow on behalf of the ordinary universe. As are the hot air balloons, going over so early some mornings, as they have done for years. And, as I have done for years, I step outside and stare up at the sky and feel a strange sense of reassurance, of confirmation, of a fitness in the world.

We have stepped, or been forced, outside of all that. Our recent pleasures have included quite ridiculous weather and quite ridiculous politics. Or, more soberly, terrifying weather and terrifying politics, two areas intimately linked, of course. There have been hot summers before, 1976, 1911, and droughts, such as 1921, 1911 again – and 1976, again. But in recent years, it is no longer in a metaphorical sense, or even a hyperbolic one, that we say: the world is on fire. Set against this, of course, is the continuing failure of governments to meet the urgency of need with priority of response. If major heart surgery is needed, sticking a plaster on the patient’s thumb strikes some of us as less than adequate. But there is also the massive disconnect, the stolid denial that individual actions can make any difference – while the careful sorting of paper, cardboard and plastics for the weekly collection somehow co-exists in the same single life with a steely determination, and a conviction of entitlement, to fly to three holiday destinations every year.


Walking on one of the quieter paths in the Victorian cemetery, we pass a wedding reception at the Underwood Centre, several dozen guests in a woodland setting. In the midst of death we are in life. It is odd, to say the least, to know, or at least to suspect, that after so many centuries of progress, if you can call it that, of achievement, if that’s what it is, we are living in an age of extinction, an age in which things will not simply slow down or even go backwards but will just stop and die. We don’t want to think of such things… and the vast majority of us  – manage not to

 04:28 – and the cat feels it’s time to begin discussing breakfast. The workmen won’t be here to plague us for another three and a half hours. But there’s the light – and the birdsong. ‘All winter long’, William Maxwell wrote to Eudora Welty in June 1979, ‘I worried because there were no birds, and now there is such a racket you can’t hear yourself think.’[1] (Not long before this, he’d written: ‘In some ways the most beautiful journeys are the ones you don’t take’, which are the journeys I’ve been enjoying for a while now, liking them more and more.)

‘In this weather’—Maxwell again, this time in the summer of 1953, ‘one needs astonishment in the head to keep the heat out.’[2] That afternoon, listening to the rain on the windows, I was struck by the consciousness of what I was doing and the moment in which I was doing it: listening to the rain. It was late in the hottest day ever recorded in this country, the bulletins said, the hottest anyway since the day before. Fires were reported all over the United Kingdom, in London, South Yorkshire, Leicestershire. Our temperate northern climate, forsooth.

All those weary years, those decades, in which the warnings were given, the recommendations made, the figures presented – and nothing done and nothing done and nothing done. It would have been so much cheaper then, more manageable then, the future infinitely strengthened and sweetened then. But we had no influential figures equal to the task. Nor have we had any since. And, looking at the poor creatures now, with their paucity of ideas and their disgusting gestures at policy, it’s painfully evident why we have declined so fast and so far.

‘It does no good to regret history’, Samuel Hynes remarked, ‘all we can do is to try to understand it.’[3] That seems reasonable enough, though forces here, there and everywhere want something quite other. Why understand it? Here’s the version we like – why not go with that?


As Sarah Churchwell recently remarked, ‘The past has consequences in the present regardless of whether we know what happened in it; learning the history makes those consequences intelligible.’[4]

The other day, in an attempt to prevent the Librarian’s determined misquoting of a couple of lines in Dirty Harry, I played her the clip: at the end, the wounded man, maddened by the uncertainty about whether Harry has fired five shots or six, says: ‘I gots to know! I gots to know!’

Yes, I think I suffer a little from that compulsion. Is there one left – or is it already empty?

Answers on a postcard, please – but then you may as well recycle them.


Notes

[1] Suzanne Marrs, editor, What There Is to Say, We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 348.

[2] What There Is to Say, We Have Said, 35.

[3] Samuel Hynes, ‘Introduction: A Note on “Edwardian”, in Edwardian Occasions: Essays on English Writing in the Early Twentieth Century (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972), 11.

[4] Sarah Churchwell, The Wrath to Come: Gone With the Wind and the Lies America Tells (London: Head of Zeus, 2022), 11.

Walking early, falling surely


We are walking early to avoid the heat – not ‘The game is afoot! Into your clothes and come!’ early; and not recent Southern European heat –we’re talking, rather, of very warm English days and returning at more or less the time scheduled for the cat’s morning snack (not breakfast: that’s a separate issue).

Already, in the smallish park en route to the cemetery, there are people with dogs, plus a few without dogs and occasionally those displaying neither dogs nor signs of motion. They sit or lie on the grass and don’t move at all. Perhaps they are hoping that history—especially rancid and rancorous of late—will pass them by.

News from Ukraine and the United States, and such features as the interview with the admirable Maria Alyokhina, may put this country’s constant troubles and relentless decline into perspective but those troubles are serious enough.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jul/11/pussy-riot-maria-alyokhina-putin-crimes-hitler-years-of-resistance

At present the news media—predominantly right-wing in the UK—is convulsed by another struggle for the Conservative Party leadership. Because the only required quality in senior government ministers was unquestioning agreement with Boris Johnson, there is, unsurprisingly, little evidence of talent, ability or intellectual strength among the candidates. There are, indeed, only variations in unpleasantness. Though a surprising number of Tories have suddenly discovered ‘integrity’ in the past week or two – how to pronounce it rather than how to practise it – all these Prime Ministerial hopefuls agree that trafficking refugees to Rwanda, or some other country with a dubious record on human rights, is a damned fine idea. Then, too, most of them beat the familiar drum of delusional tax cuts, confident that the unreflecting will go no further than recognising this too as a damned fine idea. To those of us who’ve noticed the collapse in public services and recognise the reasons for that collapse—and who remember the recent history of Britain’s railway system and its energy sector—it’s a little less fine.

Refugees, immigration, the right to protest, voter suppression, public services, education, climate emergency: in a country that had not lost its senses, people like these with the views they have on such issues would simply and rightly be regarded as reprehensible individuals. As it is, one of them will soon become Prime Minister of this country, backed by a vote of well under 1% of its population. 

Still, I’ve begun reading the estimable Sarah Churchwell’s The Wrath to Come: Gone With the Wind and the Lies America Tells – which will educate me but not, I suspect, cheer me up that much. One of its central questions, ‘What the hell happened to America?’, I’ve voiced myself, though not as often as I’ve applied the same question to my own country.


Deceptively, the sky is a pure, untroubled blue (or rather, troubled only by the repeated aircraft trails). The parasol is up; butterflies and bees are busy about their daily dealings. The  hammering of workmen pauses every so often to allow for the solo wails of ambulance sirens. But a little later, quiet is restored, the makings of a simple dinner – and the birthday champagne – are in the fridge, the cat is settled in a large earthenware pot in the garden. All is right, you might say, with the world – always excepting a significant number of the people in it and the damage they do.

Á votre santé!

Storm warnings

Rousseau, Theodore, 1812-1867; Landscape with a Stormy Sky

(Theodore Rousseau, Landscape with a Stormy Sky: Victoria and Albert Museum)

Walking in the park, the Librarian remarks on how beautiful the light is: lying on the trees, the mosque glimpsed between buildings on the facing hill and the lines of colourful housefronts. The light is, yes, extraordinary—but not least because of the violent mixing of colours on the sky’s palette. Above the trees behind us, there’s a great stretch of glowering darkness, which collides at one point with a patch of pure brilliance, untouched by any shadow or streak of darker colour. Above another clump of trees, a cloud of deep grey seemingly squats among the branches.

As with sky, of course, so with a great deal else. Those with the good fortune to be readers of Louis MacNeice think often of ‘Snow’, which reads in part:

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.[1]

‘Incorrigibly plural’, yes. There are simplicities, to be sure, but not always where our contemporary ‘culture warriors’ believe—or pretend to believe—they are. Elsewhere, MacNeice writes:

‘We are not changing ground to escape from facts
But rather to find them. This complex world exacts
Hard work of simplifying; to get its focus
You have to stand outside the crowd and caucus.’[2]

Now we are watching the trees bend; the door propped carefully open when the cat insists on fresh air; one brief and bitter squall of rain earlier; the wind yesterday afternoon and evening irritable, confidently predicted to be furious today. The worst storm in three decades, one forecast reads.

unknown artist; View of the Cobb and the Bay, Lyme Regis, Dorset

(Unknown artist: View of the Cobb and the Bay, Lyme Regis, Dorset: Lyme Regis Museum)

Novelist John Fowles wrote of the famous Cobb at Lyme Regis that it was not only a harbour but ‘a gigantic breakwater protecting the town from the great storms out of the south-west.’[3] That’s the quarter from which this storm is coming, as often before. Francis Kilvert wrote in his diary of a visit to Claremont House: ‘When the S.W. gales blew and rattled the windows Lord Clive used to get up in the night to wedge them tight and guineas being more plentiful with him than anything else he always used them. The housemaids used to transfer these guineas to their own pockets in the morning and prayed with reason for a S.W. storm.’[4]

Little wonder and plenty of reason, with an annual salary of around £20.

 Before the great storm of October 1987—an extreme depression in the Bay of Biscay moving north-eastwards—there were tough UK winters in 1962-63 and another drifting out of my lifetime, 1946-47. A few years before that, Rosamond Lehmann wrote in her story, ‘When the Waters Came’: ‘The wind was a steel attack; sharp knobs of ice came whirling off the elms and struck her in the face’, while the news at the post office was that: ‘The peacock at the farm had been brought in sheathed totally in ice: that was the most impressive item.’[5] This was, presumably, the wave of freezing weather in January 1940. The River Thames froze then for the first time since 1888 and there was a terrific ice storm across the country late in the month.

Hondius, Abraham, c.1625-1691; The Frozen Thames, Looking Eastwards towards Old London Bridge, London

(Abraham Hondius, The Frozen Thames, Looking Eastwards towards Old London Bridge, London: Museum of London)

In a diary entry of Sunday 8 December 1872, Kilvert wrote: ‘The morning had been lovely, but during our singing practice after evening church at about half past four began the Great Storm of 1872.’[6] In the eighteenth century, Gilbert White noted the  punishing winter of 1767-8: some days, he remarked, were more severe than any since 1739-40. But top billing was given to the ‘amazing tempest’, the great storm of November 1703.[7]

‘From the middle of the month there were gales’, Alexandra Harris writes, ‘and then on the evening of the 26th the wind grew unnerving. By midnight a hurricane was blasting across England, and there was no let-up until dawn. Fatalities were eventually calculated at about eight thousand. The greatest terror of the night was out in the Channel, where thirteen Royal Navy ships and their crews were drowned. On land barely a building survived intact. It remains the most violent storm recorded in England.’[8]

Up until ten this morning, the wind was fitful but not too severe. Predictably, some people were already dismissing the forecasts—‘Nothing’s happening!’—but footage of seafronts in south Wales and south-west England bore them out and I don’t plan to be walking under any trees today. I like this calm space, within easy reach of the kettle and the cooker. Eye of the storm. In Patrick White’s great novel of that name, Elizabeth Hunter’s daughter Dorothy, on the way to Australia, sits next to a Dutchman who tells her about a storm he experienced, being at sea when a typhoon struck. ‘For several hours we were thrown and battered – till suddenly calm fell – the calmest calm I have ever experienced at sea. God had willed us to enter the eye – you know about it? the still centre of the storm – where we lay at rest – surrounded by hundreds of seabirds, also resting on the water.’[9]

White-Eye-Storm

In a letter to Ingmar Björkstén (21 January 1973), who had asked about which of his novels felt closest to him, White confessed his difficulty. ‘I tend to feel close to The Aunt’s Story because in the beginning it was either ignored, or, in Australia, considered a freak. My feeling has been much as I imagine parents would feel towards a child who is not quite normal: they have to protect it. I also feel very close to The Solid Mandala because it conveys a certain nightmarish quality of life which I have experienced, though the incidents in the novel are hardly parallel to anything in my actual life. But at the moment I am obsessed by my latest book The Eye of the Storm, because in it I think I have come closer to giving the final answer.’[10]

David Marr, White’s biographer, remarked that: ‘The Eye of the Storm has the fundamental plot of all the books White wrote after falling in the storm at Castle Hill: the erratic, often unconscious search for God.’[11]

In his story centred on the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, killed at Neuville-Saint-Vaast in 1915, Guy Davenport wrote: ‘But our knowledge, which must come from contemplation and careful inspection, has collided with a storm, a vortex of stupidity and idiocy.’[12]

At least we don’t have to contend with anything like that, do we? To be sure, the storm is really getting into its stride now but it’s just the weather we have to worry about, no?

Notes

[1] Louis MacNeice, Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 24.

[2] Louis MacNeice, ‘Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard’, Letters from Iceland, W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice (London: Faber & Faber, 1937), 31.

[3] John Fowles, A Short History of Lyme Regis (Stanbridge: The Dovecote Press, 2004), 10.

[4] Francis Kilvert, Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969), I, 297.

[5] Rosamond Lehmann, The Gypsy’s Baby and Other Stories (1946; London: Virago Press, 1982), 94.

[6] Kilvert’s Diary, II, 288-289.

[7] Gilbert White, The Illustrated History of Selborne (London: Macmillan, 1984), 46, 19-20.

[8] Alexandra Harris, Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English  Skies (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015), 170.

[9] Patrick White, The Eye of the Storm (London: Penguin Books, 1975), 69.

[10] Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 410.

[11] David Marr, Letters, 354; on the fall, see  Patrick White: A Life (London: Vintage, 1992), 281ff.

[12] Guy Davenport, ‘The Bowmen of Shu’, in Twelve Stories (Washington: Counterpoint, 1997), 140.

Tapping the glass


(Ernest Board, ‘The discovery of the barometer: Torricelli experimenting in the Alps’, 1643: Wellcome Collection.)

Alluding to the still-controversial matter of Edward Jenner’s experiments, Lord Byron in 1818 observed:

But vaccination certainly has been
    A kind antithesis to Congreve’s rockets,
With which the Doctor paid off an old pox,
By borrowing a new one from an ox.

The Congreve rocket, the editors note, was used at the Battle of Leipzig (1813), producing sufficient noise and glare to frighten and confuse the French.[1]

Fright and confusion have been much in evidence lately, not least in connection with vaccination rather than the Congreve rocket. But then Jenner’s use of cowpox germs led to resistance on religious grounds, people refusing to be treated with ‘substances originating from God’s lowlier creatures’ and when vaccination was made compulsory in 1853, this ‘led to protest marches and vehement opposition from those who demanded freedom of choice.’[2]

The rain, currently exercising its freedom of choice, appears to positively enjoy being rain and doing the things rain does. ‘How dark/ seems the whole country we enter’, the poet Keith Douglas wrote, ‘Now it rains,/ the trees like ominous old men are shaking.’[3] In her novel set in late 15th century Somerset, Samantha Harvey’s narrator observes that: ‘In the village at this time of year we had only one way of telling the weather: if you can see the ridge, you know it’s going to rain; if you can’t, it’s already raining.’[4]

Wet or dry, the last week or two has seen me out for the most part on my own, sticking mainly to the lower paths in the park because my back was noticeably resentful of hills and acutely keen to tell me so. The Librarian has been walking later and alone, for longer and on an altogether higher plane. Aware that I was missing some lines from the handful of poems committed to memory, I’ve taken to carrying a paperback in my pocket so I can prompt myself. My memory seems more and more to resemble the version proposed by Mr Sherlock Holmes to a sceptical Dr John Watson early in A Study in Scarlet, the brain as a kind of attic with limited space, so that: ‘“Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before.”’[5]


I’m reasonably discreet but a woman with a child in a pushchair may have flinched a little to hear as she passed me that ‘John Macdonald found a corpse, put it under the sofa,/ Waited till it came to life, and hit it with a poker’. Describing the same circular route as myself, though in the contrary direction, she may have been in time to catch the last run through: ‘It’s no go the Herring Board, it’s no go the Bible,/ All we want is a packet of fags when our hands are idle.’ The last lines of MacNeice’s poem seem painfully apt: ‘The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall for ever,/ But if you break the bloody glass you won’t hold up the weather.’[6]

In my sunnier moments, it also prompts the thought of how many houses used to have barometers—I must have come across dozens—and how relatively few do so now. It’s hardly surprising: they were for use not ornament and the Met Office forecasts are increasingly accurate. There’s also this new-fangled thing called the internet.


(North east view of Selbourne, from The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne by Gilbert White © The British Library Board)

The naturalist Gilbert White, at whose house barometers and thermometers ‘were much-prized members of the household’—and who was ‘assiduous’ in his readings and recordings—wrote of house-crickets that: ‘Whatever is moist they affect; and therefore often gnaw holes in wet woollen stockings and aprons that are hung to the fire: they are the housewife’s barometer, foretelling her when it will rain; and are prognostic sometimes, she thinks, of ill or good luck; of the death of a near relation, or the approach of an absent lover. By being the constant companions of her solitary hours they naturally become the objects of her superstition.’[7]

Pressure rising, pressure falling. We don’t, I suppose, really need to tap the glass of a barometer these days. Farce or tragedy or tragicomedy, it’s being played out before our eyes—quite enlightening, no doubt, for those in the habit of thinking that we had only the one plague to contend with.

Writing little more than a year before his death, Byron had a word about barometers:

The London winter’s ended in July,
    Sometimes a little later. I don’t err
In this: whatever other blunders lie
    Upon my shoulders, here I must aver
My Muse a glass of weatherology;
    For Parliament is our barometer:
Let radicals its other acts attack,
Its sessions form our only almanac.[8]

If Parliament is our barometer now, I think it’s safe to say that the weather prospects are not encouraging.


Notes

[1] Lord Byron, ‘Canto I’, Don Juan, edited by T. G. Steffan, E. Steffan and W. W. Pratt (London: Penguin Books, 1996), 78, 580n. On the proof, Byron’s friend, John Cam Hobhouse wrote: ‘Mon cher ne touchez pas à la petite Verole [smallpox]’: ‘Appendix’, 757.

[2] See: https://www.jenner.ac.uk/about/edward-jenner (accessed 8 January 2022)

[3] Keith Douglas, last lines of ‘Soissons’ (1940): The Complete Poems of Keith Douglas, edited by Desmond Graham (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 47. Soissons is a commune in Hauts-de-France, roughly 100 kilometres north-east of Paris.

[4] Samantha Harvey, The Western Wind (London: Jonathan Cape, 2018), 91.

[5] Arthur Conan Doyle, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels, edited with notes by Leslie S. Klinger (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company 2006), 34.

[6] Louis MacNeice, ‘Bagpipe Music’, Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 95, 96.

[7] Alexandra Harris, Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English  Skies (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015), 209; Gilbert White, The Illustrated History of Selborne (London: Macmillan, 1984), 210.

[8] Byron, ‘Canto XIII’, Don Juan 453.

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.