Lights and shadows

The Good and Evil Angels 1795-?c. 1805 by William Blake 1757-1827

(William Blake, The Good and Evil Angels, Tate Britain

Hell beckons. The handcart trundles a little closer. Yemen, Syria, the latest dangerous ravings from the White House. ‘End of days’, the Librarian murmurs. ‘The wheels have come off.’ Our increasingly grubby country offers only unparalleled political paralysis and irresponsibility, a housing secretary for whom the shameful rise in homelessness and rough sleeping in this country is nothing to do with government policies at all, a Labour leader inflicting what may be the final disappointment upon a large number of the party’s supporters and a Prime Minister still fixated on immigration. The death of Paddy Ashdown is a painful reminder that, not so long ago, party differences aside, there were politicians concerned about the welfare of the whole country. Following David Runciman’s provocative suggestion that six-year-olds should be given the vote, interviews with children aged six to twelve in today’s Observer, demonstrate—encouragingly or dispiritingly or both—that they frequently have a sounder grasp of the important issues than those supposedly forming and directing policies in this country – and are more humane also.

https://www.theguardian.com/global/2018/dec/23/should-we-give-children-the-vote-voting-at-age-6-politics-interviews

Against the encroaching darkness, the Librarian puts up strings of lights on walls and doorways, bakes, makes quince gin and quince vodka. I take refuge in the usual things. It’s been an unsettling year, yet a not unbalanced one, with its births and beginnings, deaths and disappearances.

Gin-Vodka

‘The Dyings have been too deep for me’, Emily Dickinson, observed in the Fall of 1884, ‘and before I could raise my Heart from one, another has come.’ In the nineteenth and earlier centuries, death was a more frequent caller, certainly among the young. Still, even now the frequency inevitably increases when one reaches a certain age; and one death often recalls another. Oscar Wilde famously said that, ‘Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.’ Perhaps less contentiously, art shadows life—for those who know the shadows are there—but shadows death also.

I remember sitting on an early evening train more than seven years ago, avoiding the quiet carriage in case somebody called. The train was taking me to London – to tell my mother that the hospital staff would be turning off my sister’s life support machine the following morning. I remember too making the ultimate banal observation – that life continues, everywhere, even in – perhaps especially in – the context of death. Or we simply notice it more readily. At the station, there had been two men on a bench across the tracks; one of them, a Sikh, I think, was dancing while still sitting down. His friend laughed. An elderly couple passed, intent and purposeful; young women out for the evening shimmied and twirled. And in the carriage, the usual noisy blathering into mobile phones. But life. Now. Like it or not, in that present moment, life, the undramatic pulse of it, movement, irrefutable and irreversible.

A woman had a long, very audible conversation on her phone about her father’s latest consultation with the specialist and the conditions necessary for his operation. I read; then felt guilty about reading; then stopped; then remembered that if I didn’t read I would only have other voices in my head. It was dusk, with heavy cloud, gradually darkening, but across the valley, there was a single blazing field, still in brilliant sunlight. I was rereading Women in Love and abruptly realised that I’d reached Chapter XIV, ‘Water-Party’, in which Gerald’s sister Diana dies from drowning, while he repeatedly, desperately, futilely dives in search of her.

Water-party-scene-WIL

(Alan Bates and Jennie Linden in Ken Russell’s Women in Love)

A few years further on. We scatter some of my mother’s ashes in a secluded part of the river; I say a few words, it’s all very peaceful and positive and appropriate. More recently, we scattered the rest in the sea. The tide was coming in, faster and more strongly than expected, night was approaching (also faster than expected). A dropped urn, flooded boots, more than a touch of farce, absurdity – but that seemed oddly appropriate too.

There have been other familial deaths this year, mostly expected or at least unsurprising. But only weeks after the funeral of one of my loved aunts, we attend another. One of the closest and oldest friends of the Librarian’s parents: she herself has known him since she was eight. He was prodigiously gifted, as artist and writer and photographer, possessed of a genius for friendship and for making connections of every kind, one of the bright beings on this earth, whose intellectual curiosity and vitality were like a shot into the bloodstream. I am sitting at one end of the dining-table as we finish lunch and he surges down to sit next to me. ‘What are you reading? What have you found?’ I tell him – and he already knows, has bought, has read – but wants more and, eloquently wanting more, gives back far more than that.

Anathemata DJ-Dedication

Probably not many funeral services begin with the beginning of David Jones’s The Anathemata but, that being one of his favourite works, it’s highly fitting. We sit in Sherborne Cathedral and hear:

‘We already and first of all discern him making this thing other. His groping syntax, if we attend, already shapes:
ADSCRIPTAM, RATAM, RATIONABILEM . . . and by pre-application and for them, under modes and patterns altogether theirs, the holy and venerable hands lift up an efficacious sign.’

Elsewhere, Jones wrote: ‘It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for us to see the wood in which we find ourselves for the trees against which we break our heads and in the tangle of which we break our hearts.’

I came across the order of service for that funeral a day or two ago. ‘Where shall I put this?’ We are standing by the bookshelves and the Librarian hands me a volume of William Blake, another writer he admired. I tuck it inside the back cover.

Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know
Thro the World we safely go
Joy & Woe are woven fine
A Clothing for the soul divine
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine

 

 

Margins and Montague

Cat-hair

What a menu of news: a major earthquake in Mexico, another hurricane battering the Caribbean, and leading politicians well down to their usual standard, whether of dishonest posturing or reckless and irresponsible ranting. Sidestepping further gloom, I decide to forego the pleasures of the churchyard shortcut—a man shooting up on the steps a few weeks ago, two agitated women clearly waiting for The Man a few days ago—and take another route, the way I used to walk to work, to call at the baker, the deli and the fishmonger. I pause only long enough for the visiting cat to successfully deposit some hair on the leg of my trousers before setting off.

The fishmonger is open but seems a little unready, as none of the fish is labelled yet. ‘Am I a bit early?’ I wonder. No, no, he says, then asks casually if I know exactly what I want and mentions, when I come to pay, that he’d prefer a card transaction because he hasn’t sorted out a float yet. But no, I’m not too early, he’s just ‘marginally, marginally late.’ How marginal is that, precisely?

Henry-Thoreau

Margin: an edge or border, blank edge on the page of a book, something allowed more than is needed. ‘I love a broad margin to my life’, Thoreau wrote—and elsewhere: ‘The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure. There will be a wide margin for relaxation to his day.’[1] This is (possibly) not an experience of work and working conditions commonly shared by those on zero-hour contracts in the United Kingdom’s contemporary employment paradise.

I saunter, pausing from time to time to check that the two cartons of double cream—‘Keep upright’—in my rucksack are in fact keeping upright. I am thinking of margins, firstly of that blank edge of a book’s page. W. J. Jackson wrote a book entirely about the notes that found their way there: Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books (Yale University Press, 2002) and the British Library holds William Blake’s copy of the three-volume set of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, with their extensive annotations in Blake’s hand (there are—of course—books and articles wholly devoted to these).

When Sr Joshua Reynolds died
All Nature was degraded;
The King dropd a tear into the Queens ear;
And all his Pictures Faded.[2]

reynolds-joshua-works-B20132-53

Blake’s copy of Reynolds’ Works: British Library.
(‘To Generalize is to be an Idiot  To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit—General Knowledges are those Knowledges that Idiots possess’)

In Lawrence Durrell’s Sebastian, ‘In the margin of a book she had borrowed from Sutcliffe’, Constance ‘had found the scribbled words: “The same people are also others without realising it.”’[3] Robert Phelps wrote to James Salter: ‘Scrapbooks, footnotes, almanacs, letters, diaries, questionnaires, marginalia, memos, alphabets . . . how I love them. Pasolini once called himself a “pasticheur.” I think I am an annotator. The story exists for the scribbled notes in the margin.’[4]

Secondly, that edge or border, often physical, often psychological and sometimes both at the same time. In war, certainly in the First World War, that sense of being on the edge of things, never having sufficient information to know what was actually going on, worsened by feeling abandoned or forgotten. Eric Leed wrote: ‘Astonishing numbers of those who wrote about their experience of war designate No Man’s Land as their most lasting and disturbing image. This was a term that captured the essence of an experience of having been sent beyond the outer boundaries of social life, placed between the known and the unknown, the familiar and uncanny. The experience of war was an experience of marginality, and the “change of character” undergone by the combatant could adequately be summarized as marginalization.’[5]

David Jones writes of John Ball and his comrades (‘Here they sat, his friends, serving their harsh novitiate’), in contrast to the Army Service Corps, Base-wallahs, Staff-wallahs and the like: ‘but these sit in the wilderness, pent like lousy rodents all the day long; appointed scape-beasts come to the waste-lands, to grope; to stumble at the margin of familiar things—at the place of separation.’[6]

‘Marginal’ is often applied to those figures that are viewed as of secondary importance, off-centre: but in some disciplines, the centre has an unsettling habit of shifting.[7] Certainly, in the arts, the ‘canon’ broadens and deepens constantly as some of the most important figures of previous generations are found not to last, the new questions addressed to them getting little or nothing in reply.

Montague-Capt-Cadge-censors

(C. E. Montague and Captain Cadge as army censors via Spartacus International

That third margin, the ‘something allowed more than is needed’, is a critical element in the title story of C. E. Montague’s Action (1928), part of our recent haul from Hay-on-Wye. It concerns Christopher Bell, ‘reigning sovereign’ of a dynasty of Manchester merchant princes, who wakes one morning to feel a numbness down one side of his body. He has fought in the Great War, during which he lost his beloved wife, and is a keen climber. Facing a future of invalid-chair and male nurse, and after a couple of humiliating allowances being made for his condition, he revolts. He won’t commit suicide but, reading of a great climber’s ‘greatest adventures’, Bell wonders how big a margin of safety had attended that successful expedition: ‘what if such a party were to try paring and paring away at that pretty wide margin?’ He returns to an old haunt, Zinal, in the Swiss canton of Valais, in late September. His target is a glacier with ice ‘steep and bare and blue’—with an overhang: ‘nowhere in the whole thousand feet of ascent would a man have a foothold to stand on, unless he made it.’ He climbs conscientiously until genuinely exhausted: ‘that was the end, he felt, of all possible effort’. Then a falling ice-axe and the standard Alpine cry for help, alerts him to a drama just above the overhang: a woman at the end of a rope which her husband desperately hangs on to above her. Bell is galvanised into heightened, unthinking action, and all three are eventually saved. In the Weisshorn hut, while she sleeps, he tells the man, Gollen, who’s a doctor, his symptoms. Gollen talks about artists, saints, raised to the uttermost through action, ‘“every bit of your consciousness taken up into some ecstasy of endeavour that’s passion and peace.”’ Looking out at the mountain under the moon, Gollen asks, when Bell says it’s ‘all right’, whether it’s all right enough. Bell says oh yes, he’s ‘sticking on’.

Thirty pages in my pocket edition,[8] and a story, ‘inspired by a report of a climber who had died of exposure on Kinder Scout following a mountain storm on New Year’s Day 1922’, which manages to touch on a surprising number of themes, the effects of the recent war, masculinity, heroism, trauma and recovery.[9]

Montague himself might be regarded as a ‘marginal’ man but is of great interest to those working in and around the Great War, especially those concerned with its after-effects, social and cultural, through the nineteen-twenties.

There’s an informative page on Montague at Spartacus International:
http://spartacus-educational.com/Jmontague.htm
and he also crops up on Josh Levithan’s remarkable site, A Century Back
http://www.acenturyback.com/
and on George Simmers’ excellent Great War Fiction blog:
https://greatwarfiction.wordpress.com/

Some very good criticism on Montague can be found in Andrew Frayn’s Writing Disenchantment: British First World War Prose, 1914-30 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014) and in his essay, ‘“What a victory it might have been”: C. E. Montague and the First World War’, in Trudi Tate and Kate Kennedy, editors, The Silent Morning: Culture and Memory After the Armistice (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 131-148.

Montague is a fascinating figure who really illuminates some important aspects of the post-war period—and I’m still reading him.

 
References

[1] Henry David Thoreau, Walden, edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004), 108 and note.

[2] The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake, newly revised edition, edited by David V. Erdman (New York: Anchor Books, 1988), 641. This edition also includes Blake’s underlinings and annotations in works by Swedenborg, Lavater, Bacon, Wordsworth, Edward Young and others.

[3] Durrell, Sebastian or Ruling Passions (1983), in the Avignon Quintet, one-volume edition (London: Faber and Faber, 2004), 978.

[4] Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps, edited by John McIntyre (Berkeley, California: Counterpoint, 2010), 38.

[5] Eric J. Leed, No Man’s Land: Combat and Identity in World War I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 15.

[6] David Jones, In Parenthesis (1937; London: Faber and Faber 1963), 70.

[7] So the first two, at least, of Piers Gray’s Marginal Men: Edward Thomas; Ivor Gurney; J. R. Ackerley (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1991) are much more visible twenty-five years later.

[8] C. E. Montague, Action (1928; London: Chatto & Windus, Phoenix Library, 1936), 1-31.

[9] Paul Gilchrist, ‘Mountains, Manliness and Post-war Recovery: C.E. Montague’s “Action”’, Sport in History, 33:3 (2013), 288 and passim.