Sunday, 3 July 2022

The Strange Fate of Mr Hardy's Heart

 Browsing in one of my late uncle's very well organised scrapbooks (mostly newspaper cuttings about politics and theatre, alas), I came across a splendidly macabre tale of what happened – or might have happened – to Thomas Hardy's heart after he died. Hardy, bleak atheist (or God-hater) though he was, wanted to be buried in the churchyard of Stinsford, Dorset (the Mellstock of his Wessex), 'unless the Nation strongly desires otherwise' – which inevitably it did, demanding a Westminster Abbey burial. So it was decided that Hardy's heart would be taken for burial in Stinsford churchyard and the rest of his body cremated for an urn burial at the Abbey.
When Hardy died at his home in Dorchester (the hideous Max Gate), his heart was duly removed and the undertaker Charles Hannah, who had buried both Hardy's parents, wrapped it in a tea towel and placed it for safe keeping in a biscuit tin. Alas, the tin proved less than secure, and a household cat managed to get the lid off and eat the greater part of the heart (cats, for the record, are averse to human flesh – unlike dogs – but will eat human offal). Charlie Hannah, discovering this, took an executive decision. 'Mr 'Ardy wanted 'is 'eart buried at Stinsford,' he declared, 'and buried at Stinsford Mr 'Ardys 'eart shall be.' With which he wrung the poor cat's neck and crammed it back into the biscuit tin, which now contained Mr 'Ardy's 'eart nestled in the stomach of a dead cat. If this it true, then that curious combination is what was interred, with due ceremony, in Stinsford churchyard (in the grave of Emma, Hardy's much-wronged first wife). It would explain why, instead of being presented for burial in the modestly sized urn prepared for the occasion, Hardy's heart was buried in a polished wooden box large enough to contain biscuit tin, cat, heart and all. So the story may well be true. Either way, Hardy would surely have relished the tale. 

Friday, 1 July 2022

'It made me extremely happy...'

 Acting on a hot tip from a trusted source, I did something I rarely do these days: I read a new work of fiction. Well, almost new – Sam Riviere's Dead Souls was published last year – but since then, after a slow start, it has, I gather 'taken New York by storm'. If so, that's a surprise because it is, among other things, a very English work set in a very English scene – specifically the English poetry scene. Not, however, the English poetry scene as we know it, but strangely transformed into an exaggerated, hypertrophied version of itself by developments in what we must take to be the near future, as it is much like the present, only that bit worse. In particular, a piece of software, the QACS (quantitative analysis and comparison system), capable of detecting plagiarism, or rather duplication, in any writer's works and thereby triggering a career-ending pile-on, has had devastating effects on prose fiction, leaving only the poets standing – or, in many cases, falling victim. Solomon Wiese, a poet who thought he had found a way around the software – and was not in any normal sense plagiarising – is a recent casualty, and it is his story, told in the course of one night in the bar of the Travelodge by Waterloo Bridge (which, we are told, has an all-night licence and is therefore a magnet for poets), that forms the bulk of Dead Souls. Listening to Solomon Wiese's tale is an unnamed narrator who is a poetry editor and translator and has just delivered a reading of works by an absent Ukrainian poet to an audience none of whom, the narrator realises, actually wants to be there, but all of whom feel obliged to show their faces and maintain their positions in the fiercely competitive and fissiparous world of the English poetry scene. Solomon Wiese's tale – indeed the whole novel – is told in one unbroken paragraph, conventionally punctuated but tending towards very long sentences, often packed with subordinate clauses, qualifications and clarifications, and anchored periodically by the reminder 'Solomon Wiese said' (in the manner of the 'Austerlitz said' at the end of the torrential sentences in Sebald's Austerlitz).  This way of writing reminded me strongly of another novel I read recently – Javier Marias's The Infatuations – and, as with the Marias, I enjoyed being carried along on these great surging rollers of prose. As a satire, Dead Souls is gloriously bitter and very funny, increasingly funny as it (and the night in the Travelodge bar) goes on. It's a thoroughly unusual novel, English in its subject matter but in style and spirit very far from what we might expect of a contemporary English novel. It is rather wonderful that such a big mainstream  house as Weidenfeld & Nicolson should have published it – hats off to them, and to Sam Riviere for having produced something so bracingly original and so hugely enjoyable. 
The back jacket is covered with blurbs so peppered with reviewers' adjectives that I suspected they might all be part of the satire (alas, they are not) – 'Mordant, torrential, incantatory, Bolano-esque, Perec-ian' ... 'Beautiful, intricately humane and gut-wrenchingly funny' ... 'Sublime, legendary, delightfully unhinged'... 'Whip-smart, razor-sharp, wise-funny'... I'd agree with one blurber's conclusion, though: 'It made me extremely happy, and I dreaded it ending.' Me too. 

Thursday, 30 June 2022

Cat-English: Kingsley's Soft Side

 Another batch of what I laughingly call 'my papers' having turned up, I was browsing through some old copies of The Listener. In the issue of 11th June, 1987, I found this poem by – rather surprisingly – Kingsley Amis, a man not known for soft-hearted sentimentality, but a cat-lover none the less: 'I am enough of a cat-lover,' he wrote, 'to be suspicious of a household that doesn't have a cat ... I associate a person having a cat with them being gentler with other people.' The poem was written for an anthology of new poetry for children, Island of the Children, compiled by Angela Huth. 


It may seem funny but my cat
Is learning English. Think of that!
For years she did all right with 'Meow',
But that won’t satisfy her now,
And, where before she’d squawk or squeak,
She’ll try with all her might to speak.
So when I came downstairs today
I was impressed to hear her say
'Hallo'. Not like a person, true;
It might not sound quite right to you,
More of a simple squeak or squawk,
Still, that’s what happens when cats talk;
Their mouths and tongues and things are fine,
But different shapes from yours and mine;
They simply try their level best
And our good will must do the rest.
So, when I pick up Sarah’s dish
And ask who’s for a spot of fish,
I have to listen carefully,
But I’ve no doubt she answers, 'Me!'
And when I serve her with the stuff
It’s 'Ta', she tells me, right enough.
Well now, I could go on about
Her call of 'Bye!' when I go out
And 'Hi!' when I come home again
But by this stage the point is plain:
If you’ve a sympathetic ear
Cat-English comes through loud and clear;
Of course, the words are short and few,
The accent strange, and strident too,
And our side never gets a crack
At any kind of answer back,
But think of it the other way,
With them to listen, you to say.
Imagine the unholy row
You’d make with 'Mew!' and 'Purr!' and 'Meow!'
And not get anything across!
Sarah would give her head a toss,
Her nose or tail a scornful twitch –
I cannot really settle which –
And gaze at you in sad distress
For such pathetic childishness.
Unless you want a snub like that,
Leave all the talking to your cat.

[I've known cats myself that vocalise something very like 'Hello', but that's as far as it goes.]

Johnsonian Jottings

 Returning once again from Lichfield, I brought with me, not for the first time, a volume of the Johnson Society's transactions. These are available at a fiver a pop from the bookshop attached to the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum, and are just the right length to beguile the 90-minute train journey back to London. This time I picked up the 1996 Transactions, and found it full of good reading and fascinating titbits (for anyone with Johnsonian inclinations). Beginning with an excellent essay on Boswell's Life of Johnson by Professor Ian Campbell, the slim volume also includes a very perceptive account of Johnson's uneasy relationship with Boswell's wife, the story of how the famous statue of Johnson in Lichfield marketplace came to be erected, an essay on 'that clever dog Burney' (Charles Burney, the great historian of music, father of Fanny and friend of Johnson), and a short piece on Johnson's famous letter to his unsatisfactory patron Lord Chesterfield ('Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with concern on a man struggling in the water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed until I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it, till I am solitary and cannot impart it, till I am known and do not want it...'). 
  Boswell's wife, Margaret née Montgomerie, remarked, apropos her husband's devotion to the ursine Johnson, 'I have seen many a bear led by a man: but I never before saw a man led by a bear.' Johnson had real affection for Mrs B, but it was not reciprocated: the Doctor was too powerful a rival for her husband's time and attention. Johnson's irregular hours and messy, uncouth habits made him a far from ideal house guest, but he could certainly write a gracious apology: 'Make my compliments to Mrs Boswell' [he writes to Boswell] ' and tell her that I do not love her the less for wishing me away. I gave her trouble enough and shall be glad, in recompense, to give her any pleasure.' On another occasion, Boswell returned to his wife in a sorry state, following a long debauch, just as a letter from Johnson to Mrs Boswell arrived: 'You will now have Mr Boswell home; it is as well that you have him: he has led a wild life ... Pray take care of him and tame him. The only thing in which I have the honour to agree with you is, in loving him.'
  A couple more snippets. In Johnson's dictionary, under the definition of 'lich' ('A dead carcase'), 'Lichfield, the field of the dead, a city in Staffordshire, so named from martyred christians. Salve magna parens [Hail, great parent].' And here's a quotation from Dr Johnson by Mrs Thrale (1984, edited by Richard Ingrams): 'When [David] Garrick told Mrs Thrale that Johnson felt there was no other town like Lichfield, she replied, "There is no town which ever produced two such men." "Oh," replied Garrick, "I am only the gizzard, madam, trussed under the turkey's wing."' 

Saturday, 25 June 2022

Carr's Tennyson

What will be the lasting legacy of that extraordinary one-off J.L. Carr, novelist, publisher, teacher, map-maker and eccentric (about whom I have written frequently on this blog)? Certainly his haunting short novel A Month in the Country (another extraordinary one-off) will last, having rightly achieved classic status. His other novels, each one so different from all the others, are excellent in their way(s), but lack the special magic of A Month in the Country.  Byron Rogers' biography of Carr, The Last Englishman, surely deserves to rank among the classics of the form, and will keep the memory of the man alive. And there is another Carr legacy: the long series of Carr's Pocket Books which he published, edited, illustrated and printed at his Quince Tree Press in Kettering. These very small, genuinely pocket-size books – ideal 'for reading in cold bedrooms and/or the bath' – are always a joy to find. The choice of subjects – poetry and prose selections, pocket dictionaries of cricketers, parsons, eponymists, etc. – reflect Carr's own range of interests, and the books are lovingly made, often surprising and highly individual. Yesterday I came across one I hadn't seen before, so naturally I snapped it up. Titled Alfred Tennyson: A Lincolnshire Landscape, it is a small collection of well chosen short poems and excerpts, all of them imbued with the feel of the landscapes of Tennyson's Lincolnshire childhood and early manhood. Beginning with 'The Owl' ('Alone and warming his five wits, The white owl in the belfry sits'), it arrives at its last entry, 'A Farewell' ('Flow down, cold rivulet, to the sea...'), by way of excerpts from 'Maud' and 'Mariana', 'In Memoriam', 'The Miller's Daughter' and 'The Lady of Shallot', with the dialect poem 'The Northern Farmer: Old Style'  (heavy going) underlining the Lincolnshire theme. The pages are decorated with images from Bewick's wood engravings, and it's a lovely little thing. Long may Carr's Pocket Books prosper.
(This is Bewick's disgruntled owl, who looks too fed up to warm his five wits.)

Friday, 24 June 2022

Dove for Larkin

 I see one of our exam boards is dropping poems by Larkin, Owen, Hardy, Keats, Heaney and Hopkins from its Eng Lit GCSE syllabus in order to 'refresh' it with new works by writers of – you guessed! – 'diverse ethnic backgrounds'. Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, a man with a pretty diverse ethnic background, has rightly condemned this as 'cultural vandalism'. Among the casualties is Larkin's 'An Arundel Tomb', which has been replaced with 'Flirtation' by Rita Dove. Comments David James, a deputy head writing online for the Centre for Policy Studies: 'There may be many reasons for replacing Larkin’s 'An Arundel Tomb' with 'Flirtation' by Rita Dove, but nobody except the most swivel-eyed social justice warrior could say the latter is the better poem. The losers in this campaign to extend the culture wars into every corner of every classroom are the children denied the opportunity of studying a work of genius.' For the record, here is the poem that has replaced 'An Arundel Tomb' . I think it, er, speaks for itself –  Flirtation

After all, there’s no need
to say anything

at first. An orange, peeled
and quartered, flares

like a tulip on a wedgwood plate
Anything can happen.

Outside the sun
has rolled up her rugs

and night strewn salt
across the sky. My heart

is humming a tune
I haven’t heard in years!

Quiet’s cool flesh—
let’s sniff and eat it.

There are ways
to make of the moment

a topiary
so the pleasure’s in

walking through.

Thursday, 23 June 2022

It Flies Indeed...

 I know tempus fugit and all that, but yesterday's birthdays delivered two shocks. One: Prunella Scales – a fine actress whose portrayal of Sybil Fawlty (wife of Basil) surely placed her among the  comedy immortals – is now 90 years old. And two: Kris Kristofersson yesterday turned 86, which hardly seems possible (though I knew he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford in the 1950s). His great album The Austin Sessions is one that I play often, but here is a moment that shows a different side of Kristofersson – enjoy!