Saturday, 19 January 2019

Forgotten – and Not So Forgotten – Authors

Another book I was given for Christmas was The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler. Forgotten authors are of course meat and drink (and blog fodder) to the likes of me, and I've been happily browsing in its pages at odd moments. It's a fascinating collection of short author profiles (typically two or three pages) interspersed with longer assays on such themes as Why Are Good Authors Forgotten?, The Forgotten Booker Authors, Forgotten for Writing Too Little – and Too Much, and The Justly Forgotten Authors. There are many names here that are new to me, some that rang faint bells, and some that could only by a stretch be called 'forgotten' – Ronald Firbank? (always a cult but an enduring one), Barbara Pym? (forgotten once, but that was a long time ago), Edmund Crispin? (another comeback kid). As for omissions... Well, off the top of my head I'd nominate these once big, now (almost) forgotten names who haven't made Fowler's cut: Hugh Walpole, Compton Mckenzie, Hall Caine, A.J. Cronin, Warwick Deeping, Marie Corelli (and Ouida), Angus Wilson, Howard Spring, Jeffery Farnol, Elizabeth Jenkins of course, and there are no doubt many more. Perhaps there could be a second volume, or an expanded edition...
  One writer who does, deservedly, feature in Christopher Fowler's list is Barbara Comyns (under her married name, Barbara Comyns Carr). I've read and written about two of her novels, and by chance I happened upon a third very recently – Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. This, I have to say, is one of the most misleadingly and offputtingly titled books I've ever come across. The title leads you to expect a charming, frothy, rather twee memoir of a couple setting up home together with insufficient money – poor but happy, coping good-humouredly with their early struggles, etc. The early chapters of Our Spoons do suggest that that is just what we're going to get – but the very first sentence tells another story altogether: 'I told Helen my story and she went home and cried.' This, though it ends happily (as is also revealed in the first paragraph), is a very dark story, in which every up (until the last one) is followed by an almighty down, each one deeper than the last. And yet, most of the time, it reads more as comedy than as tragedy. The tone belies the content almost as much as the title.
  Comyns tells this first-person story in simple language and short direct sentences, reflecting the quirky naïveté of her protagonist, Sophia, 20 years old at the beginning and about to embark on an ill-advised marriage to an egotistical would-be artist. There are parallels with Barbra Comyns's own life story, but, as she states in an author's note, 'The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty'. Chapters 10, 11 and 12 turn out to be a hair-raising account of the horrors, dangers and humiliations of giving birth on a public ward in the Thirties, before the advent of the NHS and the welfare state. These horrors are a foretaste of even worse things to come later in the story, including a descent into abject poverty and privation: no gas, no electricity, no hot water, no fuel but sticks gathered on Primrose Hill, and almost no food.
  It could be argued that the author's tone clashes awkwardly with the material – but it could be equally well argued that it saves that material from becoming simply unbearable and stops the book descending into a misery memoir. It's more a memoir of quite extraordinary resilience and buoyancy in the face of a truly terrible sequence of events. That happy ending is, to put it mildly, hard won and well deserved.
  I wouldn't rate Ours Spoons Came from Woolworths as highly as The Vet's Daughter or Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, but it's a quite extraordinary novel and I'm glad to have found it.

Friday, 18 January 2019

To the Museum

Today we all went to the Natural History Museum. As usual, I was hugely impressed by the building – what a beautiful feat of architecture and design it is – and mildly depressed by the museum itself. The scale alone is heart-sinking and militates against looking at any particular thing properly (though it can be done); there are too many gimmicky interactive exhibits (many of which don't seem to work), and a deadening excess of 'interpretation': everything must serve to hammer home a single narrative (and that not a very edifying one. To paraphrase Ronald Firbank, 'Nature is disgracefully managed. One hardly knows to whom to complain'). Too little is allowed to speak for itself – which is why I prefer to seek out the more old-fashioned corners of the museum, which simply display a range of creatures, preserved or stuffed, and says no more than 'Look at this'. It is enough.
  John Ruskin organised a museum on precisely that principle – 'Look at this'. Really look, see its beauty, wonder at it. The collection he formed for the Guild of St George is small – tiny compared to any 'proper' museum – but chosen with the utmost loving care and with the overriding aim of opening our eyes to beauty and wonder. It normally lives in the Millennium Gallery in Sheffield, but happily it's coming to London very soon, to form the core of a larger exhibition at Two Temple Place, John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing. It opens on the 26th and I'm looking forward to it.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

'The arrow speeding'

I recently came across this poem, of two short and simple stanzas, in R.S. Thomas's Mass for Hard Times:


I look up at the sky at night
and see the archer, Sagittarius,
with his bow drawn, and realise
man is the arrow speeding,

not as some think infinitely
on, but because space is curved,
backwards towards the bowman's heart
to deal him his unstanched wound.

I wonder if, when he wrote it, Thomas was remembering his use of the same image of the returning, self-wounding arrow in his moving earlier poem Sorry, addressed to his forgiven parents:

Dear parents,
I forgive you my life,
Begotten in a drab town,
The intention was good;
Passing the street now,
I see still the remains of sunlight.

It was not the bone buckled;
You gave me enough food
To renew myself.
It was the mind's weight
Kept me bent, as I grew tall.

It was not your fault.
What should have gone on,
Arrow aimed from a tried bow
At a tried target, has turned back,
Wounding itself
With questions you had not asked.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Big Day

Today is a big day – yes, the 460th anniversary of the coronation of our greatest Queen, Elizabeth I. On this date in 1559, chosen by the astrologer John Dee, Elizabeh was crowned in Westminster Abbey – not by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had died on the day of her accession, but, all other candidates proving too controversial, by the relatively lowly Bishop of Carlisle, Owen Oglethorpe. The crowning itself was one element in a four-part ritual, which also included the Vigil Procession (in which Elizabeth sailed in the royal barge from Whitehall to the Tower of London), the spectacular Royal Entry into the City of London and Westminster, and the lavish post-coronation feast at Westminster Hall, at which the Queen's Champion, Sir Edward Dymoke, rode into the hall on horseback in full armour and issued the traditional gauntlet-throwing challenges called for on such occasions. The Queen had contributed some £16,000 of her own money (a huge sum then) towards the cost of all this splendid pageantry, and it seems to have been money well spent, as Elizabeth's subjects were duly awed and impressed by the grandeur of the royal spectacular.
  The coronation service itself showed Elizabeth's skill in navigating the dangerous strait between the conflicting demands of Catholicism and Protestantism. Indeed she managed to fudge things so effectively that none of the witnesses seems to have been entirely sure what happened. After the ceremony she was 'presented for the people's acceptance' amid a great tumult of fifes, trumpets, drums, organs and bells.
  Elizabeth had acceded to the throne on the death of her half-sister Mary, and her Council and other peers immediately came to Hatfield to pledge their allegiance. The young Queen, just 25 years old, addressed them thus:

'My lords, the law of nature moves me to sorrow for my sister; the burden that is fallen upon me makes me amazed, and yet, considering I am God's creature, ordained to obey His appointment, I will thereto yield, desiring from the bottom of my heart that I may have assistance of His grace to be the minister of His heavenly will in this office now committed to me. And as I am but one body naturally considered, though by His permission a body politic to govern, so shall I desire you all ... to be assistant to me, that I with my ruling and you with your service may make a good account to Almighty God and leave some comfort to our posterity on earth. I mean to direct all my actions by good advice and counsel.'

You don't hear that kind of talk these days...

Maze and Mystery Bird

Yesterday we all went to Hampton Court, and got so thoroughly lost in the maze that I wondered if I ought not to have packed iron rations and distress flares; it was all getting rather reminiscent of the famous maze scene in Three Men in a Boat. We never did find the centre, and only discovered the exit by chance.
  While crossing the bridge towards Hampton Court, I was startled to see a bird of monstrous size and wingspan – larger than a swan and less heavy in the body – flying purposefully upriver. It was a long-necked affair, with prominent white shoulders to its wings, the rest of the body in various tones of black, brown and buff, possibly a little red. It was big, and, when I got to glimpse its face as it disappeared under the bridge, had a pretty evil expression and a useful-looking beak. Has anyone got any idea what it could have been? The nearest I can find a Goosander, but it looked much larger than that.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Street Life

Out shopping this morning (a major theme of my life just now), I couldn't help noticing that the high street was swarming with leaflet-wielders demanding a 'People's Vote' on Brexit – as against the 2016 Referendum, which, as you might recall, was open only to the nobility, clergy and landed gentry. I did not engage with any of these eager pamphlet-pushers, though I did reply to one in three short words: 'We've had one' (a people's vote, that is – but of course that one didn't count because the people stupidly came up with the wrong answer, so now we must try again and this time Get It Right).
  My other local high street – regularly the scene of amusing passive stand-offs between those inviting us to 'Discover Islam' and those urging us to praise the Lord and seek His Salvation, Hallelujah! – has recently been invaded by a young and pushy sales force urging passers-by to switch their utility company. Yesterday I noticed that they were not in their usual place but had moved some distance up the street. I soon discovered why: on the concrete pillar in front of which they usually set up their stall, some public-spirited soul had written, in very large black capitals, 'Energy muggers stand here', with an arrow pointing to their regular station. Nice work.
  Like many (most?) people, I resent such muggers and chuggers, whatever they are selling, intruding on my reveries – and the chummier their approaches the more unpleasant I find it (How's your day going? Well, it was fine until you came along). I've never bought or signed up to anything in response to an approach in the street and I'm sure I never will. And yet the muggers and chuggers become ever more numerous and intrusive. Perhaps I should work on a basilisk glare so terrifying that it will stop them coming anywhere near me...

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

'The same far rumour'

What with one thing and another, I haven't done as much reading as usual these past few weeks, but I have read and enjoyed the anthology I mentioned recently, Building Jerusalem: Elegies on Parish Churches, lovingly curated by Kevin J. Gardner. He sees the poets he has selected as engaged in the 'recuperation of Anglican memory' and thereby accepting the Blakean charge of building Jerusalem in England, fostering 'a sense and a hope that the present world of chaos and fragmentation might be transmuted into identity, order and meaning'. Well, amen to that, though the elegiac tone of these poems inevitably speaks more of loss than of recuperation.
  The modern English church elegy is a peculiarly Anglican phenomenon, born of the decline of the Church of England as an organic national church, the firm spiritual centre of communal life at both national and local level. This loss, of course, runs parallel to the more general decline of doctrinal faith and the apparently irresistible spread of secularism. Philip Larkin is the laureate and originator of this kind of elegy; his Church Going looms huge over the poems collected here, and its mood suffuses most of them. There is a more comfortable but less potent tradition that flows from Betjeman's church poems, but Larkin is the man for the awkward, puzzled, awed encounter with a tradition of belief and observance that seems to have entered a fast-fading twilight, yet still retains a disturbing power to move and to unsettle.
  Larkin is also, along with Geoffrey Hill (who doesn't write in the shadow of Larkin, or anyone else), by some margin the best poet represented, followed, I'd say, by Peter Porter (represented by three fine poems) and of course John Betjeman. Most of the poems collected here are well written and structured, essentially descriptive, fittingly elegiac in tone and suggestive of some continuity of faith, or at least some possibility of it. Few of them achieve escape velocity and rise much above the descriptive, but they do what they do skilfully and often eloquently, and as descriptions they are often vivid and evocative. I discovered one notably powerful poem, new to me, that stands alone for its ambition, originality and skill – George Barker's At Thurgarton Church, a long poem that might stand as an updating of Gray's Elegy for an age of lost or declining faith (you can read it here). 
  I was also glad to find three fine poems by C.H. Sisson, and three by U.A. Fanthorpe, a bit of a church poem specialist – as was Anthony Thwaite, who has more poems that anyone else in the book (though none of them, for me, hit the heights). Peter Scupham, another church poem specialist, is deservedly well represented, and I'll end by passing on one of his – and urging church-loving readers to take a look at this well chosen, enjoyable and rewarding anthology...


Recall now, treading the cloister garth's clipped grass,
That time the Commissioners urged their sweating horses
About the uneasy land. Under huge gates they paced,

Ironically savouring that final confrontation,
The long concessions winding to surrender.
Houghton, Whiting: some took martyrdom. To fresh vocations

Most adjusted, leaving the cool painted house
Of prayer, and all its various furniture,
Each known and local contour of a dwelling place.

Lead bubbled, wood-smoke ascended. Rough secular hands
Fluttered both text and commentary, levelled well-set courses
Of cut stone for manor, mansion, God made no visible amends.

A spectacular pleasure, some. Bolton to the suave Wharfe leans
Her vacant choir. From Crowland's screen, decaying features
Gaze severely at the unlettered town.

Such emblems landscape bears as sands bear shells:
Twinned tokens, disciplines where life declines.
In an attentive ear, the same far rumour swells.