A Brief History of Western Culture – Michael Peverett

Section 1. To 1588

Section 2: 1588-1790

Section 3. 1790-1870

Section 4. 1870-1945

Section 5. 1945-1975

Section 6. 1975-1984

Section 7. 1985-1997

Section 8. 1997-2004

Section 9. 2004-Now



Main site index




by Michael Peverett


Section 5. 1945-1975






R.S. Thomas (1913-2000)        approximate sonnets

Jane Cooper: Selected Poems (1947-1983)     not being able to say what you mean

P.G. Wodehouse: The Mating Season (1949)     loser strategy

Borden Chase: Red River (1949)        NEW

Douglas Hyde: I Believed (1950)          leaving the party

Walton Hannah: Darkness Visible (1952)             elusive freemasonry

The Naked Spur (1953)                              an MGM western movie  

Jean Giono: The Man who Planted Trees (1953)     political literature

Kathleen Raine (1908-2003)          what Google tells

JRR Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings (1954-55)     unconvincing happiness

Gunnar Björling: You go the words (1955)     inquiring with och and att

John Ashbery: Selected Poems (1956-)            modern content

W. Ellery Anderson: Expedition South (1957)         armchairs in the antarctic

C.P. Snow: The Affair (1960)           the better for what it is

Colin Turnbull: The Forest People (1961)         problems of ethnography

Brigid Brophy: Black Ship to Hell (1962)

Pak Chaesam (1933-1997)       Korean quietude

John Updike: Of the Farm (1965)           the cost of brilliance

Buzz Aldrin and walking on the moon (Juy 20, 1969)   NEW

Angus Wilson: As If By Magic (1973)            just try and be natural

Van Der Graaf Generator: Albums (1970-1976)     in the organ-loft

Ashokamitran: Water (1971)       novella round an image

Luke Rhinehart: The Dice Man (1972)     do you take a chance, FAN?

Chet Cunningham: Guld till döds (1973)   NEW  

Adrienne Rich (1974-77, 1985-88)           talking about a new art

R.K. Narayan             does senility have a story?

Helen Forrester (1974)         poverty is timeless



R.S Thomas (1913-2000)



Well, I’ve read the Collected Poems (1945-1990) now, or skimmed them, which is the trouble with ample Collecteds. This one encompasses 20 collections, and there are five subsequent collections (one posthumous) published by Bloodaxe and now available as Collected Later Poems (1988-2000). (Some have said that these are his best.) But the most satisfactory way of reading Thomas is a few poems at once, even one only.


The reason for this arduous immersion was Gösta Ågren’s admiration for Thomas. I find Ågren’s poems in every way more human and useful, but I do sense too that there’s more in Thomas than I am capable of grasping. (But is there any worthwhile thing happening unless the reader grasps?)


You can understand why Andrew Duncan wrote that Thomas worked over the same handful of ideas for sixty years, and “it seems like more”.


There is slow development. The earlier poems are more absorbed in the details of Welsh country life. This changes, slowly, around the time of H’m (1972). From then on the themes are more nakedly philosophical and religious. Thomas’s hatred of modern technology, his sense of the bareness and irrelevance of the church, alternate with moments of religious affirmation.


But new subject matter (e.g. the poems about painting) doesn’t necessarily mean going anywhere. You have a sense from his first couple of collections that you already know what he thinks - about everything.


Alive (p.296) and The Flower (p.280) are examples of the affirmation. Both are from Laboratories of the Spirit (1975), which is the most religiously positive of the collections.


But there are few positives in these poems when seen in the mass; the past, present and future are all of them cruel and fraudulent; the people are not heroes; the land is dreary and cold; God is absent or enigmatic or sadistic. But Thomas’s poems are allowed to contradict one another.


Nevertheless, he often works his way to a position that supplies no hope, and his poem lives - even thrives - in that location. Fair Day (p. 380) is a good example.


He is attracted by the form of a universal history, or a history of a life, reduced to a few lines. The poems are often concise allegories, somewhat along the lines of George Herbert.


Travellers (p. 308) is an immediately striking poem, and one of his best.


I think of the continent

of the mind. At some stage

in the crossing of it a traveller

rejoiced. This is the truth,

he cried; I have won

my salvation!

                      What was it like

to be alive then? Was it a time

when two sparrows were sold

for a farthing? What recipe

did he bequeath us for the solution

of our problems other than the statement

of his condition? The territory

has expanded since then. We

see now that the journey is

without end, and there is no joy

in the knowledge. Going on, going

back, standing aside - the alternatives

are appalling, as is the imagining

of the lost traveller, what he would

say to us, if he were here

now, and how discredited we would find it.



Aleph (p. 383) is another good poem; it seems to include a lot of his themes in one bony structure (After a while, rather mazed by the number of poems, I begin to see this as a crude standard of excellence).


Despite these completenesses I sense a reluctance in R.S. Thomas to build on things he has already said. He always starts again from nothing. So to read a large number of his poems is not to be satisfied by a growing sense of gain.


R.S. Thomas’s “Sonnets”, early and late


About 50 of the collected poems are “sonnets” - typically unrhymed, and with no regular meter, but quite often divided into traditional octet and sestet. They are usually separated from each other in the collections, so little consciousness of the form intrudes upon us. The poem strikes us as not setting out to BE a sonnet, but only to BE itself, while vaguely stealing some of the sonnet-form’s authority, by a sort of allusion. Most of the 50 “sonnets” are scattered around the mid-period of his career - say, from 1960-1975. 9 of the 29 poems in H’m (1972) are “sonnets”.  It’s at this point that the “sonnet” becomes a channel (though only one among others) for his central writing.

In 1952, “Maes-yr-Onnen” (p. 24) is a kind of aside, and too consciously sonnet-like:


You cannot share with me that rarer air,

Blue as a flower and heady with the scent

Of the years past and others yet to be ...


The poem confesses to a personal, nostalgic experience: something that the poet isn’t yet ready to tackle seriously. The poem has “beauties”, extractable phrases which can be enjoyed - such as “the hurrying grass”, or “the stale piety, mouldering within”. It is a piece of English Literature. I like the poem for being a door that someone else might open.


This “memorable” quality is thickly present in the early poems, for example as rhetorical force on the Yeatsian model:


An offence to the ear, a shackle on the tongue

That would fit new thoughts to an abiding tune?


(“The Old Language”)


Or direct, arm-grabbing, opening lines like these:


I am the farmer, stripped of love


You remember Davies? He died, you know,


To live in Wales is to be conscious


Shelley dreamed it. Now the dream decays.


Song at the Year’s Turning (1955) is a beautiful collection. (I wish that the publishers, or the author himself if he was responsible, had marked where collections begin and end in the text. The polemical intention seems to be to return priority to the individual poem. Possibly the author thought that the shaping of collections for publication had been a factitious exercise forced on him by circumstance. If so, he had forgotten how much instinctively assimilated information was contained in the arrangement, and how much it helps us.)


Since the poems I’m talking about are “sonnets” rather than sonnets - in other words, they allude to the form rather than instantiating it - I could possibly include a poem of approximately sonnet-length, such as “Lament for Prytherch” (13 lines). There is no definite break. However, “The Last of the Peasantry”, with its occasional rhymes and half-rhymes, and its octet/sestet division is clearly much closer to the alluded form. The poem denies a resonant conclusion. The last line:


Is cold now, blow on it as you will.


Yet this poem, and the last in the collection (“No Through Road”) are as central to it as any. The last begins by saying farewell to “My long absorbtion with the plough”, yet ends by rejecting the alternative. In fact the sequence contains its hidden response to Thomas’s despairing rejection of value in the world of the peasant. If the children of the first poem have a “centre” that “you cannot find”, then perhaps the peasant with “a small gift / For handling stock” has a centre too. In fact the collection as a whole confesses to a vaguely romantic sensibility that was (and is) no doubt shared by his audience. So far as that goes, we are still at an early, baffled stage of poetic development.


H’m (1972) is possibly Thomas’s most intense and innovative collection. It makes him as a poet and perhaps destroys him, too. It is not a “statement” - in fact it is more contradictory than before. The collection can contain both “The River” and “The Island”, both “Petition” and “The Kingdom”. Not to mention the bizarre “Nocturne by Ben Shahn”, the fragmentary “Pavane”, a poem with no punctuation or capital letters (“H’m”), and so on. Eight of its poems are “sonnets”, the title poem most vaguely. 


Soon afterwards, Thomas begins to move away from the “sonnet”. It becomes a form that happens sometimes. I suppose he saw that the classical English sonnet-form wasn’t worth attempting now, but recognized some perennial significance in the shape, some basic unit of meditation, like a long breath.












Jane Cooper : Scaffolding (New and Selected Poems), Anvil, 1984 (the poems date from 1947-1983)





“The Builder of Houses” is my favourite poem - indeed the only one that matters to me apart from “Threads”.  (“Morning on the St John’s” has the minor distinction of being the only sestina, apart from Sidney’s, that I feel any affection for.)


The seriousness of “The Builder of Houses”, for me, can be indicated by the fact that I disagree with the author’s commentary at the end, though I see it’s true, too. The poem has one or two failures arising from a rather complex, rhymed, form (“blazing” being the worst) - but it gains from the form, too.


 Why was this last, diminished

 And never-mentioned mansion

 The one she never could finish?


The question (like the subsequent answer) has something spurious about it. But the “mansion” is made to live.


“Feathers” is good for the line “a wreckage that will melt into spring”. Grace Paley blurbs, on the back cover: “they have about them a great deep patience... a waiting in quietness”, which seems absurd to me. It does bring into my mind a suspicion that Jane Cooper may be one of those poets who can’t often find a way to say what she really feels - that’s something I recognize. Here she is “patiently writing” in “March”; she mentions “loves and angers” in the last line, but to mention them is not much. The sequence doesn’t add up, probably because it’s gaptoothed. “Back” says not enough about a relationship - Purcell is unhelpful. As for No. 6 “In Silence Where we breathe”, not only is this conspicuously un-March-like, but its threadbare non-narrative is lost in the interest of description. The author annotates references to Pasternak (which isn’t enough to make me run out to the library) and is clearly happiest evoking nature - 1, 5, 7.  If she had only done that, it might have been enough.


“Threads” is a fine poem in its loose-limbed way - I am sure there is a need for poems like this, to counter-act the false positions of novels (even the best). In some passages the dismembered prose sustains a unity of .... rhythm? tension? ... over a long distance. I have usually imagined that would be the most difficult challenge.








P.G. Wodehouse: The Mating Season (1949)




For around five years in my teens, my reading consisted solely of P.G. Wodehouse, along with a few westerns, half-despised war books (Sven Hassel), and pony books borrowed from girlfriends. Wodehouse’s writing career (of around 75 years) produced 90 books, and I think I owned about sixty of them in the end.


The influence marks me; when I’m being amusing I still appropriate his expressions (something that I want to praise stands out “like a jewel in a pile of coke” etc). Perhaps the influence was baneful; I found a humorous way to justify idleness to myself. Why did I need this?


Of Wodehouse’s permanent claims to distinction the first five Jeeves novels are pre-eminent. The Mating Season is the last of these. Later Jeeves novels are slimmer and repetitious *SEE NOTE BELOW. His other claims are the earlier Jeeves short stories, perhaps the two volumes of golfing stories, and The Luck of the Bodkins, perhaps too the war-time broadcasts - I think that’s all, but it’s more than enough. (On this side of the Atlantic at least, Wodehouse’s distinguished career in musical comedy is unknown.)


In his proper world the Wars do not exist (perhaps, you might add, not in the broadcasts either). But this has given the books longevity - what we do find in them continues to have, at least by analogy, a vigorous existence in life; we (at least, we boys) socialise, drink, get into scrapes, bet on horses, make clubman jokes and pretend cancer or despair don’t exist... we pretend that our chief care is to grab food, or we come over all mock-epic and pretend that to have to spend time with someone, to attend a boring meeting perhaps, would be an appalling disaster to be avoided at all costs.  Which is not to deny that the image in Wodehouse has no allure whatsoever for most people.


I thought I would quote from the book, and make the usual sort of comment about how reluctantly one attempts to explicate the humour.


For no dog, white or not white, woolly or not woolly, accepts with a mere raised eyebrow the presence of strangers in bushes.



’Did you hear Master George Kegley-Bassington on the subject of “Ben Battle”?’


‘Yes, sir. A barely adequate performance, I thought.’



As this is Wodehouse’s last great book, written in his late sixties, one naturally looks for signs of autumnal decline or “serenity”. There are few. The page that is spent recapitulating the story of Bingo Little’s baby is an example of how Wodehouse will subsequently eke out his last quarter-century of production. The ending (and indeed a page or two of the village concert) have an undramatic sweetness about them, perhaps what might be imagined from an author now banished from England. But the plotting was never more perfect (consider how effortlessly he produces the complex situation of Bertie and Gussie impersonating each other, and how much of the subsequent action derives from this apparently frivolous complication). 


From a biographical point of view there is more about the War than appears openly. The poems of Christopher Robin are pilloried, and surely it’s no accident that A.A. Milne was prominent in the torrent of condemnation that Wodehouse earned for his collaborative acts. The very language of high moral reproof, endlessly voiced during the war, is used repeatedly for comic effect, for example by Esmond Haddock:


’The fish-faced trailing arbutus!’


’He’s not a bad chap.’  (He, being “Wooster”, i.e. Gussie Fink-Nottle. Bertie’s mild demur reflects a confused desire to speak up for both of them at the same time.)


’That may be your opinion. It is not mine, nor, I should imagine, that of most decent-minded people. Hell is full of men like Wooster...’


or Gussie:


’Well, let me put you quite straight, Wooster, as to what my stand is in this matter. I shall not say “Begorrah”. I shall not say “Faith and begob”. I shall not assault policemen with an umbrella. In short, I absolutely and positively refuse to have the slightest association with this degraded buffoonery...’


Gussie’s Malvolian objections are of course soon deliciously undermined by Corky’s Treatment A, though he remains characteristically brusque. Bertie says:


’You’ll knock ‘em cold. I’m sorry I can’t play Pat myself --‘


‘A good thing, probably. I doubt if you are the type.’


‘Of course I’m the type,’ I retorted hotly. ‘I should have given a sensational performance.’


‘Corky thinks not. She was telling me how thankful she was that you had stepped out and I had taken over. She said the part wants broad, robust treatment and you would have played it too far down. It’s a part that calls for personality and the most precise timing...’


Bertie comments:


I gave it up. You can’t reason with hams, and twenty minutes of Corky’s society seemed to have turned Augustus Fink-Nottle from a blameless newt-fancier into as pronounced a ham as ever drank small ports in Bodegas and called people ‘laddie’.


Hollywood (Corky is a film star) and the stage are the author’s cakes and ale. They stand for humanity, tolerance and love, and he must have turned to them with relief as a support against the tirade of righteous condemnation he faced in England.  The values of stage and screen are pervasive in The Mating Season (think of the terms in which Catsmeat and Bertie set about ghosting a Fink-Nottle love-letter: “’A golden-haired child, if you will allow yourself to be guided by me, with blue eyes, pink cheeks and a lisp. I think a lisp is good box-office?’”)


Perhaps, in his incarceration, weakness, age and sense of having done wrong, he also turned to Marcus Aurelius. “Does aught befall you? It is good. It is part of the destiny of the Universe ordained for you from the beginning. All that befalls you is part of the great web.”


In The Mating Season a running joke is made out this. “I doubt, as a matter of fact, if Marcus Aurelius’s material is ever the stuff to give the troops when they have just stubbed their toe on the brick of Fate.” But that is in the Wodehouse world where all troubles are trifling. I think he had really been consoled by Marcus Aurelius, as by Shakespeare. At any rate Bertie’s respect for the classics is a notable complement to his Hollywood values.


Wodehouse’s comedy incorporates tolerance because tolerance is also a way of letting yourself off - as Bertie does about opening telegrams not addressed to him. “You know how it is.”


Bertie’s profound wisdom is after all self-serving.


My mental attitude, in short, was about that of an African explorer who by prompt shinning up a tree has just contrived to elude a quick-tempered crocodile and gathers from a series of shrieks below that his faithful native bearer had not been so fortunate. I mean to say he mourns, no doubt, as he listens to the doings, but though his heart may bleed, he cannot help his primary emotion being one of sober relief that, however sticky life may have become for native bearers, he, personally, is sitting on top of the world.


Bertie’s comic despairs reflect the author’s real ones. There is a double perspective in a sentence such as: “When Esmond Haddock in our exchanges over the port had spoken of the times that try men’s souls, he hadn’t had a notion of what the times that try men’s souls can really be, if they spit on their hands and get right down to it.”


To all which it may be objected that Wodehouse’s values were exactly the same before those notorious war broadcasts and all the talk of treachery. Of course; what he did so publically then was just an instance of the same tactic that he had resorted to throughout his life. He knew himself to be a gentle, flexible, timid kind of loser, and his books were made for losers.




NOTE (2010)


One of the later, slimmer and repetitious books is Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, published in 1963 when Wodehouse was in his eighties. Stuck on a desert island with only this, you would still benefit from that curiously powerful shot of joy and optimism that no-one else has found the formula to.


Here we are back in Totleigh Towers, scene of Code of the Woosters (one of the great novels). Motifs from the past abound, e.g. a midnight trip to the kitchen to tuck into steak-and-kidney pie after enforced abstinence; being treed on furniture from the fierce Scottie Bartholomew; Spode chasing after another character to break his neck; a school treat (reminiscent of that prizegiving and also the village entertainment in The Mating Season, but here presented only from a distance, not as a "big scene"). A good deal of the book is taken up with summarizing material from earlier books; a good deal more with Bertie's intertextual ruminations on the English language, literature and the bible - now threatening to become merely habitual -  "The conversation that followed was what you might call - I've forgotten the word, but it begins with a d."  But still, I admire that sentence (it's Bertie and Madeline Bassett) even as I write it out, meaning to criticize. And there is much - just not quite as much - hidden away in this text. e.g. Stiffy Byng: "I don't believe Uncle Watkyn likes you, Bertie. I noticed the way he kept staring at you at dinner, as if appalled. Well, I don't wonder your arrival hit him hard. It did me. I've never been so surprised in my life as when you suddenly bobbed up like a corpse rising to the surface of a sheet of water. Harold told me he had pleaded with you to come here, but nothing would induce you. What made you change your mind?" - Of course I'm quoting this just for the corpse, but I had to put all of the context in for you to appreciate the fineness of Stiffy's expression - it only makes its perfect strike when you understand the complete social set-up.

Borden Chase: Red River (1949)


His name was Thomas Dunson, born in Birkenhead across the Mersey from Liverpool, come from England God knows how. A bull of a man. A brute of a man. Thick-necked, low-jowled, with eyes that looked out at you like the rounded grey ends of bullets in a pistol cylinder. … Two mares were in the traces. Quarter mares with broad hips and heavy gaskins. Built to work; built to run. Both had been bred to the sorrel stud that followed the wagon at the end of a tie rope. Foundation stock. Dunson’s eyes watched the slow, rhythmic motions of the younger mare’s rump. Perhaps he was thinking of the colt she would drop in another six months. Perhaps not. Dunson’s thoughts were hidden things.


Ahead, the lead wagon dipped its tongue as the team moved down the grade of a dry stream bank.


In these opening sentences the book’s methodology is completely contained. Sentences are atomized into cinematic fragments. There are fine expressions which are then recycled so that we recognize them as a convention of a self-invented trove of epic diction – for example, we will hear a lot more of the analogy between eyes and bullet-nubs, nearly every time that Dunson reappears. And the best thing in the prose is its convincing use of what sound like authentic cattleman’s lingo (like the wagon dipping its tongue) - which may, for all I know, be as sheerly invented as the epic diction.


Dunson is indeed a brute, a man without pity, a phlegmatic deadshot, a tyrant impervious to reason. He is just about redeemed by some consciousness of his place in history, a vision that is united with a nation’s destiny. Having just killed a Mexican, he muses to his adopted son:


Here I am, Mathew, and here I’ll stay. On all these lands north of the river I’ll grow beef. Food for the bellies of every man in our country. They’ll need meat, Mathew. They can’t build their cities without it. 


This 1949 Red River, tying in with the release of Howard Hawks’ movie, is just rebadged from Guns on the Chisholm Trail (1946-47), the novel from which Chase himself wrote the screenplay. But for the movie Chase unwillingly substituted a happier ending that he despised; most movie-goers have agreed with him. There were quite a few other changes. The roles of Cherry Valance and green-eyed Tess are much more developed and make more sense in the book. However, this is not to imply that the book is sensible. The west envisaged in the book is as mad, almost, as the civil war from which Mathew returns. The film feels compelled to supply a shred of excuse for Dunson’s landgrabbing from the Mexicans; in the book, it is not discussed. The man went for his gun, that’s all. So many people subsequently go for their guns that the body-count rises bewilderingly in the course of everyday business; these are not enemies, they are just hired hands who question Dunson’s authority. They are always given names, but we can’t take in the names before they are dead and buried, in one of Dunson’s punitive marshallings or in fatal swirlings of the equally swollen river.


The implication is that though the father must in due course give way  to his less brutal son, America should reverence such fathers as this. Moralizing is inappropriate to treat the epic appetites of these rough pioneers. Yet sometimes moralizing does cross our path, for example about these sharpers who appear in the west with Clark Donegal’s migrating casino:  


Mathew glanced at Donegal’s men. They were hard hard in a vastly different manner from the trail drivers. Theirs were the eyes of the great vultures that sweep down from the skies to prey on dead things. Each man wore gloves. Each wore a gun.


Hard-working western men driven by plain desire for ownership, domination, women, money, self-preservation and sleep are OK. But these alien leeches are another matter. Texas is “Preyed upon by Northern carpetbaggers. Harried by the dreamers in Congress.”


Chase (pseudonym of Frank Fowler, 1900-1971) was a leading light of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals.



Douglas Hyde: I Believed (1950)


Subtitled, The Autobiography of a former British Communist.


Douglas Hyde resigned from the Communist party in 1948, some twenty years after joining. He also resigned from his job at the Daily Worker, where he had been News Editor (Bill Rust was Editor) for most of the eight years he had worked there. Hyde and his wife had converted to Catholicism of a conservative kind (he was drawn to the neo-medieval Distributist movement that began with Belloc and Chesterton). A couple of years later, true to his campaigning and journalistic instincts, he wrote I Believed, a book aimed squarely at Middle England and intended to supply it with an understanding of British Communism on the know-your-enemy principle.


It will come as no surprise that Hyde’s name does not featurely largely in pro-Communist histories (his book was immediately exposed as treacherous lies). But one doesn’t have to be a Communist to view the book’s narrator with certain misgivings; somehow, politicals of all colours have succeeded in making us queasy about turncoats – the word is deeply pejorative, yet what other term is there?   


Hyde himself as a Distributist is almost laughably true to his character; an instinctive journalist and campaigner, used to making enemies, and capable of arguing himself into incredible positions.


I had believed that Catholic culture had been outgrown at the time when the new economic system of capitalism had broken the fetters of feudalism, that it could all be explained in terms of economics. But had men outgrown it? There appeared to be a convincing case for saying that it was not outgrown but that there had been an attempted murder which had not quite succeeded...


(Hyde’s favourite books had always been Chaucer and Langland. They had once taken their places “quite naturally at the side of Morris’s Dream of John Ball, Marx’s Das Kapital and Lenin’s The Proletarian Revolution “, but now they led him in a different direction.)


Anyway, we appreciate unreliable narrators, and these misgivings about the author only add to the absorbing interest of his book. The credibility of Communism was at its apogee. When Hyde joined up, the Paris Commune was still within living memory, the October Revolution was recent, and very soon there would be Communists running Madrid and Anarchists running Barcelona; the overthrow of capitalism in Europe was something that could happen. And superficially the Red tide was still running when Hyde left, since the end of the war meant a host of new Communist nations in Eastern Europe. When the International appeared to be reborn as Cominform in 1947,


The Parties invited to the initial meeting had been those of Russia, France, Italy, Poland, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Rumania. They were those which were already ruling Parties or those which Moscow thought would soon be so.




Hyde’s change of creed clearly didn’t mean a change of everything. And, especially in the early chapters, one senses that while writing them Hyde re-vivifies his erstwhile beliefs. He is still full of admiration for Communist directness, organization, opportunism and power to mobilize ordinary working people.


At great London meetings men and women were throwing on the platforms their wedding rings, pitiful little heirlooms or everything they had in their wallets at the time. Our political opponents, who charged us with faking these things, most foolishly under-estimated the depth of feeling we had succeeded in creating. 


His accounts of e.g. the successful takeover of a local Labour party in Surrey, of illegal preparations for the national underground Press organization (during the ban on the Daily Worker early in the war), of passing secrets to Russia, and of on-the-spot reporting of the V-1 blitz, are exciting, sympathetic and often tinged with pride.


The deepest of his beliefs had perhaps never changed. The book registers a continuing distrust, sometimes rising to condemnation, of his new book’s new audience.   


They went over so frequently that suburban Bristol began to yawn and Chief Sub-Editors with news sense told their underlings: “Just one paragraph and a small head ­– it’s only another gone over the top.” Once four unemployed pooled all they had to hire an old car, then drove it straight through the railings and over the cliffs, and the Sea Walls hit the headlines again for the moment.


But the “comfortable” folk in the district where I lived felt secure enough in the main and their sense of comfort was heightened, if anything, by the sound of jobless Welsh miners singing, unceasingly, for pence in the street outside, the inevitable “Cwm Rhondda”, “Bread of Heaven, feed me till I want no more”. Then, in little groups on the Downs at night, the younger miners joined with the local communists to sing “Watch and pray, live on hay, you’ll have pie in the sky when you die.”


The professional Communist’s contempt for fellow-travellers, those sympathisers who lacked the moral courage to join the Party outright, is something that Hyde can transfer wholesale to his new position. Or consider this, about those “sensitive intellectuals” (Hyde sounding like Kipling here) who were troubled by the sharp switch of Communist policy at the time of the Soviet-German pact.


Their attitude was summed up in a letter I received from a well-known poet who, after being drawn to the Party because of its anti-fascist propaganda, wrote: “A plague on both your uncles, Uncle Joe and Uncle Adolf” – then disappeared into an ivory tower from which he has never since emerged.


“Emerged” suggests (naturally enough) a media-oriented view of human behaviour. Hyde never changed his mind about contempt for the “ivory tower” and he uses the phrase again, in vastly changed circumstances, to explain why as a Catholic convert he could not retire into one, but must now write this book. 


This reminds me that the book-jacket quotes a review by Stephen Spender in The Spectator, perhaps not one of his best-known texts:


Alas, this book goes a long way to justify the Red scares emanating from America. No one can read it without realising one simple fact: that no true Communist has any interest at heart except the party line emanating from the Soviet Union.


Hyde’s account of Communist thinking is more complex than that.


Communism is necessary and desirable above all else. The fight for communism stretches across the world, which is divided by the two opposing classes and not vertically by different races and nations. In fighting for a communist Britain I am fighting for a better Britain and for the destruction of all that is rotten and decadent. In that fight I have the assistance of all who are operating on the same world front against capitalism. My desire to make my country communist therefore makes me an internationalist.


But at one point in that world front there is a whole nation on my side, a great State, the U.S.S.R., where a strong-point has been established, around which all future battles will tend to turn and without which any other, local victories must fail. At all costs, therefore, Russia, bastion of communism, must be defended.... Who attacks Russia attacks my hope of a communist Britain. In helping Russia “with all the means at his disposal and at any price”, therefore, the British communist is working for a better Britain, the French communist for a better France, and the Icelandic communist for a better Iceland. He is, in his own eyes and that of his Party, the super-patriot. ....


The Soviet-German Pact therefore in August 1939 did not trouble the trained Marxist at all. The Soviet leaders had a responsibility to the working-class of the world to defend the U.S.S.R. and could, if necessary, for this reason make an alliance with the devil himself. ...


It was this last part that the sensitive intellectuals had trouble with. The foregoing argument is not meant sympathetically by the the post-Communist Hyde, who intends the ironic glance at the pretensions of a “super-Patriot”, but in fact it retains its logical force. In civil war, loyalty to a Nation ceases to supply a normative guide to behaviour. The Communists projected a real civil war in every capitalist state, but they were already engaged in a mental and emotional civil war within themselves; therefore national loyalty was a mental weakness which meant nothing more than subservience to the present crop of robber-barons and their troops. But the argument extends much wider than Communism; few people today would want to think of themselves as Nationalists or believers in a Hobbesian “law and order at any price”. So what exactly are the grounds for our de facto civil obedience?


It’s easy to see, however, how Hyde’s lifelong love for Somerset Gothic churches, apparently so trifling, led to hairline fractures that slowly but eventually shattered his Marxist credo. (Perhaps he should have talked it over with Alan Mitchell, the strongly left-wing expert on the show-piece trees of Britain’s great estates.) 


Communism justified free love (defying “outworn, bourgeois conventions”) but this is something that Hyde never seems to have felt much enthusiasm for (of course, this could be the Catholic speaking, or perhaps he thought that any kind of defence just wouldn’t play in Middle England). Hyde’s (and his colleagues’) attitudes to women were, in fact, fairly unreconstructed:


Go to any Communist Party Congress and watch the hard-faced women who go to the rostrum. The hatred which the Party kindles and uses is often quite shockingly apparent in eyes as hard as those of a Soho prostitute and lips as tight as those of a slumland money-lender...


“We get women in the Party, and they are all right for just as long as they remain obscure,” one Political Bureau member complained to me, “but within twelve months of our turning them into Marxists they are about as attractive as horses.”


The Party aims by its training to produce “men of steel”. But “women of steel” attract neither other women nor even the men of steel themselves... Thus, the working-class housewife or the fresh young girl who comes into the Party is at once the centre of attention... She is useful for breaking down the suspicions of other women and so is seen as an effective “front”, and at the same time she is a welcome relief from the steely, hard-faced, betrowsered women who have made their way to the top and who are, in Party parlance, so utterly unbedworthy.


[Unattractiveness of senior females]  is general enough to be a matter of concern to the Party leaders and even from time to time to feature on agendas as a problem to be solved. ...


But I want to quote some sentences, finally, about the attractions of Communism, without which there would have been no book and nothing to write about. This was in Bristol in the late 1920s.


As I watched and helped to lead each demonstration of unemployed, my feelings were a compound of both anger and pity. As I saw them trampled under the horses’ hooves during baton charges, or tugging with bare hands at paving-stones in their search for ammunition to be used against the police, hope and pride would mingle with my anger. Each man who disappeared between warders from the court-room into the cells added to my own hatred of the capitalist system and of the capitalist class, and strengthened my revolutionary determination. ... We sang of the revolution,, dreamed of it, fought for it, studied for it, worked for it and, often enough, suffered for it too.


As the economic crisis deepened, the poverty, and the vast scale of that poverty, appalled me. .... When the Daily Worker began to appear, the unemployed queued at the “bomb shop” in the Horsefair in order to be able to read it free of charge. And the Bristol demonstrations, riots and prosecutions featured more and more in its columns. ... The strength and influence of the Communist Party cannot be gauged in times of normalcy, when democracy is working smoothly. ... The real test is in time of crisis. The crisis had come and we were proving our ability to lead as trained Marxists should.




Hyde's switch from Communism to Distributism was not quite so perverse as it may seem. William Cobbett had long ago shown that pre-Reformation rural labourers were far better provided for than their grossly oppressed descendants in the nineteenth century. Socialists and neo-mediavalists recognized a common enemy in Protestant capitalism.



Walton Hannah: Darkness Visible (1952)



Subtitled: A Revelation and Interpretation of Freemasonry.


For many of us the life of Anglican clergy of the 1950s is almost as shrouded in mystery as the life of freemasons. So I think this is an interesting book.


Some years ago a brother priest approached me with a view to my becoming a brother Mason. He kept within the law by not asking me outright, but indicated that it would be a very good thing if I did so, and that he would always be glad to propose me. It really comes to the same thing. I replied that I was extremely reluctant to join any organization of which I was allowed to know almost nothing in advance. To which he answered that if everyone felt that way there would be no Masons at all, for no one outside the Craft could possibly discover its secrets, and what was good enough for the bishops who had become Masons ought to be good enough for me.


It was that reply which interested me in the subject. I remembered a Member of Parliament telling me (long after such a revelation could  have been indiscreet) that even at the secret sessions of the House of Commons during the war it was considered too dangerous to reveal top secrets of policy and strategy even to some six hundred trusted M.P.s, and that in general they were occasions for members themselves to discuss such delicate topics as shipping losses and tank deficiencies. Was it then probable or even possible that an organization of some five million people, doubtless including good, bad and indifferent, which had been in existence for over two centuries could really keep the rest of the world in complete darkness as to their secrets? I was intrigued, and started to investigate.


I was surprised at the facility with which information could be unearthed in a manner explained in the first chapter, – and yet increasingly perturbed at the nature of that information. Accordingly I wrote to a Masonic bishop whom I had once met personally setting forth some of these perplexities, mentioning the inclusion of Baal in the secret name of God in the Royal Arch, making it quite clear that I was asking him for guidance as a bishop in a matter which concerned faith and morals.


The reply was more taken up with surprise tinged with indignation that I had discovered supposed secrets than with any anxiety to allay my misgivings. He said very courteously that if I did not like Freemasonry I had better not join, but he was not allowed to discuss these things with any who were not Masons. To which I wrote in return that I was truly appalled at the implications of this remark. I had made a prima facie case (and I then claimed no more) for the Craft being incompatible with Christianity, and appealed to a bishop for guidance. And his reply that he was bound by oath not to refute or even discuss such matters, although they admittedly concerned faith and morals, with any who were not similarly oath-bound to secrecy clearly implied that his Masonic obligation took precedence over his Episcopal oath to banish strange and erroneous doctrine. But there was no reply.


Admit it, you’re hooked. So was I, and so, clearly, was Hannah himself, intoxicated by the self-evident justice of his position.


The bulk of Darkness Visible consists of collated transcripts of masonic rituals. So far as English masonry is concerned, this is more or less a complete liturgy, excluding only certain higher degrees which are not universally practiced. This material (generally said to be secret) is, Hannah informs us, relatively easy to obtain, e.g. from masonic publishers. But their work sometimes abbreviates certain phrases in order to maintain a formal cloak of secrecy. Hannah expands these abbreviations by referring, for example, to the many published exposures of masonry. The result was, at the time, the most complete guide that was easily obtainable. Masons themselves are said to have found it useful.


However, the intended audience was, of course, members of the Church of England. Hannah had raised the question, not by any means a new one, of whether it was appropriate for members of the clergy (including bishops and indeed the then-current archbishop of Canterbury) to be freemasons. Transcripts of masonic ritual were included in order to counter the argument that non-masons lacked the materials to form an opinion. The introductory Part I, written by Hannah, is a formidable polemic against clerical freemasonry.


It is pleasingly written, logical and by its own lights completely persuasive. Freemasonry clearly claims to be a religion, or super-religion. It proclaims as something adequate a body of teaching that pointedly excludes all mention of Christ. Anglican clergy who become masons cannot possibly be acting in accord with their clerical duties. Hannah did not, it seems, receive any answer in his own terms; indeed, it is hard to conceive one. As he anticipated, he met with ad hominem attacks, cold shoulders, light dismissals and a wall of silence. It must have been infuriating, but he had set himself up for that. A few years later he converted to Catholicism (the Roman Catholic church had long ago banned clerical freemasonry). Doing so must have adversely affected the impact of his polemic on the Anglican community, but presumably he no longer cared.


Some of the ad hominem attacks may have been justified. He was not exactly a standard country vicar. I have found a biographical note that tells us: “Walton Hannah was born in England ca. 1910. His father, Ian Campbell Hannah, was a teacher of theology, a writer, and a Member of the British House of Commons 1935-1944. His mother, Edith Brand, was an American and developed an international reputation as a painter.” He was clearly well educated and well versed in the ways of the world. He became a priest in the 1930s and from the start his passion was collecting materials about Freemasons and other secret and occult societies. He denies ever having been a mason, but may have used some equivocal methods to gather his material. Some masonic correspondents addressed him as “Brother”.


I have described Hannah’s argument as logical. The hair-raising masonic oaths must be either rashly taken (in advance of knowing what they entail) or else frivolous (since they are sworn on the Bible, that would make them blasphemous anyway). If you accept that one can only believe one of two logically contradictory opinions, as Hannah clearly did, then you could not justify clerical freemasonry. Augustinian Christianity, with its emphasis on the moral and spiritual status of right belief, ultimately depends on such an assumption. It leaves no room for woolly liberal Anglicanism, and no room either for the rapprochement with other churches and religions that, of course, was just then beginning to gather momentum. Though Hannah’s subject is freemasonry, the position in which he finds himself in fact had analogues in the church’s attitude to many other subjects, and of course it had analogues outside the church too.


I take some more homeopathic pillules for my indigestion, and they do me good.


The problem with Hannah’s argument is that, not only may we do things that we cannot justify logically, but we may also say things without any corresponding belief. He makes a good deal, for example, of the middle element of JAH-BUL-ON (which is inscribed on the masonic Altar); it is cognate with the Assyrian deity Baal. (The third element is the Egyptian On or Osiris.) But if these, like the rest of masonic ritual, are merely verbal patterns that the participants can believe anything they like about, then it all becomes much more imponderable. An Augustinian view of belief has difficulty dealing with behaviour that is not grounded in anything so definite as belief. But this aspect of freemasonry was in fact portentous. What it already was in 1952 is what most western religion was tending to become: a sponge not a sword.


The relevance of Hannah’s dilemma to those of us who are not Anglicans or masons may perhaps be made clearer from the following passage. Hannah is considering the response that, whatever view he may take of the words of masonic ritual, his views are of no account because he has not experienced the atmosphere or context of the ritual as actually practised. He says:


A play can be understood, and understood with accuracy by reading it and following the stage directions. Even though it may come to life only by being performed, the meaning and significance of it remain fundamentally unchanged however much different nuances of interpretation are acted into it.


It would be ridiculous to blame Hannah for not being a literary theorist. One might not want to use exactly these words, but what he says here does represent fairly accurately the principle, embedded deeply in our educational system, on which all readers actually operate when they pick up a volume of Chekhov or Shakespeare. The potential difficulties with this view become manifest when Hannah argues that participating in Masonic ritual is very different from acting in a play:


For the Freemason identifies himself with the mysteries, not in the sense that a good actor identifies himself with his part, but by a solemn oath and in the name of God he participates in the paganism of the play, and associates himself spiritually with it.


This is much as to say, as he does elsewhere (in rebuttal of the argument that a priest going to the masons is merely like a priest mixing with his parishioners down at the local), that “initiation into Masonry is not merely ‘meeting’ people at any level at all. It is joining them – identifying oneself by solemn oath with those people and with their sub-Christian beliefs”. But plainly the distinction between meeting and joining is in fact a blurry one. In popular drama (which today means on a screen) both audience and makers are pushing hard towards the point at which the frame between enacted fiction and real life break down. From one direction this leads us toward “reality TV”; in the other direction it reflects our desire to enter the fictional frame ourselves and to inhabit it. Our drama moves towards being real event, e.g. economic triumph, violent humiliation, sexual act, endurance test or perhaps even religious ceremony; at the same time as being entertainment and sometimes art. Yes, to imagine oneself participating in the drama does entail jettisoning logical belief, but that’s OK. Like drinking or taking drugs, it’s what keeps things ticking over tolerably for us; in short, it sustains our civilisation. And thus Hannah, though admirably unassailable, bought himself only a shrug of the shoulders.


Some of Hannah’s points depend on a historical orthodoxy that even many Christians will now reject (e.g. the objectionableness of Baal). However, I think this passage, on a fundamental moral dilemma of Masonry, merits consideration from anyone.


Not every Mason, not even every Christian Mason, could reasonably be expected to be a theologian or perhaps to realise even the possibility of his Craft being at variance with the exclusiveness of the Christian faith. Yet surely anyone capable of clear thinking must realise that in Masonry is an inescapable and insoluble moral dilemma.


If Freemasonry claims to possess secrets the knowledge of which would benefit all mankind in enabling a man to lead a higher and more moral life, it is immoral to keep that knowledge to itself.


If Freemasonry does not possess such secrets, it is equally immoral for it claim that it does possess them.


And after all, why should any knowledge about morals and the nature or name of God be kept secret? The Tracing Board Lecture of the first degree attempts an answer, it is true, but an answer which would be scorned as fatuous in an enlightened twentieth century. For this lecture implies that the teachings of Masonry are kept secret for the same reason that higher knowledge was the secret and oathbound possession of the few in ancient Egypt, because it conferred occult powers which might be mis-used in unworthy hands.


But can our democratic and enlightened Masons of to-day think of a better answer? Their own ritual nowhere suggests one, but it is difficult even after the most exhaustive examination to consider that ritual ‘enlightened’. However symbolically the turgid nonsensicalities of its mysteries may be interpreted, this, apparently, must always remain an unexplained mystery. Even to Freemasons.    


Close examination (the sort that you make when you’re typing something up) reveals this not to be a true dilemma at all, since “Masonry does not claim to possess secrets with such straightforward benefits” avoids both horns. The secrets of Masonry, if there really are any, are perhaps better named mysteries. One does not “possess” a mystery; one, well, joins it. As I’m typing up, thinking at the same time of the Rudyard Kipling who wrote “The Church that was at Antioch”, it occurs to me that the general form of the answer that I’m framing can only be: But life is not that simple! The same answer, perhaps, that now seems the best way of defending the “foolishness” of the Cross. 


To end with, we ought to have a sample of the “turgid and nonsensical ritual” itself. From an outsider’s perspective it really is extremely dreary. Even here, in the obligation of a candidate to the Third Degree, potentially sensational content seems to be undercut so that it ends up meaning nothing much at all. I suppose it’s a playscript one needs to perform.


And finally, that I will maintain a Master Mason’s honour and carefully preserve it as my own; I will not injure him myself, or knowingly suffer it to be done by others if in my power to prevent it; but on the contrary, will boldly repel the slanderer of his good name, and most strictly respect the chastity of those nearest and dearest to him, in the persons of his wife, his sister, and his child.


All these points I solemnly swear to observe, without evasion, equivocation, or mental reservation of any kind, under no less a penalty, on the violation of any of them, than that of being severed in two, my bowels burned to ashes, and those ashes scattered over the face of the earth and wafted by the four cardinal winds of heaven, that no trace or remembrance may longer be found among men, particularly Master Masons. 














The Naked Spur (1953)



The titles appear, in the kind of lettering that is reserved for westerns. Then, close-up on the shining steel spur of a rider. He is riding urgently through the scenery of the Rockies. He dismounts. Cut to an old-looking bearded man with mules, who is boiling coffee at a campfire. The rider steps out of the brush with his gun pointed – Don’t move! The two get talking, at first suspiciously. The bearded man is Jesse, a keen but unsuccessful gold-miner, garrulous and amiable. The other is Howard Kemp (James Stewart) – a lot of grey in his uncut hair, stern and possibly upright. Jesse persuades Kemp to put his gun away and to have some coffee. Kemp is searching for a man who shot someone in Kansas City. He takes a poster from his pocket and unrolls it. Jesse recognizes the picture. He has seen the man recently, and they finally reach an agreement; Jesse will lead him to the killer for 20 bucks; ten now, and ten more when they capture him.


We follow them to the spot. There’s signs of recent habitation, but the killer (who knows Kemp is on his trail), has moved on. They start to track him, interpreting the signs. The quarry are moving slowly – there’s more than one of them, and it seems they have an injured horse. Just as Kemp and Jesse are ascending a narrow path below a cliff, they’re nearly taken out by a rockslide. Is it natural? They try to make the ascent again – again the rocks come crashing down. So now they know that the killer is somewhere up there on the cliff-top.


They retreat out of range and make a plan. Jesse is to keep the outlaw busy by remaining below and firing frequently, while Kemp will try to scale a sheer part of the cliff and surprise him by emerging from another direction. But at this point in their deliberations they are interrupted. A stranger comes riding past. His name is Roy and he’s a discharged trooper. He doesn’t make a very favourable impression – blonde, handsome, moustached and cynical. It seems he’s caused trouble by seducing the daughter of a Red Indian chief. His discharge note calls him “morally unstable”. Roy asks what they’re doing and Jesse tells him. They’re expecting Roy to continue on his way, but in the event he tags along behind them to the foot of the cliff, apparently as an indolent observer. Jesse begins the diversionary action as planned. Rocks tumble down, Jesse keeps up a mechanical fusillade. Kemp starts to climb the cliff-face, but half-way up he makes a mistake and falls, winded. Then Roy steps forward – why don’t I have a go? We see Kemp’s reluctance and distaste. But Roy proves to be an athletic climber and he makes it to the top.


Cut to the cliff-top. Ben, the killer, is up there, and holed up with him is a good-looking blonde girl with a shorn “orphan” cut – Leena (Janet Leigh). Roy leaps on the outlaw, and the others follow close behind. After a brief struggle Ben (Robert Ryan) is overpowered. Apparently he was out of ammunition, hence the rockslides. He is dirty, unshaven, has a mass of curly dark hair, bright eyes and a lot of blarney. He will prove to be cunning and resourceful; and Leena is his ally.


At this point Kemp tries to pay Jesse off with the remaining ten bucks and to get rid of Roy. From now on, he insists, he’ll manage alone. But Roy has already figured that there must be a reward for Ben’s capture. And so there is. Ben quickly unfolds his own copy of the Wanted poster for his arrest – “$5,000 Reward, Dead or Alive”, it says (Kemp had cut off the bottom line). Jesse and Roy now point out that they have played a big part in capturing Ben. So a scowling Kemp is forced to take on two partners.


They tie Ben’s hands in front of him – this apparently means that he can’t escape. Why had he holed up and not kept on going? Because one of their horses was sick. They walk over to inspect the horse – it’s Leena’s. It’s lying down and has difficulty breathing. Kemp decides to shoot the horse – Leena pleads, and Ben takes her aside and puts his arms over her head to hug her, his hands still tied. This is an image that will recur several times. Is it fatherly or sexual? And we hear the shot. Not much to endear Leena to Kemp at this stage.


Now the journey to bring Ben to justice in Abilene begins. This is the essential image of the film – these five people out in the wilds. We will never see a single building. (“Shot on location in the Rockies”, the credits say proudly.) This is a cut-down account of the film, from one viewing, and a few details may be wrong. 


Ben has already begun to create tension between his captors. The others are journeying to collect a handsome reward; he’s journeying to be hanged. He may be (as Roy later says) “not a man, just a sack of money”, but he is a human being out here – he eats, sleeps, rides – and he can talk and make trouble. He alone knows Kemp, though probably less well than he pretends -  (he over-familiarly calls him “Howie”)  - and he takes advantage of this to breed fresh suspicions.


Roy, a serial womanizer, tries to get fresh with Leena from the start. Ben doesn’t seem to mind. He starts to stir up sexual jealousy by predicting to Roy that Kemp will soon make an aggressive move on Leena. That’s the kind of man he is. “What he wants, he takes.”


Ben also chatters away to Jesse about gold-mining. Jesse is quite open about it; he’s been searching for years but he’s never made a strike. Ben tells him about a fellow he knew who did find a rich strike, just round here in fact, but who never could exploit it for lack of water.


Finally, Ben reflects, in everyone’s hearing, that a reward split only two ways would go a lot further than a reward split three ways.


The dialogue cracks along, while we watch the party organizing who’s going to ride behind whom, discussing directions, making camp under the stars. Around them is nothing but wild, wooded scenery, mountains and rivers.


Ben’s back aches, he complains of stiffness from riding with his hands tied. He likes to get Leena over to massage his back. Partly so they can have quiet conversations in which he can encourage her to use her good looks to cause dissent. Are you really hurt, or do you just like to be rubbed? she asks him – “A man needs what a man likes,” he replies. Since Ben is a captive up against the odds, there is a potential sympathy for him in our minds, and at such moments we, like Leena, have a soft spot for him and would like to think he is not a murderer.


The camera tracks up through a group of pale tree-trunks, and rests heart-stoppingly on a watching Indian, mounted and armed. Seasoned viewers of westerns know that an Indian episode is always a colourful diversion, though here, as often, the film’s deeper interests do not include them.


Kemp has been the least talkative of the party. Ben makes sly innuendoes about Kemp’s past, hinting that he’s being driven by disappointed love for a woman who betrayed him. Ben is hitting him where it hurts, but Kemp manages not to lose it; he becomes ever more peremptory and bad-tempered. Is he fundamentally a good, principled, dutiful man in a hard land, or is he just after the money, or deranged by lost love? The portrayal of Kemp rides a thin line, casting doubt on whether these alternatives make sense. Is Kemp truly a real Man in some sense that is denied to Jesse, Roy and Ben? Is a hero anything other than a killer without a sense of humour? Is Kemp’s dream really of settling, or of ownership? – why does he seem to think that there’s a moral value to possessing a ranch? 


How Leena fixed up with Ben isn’t very clear, but she was an implausibly footloose orphan, and she thought that by going along with him she’d have a chance of settling in California, which appeals to her as a place where you can start a new life, and where no-one knows who you are. Ben has always claimed to her that he wasn’t the Kansas City killer. Kemp tells us the victim was found with a bullet in his back.  


When Kemp kneels over someone (the sick horse, or Ben), his leather chaps reveal a bright blue, baboon-like behind. Later, we’ll see Leena kneeling over Kemp and revealing her own plump, shapely ass in lilac, high-waisted slacks.


Kemp and Jesse have gone on ahead of the rest of the party, when they suddenly catch sight of a dozen Blackfeet, a hunting party south of their usual territory. “Hunting for what?” Kemp wonders.


They return to the others. Roy (a self-professed Indian killer) is for attacking the Indians. Why make trouble for ourselves? asks Kemp – and more acutely: What are you afraid of, Roy? Roy is forced to admit that he realizes these Indians are looking for him, seeking revenge for his seduction (or rape?) of the chief’s daughter. Roy’s presence puts the rest of the party at risk. Kemp orders him to clear off, and Roy gallops away.


The rest proceed cautiously through the trees, and are soon being followed at a distance by the twelve braves. Kemp orders calm. Leena is beginning to respect him now. The camera pans aside to show us an anxious Roy, hiding behind a log as the Indians pass him by. Finally Kemp decides to turn and parley with the Indians. He raises a slow hand in greeting. The feathered leader of the hunting party responds. Then there’s a shot and the feathered man falls. Roy has chosen this moment to ambush.


A battle ensues. Eventually all the Indians are lying dead, strewn around the clearing. Kemp has been shot in the thigh. He’s furious with Roy for putting them all at risk (not, apparently, for causing the death of twelve innocent men). Kemp tries to ride on with the others, but he’s too badly hurt, and soon topples from his horse. Jesse squats over him and roughly wipes his face, causing Leena to intervene. She’s the natural nurse. The others make camp.


Cut to the night. Kemp is delirious with pain, moaning and revealing details of his past as a soldier, and the ranch he bought for his Mary, the ranch she sold up while he was away in the civil war. In his delirium he mistakes Leena for Mary and starts to embrace her. Reluctantly she listens to what the others tell her to do, and she makes soothing replies, speaking as if she was indeed his lost Mary.


Ben maliciously fills in details of Kemp’s sorry history. What Kemp wants to do now is buy a new ranch and start over. Jesse uprightly says that they shouldn’t be discussing this, it’s Kemp’s private business. But Ben points out: a split of the reward won’t be enough for Kemp to buy his ranch. And that is your business.


The party move on through the wilderness.


Kemp, slowly regaining strength, talks to Leena about his plans. He rhapsodizes about settling down. Leena says she couldn’t stand to think that his ranch was financed by Ben’s corpse. Kemp asks her what’s she doing tagging along with Ben. Leena denies being Ben’s mistress. Leena says that her dream was for Ben to buy a ranch when they made it to California. Kemp’s response is dismissive. Ben hasn’t got what it takes to be a rancher. The only thing Ben can do is make trouble.


Bad weather breaks – thunder and heavy rain. They take refuge in a cave. Ben is complaining; he wants his back rubbed again. He must get away soon. “Time’s running out,” he tells Leena. She moves forward to the cave mouth where Kemp is on his own, begins a conversation and, a bit awkwardly, manages to sit down beside him. Kemp’s suspicions are gradually lulled. They talk about the music that the pattering rain is making on the tin mugs. Kemp begins to speak fervently about his ranch again. He says to her: when I’ve got it, I’d like you to come and see it. Do you realize what that means? He’s looking at her. He grabs her and they kiss passionately.


In that moment Ben makes his break for freedom, trying to clamber and wriggle through a passage in the back of the cave. After a clumsy struggle Kemp manages to haul him back. They’re in the main part of the cave again. Tempers flare, and Kemp unties Ben’s hands and invites him to draw (someone must have lent him a gun). Ben refuses; it’s three against one and he plainly hasn’t got a chance. Kemp, full of pent-up fury at his unwanted colleagues, and Ben, and Leena’s Judas kiss, looks like a killer himself now, with his hat pushed low over his head. Eventually everyone calms down, but only temporarily.


The rain stops and they move on, but they come to a swollen river that they can’t cross. They’ll have to make a long detour, delaying them for maybe nine days. But perhaps there might be a chance of getting across if they don’t have to watch out for Ben. Roy suggests they kill him – after all, the reward would still be valid. Dead or Alive, it said. Leena pleads desperately and Kemp – finally stilling the ghost of that shot horse – backs her up. A brutal fist-fight breaks out between Roy and Kemp at the river’s edge; Kemp’s dislike for Roy has been simmering for ages. Kemp just about wins, but both of them are hammered. They can’t go on and the party are forced to make camp. Ben starts pleading for his back to be massaged again, but Jesse sends Leena off on other business. He humiliates Ben by giving him a vicious back-rub with the point of his rifle. It’s untypically mean behaviour by Jesse and it probably seals his fate.


Roy and Kemp are exhausted and out of action. Ben is talking to Jesse about his friend’s mine again. Jesse says – you mean, your mine. You wanted me to figure it out and you were trying to hook me. Yes, Ben admits, if you’d only help me to get away, then maybe we could work the mine together. Jesse thinks he’s got the upper hand and can drive a hard bargain. He insists on sole ownership of the mine if he helps Ben escape. Ben objects violently at first, but in the end he gives in. “I’m in no position to argue”. As Jesse moves away, we see Ben’s suppressed whoop. He’s finally located the weak link.


That night, Jesse wakes Ben and unties him. Ben insists on taking Leena along with them, and Jesse has to give way. Ben wakes Leena with a hand over her mouth. The party finally breaks up.


Cut to Jesse, Ben and Leena – it’s daylight now. Their path has kept them by the turbulent river. They stop to discuss the route. Ben’s words harden suddenly. Almost without warning, he pulls his gun. Jesse begins to think about making a different arrangement, conscious of the suddenly altered circumstances. Ben says to him: “Thinking was always your problem, Jesse.” And he shoots him in the heart. It’s a palpable shock. These had been five human beings. And now Leena knows for sure what kind of man Ben is.


He forces her up to a cliff-top, and starts firing more bullets in order to attract the laggardly pursuers, Kemp and Roy. I think Ben hits her at one point. As at the start of the movie, the pursuers have the problem of trying to get to him when he’s holed up in a superior vantage-point. This time Kemp does manage to  climb up the sheer face, snatching off one of his spurs and using it as a hook to gain purchase in small crannies. Ben, surprised by this frontal assault, stands up on the skyline and Roy shoots him in the back. His body tumbles into the rushing water and is washed downstream before snagging on a tree root on the far bank.


They have to retrieve Ben’s corpse if they want to claim the reward. Roy hurries down to the river,  lassoes the tree root on the other bank, ties it taut on his own side, and, with great daring, his legs in their trooper hose swinging around wildly and flailing the water, manages to get across and lashes Ben’s body to the rope. But then a huge tree-trunk comes whirling down the river and smashes him unconscious. Leena screams from the shore. His body is swept away and that’s the end of Roy.


Kemp reels in Ben’s corpse and jacknifes it over his mount, dripping wet. As he does so, he delivers an angry, self-disgusted monologue. Leena doesn’t care about him. All he wants, all he’s ever wanted, is to collect on the killer’s corpse. The money, that’s all.


But Leena does care for him. She does care for him, but he has to give Ben a burial. So Kemp sacrifices his $5,000. Instead, they’ll turn around and travel back in the other direction, making for California. Kemp is already digging the grave. But  the film has spent so little time idealizing Kemp (perhaps it relies on the conventions of westerns – there has to be a good man, a moral authority) that this ending fails to convince. In fact, it seems ridiculous to give up the money. No matter; the audience are already making a rush for the exits. An unbelievable ending (such a common feature of movies) is actually a way of beginning to free the audience from its absorption in compelling narrative.






Jean Giono: The Man Who Planted Trees (1953)


According to his daughter (in an afterword), Giono, a hardworking professional writer well thought of by Gide, Malraux and Henry Miller, did not realize that his article for the Reader's Digest 's "The Most Remarkable Man I ever Met" was supposed to be factual. It is, however, written as if factual, with precise dates and places. But it's an imaginary account of a shepherd who slowly reafforests an area of moorland, and of the social regeneration that follows. I rather tend to think that the deceit was intentional, gaining welcome publicity and posing the question rather more sharply in our minds, whether this kind of afforestation scheme would really be practicable and whether it would indeed work out with the good effects described in the fable.


[I have doubts about the survival of the seedlings in a location otherwise so short of leafy shoots. I think because of the wind you'd have to make (or grow) windbreaks first, and fence the saplings, which could not go unnoticed. Nature is intolerant of introduced plantings. But I don't know.]


Just as Elzéard Bouffier ignored both world wars, so the story ignores all social and economic changes and supplies no answer about rural employment, subsuming everything to the dream of an acorn. Since Bouffier lives in total isolation his class and culture cease to exist and do not trouble a middle-class audience - Wordsworth had done this too. It is thus a fairy tale in which little unseen acts of altruism visibly transform the world. It is an extension of the hope that beautifying one's garden á la Candide does good to one's society, and that it is not necessary to communicate with that society in order to benefit it. In fact it's better not to: "If they'd suspected what he was up to they'd have tried to stop him".


Giono is good on the forest as a reservoir of water and on nature's ability, once properly started, to grow on hugely and to self-transform. He saw the power in the acorn rather than its vulnerability. Belief in the virtues of tree-planting was nothing new, but Giono pitched his fable not at estate-owners but at helpless, ordinary people. His simple tale with its optimistic message thus provided both a fantasy and a striking contribution to popular environmental awareness in the West, subsequently of great political importance. His tale was self-validating, itself an acorn that burgeoned astonishingly.


The implications for a political literature are: that it has to be so simple as to be held totally in the mind after one reading; that all style is counter-productive; that its political meaning is created by the reader rather than the author.  









Kathleen Raine (1908-2003)


[First appeared in the blogzine Intercapillary Space, under the title Googling Kathleen Raine]


[This collage arose from reading a selection of Raine’s poems in Penguin Modern Poets 17 (1970). Raine shared that volume with David Gascoyne and W.S. Graham, and that’s not a random grouping, because the same trio had done a reading tour of the States in 1951, under the banner of ”Three Younger British Poets”. Raine had known Gascoyne since the thirties. All the other material is from online sources. MP]

    The clarity of the crystal is the atonement of the god.

    (from ”The Crystal Skull”, 1943)

Winsome ”Kathie”

Kathleen's life had its pleasures, but much pain. She was beautiful and intelligent, and knew the passions of the heart and body as well as the immortal longings of the soul. At Cambridge, a group of young men hung around simply to catch sight of her. There were love affairs, marriages, partings... She was an adored only child; a photograph of her at eight shows a ravishing girl with grave eyes and long, light brown hair. Her Scottish mother, Jessie, sang her the border ballads and wrote down her poems before she could hold a pencil herself. Her father, George, a miner's son, went to Durham University, and became an English teacher and Methodist lay preacher. Though she was born in London, during the first world war she lived in Bavington, a Northumbrian hamlet, where she was "Kathie", a country child. For the rest of her life, this became her touchstone of wild beauty, simplicity and innocence; everywhere she went, she sought what she had known and lost there.

After Cambridge, Kathleen married: because, as she admitted in her autobiography, she had no idea what else to do. The marriage - to Hugh Sykes Davies - failed; she eloped with Charles Madge (obituary, January 24 1996), who conceived Mass Observation [a sociological research project], and with whom she had a son, James, and daughter, Anna. But she left this marriage, too, caught in a sensual passion for a man who did not care for her. The love of her life was the homosexual Gavin Maxwell. She believed they shared all she held dearest in life. His grandfather was the Duke of Northumberland; her grandmother had sat behind his in Kielder Kirk, "admiring her coils of shining hair". He and Kathleen were at one in their love for that place, for his hut at Sandaig on the west Highland coast, and for Mijbil, the otter he had brought from the Euphrates. But the relationship was doomed.

Once, at his request, they shared a bed, without sexual contact. "Every night of my life, since then, I have spent alone," she wrote in The Lion's Mouth (1977), her third volume of autobiography. In it, she tells their story with surgical honesty, not avoiding what she came to see as her most terrible act, the words she spoke in her despair by the rowan tree on Sandaig that had symbolised for her the eternal quality of their bond: "Let Gavin suffer in this place, as I am suffering now." Maxwell's beloved Mij was killed, for which Kathleen blamed her negligence; his house on Sandaig burned down. He endured other losses and failures, and died prematurely of cancer in 1969.

(from Janet Watts, Guardian obituary of Kathleen Raine (1908-2003))

    I saw on a bare hillside an ash-tree stand
    And all its intricate branches suddenly
    Failed, as I gazed, to be a tree
    And road and hillside failed to make a world

    (from ”The Mirage”, 1951)

An undergraduate’s view (Oct 1954)

When we arrived at the house, [W] walked straight in, and of course I had to follow. His friend Gavin was seated there talking earnestly with a woman as we entered. ([W] told me later that this was Kathleen Raine, who is apparently quite well known as a poet. But there was an expression on Gavin's face which seemed to be rebuking us for the intrusion. He relented however, and drinks were offered - although Kathleen Raine continued to look as if it were impolite of us to have stolen some of his attention away from her.

Gavin Maxwell had some work of his own to finish, but Kathleen Raine came on to the lecture with us, accepting a lift in [W]'s car. But [W] may have gulped down one too many - and having a rather small body, he does seem to show the effects of drink rather more quickly than others that I know. Anyway his conversation was becoming more peculiar every minute - reverting to the subject of having to obtain the right kind of dents in an accident to his car, but now creating a vivid impression of it all being just about to happen - driving up on the pavement, and round the other side of a lamppost, with exclamations of excitement thrown in for good measure. I was in fits of laughter, but the elderly poet-lady appeared much on edge, endeavouring to restore a semblance of intellectual fibre to the conversation. I noted at one point that she was suggesting something about Blake's symbolism. But [W] was giving her no encouragement whatsoever, talking instead about running over policemen and playing bumper-cars. So finally she froze into an icy silence. And as soon as we arrived at the hall where the lecture was to be delivered, she jumped out of the car and ran in ahead of us. That was the last we saw of her in fact.

(later the same evening...)

Then [W] took me to a restaurant club which he declared to be Gavin Maxwell's favourite haunt. I was curious to see that Gavin was pleased to see us this time, when we arrived. For whatever reason, there was now a complete switch in mood and he was now quite welcoming. In fact I enjoyed the meal very well, striking chatterbox form. I liked to suppose that I was becoming the focal point for the attention of these two distinguished intellectuals!

(Alexander Thynne’s diary - the author was in his second year at Oxford and was then Viscount Weymouth, later Lord Bath)

    There is stone in me that knows stone,
    Whose sole state is stasis
    While the slow circle of the stars whirls a world of rock
    Through light-years where in nightmare I fall crying
    ’Must I travel fathomless distance for ever and ever?’
    All that is in me of the rock, replies
    ’For ever, if it must be: be, and be still; endure.’

    (from ”Rock”, 1951)

Giving with one hand

There is no doubt that the quality of these preoccupations and the pure underivative language in which they are expressed have resulted in some very fine poems ("Shells," "The Invisible Spectrum," "Air") which prove Miss Raine to be one of the most serious living English poets - serious, that is, in the sense of utter devotion to her vision.

(Philip Larkin, from a Guardian review of Raine’s first “Collected”, 1956)

    Scipio saw Carthage there, how small a spot
    Among those seas and continents, but blotting out all galaxies
    When to the assault he came which razed from time
    Dido’s bright palaces.

    (from ”The Eighth Sphere”, 1965)

The Queen Mother (early 1980s)

The Temenos experiment was hardly mainstream, and it was funded at first by the sale of paintings and occasional donations, for Dr Raine was not wealthy. But she was surrounded by friends, and the sufferings and religious searching of her earlier life seemed now to bear fruit in a cultural movement centred around her house in Chelsea, where her superb hospitality is remembered by everyone who knew her. David Gascoyne, Vernon Watkins, Jeremy Reed, Thetis Blacker, George Mackay Brown, John Michell, Peter Redgrove, John Tavener and Keith Critchlow were among those who published regularly in her journal, and after ten years the movement found its patron in the Prince of Wales, who offered continuing hospitality for the Temenos Academy after 1999.

(from Stratford and Léonie Caldecott, Kathleen Raine: A Challenge to Catholics in Second Spring: a Journal of Faith and Culture)

    The helix revolves like a timeless thought
    Instantaneous from apex to rim
    Like a dance whose figure is limpet or murex, cowrie or golden winkle.

    They sleep on the ocean floor like humming-tops
    Whose music is the mother-of-pearl octave of the rainbow

    (from ”Shells”, 1951)

Punch and counter-punch

GL: Would you be a poet again in your next life?
KR: Oh no! No.
GL: Why? Because you've done it already?
KR: I've done it already. I don't have much faith in poetry.
GL: You don't have much faith in poetry?
KR: At one time poetry implied that the poet was contributing a special kind of wisdom, passing a judgment of the values of eternity on the values of time. But now poetry seems to be just writing down whatever comes into your head. Any idea of poetic tradition and poetic technique has totally been thrown out.
GL: When do you think the change happened?
KR: With the modern movement, which is basically a materialist movement. The idea that there is a spiritual order on which poetry is supposed to draw is completely gone from our civilization. It's just not there anymore...
GL: ... You say the modern movement, and I'm trying to place that. Do you mean the poets of the thirties, the socially conscious poets, Auden...?
KR: Well, it's the gradual loss you see. Eliot's poetry is a lament for the loss of tradition. But people went on cheerfully after that and said "Oh well, we don't need tradition. We reject the follies of our parents. We'll write free verse and don't need to know anything." So we get poetry as self-expression, as therapy, social or political poetry. Or moaning about the universe. I don't know why we should moan about the universe. I think it's wonderful.
GL: What advice would you give a poet today?
KR: I'd say forget it, and do philosophy instead. Or learn history. Start to learn things. Temenos, after all, is trying to reestablish true knowledge. You see, you can't write poetry when there's no one who'll read it intelligently. There has to be an ambiance in which you can communicate. Otherwise you're talking to yourself.

(from an interview with Gary Lachman for Lapis Magazine, 1997)

Her activity as a propagandist and critic of modernity has been considerably less enlightened. Interviewed at the age of 84, she was still smarting at conversations of 60 years before, and replaying them without being able to persuade the reader that she had understood the other person or was giving a fair account of their position. Her religiosity is astonishingly self-serving, it seems to be little more than a way of invalidating people who are more intelligent than her and who pointed out at various stages of her life that she wasn't intelligent enough...In some remarkable autobiographical interviews, Raine has recalled how, as an undergraduate, she was laughed at by everyone for her stupidity, and how everyone around her was more intellectually sophisticated; impressed by this, she nonetheless found her way to spiritual verse in a stanzaic form derived from the nineteenth century (or do I mean the sixth century?). The statements are remarkable for their frankness in admitting that she was wrong about everything, and for their arrogance in assuming that she was right about everything that mattered, and everyone else was wrong. Again and again she hammers home the message about thinking being bad for you; a kind of mispronunciation of 'I am bad at thinking'... Close examination of claims may seem 'cynical' and 'materialistic', but where someone makes such appalling accusations against other people, one has to examine the evidence. She is unique in the scurrility of her claims about other people, in this scenario of purity and defilement, and in her image of English poetry as two opposing camps...

(from Andrew Duncan, online essay on four Christian poets in pinko.org)

    A dying seabird standing where the burn runs to the shore
    Between rank leaves and rough stone,
    Its nictitating membrane down
    Over eyes that knew a wild cold sky,
    Head indrawn,
    Into neck-plumage and wing pinnae furled,
    Disturbed in its dying becomes for the last time a gull,
    Opens eyes on the world,
    Brandishes harsh bill
    And then withdraws again to live its death
    And unbecome the gull-mask it was.

    (from ”The Hollow Hill”, 1965)




J.R.R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings (1954-55)




12/8/00 Sudden sharp desire to re-read Lord of the Rings ignited by borrowing it from Grant in the office. The first two chapters are really fantastic.


13/8/00 My Birthday. Raining in Bath - Hanging baskets - 75% reductions in BHS - chips, peas, carrots and gravy - Mary making my mobile phone ring (Bach) every minute or so.


In Bath I bought Lord of the Rings. I’ve read it before, of course - the first time when I was about nine - we were still living at the Lodge, and I remember the fascination of those great grey volumes with their sinister red eye, a fascination that extended to the publisher’s name “Unwin”. They were brand new - they had just been bought, and awaited bbinding in sticky-back plastic before being placed in the school library. I’m not sure how much I really read at that young age - I’m sure I skipped a good deal, and perhaps I only read the first volume - to this day, I feel hazy about stretches of the third. But somehow I absorbed the essential image of the book (I can’t think of a better word for the whole fictional projection of a novel). I’ve read it on and off since then, but perhaps not now for twenty years. My university friend Richard was a keen and serious admirer, the sort who quotes O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!, but his amazing memory meant that he didn’t have to return to it very often.


Why, contrary to all habit, I’ve actually bought a new book is hard to say. In the end I bought the cheapest version. I wanted to read in large print on good paper, but I was disappointed to find that not even the hardbacks in Waterstone’s were very good quality - certainly not like those grey volumes with their fold-out maps of black and red. And I have prepared my reading carefully - I’ve now read the “Note on the Text”, the Foreword, the Prologue... (it’s toward the end of this, discussing the Shire Records, that my first ungracious doubt about the value of all this imagined history briefly intrudes).


On the first page I mentally note: Trollope. The manner of the storyteller at this stage owes something to him - but perhaps this is sparked off too by the general resemblance of the map of the Shire to Barsetshire and the map I have seen in those books.


Tolkien’s map is loosely congruent with Western Europe and draws on our myths of e.g. Russia, Turkey, Rome - but the distances are too short: Hobbiton, for example, is less than 300 miles south of an ice-bay. Middle-Earth is sparsely populated, and this makes it possible for Tolkien’s world to be constantly a geography of the individual’s imagination, in which distances swell and shrink conveniently.


11/9/00 I am in the middle of reading Lord of the Rings - the company are separated but converging on Minas Tirith. In my anxiety dream, I had to implement a communications network, starred from Minas Tirith, to connect the characters (Merry, Aragorn, etc) with each other. C.S. Lewis, I think, pointed out that the prevalent emotion of Lord of the Rings is anguish.


1/10/00 Lord of the Rings, finally. I can’t see me reading it again. I hoped to find in it an odd sort of masterpiece, but for all its achievements - a vast and spacious narrative, and two good voices in Gollum and Treebeard - there is something too sickly about it. The poverty of the presentation of female characters is too apparent. And with that goes something else - a lack of convincing happiness. Hobbits’ meals are a poor substitute for sex and religion. Tom Bombadil and his lunatic - but impressive - river-wife are as near as we get. The high-archaic-Malory style that besets the Return of the King is dreadful stuff. Once only I felt the genuine tremor that seemed to be promised by that glance at Grant’s copy. It was in Appendix A. The story of Arwen, and especially her death - the very last act of the whole history - is truly mythical in a mode that an adult reader can accept. But these are cold words.


Postscript (2002). That was my judgment from a “literary” point of view; and this is not to belittle it and pretend that there is some higher court of appeal. However, with all the excitement over the films I have been able to witness a couple of other, more naïve, readers deeply immersed in the book - a man of about thirty, for the first time; and an eighteen-year-old woman, for the second time. The depth of their delighted absorption was clearly greater than anything else they have experienced in book form; and both, though they’d enjoyed the film, were now qualified in praise of it - the book was, as it were, the “reality” by which they now automatically oriented their opinions.  There is something remarkable about how seriously they could take a book about childish hobbits and booming ents, a book, moreover, drawn out of the quaint imagination of a spinsterly medievalist fifty years ago. It was the power of the book’s ability to invoke imaginative excitement that stilled argument about its methods - they became irrelevant. Not everyone can yield to it - Grant, for example, did not, though he’s mad on the film of the first part. Germaine Greer, on a television program, clearly could not settle to the task, expressing mere astonishment at the infantile materials. Perhaps she didn’t try very hard - her own vast engagements had already prejudged it. Knowledge is, alas, sometimes disabling. It is, after all, a matter of the first importance why - for example - I should suddenly find myself having literary conversations with unliterary people. Those who live near the English departments of universities may not appreciate the rarity of this phenomenon. The whole canon of our educated tradition is, as it were, locked in a chest and unavailable to most people. But the Lord of the Rings admits them. One reason might be that Tolkien himself seems to believe in his world; he does not write down, does not betray any awareness that he is “casting a spell”.  - I think there is a lurking doubt in the mind of any reader who does yield to it that Middle-Earth might be, in some intangible way, “not made up”. And they do see the point of reading about another world - though they consider they have more than enough information about their own - at any rate, they have no thirst for books about it.     




(2000, 2002)

Gunnar Björling: You go the words (1955)


first published in Intercapillary Space.



O we all when the days go out

to see can it lights itself


who wants it that

the birds go out?


You go the words ends like this, with the gentlest of appeals, gentle indeed considering how the book is fraught with loss, longing, warmth, pity, loneliness. It was published in 1955 when Gunnar Björling was 68, and was dedicated to the memory of Martin A. Hansen -  a name unknown to Google, perhaps the author's lover, a close friend anyhow. And Björling's book is filled too with premonitions of his own death five years ahead. Despite this you don't think of its author as old. He sets about these matters as if they are something he's consideirng for the first time; as if it's you the reader's concern rather than particularly his own. Photographs of Björling tell the story; he was the kind of person who never learnt to be old and psychologically never became old. He never accepted enough explanations.


Difficult I am to explain, the less thou shalt explain away. (in the journal Quosego, c. 1929)


For all that, he also claimed that his life's work proceeded according to a definite logic, and it is a philosophical as much as a passionate exclamation that erupts from the opening poem of the collection:


We go and search

and we wander

we go and search

it is not in the words


it is not words

words not

but of a nothing

o your day  (I, 1)


It's impossible not to become involved in an inquiry that begins with such a welcoming invitation. And if the effort to think along with these poems becomes rapidly more formidable, it's not so much that the poems have become difficult as because the difficulty was always in the terms of that inquiry. Many of the poems are object lessons in how much is possible with the barest minimum of materials:


And that you


and day, and follows


and that you



     you or someone

     someone or you

     life and honor

     life and honor

     you honor



     and life and

     honor! (II, 2)


There are things we miss here. I'm sure Fredrik Hertzberg, who made these translations, would concede that it's a good idea to keep glancing across the page at the Swedish text; to pick up, in this case, the visual connection between day ("dag") and you ("dig" - intimate object form), or the felt connexion between honor ("ära") and being ("är" is the present tense form of the verb to be). Still the shape of the poem is quite clear - how "follows" in the first part and "honor" in the second - those relatively enormous two-syllable words are tossed like bricks into a fishpond and leave the whole expanse trembling. And it's also clear that a tender, painful irony coexists alongside the unforeseen festivity of that exclamation mark. Which is fas as I go in explanation, given another of Björling's remarks (quoted in the Introduction): "I know that if I lifted a red flag before the statue of Alexander, they would ask why I'm wearing a green scarf."


As poem follows poem there develops behind the slight words a soon-luxuriant bloom of backward reference. As far ahead as IV,3 we suddenly turn a corner and find ourselves face to face again with the book's opening line:


A head


a bowed head

like seeing

with the hand



What day and courage

and goes and seeks you


(the Swedish is "går och söker", a direct quote from "we go and search" in I,1) - and yet, of course, it isn't the same at all, now that the object of the search becomes "you". But I'm also quoting this because of "seeing / with the hand", which is not only about a hand across the eyes. Of the many vectors of imagery that circulate restlessly behind the poems, none is more persistent than images of seeing where there's no means getting a glance - between stone and stone, between body and body-part, into past days and closed graves - and of seeing with the unsighted, e.g. hands and fingers. Seeing with fingers is certainly the best way of finding the right-sized potato in a 3kg bag.


           - or stone

           and straw

           o me



Sky sucked

air took

your toe melted together

Like a dog, like a rat

like a floor

that I rest


           Your toe  A nail

           and cut off

           Th'straw of hair  Skin's


           Your blood's



                   Everything lost

                   : the capture

                   in your hand


Agglutinative and fragmenting aspects of language are terribly wracked in the effort to open up these equally un-visible materials: your day now, your day then, and the day that wasn't your day but someone else's. Hertzberg in his introduction has a good phrase for it: "material opacity". It is a need that sees; though it seems impossible it isn't, and I think Aase Berg calling the poems "overjoyous" is thinking more of what she has taken from Björling (this sounds like a description of her Uppland) than of Björling's own joyousness, grounded in a logic of discovery and eventually placed centre-stage in the six season-songs of the ninth section. But after thinking this I go back on myself reading the following poem; perhaps Björling does acknowledge, as of these stubby fingers peering, a necessary "stupidity":


So slight

that in animals and limbs

- what more that in reputation and disrepute -

like a worm and trampled down

and like me

              and soon


So slight

             and as all

so slight and


But today is day and roses


that not

           not to overlook


         and like people

people hearts


And the stupidity


Perhaps the unshakeable stupidity of a dog who, when you point something out to it, gazes in a troubled way at your finger.


The intense and (as it seems) intensely relevant fascinations of Björlingian technique can make us forget: these seem like poems that were written yesterday and it's only occasionally that a period sigh (of roses, perhaps), like a languishing portamento, reminds us that we're reading a poetry that belongs to a world of black-and-white photographs and we can hardly imagine what it meant - or just as pertinently what little it meeant - in Björling's lifetime. Now these poems seem like exemplary studies in how to get to new places very quickly. 









1. Gunnar Björling published twenty collections, of which this was the last, and is said to have written 30,000 poems. He is not the sort of poet that you can ever "possess". Though he was recognized as one of the important figures (along with Edith Södergran, Elmer Diktonius and Henry Parland) in Finland-Swedish modernism, none of his poems, so far as I know, were translated into English until more than twenty years after his death. (It would hardly have surprised him not to have featured in Voices of Finland (1947), which I think contained the first translations of modern Finnish and Finland-Swedish poetry into English. Elli Tompuri, the editor, reasonably explained: "In selecting the material for this small anthology I have attempted to give a picture of the literary trends which are most illustrative of the broader outlines of Finnish life. For this reason purely subjective poetry has been excluded." All the same, Södergran and Diktonius were in it; in a nation with such a short history of written poetry - and indeed of nationhood -, contempt for innovation could never be quite as comfortably entrenched as e.g. in Britain.) The selection of Björling's poetry that appeared in David McDuff's Ice Around Our Lips: Finland-Swedish Poetry (Bloodaxe, 1989) concentrated on the first decade of his publications, up to Sungreen (1933).


       A singer I wanted to be, to give the suffering day, give the happy a longing. A singer whose song would strike hard through the day.

       And the word was nothing but sounds and light in my heart! (from Resting Day, 1922)


Is not dada necessary  for lightweightless eyes?





                                   I slay dust beneath my foot,

                                   I am the voice shaken out into space,

                                   I am the sieve that let through

                                   and built the hall of pillars.


   Your lip gives off its colour and the tongues twist, you change your head, you meet the gaze of your fate on the streetcorner or right in front of your very nose's cut-out. (from Kiri-ra! 1930)


Like a splash of God's blood is each moment an object in my


- like tufts on the skin of the ordinary we shall walk on the wrath

            that wells from our intestines.

Like a cosmopolitanism, without losing our balance

in the increasing moment. We

with the will of our hands, that our breasts might rest as in


andall were sprays and streams

and as though all were like a well-run milkbar

in which all receive exactly as much as they can drink. (from Sungreen, 1933)


From this kaleidoscope of different kinds of poetry it was clear that Björling was energetic, driven, inventive, clearly a formidable writer and perhaps a crazy one. But it would take an acute reader to infer the tenacity of the investigation that Björling would undertake in his later poetry. The first glimpse of this, also provided by McDuff, appeared in the large anthology of poetry from Finland, A Way to Measure Time (1992), ed. Bo Carpelan et al.

Then Johannes Göransson translated some of That in one's eye (1954) for the SFSU periodical Fourteen Hills (1996);  and, around the same time, a long extract from Where I know that you (1938) in the online Typo 7 (http://www.typomag.com/issue07/) - a highly recommended anthology of innovative Swedish-language poetry. But a poet like Björling can never be properly encountered in selections, and You go the words, in English with the Swedish text on the facing page, is now clearly the right place to begin that encounter. Why Hertzberg should have settled on this final collection he does not discuss, which leaves us wondering. This is not the poet who stirred things up in the twenties with Parland and others and who thus demands his place in any literary history of Finland. Still, I imagine it's the concentrated re-sculpting of language in the later poetry that has been most practically fertile for contemporary Swedish poets such as Ann Jäderlund and Aase Berg. Since I've got on to links, I might as well add that there is a useful biographical/bibliographical note here (http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/bjorl.htm) and that Hertzberg's Introduction to the present volume can be read here (http://www.nypoesi.net/?id=tekst&no=50).


2. och and att


It may not be immediately apparent that nearly all the variety of disjunctive effect in Du går de ord is produced using a surprisingly limited toolkit. Björling's means are sentence decomposition by heavy cutting, an astute but quite restrained use of layout and the frequent interpolation of just two words, och and att.


How to translate these words is a question, since they are included not so much for the meanings they bring with them as for the meanings they splinter out of other words. Leaving that aside, the Swedish word och presents no particular difficulty: it means and, and it's used in much the same way (except in Björling's poems). 


But att is a different matter altogether. It has two functions for which English uses different words. Both are present in this sentence:


Jag önskar att jag hade en vän att anförtro mig åt.


I wish that I had a friend to confide in.


The first way that att is used is as a subordinating conjunction, where English uses the word that. The second is before the infinitive form of the verb, where English uses to. But both the English words have a range of other uses that att will not bear: it cannot be used as a demonstrative adjective or demonstrative pronoun or relative pronoun (like that) nor as a preposition (like to).


What is a translator to do? Hertzberg generally goes for that, but the problem is that this sometimes glosses over a syntactic impossibility in the Swedish:


att är


that is


The English is fragmentary, but as a fragment it provokes no further discomfort; the Swedish does.


The most pervasive problem is that it's precisely the meanings that att can never bear, the adjectival/pronominal that and the prepositional to, that are most likely to cross our minds in that fleeting moment when we are struggling to construe what can't be construed.


Here's an instance of how these problems with att can mount up:


jag kryper till en fot


att kryper


att himmel

luft och



I creep to a foot


to creeps


that sky

air and



For the reason mentioned above, Hertzberg avoids "foot / that creeps" - which would seem to the English reader all too simple to construe. His choice, "foot / to creeps", preserves the syntactic violation, but it does so at the expense of rousing a memory of "creep to" a couple of lines earlier - an echo that isn't there in the original text; the real structural connection, with "that sky" a couple of lines further on, is completely obscured. And when we read "that sky", we instantly construe "that" as a demonstrative adjective; as if a meditative rambler was pointing out "that sky over there", as happens in many another poem, but not in this one.


How much does all of this matter? Well, in this particular passage I think the thread of Björling's poem is irretrievably lost.  But though the problem appears radical, overall it matters less than you might expect. In poem after poem the package of words and disjunctions (even if they are not quite the right disjunctions) delivers an eloquent charge that silences my doubts: this, I'm convinced, is something like what Björling is like - so to speak. And of course there are some other aspects of these poems that translate into English particularly well: a good few of Björling's key words (e.g. fot, hand, finger) cross the language barrier automatically. 




3. "bluebells"


- has not scents' eyes

has not day

and has forsakenness

- the bluebells at the driveway


(beginning of V,1)


Blåklockor does literally translate to "blue bells" (though klocka also means "clock", "watch", "the time" - which complicates the ringing of bells that subsequently drifts through the rest of section 5). The reference here is to the circumboreal Campanula rotundifolia, which is called "bluebell" in Scotland but "harebell" in England. Some of the implications (all in marked contrast to the English bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, which does not grow in Scandinavia) are: land cleared of trees, full sun, high summer, and no or hardly any scent. The same poem ends:


that the summer

On worldspaces'

the onetimegrave



(Photo from Den virtuella floren (http://linnaeus.nrm.se/flora) by Arne and Anna-Lena Anderberg)




John Ashbery  (poems from 1956..)




Tonight I picked up Ashbery again - the selection in Penguin Modern Poets 19. With reluctance - I still imagine that I don’t enjoy reading Ashbery. But that’s out of date; increasingly, I realize that I am enjoying it very much.


The poem was “Soonest Mended”, the usual kind of infuriatingly oblique title.

I don’t really know any other kind of poetry like this. It all happens in the process of reading. Nothing, in itself, is really very worth quoting; even so fine an image as “this careless preparing, sowing the seeds crooked in the furrow..” really depends for its impact on the whole construction.


The theme is never explicitly stated (is there a theme?). In practice, your own mind fills up the vacuum. Like every other Ashbery poem, you end up making it out to be about “the nature of (our) life”, or something as vague and cloudy as that. “The general state of the world today,” the theme that, C.S. Lewis says, “never attracts a good writer and always exposes a bad one”. I applaud, but I have to admit that in the end he’s wrong. That theme now seems overwhelmingly pressing, though it may not have been in any earlier time. 

Global media shouldn’t dictate the terms of our poems, but the fact of global media and how it changes the way we experience our existence is simply too significant not to confront.


Actually, one can make out a bit more than that. It’s plain enough that one element in this poem is “we ... were merely spectators” - our life unheroically lived by proxy. And here’s another - that we are irresolute, always retreating from the impossible intangibles of where we’ve got to back to the childish early terms, when we knew what we were doing (a superb comparison here with “the friendly beginning of a geometrical progression”). A memory of infant aspiration - wanting to be “small and clear and free”, contrasted with the life we find ourselves in, full of “the loose meaning, untidy and simple like a threshing floor”. Simple? Yes, because the complexity is not something we can make a construct out of, it’s just an assortment or a heap.


I think it was in a Christian apologetic that I first read that you can’t start at the beginning, you are compelled to go from where you are now. And though you don’t have it all clear in your mind, and therefore don’t feel confident of the answer, you have to make a decision anyway. Exactly why this might move one to embrace “The Foolishness of God” (I think that was the title of the book), I can’t remember. But I absorbed the description. Ashbery’s poems seem to surf that wave, of “existence in time” - they present it to you in the reading. I don’t necessarily want to read lots of Ashbery, it seems a very unprogressive activity, you can never pin things down and then start to “build”. But the poems - some of these early ones, anyway - do “work”, and they do it in an astonishingly original way.


And the image here, of what life feels like within an overwhelmingly populous culture, is highly relevant to my environmental concerns. I come at it more crudely, less prepared to put up with it (I mean in poetry, not in life). Ashbery is, unquestionably, focussed on modern material - how rarely can you say that!







            She liked the blue drapes. They made a star

            At the angle. A boy in leather moved in.

            Later they found names from the turn of the century

            Coming home one evening. The whole of being

            Unknown absorbed into the stalk. A free

            Bride on the rails warning to notice other

            Hers and the great graves that outwore them

            Like faces on a building, the lightning rod

            Of a name calibrated all their musing differences.


            Another day. Deliberations are recessed

            In an iron-blue chamber of that afternoon

            On which we wore things and looked well at

            A slab of business rising behind the stars.



(from Houseboat Days, 1977)



Reading this poem, whatever you take from it, I think you would agree that

what happens happens in the sentence beginning “A free / Bride on the rails...” Just prior to that, the word “stalk” spits at us with a sudden brassiness, displacing the ambling narrative of the opening. Before we have time to think about what this image is doing, the epic sentence hits us. It may be signalled by the word “great”, but what makes it stand out is the difficulty of “free”, “rails” and “Hers”. (Ashbery loves to use his unfashionable capital letters to provoke syntactic uncertainty.)


The last line of the poem is mainly there to hold in check the elegy that would effloresce in our minds if the poem ended “that afternoon / On which we wore things and looked well”. It is true that the “stars” (like “blue” and “name”) refer back to the poem’s opening, and you can extract a biography out of this which makes sense of the poem’s title and typifies the way that we always do infer stories about neighbours we don’t know. Perhaps they are getting married or having a baby (what else do such couples do?).


You can admire a traditional kind of skilfulness in the multiple meanings of “outwore” and “looked well”. What I like still better is Ashbery’s awareness of ways in which we understand a stalk – (a) the bit that isn’t the essential thing itself (e.g. the stalk of an apple); (b) the bit that IS the essential thing itself, what a plant has instead of a mind or skeleton; (c) its conductivity, something that stuff passes through, like a lightning rod. But what I like best is that sentence in the middle, the place where you can dive repeatedly and be in rough contact, without quite knowing what it is, with the thing that happens.


(2001, 2005)





W. Ellery Anderson: Expedition South (1957)




This is a run-of-the-mill travel book about the Antarctic - more specifically, it’s about a year in charge of a survey station.


It is competently done, rather unromantic though of course it uses romantic expressions and thought-forms. We are made to feel, for some reason, little affection for the author or his comrades. He seems, to my unexploring mind, unnecessarily captious. The very tremendousness of the Antarctic (place, and weather) is made somehow commonplace without becoming less terrifying.


Suddenly I saw a whale jump clean out of the water like a gigantic salmon. A moment later another, a little nearer to us, did the same. The a third went up. We immediately got out our cameras hoping to photograph a jumping whale, but none obliged.


We were getting used to the sight of whales, but were certainly not prepared for what we encountered in the next pool, a short distance away. It was a small pool, perhaps a hundred yards long by fifty yards wide, and in it were about twelve Adèlie penguins, four crabeaters, one leopard seal, and occasionally two Killer whales, all swimming about together in perfect harmony. Such a scene in Hope Bay (location of their HQ) would have been unbelievable.


Then, as we watched, a pack of five Killers appeared from under the ice less than six feet from where we stood. There was no mistaking them. They were certainly Killers, yet they went porpoising through the group of seals and penguins, without harming them, and we saw a swirl of glistening backs and the flash of dorsal fins as they dived under the ice on the other side.


Characteristically, no explanation is forthcoming. They saw it, and we see it, but don’t know what to do about it. Only the facts speak - the writing is unable to explore them, and is indeed poor. The helpless transition-sentence at the beginning of the second paragraph is an example, and “perfect harmony” requires an effort to overcome its connotative baggage.


Anderson’s writing, curiously, improves when he describes incidents at which he was not present. It’s as if a certain constraint is overcome. He is honest to a fault, yet also reserved, and rather ungratefully we read him with suspicion. What is he concealing? What do others think of him, or each other? Perhaps the truth is that, as he confesses in the last sentence of the book, there was apparently very little thinking done at all. Not that there was no time. But in the conditions one becomes dulled. (He describes this effect quite well on the return journey to Cape Disappointment.)


After the middle of May I began sending out small parties on minor sledging journeys from forty to sixty miles. Most of these were for local survey, but I also wanted to get as many men as possible away from base. I was opposed to the idea that personnel should be categorized as “sledging” or “non-sledging”. It was bad for the morale of those whose duties tended to keep them indoors if they did not get a chance of some real Antarctic travel.


Naturally, I suppose, the sledging parties preferred to wait for fine sunny mornings before setting out, but I insisted that, provided it was safe, people should leave in fair weather or foul. If they only emerged on fine days, we were not going to get very far in the Antarctic. This policy, I am afraid, nearly resulted in tragedy.


It was to be a short run, for two parties consisting of Worswick and Kenney, and Taylor and Willis, but it was blowing quite hard that morning and so the trip was postponed. Taylor and Kenney both said that they thought it would mean taking a risk, and I told them they could please themselves. Next day conditions had improved a little and I made it clear that I disapproved of them holding back. To please me, they went. They returned the next day with a terrifying story.


They had set out in the early afternoon, but by the time they reached Summit Pass they were facing a head wind of gale force, so they decided to camp and lie up for the rest of the day. They fed their dogs and “storm-pitched” their tents on the pass. This was done by tying a rope to the apex of the tent and anchoring it to the sledge. The tent was then laid on the snow, pointing into the wind, the skirt flap of the back wall was picketed to the ice and the four poles jerked upright. With the top held to the sledge the wind helped to drive the poles firmly into the snow.


After a meal the occupants of both tents turned in. As Taylor recalled, they lay listening to the wind tearing at the tent like a demented fiend trying to get inside, but what really worried him was the way the tent walls were flapping. He was an experienced sledger who had camped in all weathers; but now he sensed that something was not quite right with the tent. Down at base that night the anemometer recorded gusts of ninety knots, so on the pass they must have been getting the full impact of the gale with added pressure as each gust was forced through the gap.


At about ten o’clock the tent began to move slightly as each frenzied gust punched it. The give was imperceptible at first, but as the guy-ropes were loosened the movement of the tent poles increased, and the tent rocked under each screaming blow.


’I think we’d better get dressed,’ Taylor told Willis. ‘Then I’ll go out and tighten up a bit.’


They lit their candle, but it was immediately blown out by the flapping tent walls, so they had to feel for their several layers of clothing in the dark and dress in the confined space of the tent, with the flapping impelling them to hurry. That only made dressing even more difficult.


Taylor told me later: ‘We must have struggled for about a quarter of an hour before we finally got ourselves sorted out. To be on the safe side, we hung out compasses round our necks and stuffed some chocolate in our pockets.’


These precautions undoubtedly saved their lives, for without warning the tent was whipped away from over them, and they were suddenly out in the blizzard, with the drift coming at them like sand out of sand-blasting gun. Taylor said he felt himself being pulled along. He grabbed at his sleeping-bag, but this was wrenched out his grasp as the Everest-type air mattress they were trying out on the journey struck him in the face. A moment later the mattress was gone as well.


Meanwhile, Willis was holding onto his sleeping-bag in a grim embrace as he and it were being rolled over and over in the wind. He could not say how far he was taken, but managed to stop by writhing in the snow until he was lying with his head into the wind. He had lost touch with Taylor and as he tried to shout, the blizzard stifled the cry in his throat.


Willis knew the other tent was up-wind and began crawling towards it, dragging the sleeping-bag under him. Drift blinded him. It choked him so that he had to stop every few feet to breathe by ducking his face down and inhaling in the slipstream. Whenever he looked up, the force of the wind pressed back the flesh on his cheeks, and although he did not know at the time his face was being frost-bitten.


Time was difficult to assess. Willis thought about twenty minutes passed before he encountered Taylor, who was looking for him, shouting into the blizzard. Willis heard one of the shouts on the wind. It was as though somebody had called his name in a dream. He went forward, and there was Taylor only a yard away, crawling on all fours.


Together they inched forward into the numbing blast, crouching heads down in the wind as each frenzied gust struck them and the drift quickly piled up ahead. They could see nothing but the ice grey-flecked darkness, and had no idea where they were.


After some time Taylor began to wonder if they had possibly gone past the other tent. He was about to tell Willis that they should turn back in a detour, when he put his hand on a mound in the snow that suddenly came to life with a snarl. It was Jaikie, one of Worswick’s dogs.


’Shut up, you bastard,’ Taylor shouted.


A moment later it was licking his face with a warm tongue, greeting him delightedly, quite oblivious of the blizzard.


Finding Worswick’s team immediately indicated to Taylor the direction of the tent, which was another ten yards farther on, and they continued towards it. They reached the tent, and beat on the walls with their hands, shouting until Kenney untied the entrance and they wriggled in with a rush of drift. As Taylor entered he heard Worswick utter a groan of agony. The giant had toothache.


The four of them spent the rest of the night huddled together in the one tent. Next morning the wind had abated considerably, and they went out to look for the other tent and equipment. Nothing remained and all that they ever recovered was a a part of the tent which had been blown down the snow-slope and a fifty-pound box of sledging rations which they found over three miles away.


Taylor’s theory to explain the loss of his tent was that one of the bamboo poles had been broken by a piece of flying ice. In support of that he was able to show the pole split across, but the pole could have been broken as the tent was blown up and dashed to the ground. Personally, my belief is that insufficient snow had been piled up round the tent on its skirt flaps. The wind must have got under the tent and lifted it up, and I took that incident as a warning that it is always safer to pile on too much snow than risk putting just enough.


This was surely worth writing. In travel-books we confuse literature with life - for example, we admire the author for what he did as much as what he writes.

For the reader, though it is ourself, we have some contempt: we think “armchair-traveller”. Yet memories of camping and bad weather, feebly incomparable as they may be, are enough to persuade of the reality of this. It is an efficient way of arriving at a corner of experience that no-one can get to easily or often.






NOTE (2010)


Sara Wheeler, Terra Incognita:Travels in Antarctica (1997). It's a sign of the slow civilisation of the continent that this classes as a travel book rather than an exploration book. Undeniably, I'm enjoying this, though I've got mixed feelings about the recent sort of travel book that mixes personal reportage with a lot of chattily recounting history, as if the impressions were only collected in order to frame library research. What the papers love to admire. Bruce Chatwin's got a lot to answer for. (Wheeler's more recent book on the Arctic is blurbed as a "spicy confection".)


C.P. Snow: The Affair (1960)





At some point C.P. Snow will have his due. It may be that anyone who reads more than one novel in the Strangers and Brothers sequence will be overcome by the sense of a writer who composes his own clichés, unwittingly parodies himself and has an absurd self-regard. Snow is perhaps not a novelist at all, as Leavis proclaimed. So much the better, I think.


The “Establishment” is such a mysterious and inaccessible world that it’s very gratifying to be permitted to enter it in so much detail, even though the author makes no bones of his admiration. Indeed, he could not write these books without the admiration.


The Affair is a book without sexual adventure or death. And yet not altogether a comedy, though there is something in the book’s procedure that reminds you of comedy. It’s mostly conversation about the business – a doubtful matter that cannot be finally resolved, though I think we are perhaps meant to suppose that Nightingale destroyed the photograph – but, as in real life, there is room for doubt. (It would be more or less certain if you could treat the text of the book itself as evidence in the trial it describes, because what Nightingale says before the hearing doesn’t make sense if his assertions during the trial are entertained; but you can’t give even the most skilful sort of novel that kind of weight within its own fiction). The persistent doubts, the essential vagueness of the technical matters, are there to provoke the complex reactions of the participants.


It would have been hard to tell whether Martin had heard what Skeffington had just said. He was not looking at Skeffington. He gazed steadily at the hearth, in which the electric fire had one small incandescent star, much brighter than the glowing bars, where a contact had worked loose.


I’m quoting this because it reminds us, as other stray sentences do, of everything that this book isn’t about – everything that other books are about. 


A few pages taken from the middle of the book will illustrate what is distinctive in Snow, both for good and ill.


In April I had to go to Cambridge on official business. On business which was, as it happened, at that time top secret...


The mock-modesty of that “as it happened” – one was always dealing with top secret matters – is one reason why you might object to Snow, and remember Buchan ungratefully. Briefly Lewis Eliot looks out of the windows of the conference-room:


it was a piercing blue April afternoon, a sunny afternoon with a wind so cold and pure that it made one catch one’s breath.


The word “pure”, with its strong implication of public-school chastity, is again Buchanesque.

...resentful ... as though once I had been out in the cold free air and known great happiness. And yet, my real memories of days like that in Cambridge were sad ones.


That is comfortably beyond Buchan. Yet we are soon back at the conference-table, and once again his spectre rises.


There was a fair amount of ability in the room, two Nobel Prize winners, five Fellows of the Royal Society. For imagination and sheer mental drive, I would have put Luke before any of them...


(This unacademic psychology, this “shrewd judgment of men” which Snow prided himself on and probably possessed, is a key element in what his books are about.) Everyone here is idealized, Luke in particular, Crawford later. That is also a significant part of Snow’s intention in portraying the decision-makers. Also an element of his style; even the unamiable Howard is somewhat gratuitously supplied with this:


One felt that, change his temperament by an inch, he would have made a good regimental officer.


This is a book about good people.


That conference-room scene is a generous introduction to the splendid succession that follows – the top secret business is an aside to the plot. Now follows the scene in which the bad news of the Seniors’ reconsideration comes through.


He and I sat there in silence, watching Laura gaze with protective love at Howard. He was holding the newspaper low, so as to catch the light from the reading-lamp. The only movement he made, the only movement in the whole room, was that of his eyes as they went down the page.


Then Howard explodes, and Martin (Lewis’s brother) catches some of the flak. Lewis admits:


He [Martin] was no saint. He had none of the self-effacingness of those who, in the presence of another’s disaster, don’t mind some of the sufferings being taken out on themselves...


Naturally this wins our sympathy. Soon we are told to have more:


People often thought that those who ‘handled’ others, ‘managers’ of Martin’s kind, were passionless. They would have been no good at their job if they were.


We don’t take this so easily. Eliot/Snow seems to be bullying us – on the basis of their joint expertise, which of course we little readers can’t remotely compete with.


I forgot to mention a moment in the Howard scene, when he says to his wife:


’You know nothing about it.’


He spoke to her roughly – but there was none of the suspiciousness with which he would have spoken to anyone else that night. Between them there flared up – so ardent as to make it out of place to watch – a bond of sensual warmth, of consolatory warmth.


Snow only mentions love if it’s relevant to power, but he does so persuasively. Marriage is the form of love in which he’s interested, and as it’s an institution and a power he inevitably over-praises it. The Skeffingtons’ marriage is almost a sham, but


With her own kind of clumsy devotion, she was with him whatever he wanted to do. Others might admire him more, other women might long for the chance of admiring him, but she happened to be married to him.



Now follows another great chapter.


We had walked right into the hiss and ice of a quarrel.


Arthur Brown’s imperturbable handling of the atmosphere, and his utter rejection of Tom Orbell’s political advice, strike us like beorhtword, somewhat in the manner of a saga hero. Of all the great and the good, Brown (though on the “wrong” side) is probably the hero that Eliot/Snow adulates most.


I wouldn’t be surprised to see Strangers and Brothers overtake A Dance to the Music of Time in critical estimation. Powell’s book has no heroes. Snow’s is more informative. At present both these statements still seem shallow and irrelevant to serious literary judgment; but it’s easy to foresee a time when that might change. A more American time, perhaps.  




Colin M. Turnbull: The Forest People (1961)





When the author discovered that the molino was a pilfered drainpipe, he wavered. He had readied a myth of noble savagery, and the Mbuti didn’t quite fit it. He was mythmaking, almost as if he already had that controversial companion-volume, The Mountain People, in his sights.


It so happened that I had read The Mountain People a few years ago, but had forgotten its author’s name. When I read this book, I assumed that it described a way of life that was now extinct. It turns out this is not exactly so - the Mbuti, in a threatened sort of way, still exist. More surprisingly, perhaps, the Ik (the anti-heroes of The Mountain People) also survive.


The mythmaking was perhaps wrong inasmuch as it presented a snapshot as a record of unchanging existence. In fact, the life of any group of people is different from yesterday. Turnbull himself was one of the facts in it, perhaps a rather important one. I had not realized how widely these readable books are studied in the West.


The image of the Ik in The Mountain People, i.e. of a society that had gone brutally wrong and should be dispersed, is the more influential one. Searching the Internet, I have found it in travel diaries and in sermons, turned to surprising ends. We swallow our own “discoveries” and they become part of “our” culture.


[This evening of surfing led also to the Kvens and the Sami, and to uncomfortable conflicts between “conservation” and the ways of life of indigenous people. Whether excluded or included in “national parks”. And what happens when a Sami shoots a wolf?]


In fact, this goodnatured book is a minefield. The whole business of ethnography is controversial. On conservation you get drawn towards a limited view of on doit cultiver son jardin - but ownership and nations (and gardens, too) are somewhat opposed to the notion of wilderness.


And yet, it pleases me to read: “The pygmies seemed bound by few set rules.” The assumption that members of a society are bound by rules is immediately laid open to question.


[Since this particular note is not turning out the way I thought it would, here’s something else that came up. Some Samis object to the tourist excitement of the “Arctic Circle”. It’s of no special significance, they compain. In fact the Midnight Sun can be seen up to 100 miles south of the circle. So far as I can tell, this is true. First, because the definition of “sun not setting at midsummer” is based on sea-level, I imagine. A high vantage point would let you see beyond the horizon. Also, “Another effect is atmospheric refraction. This is the bending of light rays by the atmosphere in such a way that the sun can be as much as 3 degrees below the horizon of an observer and still be seen.” Finally, I’ve yet to see a definition that makes it clear whether sunset refers to the centre of the sun passing the horizon, or the top of it, or the bottom of it.]


What is astonishing in The Forest People is not the forest but Turnbull’s ability (which must have depended on fluency in the language) to portray a complex scene such as the reconciliation with Cephu. But at this point the book is not really ethnography - we can be in complete sympathy with the scene because everyone acts in just the same way as they would in, say, Acton.


Or perhaps a little better, because of the organizing power of the molimo. Turnbull is keen to say that the Mbuti have no laws and no government. He portrays them as in many respects rather slack and irreverent. Yet the singing, and conceiving themselves as “forest people” – these lead to a practical co-operation. This is rather idyllic, yet it seems to me possible that a hunter/gatherer existence could have benefits that are denied to civilisations. It is not because of greater happiness that people start farming or working in cities. I have read elsewhere that leisure-time was greater and nutrition better - and this seems likely, though not at all times. It was vulnerability - to nature generally and to more populous societies in particular - that meant the end for hunter/gathering. Increasingly this way of life seems to need some kind of break to become feasible. In the case of the Mbuti, the “break” was a symbiotic relationship with the croppers; because of these other, less fortunate beings, a small number of Mbuti could be sustained. “Symbiotic”, or “parasitic”? We know that in nature the two modes grade into each other. And “parasitic” is a word potentially loaded with moral disapproval - the common attitudes to gypsies and otheer travellers in England carry that charge. But if the niche is there, it’s merely sensible to occupy it, for one can’t get the same thing from straight society. (“Self-sufficiency” is an attempt to achieve it while still being able to fill out one’s tax returns; I mean, this “quality of life”; it is backbreaking and isolating, and it must usually fail without some mysterious pot of gold to get properly started.) 


Ethnography is a problematic form of documentary because it implies that “I will tell you what A and B did, and how C responded - so that you can understand the people.” That last phrase is the problematic bit - the rest of it is just normal documentary. It imposes a sort of interpretive frame, which is associated with the phrase “colonialism of science” that I have read somewhere. And yet, to talk of Kenge or Moke without saying “these are Mbuti” is to miss something important about how they see themselves, too. But what they mean cannot be the same as what I, the reader, mean. 


It would seem that an ethnographer, more than most, would be aware of the intense significance that most human beings place on belonging to a people. Perhaps that’s why the notorious page in The Mountain People, where Turnbull made recommendations for breaking up and dispersing the Ik people, appears so shocking. One commentator used the phrase “gentle genocide” - but this seems unfair to me, for the word has always been associated with the extermination of individual lives. Even the South Sami have not used it, though the Swedish government has no such reason as Turnbull had, of rescuing people from a culture that seemed lethal. But it seems that Turnbull’s horror at a purely destructive culture was misplaced.


I take a kinder view of the paragraphs in question. Mistaken they may have been, but I recognize that for him to value humans higher than cultures was a courageous and optimistic belief; and one he had earned the right to hold. Those of us who, from our end of the earth, like the idea of other people living a postcard life that we don’t contemplate for ourselves, - and yes, I am one -  shouldn’t give to our tastes a high moral valuation.  






Brigid Brophy: Black Ship to Hell (1962)


The urgency of Brophy's writing springs essentially from this: she accepts Freud's account of the death wish as a fundamental truth about human nature, at any rate in modern times; then combines that fact with the existence of weapons of mass destruction: we all basically wish to destroy everything, and now we have the means, so we will. This leads to (among other things) a violent assault on religion - based not so much on its claims being untrue (that's merely a given) as on denying that religious belief can ever be sincere or morally unreprehensible - these are formidable, in-your-face polemics and I'm shaken and impressed. And yet it isn't difficult to see why her books aren't in print any more. Brophy's passionate admiration for Freud leads to many pages of unparticularized generalities like this, sampled in mid-torrent:


She [the prostitute] has, in fact, improved on the tragic conception of fate by adding to it the numerical idea of chance. The male sex is a lottery, in which the prostitute has bought the highest possible number of tickets. Any one in her holding may be the winning number, the father she is seeking; but since no one knows which is he, it is the series as a whole which becomes the object of her sexual and aggressive desires. For the prostitute, every professional act of intercourse is an act of incest and, at the same time, an attack on her father. In exercising her profession, she gratifies her incestuous wish (and its murderous companion), yet the fact that it is a game of hazard allows her to plead not guilty to incest. Just so, if one member, no one knows which, of the firing squad has drawn a blank cartridge, all may feel innocent of the killing but the execution none the less gets done. The same psychology is manifest in the very usage of modern European languages, where the plural you, vous, sie is a politer way of addressing one person than the singular thou, tu, du. ...


This jostle of ideas is dazzling, but I feel like it was even more dazzling to write than to read. So much seems to be being forcefully asserted, (and yet, in a sort of mode that suggests that it isn't really being asserted), and it's so heavily bolstered by impatient logical expressions like "just as", "of course", "in fact", that I keep wanting to call out: Hold on there! Just let me get it straight, what (or who) actually are we talking about right now? Are you claiming that every prostitute... ? In what useful sense is this an account of prostitution (or warfare, or education, or artists, or elections..)? This was a fashionable style of its era - displaced at some time in the 1980s by tthe style of theory (revulsion from the post-Freudian style when I was at university led to me wrongly supposing that this was also how Freud himself must have written, thus putting off discovery of my own passionate admiration for Freud for a further twenty years). The passing of time reveals violently hostile contemporaries to share as much as they disputed - Brophy often reminds me - at any rate, so far as her language strategies are concerned - of C.S. Lewis in his populist defences of Christianity (another blatant misuser of "in fact", "of course", etc). Both made, in passing, exactly the same unanswerable protests about the practice of vivisection - protests that were complete failures and now excite surprise; in our own time intellectuals are conspicuously silent about this, it is only the emotive masses who think there is something not quite right about what is euphemistically known as animal testing. (More generally, Brophy also reminds me a lot of Germaine Greer - the same enormous learning and the same admirable assurance of being able to cut through it to what other learned people don't see at all.)






Pak Chaesam (1933-1997)


His name is also transliterated as Pak Jae-sam. I’ve placed it here because the first of Pak’s fifteen collections was published in 1962.


This is a review (first published in Intercapillary Space) of


Enough To Say It’s Far: Selected Poems of Pak Chaesam, trans. David R. McCann and Jiwon Shin, Princeton University Press 2006.




Twentieth-century Korean poetry has, like twentieth-century Korea, a fiery and complicated history. Pak Chaesam (1933-1997, also transliterated as Pak Jae-Sam) seemed to stand rather aside; emerging as one of a group of relatively traditionalist poets in the 1950s. He came from a very poor background and remained imaginatively centred in the seaside town where he grew up, his father a day-labourer and his mother a gatherer of sea-squirts. You can understand why Pak’s poetry was “well-loved” (though it didn’t bring him financial security) and why the translators’ introduction dwells on this interesting biography rather than on artistic controversy. Perhaps you might interpret their closing reference to “artistic brethren in many places” as a pitch for the Quietude audience. So in a way I feel I ought not to like this book, but I do quite like it.


What’s probably more to the point is the often neglected element of expatriate interest in the market for poetry translations; that growing number of people worldwide who may not especially care for poetry in general and who are thoroughly turned off by matters of poetics but who have an imaginative involvement with a distant mother country whose language they may not even know very well, and who sometimes buy poetry books that are felt to re-connect them with it. Not to labour the point here, but isn’t there an often-remarked connection between Quietude and regionalism generally?


Anyhow, that’s one good reason for presenting poetry translations alongside the original texts; there will be some readers who are semi-competent in the original language and use the English as a crib not a substitute, and that may be, well it is, the best way.


But as for me I can’t even make the sounds of those pages written in the Han-Gul alphabet, which makes me feel particularly incompetent to write a review, but I’m glad those orginals are there because Han-Gul is very fascinating. The writing is organized by syllable not by word, each syllable occupying a square (Korean writing books look like our arithmetic books). The syllable-squares can be arranged either top-down then right-to-left in the Chinese manner or (now predominantly) left-to-right then top-down in the Roman manner. Syllable-counting forms like sijo are thus instantly apparent in a way that is totally different to our accentual meters which when read rather than heard have to be extrapolated by inference – a skill that does not automatically pass on to new generations. The Han-gul system, invented in the fourteenth century, is so limpid that it involves no such black art as “spelling” and Korean children are overwhelmingly literate from a very early age.      


So yes, the package is appealing, those left-hand pages and the beguiling monochrome cover: a photo of a group of conical islands playing in the mist, as in one of the poems:


At times they may seem to bow their heads

as if to pick up beads...





A few of the 72 poems in this selection are sijo but they aren’t the easiest place to start. It’s in slightly more ample poems that you can see how Pak implies an absence by going round it and leaves that absence standing at the end, a bit like the lost wax method.


Thus a poem about a friend who has gone away sidles from abstract speculations into familiar fallen leaves but then at once sets us to work at conceiving the elusive image of a weight of wind that hangs on the branch-tips, precisely displacing the leaves that aren’t there any more. The second half proceeds thus:


So today I push

my way through a forest of letters

to shape verses, knowing well

there is no comparing them

to the wind’s still lingering

in the branches of the tree.

My friend, your leaving causes me

to feel deep in my bones

there is nothing of the ordinary about this.


Those letters are inevitably envisaged as leaves; by design, they are present entities themselves and can only refer to presences. Thus the poem is as dubious a concept as the difficult image of the wind lingering in those leaf-spaces, an image that seems to be trying to have it both ways: in order to make absence present to our imaginations, it ends up re-constituting it as spectral presence. But, having finished reading the poem, we kick away the ladder and there it is.


We are fairly familiar with poems like that, I know. But perhaps because the absence approached here is objectified in Korean culture as han (grief, unfulfilled yearning, but with an intellectual implication), Pak’s use of his method can become very intricate; almost in inverse proportion to the text, the absences can multiply thick and fast. You’ll want to see this for yourself in a complete poem:


Recollection 16


In the sea near P’alp’o my home,

one aunt drowned herself.

A distant aunt had drowned herself too,

and others; their precious lives they gave away.

Suicide: why choose that?

What shattered dream fragment

made them long so to end their lives?

Did the sea resemble a flower garden?

Was that the reason they all removed their shoes

before they leaped?

I tried to imagine

they had forgotten the faraway,

already distant causes of their own sorrows,

drenched, intoxicated as they were by that greater beauty.

But to my eyes now I have passed fifty, the sea

has become a dull thing, and plain.


We learn from the introduction that this is autobiographical, and the occasion of those cliff-edge suicides was husbands lost at sea. But “Recollection” here refers not to the events directly but to those past, childish thoughts of a beautiful communion; a communion in sharp contrast to the distances and isolations in which the poem is taciturnly veiled. If the poem is about the occlusion that news of a suicide both creates and reveals as having already existed (“why choose that?”), it invokes other absent things too: life-long trauma – Is it there? but trauma always conceals itself –; and also the mystery in that dull, plain sea that withholds but is recognized as withholding such histories and such precious losses. So that at the same time that the last lines dispel the pitiful nonsense of that flower-garden, something like a shimmer wells up from beneath.      


With poetry of this kind the challenge for a translator may be not so much the words but also translating the reader’s mind; to know what is not being said may require cultural backgrounds we just haven’t got. A few of these poems don’t seem to me to do much; a few more seem to do something, but I know I don’t really know what it is, and these ones arouse a kind of idly poetic interest that probably doesn’t have a lot to do with what Pak was writing about. On the whole McCann and Jiwon seem to have preferred literalism at the risk of creating a few puzzles; thus the middle part of “Autumn River in Burning Tears” goes:


The lamps and other lights that gather

at elder brother’s house for the ceremonies

may be lights, but I have seen the autumn river

burning in tears as the sun sets.


which I have also seen unprofessionally translated as:


Though the lights at my ancestral home

are lit for our forebears’ rites,

I watch the autumn river at sunset in tears afire.


I’m sure the first rendering is more accurate but the second one makes me realize that when I read the first I didn’t really catch on to the significance of “elder brother’s house” (hence I almost made him into a character in the poem) and I didn’t understand anything about what kind of “ceremonies” would be going on there.


But if translation of the nouns tends to literalism it’s also clear (even without knowing any Korean) that the translators have employed plenty of latitude when it comes to word order, particles, punctuation and so forth; for example it’s easy to find places where Pak repeats the same form of words while the translators decide to vary them. The plain repetitions in “New Arirang” (a folk-song form), for example, are artfully submerged in the English version; I’m not sure why, but I think the idea is to produce something that reads more like a familiar kind of modern poem, less like a translation.  And perhaps that’s why, more often than I feel they ought, stray bits of phraseology remind me of well-known American poets: Wilbur, Roethke, Bishop, Ashbery, and generally these reminiscences suggest ways of making poetry that don’t seem totally apposite.


Which shouldn’t be allowed to detract too much from the benefits of this book. 72 poems may be a small proportion of Pak’s fifteen collections but it’s a generous enough sample to give a real idea of a Korean poet and to me that’s worth much more than the snippets you get in anthologies. There is a cumulative effect in reading all these poems together; they provide context for each other and one begins to know the shape of Pak’s world. For example, the lines in “As for Love”


and then in winter’s

empty embrace

between the bare branches

while snow fell gentle,

a hazy white that might have calmed me


interact with “Looking at Winter Trees” where both trees and poet strip, and


   now as I settle

into the bath, I see

them drawing bit by bit

more gladly near, waving

their hands at me, the landscape

taking form in the mist and evening glow


These embraces that are not quite realized are the middle-aged, mournful yet resigned obverse of distances that however desolate are also not quite realized. I’ll end with the title poem which I hope will provide another illustration of what I mean by these poems’ mutual commentary:


Enough to say it’s far


About the distance

to the sun and moon, to the stars,

whatever else, it is

enough to say it’s far.


And the distance between

my love and me,

since it cannot be measured with a rule,

for this too

it is enough to say it’s far.


I cannot see beyond

these things, afloat,


in the bowl of cool water.

And because of my thirst

now I have no other thought

than to drink of this cool water.



 John Updike: Of the Farm (1965)




I recently read Updike’s “Of the Farm”. The first-person narrative seemed to make more emphatic a basic technical problem in his fiction; the seeing eye is Updike’s own, and its exceptional vision lacks credibility when it’s attributed to some other, less outrageously gifted, human being. For Updike wants to write about ordinary people, it’s the source of all his interest. In the third person this is not so bad; we are prepared to believe in Rabbit’s acute sensitivity because we aren’t also asked to believe that he could put it into words. In Of the Farm the author more or less confesses to the problem by avoiding for so long the subject of what Joey does on week-days. The paragraph that tells us he does something vague in advertising, though his mother wanted him to be a poet, is as perfunctory as it is implausible: he is, quite obviously, a great novelist. Of the Farm is minor Updike. There is some cheapness, too, in the mother’s eventual statement that the new wife, Peggy, is right for Joey, as the first never was. It’s the way that the wise old retainers speak in Mills and Boon romances, and as in them it seems we’re supposed to accept the convention of  the quasi-prophetic insight of the old. This sentimental ending does little justice to the painful, grinçant quality of earlier scenes. Updike was always prone to over-praise marriage, though he dissects it so pitilessly. Something to do with the residual Christianity that at times flavours his writing, though I’ve no knowledge of his beliefs outside it. Nevertheless, I was gripped by the book, staying up late to finish it. He’s a favourite author of mine.












Buzz Aldrin, and walking on the moon (July 20, 1969)


This was actually written after listening to an Audio Book of Magnificent Desolation, written by Buzz Aldrin with Ken Abraham (2009). I wonder if a support author like Abraham ever dreams of forming a literary masterpiece out of a celebrity's memories. That is almost what this is.


That lunar landing remains a witnessed miracle without counterpart: the moon, indeed, sent us a little mad. The popular idea that it couldn't have really happened is testimony both to the miracle and to the madness. As philosophers have often pointed out, witnesses to a miracle will, as details fade, tend to eventually deny that they could have seen what makes no sense; every other explanation, no matter how far-fetched, that saves the appearances of non-miraculous earth, will (in accord with Hume's reasoning) soon be recognized as more probable than the miracle itself. That the moon had for millennia been a defined barrier in our cosmology, separating the transient from the transcendent world; that we would actually see history change, the very moment (no later re-enactments for the cameras).  Now as much as then, the wonder of it is palpable. And yet we easily forget. Because what was the consequence? What was all that about? Do we inhabit the moon? Do we use it for anything? 


Anyway, Magnificent Desolation is a wry and funny parable about pioneering achievement, the aging of a civilization, our slow embrace of virtuality. It begins with the Apollo 11 landing.  Buzz in his later years slowly morphs into the media personality role that, immediately after the Apollo 11 mission, he found so difficult to handle. Years of depression and alcoholism were to follow. Buzz at these low points seems to be trifling, still obsessed with serving his country and still jotting down wild designs while increasingly isolated from NASA, but (after his third marriage, to Lois) it all starts to come right. The space programme seems to be dying on its feet, but Buzz's vision continues to shine a light (if only in virtuality and space tourism for billlionaires) on how to continue the amazing ascent of those sixty years from Kitty Hawk to the moon, thereafter in forty-year hiatus.


After having attained the goal of reaching the moon Joan had forgiven me for my infidelity, and still hoped that the "old Buzz" would return once I was "well". She even went along with me on the tour to help promote the book. Before long we received overtures about a possible deal in the works to do a television movie. So, although Joan and I still weren't functioning well as a married couple, we were at least together. Indeed, we could have been fine, but for my recurring bouts of depression, that led to drinking too much alcohol, which led to further depression. It was a downward spiral. I wasn't obnoxious when I drank. I did, however, feel less inhibited. Drinking relaxed me, imparting an almost euphoric sense of wellness. I didn't realize that I was not impressing other people that way at all.


(Random quote - difficult to quote from an audio book...)


One of the wonders of the co-authored celebrity autobiography is that it can have a flexible voice that sometimes initimately records the celebrity's own experience, but, all mixed in with this narrative, can with equal propriety gush like a fan. Every chapter manages to drag in a reference to "after all, this guy did GO TO THE MOON!!!" Even Lois's wedding ring. "That is one small step," quips Buzz the keynote speaker, "in the words of a guy I went on a trip with once."


As an insight into the cream of western society, Hollywood entertainer Tom Hanks, rocker Ted Nugent, talkshow host Jay Leno and all, you can't do better. Presidents, royalty, chiefs of staff - and Aldrin, somehow more eminent than them all, the one who did something.



Angus Wilson: As If By Magic (1973)


(nb I know it's in the wrong place, but I couldn't be bothered to move it...)


This book, coming after Late Call and No Laughing Matter, should be a masterpiece but isn’t. It’s still worth reading twice, though.


The Old Men at the Zoo fails like a book about the near future is bound to fail. Set in 1970 but written in 1960, it reads like a black farce about the fifties. As If By Magic (written1973) does not deal with the future, but by setting forth to write about characters who are much younger than himself Wilson throws himself open to similar problems - he just doesn’t understand ‘60s culture from the inside (a few references to Lord of the Rings really isn’t enough - he needed to be inward with music and films and much else). His young people are too intellectual and too unrooted to be representative, so it can’t become an analysis with wider implications. Then there’s a severe structural problem with the hero, whose incurably socialite imagination draws him into adventures that don’t connect with the possible grand theme of agronomy (which Wilson treats summarily). An inheritance, that traditional “device”, is abused as an artificial connection between the strands of plot.


Despite all this the book feels worthwhile. Wilson is unique among authors whose books I know well in being someone who can properly be called a stylist (think of the opening sentence of No Laughing Matter), yet whose writing is frequently ungainly and roughshod - weaknesses that seem inseparable from strength of an unusual kind. Probably he will never be popular again but to me he’s valuable, he finds a way of bringing a moral focus to bear on a world that is for all its limitations recognizably modern - he doesn’t make myths.





Note (2010)


This sentence is merely to record the continuing decline in Angus Wilson's reputation since, well, about 1973 (Not many people liked Setting the World on Fire (1980), then Wilson's health declined and he died in 1991). It made sense at one time to perceive the grand English novel as an inheritance divided between Wilson and Anthony Powell. Now, in 2010, I had to go to kirjasto.sci.fi to look up the facts about him. The Wikipedia article (a very good indicator of popular reputation) is paltry.  




Van der Graaf Generator: Albums 1970-1976


(previously published in Stride Magazine, August 2005)


Van der Graaf Generator: The Least We Can Do is Wave to Each Other (1970)

Van der Graaf Generator: H to He Who Am the Only One (1970)

Peter Hammill: Fool’s Mate (1971)

Van der Graaf Generator: Pawn Hearts (1971)

Van der Graaf Generator: Godbluff (1975)

Van der Graaf Generator: Still Life (1976)


(Remastered re-issues, 2005)




It wasn’t easy to happen across Van der Graaf Generator. They had no champions on the NME (Geoff Barton of Sounds and Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman seemed, in their different ways, rather alarming standard-bearers). So I never lingered over the band’s name until, belatedly, in some listless moment I happened to flick through that unpromising publication, the Times Educational Supplement – it was my dad’s copy. I was 15 – it was 1973. In those days it was a matter of principle that the quality press never mentioned rock music; in their world, music meant Sadlers Wells and occasionally a bit of jazz. (This would all change a few years later, when Channel 4 had come along, and journalists who had cut their teeth on the NME went on to write for The Independent.) Well, VDGG got a full page write-up in the TES – this was because of ‘Plague of Lighthouse Keepers’, of course. It was probably the first piece of rock music that English teachers recognized as offering the same sort of spiritual nourishment to our tender minds as Heart of Darkness.


This was an impressive testament, at the same time a disquieting one. The British (or rather, English) progressive rock movement had no first-hand contact with modern art, it didn’t have those sexy links to the real art world that rock was managing to forge in other countries (I mean like Andy Warhol’s Velvet Underground, or Can with their much-publicized Stockhausen connections). Its social bedrock lay quite clearly in the middle-class, Anglican world of the home counties – as others have since pointed out, a lot of this generation of progressive rock musicians came straight out of the choir and the organ-loft. They inherited the essentially un-modernist aesthetic of the cantata (that beloved English form), and with a bit of Pomp and Circumstance for good measure. This background was dragged into a bizarre hybrid with rock, which then seemed so limitless, and the results were generally dire, or at any rate quite beyond my narrow powers of empathy, which were even narrower in those days.


Beat music aside, the transatlantic form that penetrated furthest into middle-class consciousness was the musical. This was the era of ‘rock operas’ and the formative days of Andrew Lloyd Webber. I know that VDGG were much better than that, but that’s why, I think, you’re intended to listen to every word, respond to the puns and internal rhymes, appreciate the cleverness of Peter Hammill putting on a loony voice to sing the word ‘madness’, or a Black Riders voice to sing the word ‘death’, or the music dropping out completely while he sings the word ‘silence’. It’s hugely zestful and confident, but it takes a bit of gritting your teeth now. Some fucking hippie on Glastonbury Tor yodelling to his hippie friends.... this is doing my head in .... absolute shite... it’s giving me a headache. Thus, variously, a few instant responses to my trying out these re-mastered CDs on a new generation. But Peter Hammill’s cracked-actor delivery had always been divisive, one reason why the band never made much of a splash in the English-speaking world. 


Anyhow, that’s my sociological account of British ‘progressive rock’ in general; not art-rock, but cod-art-rock, a pastiche of the manner of art as it filtered through, with the usual distancing effects, to the class mentality that is so hard to detach from someone’s individual mentality. But then, British rock music always did verge on being cod, or camp, or clod-hopping, a necessary consequence of the crude aping of American forms detached from their cultural origins. It didn’t necessarily achieve more when it learnt the moves, learnt to be ashamed. (I’m thinking of The Fall as the essential test case here.)  


As a matter of fact, if Hugh Banton was a (very talented) church organist and Peter Hammill (vocals) a science graduate belatedly preaching secular humanism, on the other hand Guy Evans (drums) and David Jackson (saxophones) were at least serious modern-jazz-ophiles. The creative talent on display was impressive, but the question of whether anything worthwhile could come out of this improbable backwater remains anguished and ever-present in the music; they were having a lot of fun, but if there’s a well-merited sense of triumph arising from all this fervent creativity there’s also a sense of rage. However, if the English mode of progressive rock could ever transcend its dubious pedigree, then it seemed to me that this was the band. This was the crucible.


The Least We Can Do was the band’s second album, their first for Charisma – in the light of what followed it sounds a bit pallid. Things get going with H to He, which it so happens I never got to hear at the time. Listening to it now is a timely reminder of what a new VDGG album used to sound like back then: loud, dissonant, inventive and flamboyant, harsh, ugly, then painfully beautiful in a way you couldn’t often share. You wanted to play it alone in your room, and that was in fact the only place you could rely on the audience allowing you to hear the whole song, but you kept worrying about the neighbours. A couple of years later we played punk records and we wanted to annoy the neighbours; British music suddenly became community-aware again. Even if at first that mainly meant shock and offensiveness, it nevertheless showed that we’d become sensitized to where we were living.  


By contrast VDGG were unconscious of the details of our grey 1970s world. This was very directly and unmessily about Man in the long marches of Eternity, or perhaps me alone in the lighthouse of my student bedsit. Here, beset by the existential doubts stimulated by a dog-eared Penguin Modern Classic I subsisted off my grant – it wasn’t a loan in those days – and thought about the BIG questions (I mean the ones that preoccupy bright teenagers who don’t have to work). Peter Hammill dealt with all of them.  


What was the meaning of existence? (‘Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End’) If no-one knows you exist, do you exist? (‘Pioneers over C’) Was it worth being alive at all? (‘Lemmings’) What if you could live for ever? (‘Still Life’) What would you feel at the moment of death? (Godbluff, passim) If you seemed to be flooded with love-hormones, why did you so often behave hatefully? (‘Killer’, ‘Man-Erg’) What would it mean to have sex? (‘La Rossa’) What would happen if you really had no friends? (‘A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers’). 


Pawn Hearts, the band thought at the time, was their definitive record. It still sounds magical – the fearsome machinery of ‘Cog’, the dead and deader modulations that are finally stamped on at the end of ‘Lemmings’, the part of ‘Man-Erg’ when the killer and the angels amaze you by careering around together in celestial/infernal harmony. The whole of side 2 was devoted to ‘A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers’, an impossibly rich piece of musical narrative. It’s a work of the purely English imagination, which means it harks back to the last time that middle-class English culture was untouched by the modern world; this comes from Kipling (pertinently, The Disturber of Traffic) and Vaughan Williams (5th symphony, Sea Symphony). It’s overwhelming. Who needs modernism?


Perhaps this is where you should start if you don’t know whether you’re interested in VDGG. Quite early on there’s a sea-picture with foghorns that should sort you out; or if not that, the wonderfully lonely organ-voluntary with its swelling modulations that follows. The hardest thing, now, is to tolerate lyrics that use sword-and-sorcery imagery of the ‘camps of panoply and majesty’ type. We’re basically uncomfortable with English allegory, though we don’t have a problem with the American book of legends (‘Chestnut Mare’, ‘That Song About the Midway’, ‘King Harvest’...); the language of progressive rock is somehow pre-cinematic. As it is we’d prefer ‘Lemmings’ to drop the  crashing waves and be nakedly about drug culture. That said, there’s plenty of things in this magnificent tapestry that do reach out and grab you, though no lower than the throat.


            Mind and machinery box-press our dreams


            I’ve been the witness, and the seal of death

            lingers in the molten wax that is my head


            Locked in silent monologue, in silent scream


            Alone, alone, the ghosts all call,

            pinpoint me in the light


            Oceans drifting sideways


Near the end there’s an organ-note (or perhaps it’s Fripp’s guitar) that is not so much a whinny as a racehorse in your face. This is over a whole-tone sequence that is wakeful like a meadow thick with dew, and then the percussion flakes into spume at dawn. To be strictly objective. 


Godbluff (1975) is different, and it now strikes me as even better. The band had split up, then reformed to do this. Much had changed: the epic vertigo, the frank emotionalism had gone, the landscape became flat and mocking. It’s split into four tracks, but is clearly a single drama, a Faust-story that, Peter Hammill claimed at the time, occupies about two minutes of real time. There are fewer colours in this sound-world, and compared to Pawn Hearts it seems like chamber music. But it also transcends it. It’s not that VDGG threw away their past – in fact there are more hooves and medieval weaponry than ever – but two things advance this music forward. The first is that Hammill multi-layered the script; by inter-relating the songs so thoroughly, he liberates an image which is not defined in any one of them – in fact, he unexpectedly came up with a modernist form. The second is that during their four-year recess someone in the band had learnt funkology. Like Marlowe when he wrote his own Faust-story, Hammill crammed the beginning and end with eloquence, and found himself with a desolate gap in the middle; drama meets its limits in the tick of a clock at one second per second. The interlude, in this case, is filled with a compulsive (funk-based) essay on time and motion, both hyper-ventilating and idling (‘Scorched Earth’ and ‘Arrow’ respectively). The album moves from ‘you still have time’ to ‘if I only had time’; the warmth is only in the brilliance of execution, but listening to it you find yourself ‘half in love with easeful death’.      


Still Life (1976) hasn’t got this concentration but all VDGG fans cherish it. In ‘Childlike Faith’ Hammill ascends the secular pulpit for one last, crazy attempt to say everything about the Life Force; he more or less succeeds. Hammill disposes of two millennia of Christian apologetic in a couple of lines (characteristically and elaborately rhymed):


            Even if there is a heaven when we die,

            endless bliss would be as meaningless as the lie

            that always comes as answer to the question why

            do we see through the eyes

            of Creation?


Well, if you know how to make a song out of this, then shouldn’t you?


But earlier on, body-centered concerns have started to bend this whole awesome monument to left-brain rationalism out of shape, both in that fearful hymn to eternity ‘Still Life’ (‘to couple with her withered body’) and in the university-town lust-saga of ‘La Rossa’, which is very funny and thrilling.


I’m slightly disturbed that I still know all the words by heart. I haven’t listened to VDGG for 25 years plus. To go back has not felt nostalgic. In Europe (above all in Italy, where neither theatre nor the language of classical modulations have ever become detached from popular music) VDGG never seemed a problem – just a fantastic, intriguing, intelligent, life-enhancing band. Writing this from an English perspective I find I’ve become waspish, bad-tempered, engaged in a critique of the inadequacies of my own culture and my own past. I wish you could forget about that and just surrender to the spectacular closing minutes of ‘Scorched Earth’ and ‘La Rossa’ – to name but two.


These reissues (following the band’s recent re-emergence) take us up to the point in 1976 when VDGG suddenly became irrelevant to my life – or so I liked to think. With that insistent zeitgeist in the offing, listening to VDGG, even their masterpieces, seemed like a furtive pleasure, and I hardly noticed World Record (1978) and what followed it – I just remember it seemed to fit in with the judgments I then wished to make: distended, ponderous, empty. By the time of World Record the punk mantra of “I don’t care” and “I don’t wanna” seemed a perfectly sufficient response to all those BIG questions.


They’ve thrown in Peter Hammill’s first solo album, Fool’s Mate, which is a very inadequate guide to the wrenching depths of his subsequent solo albums. In it, Peter and the other VDGG boys exhumed some of his older, more poppy material. Inventiveness and skill are plentiful, but in every time and place there have always been inventive and skilful musicians. I can’t think of a good reason for listening to this, certainly not a socio-historical one – If you want to tune into Britain in the early seventies, then Cat Stevens’ Teaser and the Firecat now seems ten times more revelatory and authoritative – for instance. If you’re going to listen to VDGG at all, it’s better to go with them doing what they assumed they could do, merely to assault the bounds of space and time. 








Here in no particular order I add some vague thoughts about this British genre, "progressive rock" and its accompanying form the "concept album". Those were the terms at the time. ["Prog-rock", now commonly used, did not exist then. This term emerged a couple of decades later and though it was adopted by latter-day fans fondly acknowledged the ridiculousness of the genre - the intervening era of total condemnation meant that these fans themselves could no longer take it seriously but to a certain extent celebrated a camp excess built in to the genre which in the earlier era would have been hotly denied.]


When I wrote about VDGG I didn't set them very precisely in this context. In a sense their music was quintessential progressive rock; but there was a common awareness that they were on some kind of intellectual fringe of it, not far from King Crimson and attracting a basically different audience from ELP, Yes, Genesis or Jethro Tull. Still, they were not truly cool like David Bowie, whose Ziggy Stardust etc might well be called concept albums - musically however they lay quite outside the progressive rock genre. But this is complicated. What about Wishbone Ash's Argus, which was a fully-armoured sword and sorcery concept album but musically sounded more like Crosby Stills Nash and Young? Few VDGG fans would have had any time for Tull or Genesis, but does this intellectual elitism hold up, in hindsight? You could argue that Tull's despised A Passion Play (1974) is not as far away as you might want to think from VDGG's Godbluff (and it has more complicated time signatures). Musically VDGG are very close to their more commercially successful peers. The basic vision in their heads remained this: of long pieces made out of short segments of rhythmically complex and undeveloping thuds interspersed with calmer bits and all adding up to some kind of hopeful statement about the nature of existence. (Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was, I now think, a big though scarcely recognized influence on the whole genre.) Of course there are differentiations to be made: VDGG for example had very little Alice-in-Wonderland whimsy (Tull, Genesis) nor folkish whimsy (Jon Anderson, Tull). Their statements about the nature of existence were coherent, the others more like gestures, but this is not necessarily a good thing - Rush's A Farewell to Kings is fairly coherent, too. Perhaps they were just better statements? The truth is we discern an underlying genre from a spectrum of different-but-similar releases. Behind these seemingly-ambitious concept albums of the mid-seventies lay a memory of an earlier moment that failed. When rock criticism began, in 1967, it was like this:


The beautful part is: meanwhile rock has, through its growing goodness and through the graces of the generation that stayed with it, built up a huge audience for quality rock, creative rock, people who'd rather hear a good ten-minute rock track than an easy-to-listen-to, dull, catchy two-minute thing... We're getting into what all of us have been waiting for: a broad, creative music interacting with every facet of our world, reacting off of other kinds of music and more than that, other kinds of art, on a scale so large we can't even begin to guess at the consequences. But Brian Wilson must be the first composer in history to know that twenty million people are going to hear, and respond to, his new composition, within a month of his completing it... We are moving towards the audience-author relationship that made Shakespeare possible... (Paul Williams in Crawdaddy! March 1967)


Williams soon learned the tough lessons of John Wesley Harding and Wild Honey and tuned down his gigantist fervour, but progressive rock in Britain would continue - in a vacuum detached from sixties social change and hence drained of real seriousness - to toy with the paraphernalia of gigantically ambitious musical forms.


There is some connection between those weird-time-signature repetitive thuds of progressive rock and what was happening at the same time in black music, i.e. funk, i.e. the groove. VDGG, as I've noted, drew them together a bit. But yawning differences: the obvious one being that in progressive rock it's totally unsexual.


Music for white male teenagers reflects the yawing of hormones - this is my next speculation beginning. As a social tool of self-identification, some music is basically driven by the groin; at other times, or as part of a long-term strategy of social gouping, you chose to identify yourself with music that etherealized love into misty fair maidens and the nature of existence. If you wanted party music, the Stones or (one of my favourites then) the J. Geils Band, you don't give a toss about the pretensions of dreams, visions, knights in armour crossing an empty landscape, and the meaning of life. At least to appearance. (I am thinking as I write this that Led Zep rather cut across this great divide, which however has continued down to the present day to be reflected in the various kinds of music a male adolescent might buy.) If the hormones are never more imperious than at that age, so too is an unspoken fear of sex. Party music is a play of tasteful euphemisms. Why keep me cold when it's so warm inside? (J. Geils Band, "Give it to me") - beautifully put. Progressive rock denied the imperious hormones completely, and if they did emerge it came out tastelessly: I sucked on your breasts, your legs open wide (The Strawbs) - this was castigated at the time; their kind of music should never include sex, only painful or ideal love. We were, at least I was, fantastically prudish.


Ashokamitran: Water (1971)



Ashokamitran (b. 1931) is a Tamil author. Tannir was serialized in 1971; it is set during the 1969 drought in Madras. The English translation was by Lakshmi Holmström (Heinemann, 1993).


That sentence about the drought gave me some disquiet. I could also say, with no less disquiet, that it’s the story of Jamuna and her younger sister Chaya, two women in various sorts of trouble. What’s striking about Water – a sort of novella-length short story – is how it deviates from the expectations aroused by these literally true descriptions. It does not seem to be concerned with its subjects in quite the expected way – it leaves spaces, is not quite pinned down and not by a second reading either. Substantial scenes are devoted to other, unnamed characters. The author has said that he began only with an image of a girl carrying a water-pot, and that enigmatic and steady image seems to be always present, no matter what we’re reading. Water does not entirely cast itself adrift in narrative. 


Ashokamitran’s prose is plain to the point where you have to deal with it. Bhaskar Rao, Jamuna’s lover, comes to take her out. Chaya arrives soon after; she disapproves very strongly.


Jamuna handed Bhaskar Rao a cup of tea, placed another cup on the table and then went to the stove and blew it out. Chaya helped herself to a single brass chembu of water and left the room. Bhaskar Rao drew a long breath and looked intently at Jamuna. Jamuna avoided his gaze. When she caught his eye by chance after some time, he signalled to her, ‘Go on, get ready.’ Jamuna took hold of another small chembu by its narrow neck and dipped it into the water, filling it just half full. Chaya came in then, her wet hair clinging to her forehead. Jamuna went out of the room, taking her own vessel with her. Chaya immediately placed her chembu beside the buckets and left the room as well. Jamuna came back into the main room, having used her half chembu of water with extreme care, contriving to wash her hands and feet as well as her face. Bhaskar was standing up by this time, impatient, having finished his tea. When he saw Jamuna, he said softly, but with grim determination, ‘Get ready’. Jamuna wiped her face and opened her trunk. At that moment Chaya too returned to the room and began to drink the tea that Jamuna had left for her on the table.


It’s through Bhaskar, desperate to get away, that we experience the unpleasant tension that comes through these neutral-sounding stage directions. At the same time we are completely aware of Jamuna’s submissive/determined awareness of her sister, the meaning of the tea on the table (remember we share our life here just as usual, Chaya, please don’t walk out on me), the meaning of Chaya being so quickly not in the room (I wash my hands of you, my routine is not disturbed) and back in it (I have a right to be here, and you know what I think, are you mad enough to ride roughshod over me). And there’s the so-limited water, not a literary symbol of the author’s contriving, but a de facto symbol that everyone in Madras can’t help appreciating – it therefore becomes a prop in human communication. Drawing a little more, or drawing a little less, these are automatically eloquent, in fact it’s impossible not to mean something.


The scene inevitably slides downhill. Water has a good many ugly, powerful scenes like this. With only the faintest shift of emphasis Ashokamitran can also use almost the same technique to make episodes that, we decide, are funny. The later nocturnal scene when the rain is coming down, and an unnamed husband and wife wrangle about filling just one or two more containers, is like a jauntier setting of the earlier melody.


With the rain pouring off the ribs of his umbrella, he returned to his rooms. Immediately his wife asked, ‘Why couldn’t you leave this one somewhere as well?’

‘I was only able to find a place for one of the tins.’

‘It must be full by now. Go and fetch it.’

He hesitated for a moment. Then he opened his umbrella and started out again.

‘While you are about it, why don’t you take this one along as well? When you bring that tin away, you could put this one in its place.’

‘Go and get rid of it yourself.’ He flung his umbrella towards the tin. Being already open, it fell elsewhere, swaying a little.


That recalcitrance of the umbrella’s flight makes it one of a sequence of objects whose motion is hard to control. The taxi, after the driver pulls over in a street where the streetlights have failed, slipping into an open ditch :


There was a sudden strange noise. After that the car moved, as if of its own volition, still further to the left. Then it came to a standstill with a sharp grinding sound.


Or Jamuna’s mother in her dreadful bed:


He lifted Jamuna’s mother a little, standing behind her shoulders. Jamuna peeled away the sari and removed it together with the sacking. She wiped her mother’s waist and thighs. Swiftly Chaya wrapped the fresh sari around their mother. Then the older woman fell back heavily, on to the bed.


Through the spaces in the text you are still aware of the pot-carrier, clambering over walls, edging her water pot under a communal tap.




Luke Rhinehart: The Dice Man (1972)


FEW NOVELS CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE. THIS ONE WILL says the front cover. The Dice Man was a cult classic and it knew it. The way it works is this. Someone tells you at a party about this book they read; they tell you about the premise of the book, which is that this guy decides whether to carry out various shockingly lurid actions, depending on the throw of a die. It’s an ineresting idea to discuss, whether you’ve read the book or not. Then you read it. Then you tell someone else about it. And so on. The legend snowballs. There’s a song about it on Dragnet, the Fall’s cult classic album of 1979. And so on.


The account you heard at the party suggests an unshaven, burning-eyed protagonist like Raskolnikov or the underground man. That’s wrong, as it turns out; Rhinehart is a bored bourgeois psychoanalyst, married with 2.4 children and an apartment near Central Park. Also, that party conversation omitted to tell you that how funny the book is. The book flourishes its liberal disenchantment to great effect, even though it murders all the liberals as well. Its true soundtrack should be the Byrds’ jauntily sarcastic America’s great national pastime” (1971):


One of America’s great nat’nal pastimes is –

poisonin’ rain...

actin’ insane...

inflictin’ pain...


The dice-throwing is maybe the least interesting part of the book, except the first time. We learn not to feel tense about this. By towards the end we are free-wheeling. Rhinehart has been told by the die to attempt to carry out a murder, and when he throws again to select a victim it chooses his psychotic former patient, the wrestler Osterflood. They meet and Rhinehart can’t think of anything to say to prolong the meeting except that someone is trying to kill Osterflood. They go to a Harlem apartment where Osterflood has a punishment sex thing going with a whore called Gina. It takes a few hundred pages before the book has got us to a place where we accept this as a comic plot. The TV is on and everyone’s stoned.


‘Daddy? Why do I have to brush my teeth every day?’ the little girl asked.

‘Try this new tube I’ve got for you, Suzie, and you’ll never ask that question again.’

[Close-up of a big long tube of Glare toothpaste]

But I had to look away because Gina was kneeling on the floor, her hands tied behind her back with her bra, and Osterflood, with his pants and undershorts bunched at his feet but still dressed in white shirt, tie and suit jacket, was thrusting with his erect, pink weapon at her mouth, cursing her at every poke. I felt I was watching a slow-motion movie showing some huge piston at work, but some flaw in the machinery resulted in the rod’s seeming frequently to miss the wide-open mouth which Gina, large-eyed and expressionless, was presenting. Osterflood’s sword of vengeance against the female race kept sliding past her cheek or her neck or poking her in the eye. Whenever she would seem to have a good mouthful (she would close her eyes then), Osterflood would withdraw, raging, and thrust away sporadically, redoubling his curses. It wasn’t clear whether he hated her more when she sucked him in or when he missed contact and bounced painfully off her forehead. In both cases he seemed like a movie director enraged because she, the actress, didn’t mouth her lines correctly.

‘Ahhhggg! How I hate you,’ he yelled and lurched forward and collapsed onto the couch beside me. I smiled over at him.

He struggled sideways into a sitting position.

‘Undress me, you disgusting, filthy hole,’ he said loudly.



Eventually Rhinehart tries to get on with the murder.  



‘Come into the kitchen,’ I said.

He stared wild-eyed at me.

‘I want to show you something,’ I added.

‘Oh,’ he said, and with a great effort he turned himself onto his hands and knees and staggered to his feet.

I flowed off behind his whalelike form toward the kitchen, and as he passed through the door in front of me I drew my gun from my pocket, raised it in a long endless arc up over my head, and then down with all my force onto the top of Osterflood’s huge head.

‘Wha’sat?’ Osterflood said, stopping and turning, and slowly raised a hand to his head.

I gazed openmouthed at his erect, swaying, hulking body.

‘It’s . . . it’s my gun,’ I said.

He looked down at the black little pistol hanging limply from my fist.

‘What’d you hit me for?’ he said after a pause.

‘Show you my gun,’ I said, still gaping at his blank, bleary, bewildered eyes.

‘You hit me,’ he said again.

We stared at each other, our minds working with the speed and efficiency of lobotomized sloths.

‘Just a tap. Show you my gun,’ I said.

We stared at each other.

‘Some tap,’ he said.

We stared at each other.

‘Protect you with. Don’t tell Gina.’

When he stopped rubbing the back of his head, his hand and arm dropped like an anchor into the sea.

‘Thanks,’ he said dully, and moved past me back into the living room.


Like Osterflood’s body, the world is massively stable. Throwing the dice is meant to break up human identity, but Rhinehart and all his pals go on remaining distinctively and comically like themselves. What it does supply, both to Rhinehart and ourselves, is inventive entertainment and outrage; a sort of metaphor of shenanigans in general.  


Eventually the scene ends with Rhinehart and Gina engaging in a prolonged ecstatic fuck while Osterflood, rather bewilderedly, expires on the floor. With all the Scotch and hash and punishment sex he probably didn’t notice. Osterflood is marked for us, he used to rape and kill little girls; Rhinehart breaks taboos by the ton but, ultimately, he just doesn’t break through the moral stone wall labelled reader-cannot-forgive. Which is not a paltry evasion. After all the material is much more varied on this side of the wall.  


The life experienced by the characters is entirely focussed on human, social, psycho-intellectuo-sexual concerns. No-one looks out of the window and Rhinehart admits earlier, considering how to bump off Osterflood, that he ought to have driven him to some dimly-lit nowhere and done it there, but he didn’t know any dimly-lit nowheres. Description of the non-bodily world causes him something like a pathological embarrassment. So he turns aside from it with a joke:


(After abandoning Lil and the kids)


I had gone to a dingy hotel in the East Village that made the geriatrics ward at QSH seem like a plush retirement villa.


(In the Bahamas)


I sat up, blinking my eyes and looking toward the ocean past the rise of sand in front of me. Without my glasses it was only tan blur and blue blur.


Places are run-down or smart, that’s all. They also have a farmhouse in the poison-ivy fields of eastern Long Island. They go there once a year and they play tennis, swim or sail, eat hash-cakes, talk and make love. 400 pages, and that’s it for the great outdoors.


For Rhinehart’s dice decisions to carry an element of risk, they need to have a public, someone who might react. But that’s really only for it to go well in a story. For the patient the important thing is what they change about themselves. Thus Rhinehart’s (or anyone’s) “concern” for their effect on others is another name for the patterned behaviour that is to be vanquished. And as others have discovered, rolling the hateful dice makes rolling the loveful dice play a lot better anyway.  


Still, Rhinehart’s concern for the human and bodily is intense, which is why he plays games with it.


There’s another day that Rhinehart happens to be in beautiful surroundings –


one lovely Indian Summer day, with the birds twittering outside in the bushes of my newly rented Catskill farmhouse, the autumn leaves blowing and blinding in the sun and a little beagle puppy I’d just been given wagging his tail at my feet.


What’s this? Is he really interested in this? – No, it’s here for a purpose. He’s idly tossing dice. Then the dice come up snake eyes and he has to kill someone. In a complicated way he throws to find out who, and after some elimination he’s down to a shortlist of six, including his son and his closest work colleague. He begins to sweat, and now the earlier paragraph pays out.


Anxiety is a difficult emotion to describe. The colorful leaves outside the window no longer seemed vibrant; they seemed glossy as if being revealed in an overexposed technicolor film. The twitter of the birds sounded like a radio commercial. My new beagle bitch snored in a corner as if she were a debauched old bitch. The day seemed overcast even as the sun off a white tablecloth in the dining room blinded my eyes.  


Why the puppy suddenly becomes female is intriguing. But the description of the emotion is all too recognizable. And Rhinehart, like other gamblers, though registering the indifference to surroundings caused by intense anxiety, is now fully awakened. Beautiful days, by contrast, affect him as a sort of sleep.   




Chet Cunningham: Guld till döds (1973)


This is a western genre novel, originally Die of Gold. I read it in Swedish to brush up on my Swedish (översättning: Solveig Rasmussen, 1982). 


The covers of Westerns were I suppose taken from a pool of generic images; this one shows a gunfight in the street - there isn't one in the story - and is fairly blatantly homoerotic, though homoeroticism has, superficially speaking, nothing to do with the book or its audience.


Jim Steel (should I pronounce it, "Yim"?) is the honest but independent hero. His two girl-friends are Melinda, a light-fingered saloon-girl, and Ruth Wentz, a real lady - Melinda is of course much more pleasing. But in the end Yim settles for neither, he rides off on his own. The villains are Bert Ronson, a sadistic brute, and (when we get to Sacramento) his master Prowl Sanderson, a power-crazed rich businessman who runs hotels and whorehouses and dies of his own hubris, thinking to build his own Sandersville with forged millions. Books like this have a different effect in a foreign language - I am not so desensitized if I am having to look up a word in every sentence, then the violence seems prolonged and graphic.


The first part of the book is a journey across the Rockies. So far as I can see, there's no sufficient explanation for why Bert Ronson employed Yim to protect the convoy that Ronson himself intended to rob, nor why the gallant militia aren't told what (or even whereabouts in the luggage) their precious cargo is. You might say that such popular fictions "cry out for" interpretation; to the very same extent that they assert the pointlessness of it.  





The basic shapes of the Western remain the same, though the moral code may appear to have changed since Jim Green (Oliver Strange's Sudden) rode the Rockies in the 1940's. Melinda alone ensures that; she and Jim manage to keep aside a little hoard of gold for their own use at the end. But the basic patterns of myth remain the same; getting captured and tortured, escaping, the showdown...


Adrienne Rich




The Dream of a Common Language (Poems 1974-1977)


The title refers to poetry; that much, you could conclude from the poem in which the words appear, Origins and History of Consciousness. But not just any old poetry – this poetry. I think I wasn’t so off-track in at first supposing that it also has a specific feminist weight; a connexion with the dream of a common sisterhood.


So the book is to some extent meta-poetry, poems about a search for a new poetry (I suppose many good poems are like that to a certain extent; stopping short of being just Klein bottles...). But NOT just any poetry. The art that is being sought and dreamt of is so close as to be identical with a life (but not any life) and a power and a society.


Perhaps it might all be mixed up with the sort of polemical assertions that new love tends to induce in poets. But Rich gives an honest answer to that:


                       I want to call this, life.


But I can’t call it life until we start to move

beyond this secret circle of fire

where our bodies are giant shadows flung on a wall

where the night becomes our inner darkness, and sleeps

like a dumb beast, head on her paws, in the corner.


It so happens that the central part of the book is a sequence called Twenty-One Love Poems. In fact there are twenty-two of them, and only the unnumbered one is truly a love poem, an aching concession to feeling. The rest is taut with watchfulness, open to the world and to unmendable wounds. And the relationship it memorialises, fails. It wasn’t the Nirvana that she wanted it to be,


and soon I shall know I was talking to my own soul.




But this is a momentary dejection (the anger is less momentary). In an earlier part of the sequence she says:


            Your small hands, precisely equal to my own

            only the thumb is larger, longer in these hands

            I could trust the world, or in many hands like these,




Do I trust Adrienne Rich’s hands?


It’s a collection that you’re compelled to read as a whole, straight through; all of the poems are focussed on and veering towards the “common language” of the title. But some of the poems I don’t like. Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev is one (and it’s the second poem in the collection, and substantially longer than the first, so that’s offputting). The Lioness, the last poem in the first part (which is called, and is about, Power) is another. And, in the third part, Paula Becker to Clara Westhoff – and a few others. At first I just shrugged my shoulders about these perversities of taste, but if I stop to examine them there seems to be a pattern. I seem to have a problem with the poet speaking through the mouths of, or pretending to look through the eyes of, other women. Basically I feel that she’s somehow co-opting them to say what she thinks – that she isn’t showing them enough respect. And that also applies to the lioness. I find myself thinking: We men have used women enough; must you do it too?


But now it’s possible that I’m reacting to something right, and righteous, and right-on in the book. Perhaps to the pride in these words:


                                My guilt is at least open,

            I stand convicted by all my convictions




It really wouldn’t be surprising if my hopeful stance of the man-who-would-understand (Natural Resources) was found out and thoroughly implicated by this book, of all books.


The poetry leaps out of a voice that is often plain, even skeletal.


while her mind and body in Manhattan are more with me

than the smell of eucalyptus coolly burning    on these hills




The drift of the sentence actually tries to undercut the evocativeness of “coolly burning” – not to mock it, but to accept its limits.  It wants to speak freely and not be constrained to putting out a steady production line of flowers. “mind and body in Manhattan” is the best way to talk.


Nevertheless there is a continuous subtlety of form in the poems. The best ones, it seems to me, are Origins and History of Consciousness, Splittings, Cartographies of Silence, and the three poems at the end of the book: Natural Resources, Toward the Solstice and Transcendental Etude. 


All these poems are medium-length – a few pages – and I suppose they might all be called meditations. There is a great deal of cross-current between the poems: for instance, “the gap / in the Great Nebula” (Natural Resources) and “the rift / in the Great Nebula” (Transcendental Etude); or the spiders’ webs in A Woman Dead in her Forties, Natural Resources and Toward the Solstice. Nevertheless, each poem keeps its own identity; it has a distinct music, a distinct form though it is nothing so mechanical as a stanza form. You have to read the poem to hear it.


In the first of these poems, Origins and History of Consciousness, the key word “simple”, which ties it all together, is delayed until the beginning of the third paragraph:


Thinking of lovers, their blind faith, their

experienced crucifixions,

my envy is not simple.


The poems often circle before dropping down on their chosen line of progression. Their right-on-ness, their compulsion to tell the truth and to be on the right side, is what can’t be wished away, for it makes them what they are: confrontational, directly challenging, unapologetic. They nevertheless admit to complexities: consider how in the lines just quoted the word “experienced” can mean both “something they actually felt” and “something they were practised at”.


There is insecurity, too. Cartographies of Silence ends with this positivity:


            what in fact I keep choosing


            are these words, these whispers, conversations

            from which time after time the truth breaks moist and green.


But the poem is haunted by a different power, the power of silence. Or perhaps “power” is the wrong word, since Rich views it with such misgivings:


            She died     a famous woman    denying

            her wounds


            her wounds    came    from the same source as her power


(Marie Curie in Power)


Natural Resources, again, ends forthrightly enough:


            I have to cast my lot with those

            who age after age, perversely,


            with no extraordinary power,

            reconstitute the world.


But the poem has insecurities. In the “circling” opening we happen on the image of a woman miner. Immediately the poet is on the defensive: “The miner is no metaphor”. Well, perhaps. There were more than three thousand woman coal miners in the US in the early seventies. Still, the image can’t help but make us consider that, after all, most miners have been male. And that’s allowed to undercut the argument. There was no need: women’s labour is in fact a main component in our world, as Rich more straightforwardly persuades us in Divisions of Labor (a poem in Time’s Power). But Natural Resources gains from the subtle fault. It circles its way to a vision of a barn sale, of things – not words but silent, practical things - collected by women of the past (“These things by women saved / are all we have of them”).  Their silence was a weakness – was it? but if power is called into question, perhaps weakness might be strength. In those closing words (quoted above), the meaning of “cast my lot with” is now vulnerable. It sounds like it means “stand up for”, but it also sounds like it can’t mean “be one of”. In short, the poem is open to questioning: one is lucky, perhaps, to have a public voice, and necessarily separated from the people one stands up for.


Toward the Solstice is equally uncertain, and I think (perhaps I’m not meant to) there’s a promise in its uncertainty. The solstice is a hard, physical fact; it’s a time that does come. Is it a winter or a summer solstice? And what does it mean, for the speaker? “It seems I am still waiting / for them to make some clear demand...” The poem is about a revolution, but isn’t 100% committed to revolution though it would like to be. A vein of images ties the speaker to continuities. She finds herself


                   trusting to instinct

the words would come to mind

I have failed or forgotten to say

year after year, winter

after summer, the right rune

to ease the hold of the past

upon the rest of my life

and ease my hold on the past.


That ringing phrase, “the right rune”, jumps out of the flow of the sentence. You could say that it epitomises the confrontational, idealistic, engaged position that The Dream of a Common Language often arrives at, and always dreams of.  


In the rather random lines I’ve quoted, a preoccupation comes to light: time after time, age after age, year after year. These phrases are absolutes: they assert the conviction, the amassed evidence, with which the poet puts forward a proposition. But they also suggest continuity, waves of time that go round. That seems to me characteristic of much of the revolutionary art of the 1960s and 70s. It starts with folk music, not with futurism.



Time’s Power: Poems 1985-1988


This collection, too, has a mannerism. You can see its origin, in fact, in the lines just quoted above:


            to ease the hold of the past

            upon the rest of my life

            and ease my hold on the past


The lines describe a relationship, and then they switch it round. So the first poem here, Solfegietto, addressed to the poet’s mother, ends:


            What was worth fighting for? What did you want?

            What did I want from you?


(The title means something like “in the manner of scale exercises” and the poem is about the mother’s failed attempt to make her daughter a virtuoso. In Transcendental Etude Rich had spoken out about how little she trusts that kind of achievement. This poem attempts to probe beyond that statement.)


The next poem ends:


            Do you think I don’t remember?

            did you think I was all-powerful

            unimpaired    unappalled?

            yes    you needed that from me

            I wanted this from you




It’s a sort of companion-piece to the first poem (now it’s Rich who is the mother). But the double questions and the reversals of relationships continue through the poems that follow:



            does she ever forget how they left, how they taught her leaving?


                                                                        (Harper’s Ferry)


            What would you bring along on a trek like this?

            What is bringing you along?




Time’s Power is less absorbed with the poet’s own mission. It has less wrong with it than The Dream of a Common Language, and is less urgent; less exciting, maybe. The double questions admit the otherness of the world. Yet the poem I like best is Harper’s Ferry, not least because the abused child’s wounded leg is a covert allusion to the poet’s own disability (the poem that comes after it begins with her “walking in a walker on the cliffs”). Harper’s Ferry is complex, and owns up to the poet’s own involvement in its docufiction. It’s about armed struggle, and the verse is urgent, from the “October-shortened sun” of the third line; time, it seems, moves forward rather rapidly, for later we find


                     the decanter of moonlight pours its mournless liquid down

            steadily on the solstice fields


I suppose solstice continues to imply a milennial or critical moment (see Toward the Solstice, above). I want to quote this, too:


            But this girl is expert in overhearing

            and one word leaps off the windowpanes like the crack of dawn,

            the translation of the babble of two rivers. What does this girl

            with her little family quarrel, know about arsenals?


(The answer is, quite a lot...) These two passages give an idea of the odd, excited nature of the poetry. You could say that it’s a poem that’s in love with guns. But it’s in love, too, with cold mint tea. And it’s also horrified, for example, by the brothers who have


                                                climbed her over and over

            leaving their wet clots in her sheets


The other poems that I’ve gone back to most often are Living Memory and Turnings. I haven’t pondered the desert imagery in the collection as much as I might; I think the image of God’s eye through a microscope at the end of Turnings resonates with the un-quaint slides in the attic (The Slides)...   







R. K. Narayan


Narayan was born in Madras, though the setting for his fictions (“Malgudi”) is based on Mysore and Bangalore. Of the short stories that I have read, perhaps the best is ”Emden”, a tale of extreme old age. Its hero Rao, we gather, was not an amiable man in his prime; corrupt, fearsome, and very successful. At the present time, however, he is any old man, struggling with a failing memory and winding cautiously through an existence (for his few good hours per day) whose features are invisible to those around him. Rao is so old that he no longer recognizes the names in the obituaries. A disgrace ended his career, and changed his relationship to his own past. Now he has a daily routine that involves reading a daily newspaper column on religious matters, “adequate for him to brush up his thoughts on God”, and taking a very careful walk.Though the story is full of dust and silence, time is not passing ferociously; it has stopped.


In the story his self-imposed adventure consists of a futile search for a place where, half a century before, he behaved badly to a woman (S. in his diary). He would like to bring her some sweets (he is unable to grasp just how long ago everything is, and we know that he imagines her coming to him, still plump and jasmine-smelling, like a girlfriend abandoned “years ago” but basically unchanged). Eventually a dog scares him and he drops the jilebi; the mongrel takes them off, gratefully wagging his tail. He muses: “Who knows, S. is perhaps in this incarnation now...”


Rao’s transactions with others are, to say the least, limited. He is not sure of any names and can hardly hear. He is not interested in what they have to say, anyway; his own questions are on the edge of meaninglessness.


And then a young shop assistant came out to take his order. Rao looked down at him and asked, pointing at the cross street, “Where does it lead?”


“To the next street,” the boy said, and that somehow satisfied him. The boy asked, “What can I get you?”


“Oh, will no-one leave me alone?” Rao thought with irritation.


He is immensely alone. Nevertheless, he buys some sandalwood soap, and then he decides that S. must have smelt of sandalwood, not jasmine.


Rao, we assume, gets home. He will not remember this day, nor will anyone else. “Nevertheless” may represent our overall response to the story, though that places all the emphasis on what Rao still retains, not on what he may now have; in other words it accepts certain assumptions connected with the word “decay”. Rao still somehow registers the world – (The word “somehow” is a key one in the story, representing certain mental gaps.) He is not Alzheimered though he might be doting. Our vocabulary for these far steps is poor.


Narayan uses comedy as a highly complex illuminating instrument. Young people laugh, old people are funny. I don’t know why old people laugh so seldom, and can hardly even smile for a camera; they lose, obviously, the vanity-aspect of this display, for smiling is a communication, it is not frequently completely spontaneous. Rao’s internal commentary is sharp and spiced, but with only the ghost of humour; “nevertheless” he relishes, enjoys and becomes excited in his circumscribed way. 


I want to run jostling through the rain, and I do. If I ever find any pages that are more eloquent about those last stages of life that we may reasonably hope for without enthusiasm, and tremulously observe in others, then I’ll mention it here.


Of Narayan’s other stories the ones I like best are “The Evening Gift”, “Selvi” and “Lawley Road”. Like “Emden” they operate as spotlights if you let them.







Helen Forrester: Twopence to cross the Mersey (1974)




Books about poverty are timeless. This is an autobiographical account of a traumatised middle-class family whose bankruptcy leads them to Liverpool in 1931 during the Depression.


Does the book “record” or “re-create”? It was a question that didn’t occur to me while reading, yet it seems unlikely that after forty years you would remember the exact contents of a kindly priest’s rescue-box:


six loaves of bread, oatmeal, potatoes, sugar, margarine, a tin of baby milk, two bottles of milk, salt, bacon, some tea, a bar of common soap, a pile of torn-up old sheeting (for cleaning, and for the baby, he explained apologetically) and, wonder of wonders, a towel, a big one.


On the other hand, such caressing detail is a mark of the experience of having nothing.


Greater even that her desire for food is Helen’s desperation to go to school. She was clearly a gifted child. Most of the children I know have a marked aversion to learning, nor can I claim to have ever felt this hunger for education myself - it is so endless available in “cheap” books-  or the other kind of hunger, either. Perhaps they go together.


As good as anything is the account of the Christmas parcel (these were given to the poor for relief). They don’t know that it is a Christmas parcel, until


suddenly a golden orange rolled out, sailed slowly across the table and fell with a juicy plonk on the floor. An orange! An exquisitely perfumed, golden fruit was sitting right in the middle of our floor.


Thanks to a neighbour’s kindness, they manage to cook the turkey at midnight on Christmas Eve. Helen vainly suggests it should be left until the next day.


Tony’s eyes looked enormous in his death’s head face.


Again the saliva gathered in my mouth, but I said, ‘It’s not Christmas until tomorrow.’


’To hell with Christmas,’ said Alan bitterly.


An hour later, there was only a small white skeleton left, scraped clean by small clawing hands and teeth. Even Mother came alive, after devouring nearly a whole leg with the gulping enthusiasm of an ex-prisoner of war. We ate the baked potatoes, skin and all, we ate the sweets and pudding, every scrap.


We slept.






A Brief History of Western Culture – Michael Peverett

Section 1. To 1588

Section 2: 1588-1790

Section 3. 1790-1870

Section 4. 1870-1945

Section 5. 1945-1975

Section 6. 1975-1984

Section 7. 1985-1997

Section 8. 1997-2004

Section 9. 2004-Now



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