Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets

'The common people do not understand poetry, are shy of poetry,  and though they have been taught to admire the true poets of the past are loath to admit that the race is not yet extinct. This is why very little work by living poets has a wide circulation except what is comfortably third-hand and third-rate. The people are not to be blamed: their difficulty is that despite all the charlatans, racketeers and incompetents who have disgraced the poetic profession, an aroma of holiness still clings to the title 'poet', as it does to the titles 'saint' and 'hero', both of which are properly reserved for the dead. It is only when death releases the true poet from the embarrassing condition of being at once immortal and alive in the flesh that the people are prepared to honour him...'
 They don't write Forewords like that any more. It's the opening of Robert Graves's foreword to the war poet Alun Lewis's posthumous collection Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets (published 1945, the year after the poet's untimely death). I picked it up in a charity shop on my recent visit to Egham. The title is from the Book of Job: 'He [the horse] saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha; and he smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.'
 Alun Lewis is best known for the much anthologised All Day It Has Rained, a poem with something of an Edward Thomas flavour (written, in fact, in Edward Thomas country), and the touching Goodbye, which is in the Ha! Ha! volume. So too is Song (on seeing dead bodies floating off the Cape), an extraordinary, death-soaked poem that was the first of Lewis's I ever read:

The first month of his absence
I was numb and sick
And where he’d left his promise
Life did not turn or kick.
The seed, the seed of love was sick
The second month my eyes were sunk
In the darkness of despair,
And my bed was like a grave
And his ghost was lying there.
And my heart was sick with care.
The third month of his going
I thought I heard him say
‘Our course deflected slightly
On the thirty-second day – ’
The tempest blew his words away.
And he was lost among the waves,
His ship rolled helpless in the sea,
The fourth month of his voyage
He shouted grievously
‘Beloved, do not think of me.’
The flying fish like kingfishers
Skim the sea’s bewildered crests,
The whales blow steaming fountains,
The seagulls have no nests
Where my lover sways and rests.
We never thought to buy and sell
This life that blooms or withers in the leaf,
And I’ll not stir, so he sleeps well,
Though cell by cell the coral reef
Builds an eternity of grief.
But oh! the drag and dullness of my Self;
The turning seasons wither in my head;
All this slowness, all this hardness,
The nearness that is waiting in my bed,
The gradual self-effacement of the dead.
Lewis, initially a reluctant soldier (he was a pacifist and joined up as an engineer), inexplicably took a commission in an infantry battalion and was sent to India, then Burma. This gave him the material for many of the poems in his last collection, but the depression that had always dogged him grew worse - perhaps exacerbated by a love affair in India (he was married) - and he died not in combat but by his own hand. He was just 28.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

A Gender-Neutral Post from N.C. Andrew

I hear that male novelists have taken to writing for the women's market - the only fiction market that seems to be thriving - under names that give no indication of their sex, forenames being represented by initials. The wisdom of the market is that women only want to read novels by other women - preferably novels with titles containing the word 'Girl' or, at a pinch, 'Woman'. Among recent titles, Final Girls, The Girl Before and The Woman in the Window were all written by men using 'gender'-neutral names - and so was the big-selling Before I Go to Sleep, a Girl-free title.
  If it's true that women only want to read novels by other women - and, by the same logic, men only want to read men - then it's a dismal lookout. (Me, I seem to greatly prefer women novelists - but then, I'm not in the market for contemporary, or genre, fiction.) It might seem like some kind of payback that male novelists are now having to pass themselves off as women, rather than the other way round. However, I've never really bought the notion that, in the bad old days, women writers could only expect to be taken seriously if they pretended to be men. For one thing, it's a pretence that isn't going to last long; it might be useful in order to get published, but after the first successful publication, the truth will out, and will make no difference. The Brontes were a special case in every way,  and did Mary Ann Evans really have to call herself 'George Eliot' in order to be published and taken seriously? Was there anyone still under the impression she was a man by the time Middlemarch was published? Did any male reader, discovering the subterfuge, fling it aside as a novel fit only for women? Most Victorian women writers of all kinds kept their own names and were taken no less seriously for it.
  All of Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels were published under the name 'I. Compton-Burnett'. Was this a serious attempt to pass as a man? Did readers recommend 'the new one by this chap Ian Compton-Burnett'? It seems unlikely.

Monday, 24 July 2017

A Visit to Egham

Egham, an unlovely semi-suburban Surrey town on the opposite side of the Thames from Staines, is the kind of place you wouldn't be inclined to visit without good reason. My reason was, of course, research: St John's church in Egham contains two monuments to members of the Denham family, both of which are well worth the time of any monument man.
 The church, conveniently near the station, stands in a large churchyard, an enclave of old Egham in a town centre that, for the most part, looks much like any other. The church - a big, ugly Georgian rebuild in yellow brick and stone - shows evidence of being a thriving institution with a taste for evangelism (an impression confirmed by its website). It has been much extended and modernised in recent times and is the very model of an urban evangelical church. Though it opens for a couple of hours on Mondays, I fancy this is not for the benefit of antiquarian thrill-seekers like me.
 I entered with trepidation, and was greeted cordially by a man and a woman, neither of whom, to my relief, had the evangelical glint in their eyes. 'I'm here to have a look at the Denham monuments,' I declared breezily. A puzzled silence ensued; they clearly knew of no Denham monuments. 'I'm pretty sure they're in here somewhere,' I persisted, and the woman volunteered to help me find them, after I'd wandered round the body of the church and into the vestry and found no Denham monuments. She took a key and led me into the vestibule and up to the gallery to check the monuments there: nothing. This was odd.
  As we were going down the stairs from the gallery, I looked up at the opposite wall - and there, above us, was Sir John Denham*, rising from the grave in triumph, his shroud still over his head, the tomb beneath him a riot of skeletons and cadavers. 'I'd never noticed that,' said the woman, impressed. After admiring it a while, I set out to find the other Denham monument - could it be...? Yes, it was in exactly the same position on the other staircase to the gallery. A less dramatic affair than Sir John's monument, it portrays his two wives, with a baby and a free-standing miniature child. The design is brilliant, obviously Italian-inspired, and the figures of the two women (especially the one holding the baby) are full of life and wonderfully expressive. It looks like nothing else of its time. According to the Oxford DNB, there is good reason to think it might be by - yes - Epiphanius Evesham. The presence of this monument too was news to my guides, and they seemed glad to have noticed it. It's certainly prettier than Sir John's memorial.
 Visiting churches these days, you rarely meet the likes of the Rev. Henry D'Ascoyne (from Kind Hearts and Coronets) - 'I always say that my West window has all the exuberance of Chaucer - without, happily, any of the concomitant crudities of the period' - and that's no bad thing: it can be very tedious being shown round a church by an enthusiast who knows the building and its history in rather too much detail. On the other hand, it does seem odd that often the custodians of our churches, the believers who keep them functioning - even thriving - as places of worship, are often unaware of much of the beauty and interest of their buildings. But at least they are preventing them from falling into disuse, and are keeping Christian worship alive, even if in forms that some of us might find problematic. If we aesthetes, monument men and High Anglican sentimentalists were to take over the job, we surely wouldn't make much of a fist of it.

* Father of the poet.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Augustus Hare:A Spectacularly Unhappy Childhood

The other day I took a book from the shelf that I must have reviewed (perhaps for The Listener?) back in 1985 when it came out, but of which I remember very little indeed. It's a biography: Augustus Hare, Victorian Gentleman by Malcolm Barnes. I thought I'd have another look at it, by way of a break from my fiction reading.
 Augustus J.C. Hare was one of those Victorian writers who were very successful in their day but soon sank below the horizon as the century turned. He wrote a wide range of popular travel guides - his Walks in Rome was the most successful - as well as biographies of aristocrats (he adored the nobility) and family histories, but he was also an autobiographer on a grand scale. His Story of My Life runs to six fat volumes, supplemented by Memorials of a Quiet Life, the life and letters of his mother in three volumes. No shortage of material for the biographer, and Malcolm Barnes (who also edited an abridged version of the autobiography) makes good use of it.
 What I had remembered of this biography was that Hare had an unhappy childhood. Re-reading it, I realised just how unhappy. Even by the standards of Victorian children born into ultra-evangelical families with sadistic leanings, Hare's was a spectacularly unhappy childhood. Given away, for purely selfish reasons, by his natural mother, young Augustus was raised by his father's sister, Maria, a death-obsessed evangelical who was firmly convinced that children are innately evil and that sin must be driven out of them. The idea was that, by denying a child anything that might give them pleasure, the will could be broken and the child 'saved'. This was mainstream stuff in evangelical circles at the time, and Maria's harshness was softened to some degree by natural affection, so that life with 'Mother', however oppressive, was bearable to Augustus, and even had its pleasures.
  Unfortunately there were others on the scene, whose attitudes to child-rearing made Maria's look like the utmost leniency. Augustus's uncle Julius, the Rector of Herstmonceux, lived nearby and dominated Maria and Augustus's life with his demands, his strictures and his ferocious presence, in which the boy was expected to sit still, in silence, and be totally ignored. But worse was to come after Julius married Esther, a sister of F.D. Maurice, the 'saintly' theologian and Christian Socialist (saintly to Charles Kingsley and many adoring followers, 'puzzle-headed' and 'wrong-headed' to Ruskin). Esther set about tormenting the unhappy Augustus - for his own good, of course - with all but psychopathic relish.
 As well as being made to sleep through the harshest winter weather in a solitary unheated room and (despite his chilblains) wash in the morning in water that was often frozen, he was also forced to eat sauerkraut precisely because its very smell made him sick. On other occasions, delicious puddings would be presented at table, with every display of relish, only to be taken away again intact. Esther also decreed that, on Sundays, Augustus should be locked into the vestry for three hours between services, with only the rats for company. But the climax of her campaign of vicious sadism came when she took Augustus's favourite cat from him and hanged it from the branch of a tree, taking the boy out to see its quivering body.
 When not suffering this brutal domestic regime, Augustus would be enduring a succession of horrendous boarding schools (one run by the father of Francis Kilvert, the diarist) where conditions were so appalling that he longed to be home. In the course of all this, he often, unsurprisingly, fell seriously ill, on one occasion being obliged to wear a kind of iron cage over his body for months on end.
 Happily, there were times when more agreeable people entered his life - one of them Walter Savage Landor, with whom Augustus dined regularly when attending a school near Bath, the meals with Landor saving him from starvation. Augustus revelled in the conversation (or monologue) of the old man, who would sit with his white Spitz dog on his head while holding forth. The Hares were phenomenally well connected, and not all of their connections were ecclesiastical - a fact that stood Augustus in good stead in later life when cultivating the aristocracy, with many of whom he could claim some kind of cousinly connection. This was a man who was never happier than when attending a house party at one or other of the stately homes of England.
  That Augustus Hare was capable of happiness at all - that he became a sociable, well-liked and apparently well-adjusted man with a successful career - after such a start in life as he endured is little short of miraculous. Indeed, it's a wonder he survived at all.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

The Poetry of Labels

I've just been cleaning the oven with a product that, the label assures me, 'laughs in the face of baked-on food. Without the need for rubbing, scrubbing or agitating, it dissolves stubborn baked-on grease, oil and fat within minutes... Simply sponge or brush on and after five minutes wipe off for [a] gleaming, sparkling oven every time.' The Directions include the soothing injuction, 'Leave to dwell for five minutes.' I like that 'dwell'...
  Needless to say, far from laughing in the face of baked-on food, this cleaner sighed weakly and capitulated. Even with a deal of rubbing, scrubbing and agitating, it left behind a black impasto of rock-hard gunk, from which only the major promontories had been rubbed, scrubbed and agitated away. Not a gleam or a sparkle to be seen, and if there was any laughing, it was the gunk laughing in the face of the puny oven cleaner that promised to much. I covered the bottom of the oven with a patented liner (that also promises much) and hoped for better days.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Round the Corner Smith

Born on this day in 1863 was Charles Aubrey Smith, who, as C. Aubrey Smith, enjoyed a very successful film career playing Hollywood's idea of the 'archetypal Englishman' in a string of films from the 1920s through to the 1940s. Before that, he had tried his hand as a gold prospector in South Africa, where he succumbed to pneumonia and was pronounced dead by doctors. He also had a successful career as a cricketer, playing for Sussex and once leading England to victory in what turned out to be a Test match against South Africa (no one was quite sure at the time). He was chiefly a fast bowler, bamboozling the batsman with his long, curved run-up that began somewhere around deep mid-off. As he reached the wicket, 'Round the Corner Smith' would suddenly appear from behind the umpire, often with unnerving effect.
  In Hollywood, Smith formed the Hollywood Cricket Club, which he ruled with a rod of iron, expecting any English actors in the vicinity to turn out and play. The pitch was of imported English turf, and the HCC games afforded much amusement to the locals. Once, while fielding at slip, Smith dropped a tricky catch and sent his English butler to fetch his glasses, which he duly did - on a silver salver. Smith put them on, and promptly dropped a sitter, at which he whipped off his glasses and growled, 'Damn fool brought my reading glasses.'
  When in England, Smith would often visit Lord's. Once a member spotted him in the pavilion and remarked to another member, 'That chap looks familiar.' 'Yes,' he replied, 'Chap called Smith. Used to play for Sussex.'

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Grass Carnified

Talking of the cycles of nature, here's Sir Thomas Browne in the first part of his Religio Medici:

 'All flesh is grass, is not only metaphorically, but litterally, true; for all those creatures we behold are but the herbs of the field, digested into flesh in them, or more remotely carnified in our selves. Nay further, we are what we all abhor, Anthropophagi and Cannibals, devourers not onely of men, but of our selves; and that not an allegory, but a positive truth; for all this mass of flesh which we behold, came in at our mouths; this frame we look upon, hath been upon our trenchers; in brief, we have devour'd our selves.'

'Carnified' is one of Browne's 775 neologisms. A pity it hasn't lasted as well as his 'carnivorous'.