Quick Review: “John Macnab” by John Buchan.

Back to the Buchan for me. I enjoy the Hannay novels greatly (dodgy Tory politics and off-colour remarks about jewish and black people aside). At his heart, Buchan is a master of plot and pacing. There is absoloutely no beating around the bush with this writer: He knows where he’s going and he never loses the reader on the way.

As with Hannay’s best stories, then, so with John Macnab. Unlike the Hannay books, the tone here is lighter by dint of a more light hearted plot. Set at the time of its writing in the 1920s, the book concerns three men (an emminent barrister,  a Cabinet Minister and a City bigshot) all of whom are in their early 40s. They are rather jaded and suffering from enuui, a sense of everything being too easy in life and of nothing providing them with much of a challenge any more.

I suppose I too would be more than a little bored and on the lookout for some diversion, if I were able to do my job with my eyes closed and had no money worries whatsoever. Strictly speaking, these aren’t the most engaginng characters in the world. We have a barrister who doesn’t really care about his clients’ cases; a Cabinet Minister who feels like he’s on autopilot (at one point Buchan descrbies him giving an off-the-cuff speech which is all waffle, consisting of platitudes stiched together from previous speeches given elsewhere); and a City high flier who I can imagine being more interested in watching raindrops fall down a window pane than counting his dough). How the heart bleeds.

Nonetheless, Buchan’s storytelling skill manages to invest this upper class ragbag with enough inherent interest to keep the story going. What these three need is an escape. Together they cook up a plan based on a tale they hear, about a man who a few years previously felt rather the same way. His way out was to poach fish and deer from properties that bordered his Highland property.

Duly inspired, these three pillocks of the establishment decide they will spend the late Summer at a Scottish property belonging to a younger acquaintance. Collectively adopting the pseudonym of John Macnab, they write to the owners of three neighbouring estatyes, informing two of them that a stag will be taken on a set date, and telling the remaining one that a salmon will be taken. By giving advance notice of the date, ‘Macnab’ is giving the owners’ fair warning, thus turning the whole criminal enterprise a sporting air.

What follows is a (of course) superbly written and flowing tale that never ceases to engage. And of course this being a Buchan adventure tale, the success of the enterprise is always in doubt, the ‘will they, won’t they?’ nature of the task forming the core of the narrative.

Along the way there are a couple of comments about jews and a few asides onTory politics, but these are altogether less dodgy than the like in the Hannay books. There’s also the whole concept of huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’, things that some find distasteful but which here, of course, are discussed as if they’re as natural as making a killing in the City without one’s heart being in it, conducting court cases with one’s eyes closed, or feeling bored by one’s Cabinet level job. But then this is world Buchan knew and inhabited. Take it or leave it, we can’t change it.

All in all, then this is a classic Buchan. Read it with a sense of irony from our 21st century perspective, or just take it for what it is. Either way, if you try it you’ll more than likely enjoy it.

Short review: JL Carr “A Month in the Country”

Here’s the blurb from the back of the Penguin edition that I’ve just read. It sums up the novel well, but I will add couple of points of my own following the quotation:

J.L. Carr’s A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY, first published in 1980 is a gem of a novel which explores the power of art to heal and restore. Tom Birkin, a damaged survivor of the First World War, is spending the summer uncovering a huge medieval wall-painting in the village church of [the ficitious Yorkshire village of] Oxgodby. Joined by another veteran employed to look for a grave outside the churchyard he uncovers old secrets that bear on his experiences of conflict.

It’s not a long book. In fact it’s one of those which in a way are pretty much novella length (such as Henry James’s Daisy Miller or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) but which get classed as novels because of the depth and scope of themes and overall ambition.

Birkin is a specialist, called in as part of the bequest of a recently deceased local woman, one Miss Hebron, charged with uncovering and restoring a wall painting in the local church. His counterpart- Moon- is an archaeologist given the job as part of the same bequest to look for “the grave of Miss Hebron’s forebear, one Piers Hebron” who died in 1373.

Art, and its capactiy to heal and restore through our own contemplation and enjoyment of it, is certainly a key theme of the novel, as the blurb writer alludes to. The steady rhythm of work certainly has a calming effect on the shellshocked Birkin. At one point he states that “this steady rhythm of living and working got into me, so that I felt part of it and had my place, a foot in both present and past; I was utterly content”.

However, it’s also about memory, and our own perceptions of certain events in our lives when we look back. It’s also about people. As the narrator, who is Tom Birkin in later life looking back, says, “God, when I think back all those years! And it’s gone. It’s gone. All the excitement and pride of that first job, Oxgodby, Kathy Ellerbeck, Alice Keach, Moon, that season of calm weather- gone as though they’d never been”.

In fact, the passage I quoted first about having a foot in both present and past see Birkin say a little later on that uncovering “a great work of art wasn’t all of it [i.e. helping to clam him and make him generally  more positive]. There was this weather, this landscape, thick woods, roadsides deep in grass and wild flowers.”

And of course it’s a about the people listed above too, especially the Ellerbeck family who take a shine to Birkin, regularly having him over the Sunday lunch and getting him to help out at the Sunday school they run. And it’s also about Alice Keach, wife of the uptight vicar whose church it is that Birkin is working in. Birkin unquestionably gains much from his carefully practising his craft, which in turn uncovers the work of a great unknown artist in the church, but he also gains a lot from being immersed in a local community which accepts him. His relationship with the Vicar’s wife is altogether more problematic, but it seems even then that he comes away from this brief entangelement stronger in a way.

There’s not much in the way of out-and-out humour in the book, but I found the overall tone of it rather jaunty and matter-of-fact, straight to the point in an engaging way. In a sense this would jar with what we’d understand Birkin’s initial state of mind and general mood to have been, for not only was he shellshocked and plagued by a nervous twitch in his face as a result of his wartime experiences; it also transpires that his unfaithful wife has just run away with another man. However, it’s the old Hemingway-esque trick of making the tone and language jar with what’s being described, in order to make the reader fill in the emotional gap and make the full realisation for themselves.

Birkin’s tone as a narrator looking back is eaxctly what’s required, however, as it emphasises the distance in time and temerament from himself then as a young man in the very early 20s, to himself as an older man looking back at that healing month in the country. That month was the pivot in his life.

(The book was made into a 1987 film, which I’ve never seen, and just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, you probably can’t judge an entire film by its trailer. However, on balance I won’t bother to seek out the film. While the book’s core story is strong enough to bear a film adaptation, there is far more depth to this novel than you can really replicate on screen: inevitably too much is lost, and not enough is gained. The tone set by the trailer feels over-serious to me, wheras the book’s various moods are far more lifelike in their ebb and flow, the highs and lows and in-betweens.)

Verdict: A straightforward but very deep book that is satisfying on every level, with pitch-perfect yet uncontrived symbolism. It’s also  a very quick read to boot. Perfect!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Chilers

The Riddle of the Sands is something of a landmark in English fiction. Of its wider significance I will speak later. To start, however, here’s a brief summary of the book.

It concerns a young English Civil Servant, Carruthers, who out of the blue at the beginning of Autumn, one afternoon in the early years of the twentieth century, receives a telegram from an old acquaintance called Davies. Davies requests Carruthers’s company on his boat which is currently on the German coast of the Baltic Sea. Not having anything better to do, and despite his initial misgivings, Carruthers agrees to go and see Davies.

Initially Carruthers feels that his worst fears have come to pass. He hates Davies’s boat, feels like he’s wasting his time, and what’s more Davies seems to be acting rather strange and distant.

Tensions build until they finally come to a head, when Carruthers gets his friend to come clean about what’s on his mind and affecting his behaviour. It is then that Davies tells his tale and the story really starts.

Davies tells of a chance encounter when he was sailing his boat, the Dulcibella, along and around the German North Sea coast. There he met a German called Dollmann. One day when they were out sailing in bad weather, Dollmann said hat he would take Carruthers through a short cut among the coastal islands and islets, in order to take him to the nearest safe haven. Davies soon gets into trouble and loses sight of Dollmann’s boat, however, and he is convinced that Dollmann in fact was trying to get him killed through capsizing or being run aground.

Piecing things together for Carruthers’s benefit, Davies theorises that Dollmann wanted him out of the way because, as an Englishman, it would be dangerous for him to gain so much knowledge about how to safely navigate the German North Sea coast. Furhtermore, Davies’s belief that Dollmann wished him fatal harm at sea fuels the Englishman’s sense that something suspicious may be going on along the North Sea coast. When pressed on this, Davies admits to Carruthers that he fears there may be some kind of build up of forces or long term planning for a possible attack on the English coast. He even suggests (and remember that this book was published some eleven years before World War 1) that an all-out confrontation between the two nations may be a distinct possibility one day.

Gradually Carrathers starts to see things from Davies’s point of view, and the rest of the book becomes the account of how the two attempt to unravel the ‘riddle of the sands’, a title which can be taken on at least three levels: Who is Dollmann and what is he up to? What is the true nature of this unique and difficult-to navigate coastline? And is there any substance to Davies’s fears of a German naval build up in the area?

As a tale, Childers’s story is engaging and plausible, while as a piece of descriptive writing it brings to life this fascinating part of the world. Subtitled “A Record of Secret Service”, the book also has claim to being one of the very first of the modern spy stories. Apparently it was a favourite of John Buchan, and a close reading if Chapter One of the The Riddle of the Sands illustrates the clear general resemblance between Carruthers and Buchan’s famous hero Richard Hannay as that character describes himself in Chapter One of the great story The Thirty Nine Steps. Both are rather jaded and cynical young men-about-town going somewhat stale in London, and who reveal better aspects of their respective natures once pressed into vital- if wholly unexpected and unlooked for- work that turns out to be of national importance.

Childers’s book in my view still stands up in purely narrative and literary terms. Yet its significance goes far further. From its first publication, this was a book that changed minds and had significance: one could say even genuine political influence. In its description of the potential German threat to a British coast that was relatively weakly defended (at a time when Britannia still ruled the World’s waves, but to the relative neglect of its own shoreline) Childers’s book turned heads among the powers that be. It partly helped inspire the construction of new naval bases along the east coast as well as  the bolstering of the North Sea Fleet, all of which played an important part in naval engagements during World War One.

Yet arguably even more intriguing than the riddle posed by this evocative novel, is that which stands front and centre in Childers’s own life. Clearly this was a man who loved his country and its Empire so much that he wanted to warn people about what he perceived to be a threat on its own doorstep. And yet he ended his life embroiled in Irish Nationalist politics and executed in that country by the Free State in the early 20s.

Just riddle me that.

 

 

 

Cherry trees for Spring

I can’t give you snow-white cherry blossoms this morning, but I can offer this picture of pinkish blossoms in full bloom outside my house this fine, clear April morning.

Which brings me to AE Housman again, who despite sounding a typically mournful note in this poem from A Shropshire Lad, still (perhaps) manages to keep it upbeat enough for Spring. It’s not Eastertime today either, but I can only assume it was an Easter later in April which Housman imagined…

Still, whatever the more maudlin traits if this poem, one of its strands remain clear: enjoy
the blossoms while you can.

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

image

What should I make of Matthew Arnold?

This blog is written more as an extended question than as an attempt to pass some critical judgement or make a recommendation.

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) was a poet and a cultural critic, who also worked for some years as a public servant (an inspector of schools). His like does not really exist today. Can you imagine an Ofsted inspector maintaining a relatively high profile as both a writer on society AND a poet? In fact, can you think of a poet in contemporary Britain with anything like a ‘high media profile’?

Those were different days indeed, and so what am I to make of this writer?

I admit that I like the idea of someone like Matthew Arnold, who combined a fair degree of poetic talent also with an attempt to describe and influence the culture of his times, while at the same time being rooted in a job other than literature or letters, which in some degree must have kept his head out of the clouds and his feet somewhat on the ground.

In this he’s something like a Victiorian version of TS Eliot, although having read them both Eliot is (in my opinion) the far greater poetic talent and a the more provocative and influential critic.

Anyway, I have a copy of the famous anthology called Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, and in my version there are a couple of poems by Arnold: the famous “Dover Beach” and “The Scholar Gypsy” which I really got to like a great deal. This latter poem is too long to reproduce here, but its start point is the legend of an Oxford scholar who packed in his studies to run away and live a life on the road with the gypsies.

Intrigued, I bought a book of Arnold’s poems, which also contained extracts from his cultural criticism (lectures, essays and the like). Upon receiving the book and trying to get to grips with it, I was distinctly underwhelmed.

I am quite ready to admit that I might be just an uncouth, lazy and uncultured so-and-s0 who should have given Arnold more time. However, in my defence I tend to like authors who observe Polonius’s belief that ‘brevity is the soul of wit’. For example I blogged yesterday about Keats and said among others things that I admire him so much because he was able to say a lot in a few words. Arnold achieved this in “Dover Beach” and gets there here and there elsewhere, but a lot of his other verse is very long. Another thing I wasn’t really prepared for (again “Dover Beach” acted as another red herring here) is that his poetic diction in other poems I grappled with was strikingly more archaic and archly ‘poetic’ than I thought it would be.

And what of his cultural criticism? Well I tried, but I think that’s one for the scholars right there, certainly nothing for a ‘general reader’ with plenty of other claims on his time and attention.

What provoked this blog post was that the other day I got hold of a second hand Oxford University Press anthology of English poetry, first published in 1986 and chosen by the writer John Wain. It’s pretty standard stuff, covering all the main names and including all their greatest poetic hits. Interestingly when it came to Arnold, Wain though it best to represent him through a short poem on Shakespeare, and the aforementioned “Dover Beach” and “The Scholar Gypsy”. In comparison, those poetic contemporaries alongside whom Arnold is most often mentioned, viz. Tennyson and Browning, get a more generous showing, including excerpts from their respective longer works and long poems published in their entirety.

So am I wrong? Are the anthology editors wrong? Is Arnold destined to be a two (or three) hit wonder in the poetic pantheon? Or should I give his other work another chance?

Feel free to leave me a comment to point me in the right direction.

 

 

 

Why Keats is now my favourite Romantic poet.

Like a lot of people who’ve read a lot of poetry, I had my phase when I read the Romantics. I was always rather sniffy about Keats, however. Taking my cue from a very fine teacher whose class I was very lucky to be in, and who was very much a Shelley man, I took the view that Keats fundamentally “had nothing to say”. It was all Odes to this and that and well-tuned, finely-wrought (overwrought?) stuff about things that didn’t really matter.

You could give me the sturm and drang, the passion and cynical humour of Byron. Or better still the intensity of Shelley, with his tempestuous imagination and his wide-ranging taste for experimentation.

Now my tastes have changed. There are still bits of Keats that I don’t much care for (his ‘comic’ verse, perhaps, and his taste for slightly whimsical stuff every now and again). But credit where it’s due: as a technician, as a craftsman, as a man with the sense of which is the right sounding word with just the right sense, he has very few equals. It was reading a biography of the italian writer Giuseppe Tomassi di Lampedusa (of The Leopard fame) that got me thinking about Keats again. Tomassi was exceptionally well read in other literatures, especially english, and he considered Keats’s work, especially the famed Odes, to be one of the crowning glories of the language. I took a look at them again and decided he was right.

What I see in Keats now is someone whose passion matched Shelley’s; whose technical skill matched Byron’s; whose imagination could be as wild as Coleridge’s; whose ability to take his own personal thoughts and reflections and make them applicable to his readers in such an enlightening and sympathetic way was the equal of Wordsworth’s.

Where he outdid them all was in his mastery of brevity, and I think that this is one of his great qualities. Put simply, at his very best, I think that Keats says what he wants to say and that’s it. Yes, he wrote long poems, but even these don’t come across as being half so long winded and ponderous as- for example- Wordsworth’s Prelude.

He only had a short time to live, and of course he knew it. I think, then, that this lends his poetry a seriousness of intent and a level-headed and unflinching quality when it comes to confronting some of the very big human themes. It also gives his very best work a refreshingly crisp directness. John Keats, therefore,  is one of my favourite English poets because with him there is no flannel and barely any messing around. The only annoying thing is that it’s taken me so long to realise it.

I now think that rather than being someone who “had nothing to say”, Keats is someone with so much to say, and who says it so much better than most others.

 

When I have Fears That I May Cease to Be

When I have fears that I may cease to be

Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,

Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,

Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;

When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,

Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,

And think that I may never live to trace

Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;

And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,

That I shall never look upon thee more,

Never have relish in the faery power

Of unreflecting love—then on the shore

Of the wide world I stand alone, and think

Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

 

 

 

Some thoughts on Patrick Leigh Fermor and The Broken Road.

plf

“Get on with it man!” (Believe it or not Patrick Leigh Fermor also enjoyed writing breaks in between smoking cigarettes and admiring the view from the terrace of his Greek home). 

 

I actually read The Broken Road a long while ago, and in best Leigh Fermor tradition I first sat on, then forgot, this draft of a review, which then turned into a mini essay.

Published (dare I say ‘in tearing haste’ to paraphrase the title of a book co-authored by Leigh Fermor) soon after his 2011 death, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s [PLF] The Broken Road rounds off a trilogy of books that form his account of a walk across the Continent, from Rotterdam to Istanbul (which he refers to as Constantinople throughout), undertaken as a young man in the 1930’s.

On reflection, it seems that the walk was the easy bit. It was writing it up years later that proved to be the almost insurmountable physical and mental effort.

The trilogy devoted to the walk is comprised of A Time of Gifts (1977), Between the Woods and Water (1986), and the final (and in a sense ad hoc volume) The Broken Road (2013). I say ad hoc because ‘Volume Three’ as it was known during his lifetime was one of the most famous literary works in progress in the world. What you can now freely obtain from any bookshop or library was not what PLF intended should be published at all. Instead it is a draft written in the early sixties, partially corrected at great effort very late in his life, and cross referenced with one of his surviving notebooks from the 1930s.  He was never able to finish it to his satisfaction in his lifetime, despite the wishes of his many readers and, no doubt, to the equal  sadness and perhaps annoyance of his publishers. It seems its troubled gestation was a source of frustration and regret for the author too. However, while his failure to complete it was no doubt a source of anguish to him and his nearest and dearest, it seems that missed deadlines and indecision were something of a recurring theme in his writing life.

One of the most telling (and unintentionally amusing) things I found in Artemis Cooper’s biography of PLF (which also appeared swiftly after his death) was the tale of how in the 1960’s he was approached by the editor of a book on World War II for an article about the war in Crete (this could have been the account of how he kidnapped the German General in command of the island, I can’t recall now). Either way, the editor of said book initially asked for an account of a few thousand words and had a set deadline. PLF agreed, but the account apparently sprawled and sprawled. The deadline loomed. The take (literally) grew in the telling.Reminders were sent. The deadline loomed and more reminders were sent.  The editor (probably literally)  tore his hair out and finally the deadline passed. The piece was never published, the editor sent one last chastening letter and PLF, I assume, never received his cheque.

Speaking frankly, one thing I think that Cooper’s biography fails to do is to give much of an isight into Leigh Fermor the writer, or to explain much about his books and how they tick.  To be fair, the evidence suggests this wasn’t her brief anyway. The biography sketches the main events of his life (except for a detailed two-chapter look at the derring-do of kidnapping the German General who was acting as governor of Crete), and the result is an easy reading but ‘lop-sided’ biography of the kind normally associated with pop stars and footballers, where the focus is firmly on events that took place earlier on in life because that’s where the ‘action’ is.  So the biography rattles along in large part because PLF lived in large part a rattlingly good life. It would have taken a writer of unique incompetence to turn what was, in several though not all respects, a ‘silk purse’ of a life into a ‘sow’s ear’ of a book.

I stress this point about the books, however, because PLF was a short time a solider but a long time a writer. If he is to survive for posterity, I’d stick my neck out and say that it’ll be because of his written work rather than for the fact that he had a ‘good war’ as the old cliche goes. So while Cooper is equal to the task of outlining his life story, she doesn’t go into too much detail about PLF the writer, how his books developed, how they work or what made the books so worthy of the following they got during his life. Crucially, I don’t think she ever really gets close to committing herself to an answer as to why this very talented and intelligent man simply could not finish the book which he called “Volume Three” (i.e. what has been published as The Broken Road), a book which I think must have been something of an Albatross around his neck.  I’m sure there is an answer to this last question, but perhaps decorum or a sense of loyalty to a man who was, after all, a close family friend, made her keep her own silence on the true nature of this. Of course there’s always the distinct possibility that she didn’t feel it right to ask, or that she tried but PLF wasn’t telling.

Anyway, at least the foreword to The Broken Road makes one thing clear, which is that he did make one last heroic effort to rework the manuscript late on in life even though the odds were well against him. The sad thing is that in my opinion he was sitting on a perfectly good book all along, and The Broken Road more than stands up to scrutiny against volume one and two. PLF undoubtedly set out to write prose that caught the eye, fired the imagination and (when read aloud or read carefully so that you could ‘hear’ it in your mind) would impress the reader both with its own brilliance but also the vividness of its imagery. When he’s in this mode he can be very effective. At other times the prose is off-puttingly purple. It’s interesting to note that in his earlier books (such as The Traveller’s Tree and A Time to Keep Silence from the 50’s) this flashy tendency is kept in check, the verbal fireworks sparking at regular intervals but normally limited to an arresting phrase here or there, or carefully kept in reserve for  set-piece descriptions of things that were especially worthy of note. Later on, his tendency to make sure almost every sentence was a finely wrought as possible would take over. A lot of the time it is to the benefit of his books, but at others I think there’s a tendency to get things out of proportion and let the prose get too elaborate to retain much control. For instance, there’s a passage in A Time of Gifts describing the Abbey of Melk which I personally find all but unreadable, and believe me I have tried several times.

All writers go about their job in slightly different ways, particularly when it comes to revising and reworking.  If I can generalise for a moment, there are some who see the process of revision as absolutely crucial, as if paring things down and choosing the right words was what enabled them to say what they really meant all along. I get the impression with PLF that things went the other way. For him, it was a process of accumulating words on the page that would allow him to get to the truth. Like Henry James, it seems that he wanted to say everything he possibly could about something as his means of  revealing the truth. This need to explore every angle, together with much agonising over finding the right word every time, must have placed a hell of a burden on him. Again, something from Cooper’s book which is very telling comes in the endpapers of the hardback edition, where she reproduces examples of some of the proofs from PLF’s work. She explains how his publisher, John Murray, would say that these proofs, with the countless revisions and additions made by PLF, explained the long gaps between his published books. If we’re looking for another simile to describe his method of composition, he seems to have been the literary equivalent of the men who used to ceaselessly paint the Forth Bridge. No sooner had one draft finished then he’d go back and have to start all over again.

In contrast to these works from the 70s and 80s, The Broken Road is effectively mid-period Leigh Fermor. As stated, the majority of the book consists of a typescript produced in the early 1960’s, so it stands somewhere between the simpler prose of his earlier post-war books and the later elaborate creation of the 70’s and 80s. What unites the two kinds of writer he was is his fundamental approach: at the core of his books are narratives of journeys undertaken, places visited and people met.  But over this he overlays numerous passages that amplify and elucidate the history and culture of the lands that he travelled through. As has been mentioned many times before, PLF was a polymath, and one of the many ‘well fancy that’ gems of knowledge to be found in The Broken Road is a convincing etymology and cultural history of the english word ‘buger’.

The book doesn’t lose anything at all in my opinion for not having been finely wrought to the nth degree. There are still some interesting verbal fireworks (many readers point to the description of migrating birds in The Broken Road as a highlight). True to form there’s also a passage that I found almost unbearably overwritten and annoying (a supposed encounter in a shoreline cave with some people, which turned into a most acrobatic sounding kind of knees-up). In the main, however, the descriptions are precise, the characterisation is believable, the eye for detail is telling,  and the gift for anecdote is very entertaining.

Perhaps the real highlight for me was the diary from Leigh Fermor’s time spent on Mount Athos, where he travelled after spending a little time in his original intended journey’s end of Istanbul. The prose in the diary entries is a lot plainer, but no less vivid. I believe that this section was reworked by the older man, but he had the judgment not to drown out the written voice of his younger self. The result is a direct and vivid piece of writing which paints a clear picture of a unique place.

Finally a note on the title. Far be it for me to tell the editors they’re wrong, but I’ve never thought that The Broken Road was that fitting. The only things ‘broken’ about this book is the narrative, which through circumstance cuts off abruptly. Saving that, it’s a remarkably cohesive, charming and straightforward account of how a plucky young individual, after an uncertain school career back in England, decided to do something completely different and reinvented himself. Dare I say it but something a little less symbolic and more descriptive (a la “Between the Woods and Water”) or even a quote from a favourite poems of PLF’s might have served better (“A Time of Gifts” is taken from Louis MacNeice. Was there nothing from Byron, who PLF was reading on this final leg of his journey, that would have worked?).

At any rate, ultimately the road is not ‘broken’ but ‘vanished’. As many others have pointed out before, aside from their strength as descriptive travel books and autobiography, PLF’s trilogy is right up there along with books like Stefan Zweig’s autobiography The World of Yesterday, as wonderfully evocative books about a Europe and a rich collective culture and varied social fabric that remains in the memory but which has gone forever.

 

Walter de la Mare: A fine English all-rounder.

Walter de la Mare (1873-1956) is one of those writers who are pretty thin on the ground at the moment, which is to say that he was something of an accomplished all-rounder. Or to give him more traditional description that would have had more currency in his day, he was a ‘man of letters’. Poet, short story writer, novelist, writer for children and essayist among others things, de la Mare is still read today, although perhaps not as widely as he deserves.

Many British schoolchildren are familiar with de la Mare thanks to one of (or perhaps THE) most famous poem of his, ‘The Listeners’. This is a great piece of verse to give to a child if you really want him or her to engage with the words, mood, atmosphere and meaning, mainly because it’s one of those poems that pose a myriad of questions while deliberately not stating anything clearly.

Sometimes this can be very annoying, but very often (as is the case here) the fact that it so open-ended is a great spur to the imagination and to discussion.

Here it is:

The Listeners

‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
’Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:—
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

It’s a fabulous poem, right up there with a verse like Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” for simultaneously firing a listener’s imagination, while simultaneously demanding a response, by means of deliberately not stating who or where or when in time the protagonists in the poem actually are.

Subtle and memorable are two adjectives I’d apply to “The Listeners”, and the same qualities are present in a book I bought at the weekend. Published in 1942 by Faber and Faber, Best Stories of Walter de la Mare is a good book to turn to for anyone like me who knows a bit of de la Mare through his poetry and who wants to read further.

I need to sketch a little bit of personal history here. A few years ago I heard a reading on BBC Radio by Richard E Grant of de la Mare’s supernatural story “All Hallows”. It was billed by the BBC as a ‘ghost story’ so maybe for that reason i found it a little underwhelming, since de la Mare it seems didn’t really write in the ‘classic’ vein of writers like le Fanu or MR James. While they all write in the supernatural idiom, de la Mare is more of a man for mood and atmosphere, rather than the outright shock of an apparition or a demonic presence. If de la Mare’s approach is like anyone else’s, I think it’s similar to Henry James’s, in that the stories will definitely give you a chill, but it comes less from a ghostly hand tracing its finger down the spine and more from the unsettling and lingering thought that what the protagonist in the story has experienced could just as easily be explained by it being all in the mind, as much as being caused by any supernatural agency. Think of something like James’s “The Jolly Corner” where there IS an apparition, but its appearance might just be the result of a fevered imagination as much as anything emanating from an occult source. If you take the premise of the story as read, then either of these possibilities is as scary as the other.

So although I didn’t deny the strength, power and mood of “All Hallows”, I came away with the impression that this was a story that needed to be read carefully. and I resolved to try and read it whenever I got the chance. Tracking down a new copy of de la Mare’s stories wasn’t easy (though I admit I don’t really shop for new books). So, when I came across the old wartime copy of Best Stories in an Oxfam bookshop, and saw that “All Hallows” was one of the pieces it contained, that sealed the deal. Having now read it I think it really works well.

The collection also makes it clear that there’s more to de la Mare than being a master at evoking an atmosphere or a chilling mood. Though the supernatural is a key element to his work, he is not confined to this area at all, so in the short story collection are other pieces that, while they might not chill or unsettle, still get you thinking.

Book Review: LTC Rolt, “Sleep No More”: Railway, Canal and other stories of the supernatural.

LTC Rolt (1910-1974) was a writer who is chiefly known for his biographies of important figures in engineering (such as Brunel and Telford) and his many writings on Britain’s industrial heritage. As a sideline to his more well-known factual work, he also wrote ghost stories.

A collection of these, Sleep No More, was published in 1948. It was well received at the time and continues to be held in some regard. By all accounts, at the time of publication Rolt drew (and continues to draw) comparisons with MR James. Particularly in his lifetime, James exerted a lot of influence over other ghost story writers, and Rolt seems to have consciously written in the same grain. This doesn’t make him a mere imitator or plagiarist. On the contrary I think James himself would have been the first to admit that his own writing owed a debt to others who had gone before him (Sheriden le Fanu for instance). It’s best, then, to see Rolt as continuing the essential traditions of the ‘classic’ british ghost story. Among other qualities, this means that his stories have a naturalistic setting, and the main protagonists are recognisable types, none of whom is especially out of the ordinary but who, through bad luck or ill-judged curiosity, certainly end up having an extraordinary encounter with something of supernatural origin.

As suggested by the book’s subtitle, Rolt gave his own twist to the MR Jamesian formula, so that instead of the latter’s assortment of scholars, antiquarians and other seekers after knowledge getting more than they bargained for, Rolt’s protagonists mirror his own interests. As such the various central characters in the collection are made up of workmen, tourists, travellers, factory owners, railwaymen and the like. The settings are also different: canals, railways, woodland, country homes, mines, factories.

What Rolt shares with other British-based writers of ‘classic’ supernatural fiction is the ability to turn otherwise routine settings into places of malevolent supernatural intervention. Rolt’s story “The Garside Fell Disaster” shares this with Charles Dickens’ “The Railwayman” for example, where a railway cutting in the countryside is the scene of an accident which has possibly more to do with forces more malign than signal or mechanical error. In “New Corner” the modern literally crashes head on with the ancient, as a 1930s racing club’s decision to add an improved and exciting addition to their track cuts right through a site which the locals whispered should never be touched. “A Visitor at Ashcombe” provides a twist on the classic country house ghost story. This time the main protagonist is not a wealthy member of the landed gentry or a dissolute Lord of the Manor, but a Cradeley Heath ironmaker made very good indeed. He decides to move away and takes up residence in a large old house in the Cotswolds. As a hard-headed Black Countryman who fears nothing but God, he isn’t going to let any silly talk or superstition prevent him from using a hitherto locked room.

I think the stand-out piece in this collection is the story “Cwm Garron”, which is set in a beautiful but remote valley in the border country between England and Wales. Rolt takes a famously gnomic and enigmatic entry from Kilvert’s diary and turns it into a story. “An angel satyr walks these hills,” Kilvert once wrote, and to this day no-one knew what he meant. Rolt provides a potential answer to what it might be, in a tale that blends a strong plot and realistic characterisation. Fans of the film “The Wicker Man” might like this story, as it shares the effective plot device of putting the modern world at odds with an imagined community whose beliefs are far different and older than we know. For me, the most effective part of this story is the description of the landscape, which is obviously based on Rolt’s deep love for that part of the world. Yet again, however, his skill as a ghost story writer is in changing the perspective, so that a landscape which might strike us as beautiful and romantic, can easily be viewed a different way as being threatening and hostile. Edmund Burke with his notions of the sublime would have loved it.

Overall I don’t think Rolt reaches the standard set by MR James, but to be fair to him that’s an extremely high standard to try and reach. James’s narratives exhibit incredible finesse and dexterity, and if there’s one thing Rolt is guilty of at times it’s the tendency towards slightly clunky ‘gear changes’ in the narrative, a rather obvious pointing out when something scary is going to happen, the written equivalent of those “I have a bad feeling about this” lines that crop up in Star Wars scripts by George Lucas. Another mild criticism I have is that a couple of the stories have an undeveloped feel to them, and read more like vignettes than the fully developed stories they perhaps deserved to be (the short tale “Hear not my Steps” in which a psychical researcher Davies finally has an encounter with a ghost is really very good indeed, and would be a great start point for a contemporary ghost story writer to try and develop).

Overall, however, Rolt is certainly worthy of his reputation of one of the better writers of ghost stories in the ‘classic’ vein. It’s a shame that at present this book isn’t that easy to get hold of, so if you come across a copy or see any of his stories in an anthology, give him a try.

In the race for poetic immortality, a few get to enter the Pantheon. Others seem destined for the library store of history…

Against Oblivion is a fascinating and eye-opening book. Written by Ian Hamilton, a British poet, biographer and critic, it was his final (posthumously published) work, dating from 2002. It consists of a series of potted biographies-cum-short critical appraisals of 45 poets who were active and published in the twentieth century. According to Hamilton’s introduction, the book’s genesis came when he was approached to write a modern version of Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. Thinking this a decent idea, if a little gimmicky, Hamilton says that he duly went back to Johnson’s book to get some ideas and inspiration. However, of the sixteenth and seventeenth century poets ‘immortalised’ by Johnson,  Hamilton says there were a number he’d never heard of at all, and of those names he recognised there were not many he had read in great depth.

This set Hamilton’s mind off in a different direction, and it seems that he was soon pondering which of the twentieth century poets he had planned to include would still be read in decades and centuries to come.  If Johnson’s book was any indication, it seemed that very few would survive. Hence the approach of  Against Oblivion as it appeared in its final form, which outlines the strengths and weaknesses of the poets put forward. For good measure,  a representative poem or two or three is printed at the end of each section. The resulting book is interesting, provocative and enlightening.  What Hamilton doesn’t do (though it is implied in a few instances) is make himself a complete hostage to fortune by coming out and explicitly saying who he thinks will be for posterity’s chop and who will survive to be read in ages to come. While he gives some hints about who he’d back to survive, the odds for most of them are not probably good since this seems to be just the way these things go.  As he states in the introduction, “it does seem a fair bet than in, say, one hundred years from now, about half of the poets I have chosen […] will have become lost to the general view”.

If you are interested in poetry in whatever capacity, I would highly recommend you take a look through this book if you come across a copy. It’s not perfect, but it is supremely good at getting you thinking, and some of Hamilton’s judgements are very sound indeed. He was a very good writer, capable of a memorable turn of phrase. In the months to come I think I may take a closer look at some of the poets mentioned in the book, and see if I agree with Hamilton in his judgements.

It remains to be seen what role the internet may have in terms of keeping alive the names and works of poets otherwise destined for obscurity and ultimate oblivion. In a sense the internet acts as a place where anything is available at any time. To go back to Samuel Johnson’s lives of the poets for instance, had you read that twenty years ago and come away with a sudden urge to take a look at some of the works of, for example, Thomas Tickell, Mark Akenside or Thomas Sprat, it might not have been easy. Chances are most public libraries would not have the works of these men in store. University libraries would perhaps have been a better bet, but even then there’d have been no guarantee you could have tracked their works down easily. With the internet, however, suddenly almost everything is to hand. It doesn’t mean forgotten poets will be widely read again, but it means that things otherwise forgotten now have far more potential to be recalled at some future point.

Anyway, here’s the list of poets Hamilton includes in Against Oblivion.  For the record, there are 8 poets on it I’ve never heard of. There are 7 I’ve heard of but never read.  There are 12 whose work I’d say I know pretty well (and extremely well in a few cases). The rest I know and have read a few poems by over the years.

(Note: the list does not include Yeats, Hardy, Eliot or Auden. Hamilton does not write about them in his book since he states with some certainty that enough has already been done to establish their names in the canon for posterity. Do you agree?)

Rudyard Kipling

Charlotte Mew

Robert Frost

Edward Thomas

Wallace Stevens

William Carlos Williams

DH Lawrence

Ezra Pound

Hilda Doolittle (HD)

Marianne Moore

Robinson Jeffers

Rupert Brooke

Conrad Aiken

Edna St Vincent Millay

Hugh MacDiarmid

Wilfred Owen

EE Cummings

Robert Graves

Hart Crane

Allen Tate

Stevie Smith

Norman Cameron

William Empson

John Betjeman

Louis MacNiece

Theodore Roethke

Stephen Spender

Elizabeth Bishop

Roy Fuller

RS Thomas

Randall Jarrell

Weldon Kees

Henry Reed

John Berryman

Dylan Thomas

Alun Lewis

Robert Lowell

Keith Douglas

Philip Larkin

Allen Ginsberg

James Merrill

James Wright

Gregory Corso

Ted Hughes

Sylvia Plath

 

Who do you think will be forgotten in another hundred years? Who do you think will survive? And is there any twentieth century poet not in Hamilton’s list who you think stands an equal chance against oblivion? Feel free to leave a comment.