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.

 

“Burn for You”: A review of “Story to Story: The Official Autobiography of INXS”

This isn’t a new book by any means, having first appeared in 2005. Music i listened to when I was younger wasn’t really a priority back then, but I must be mellowing, so when I saw this in a charity shop I thought I’d give it a read. It’s a good (auto)biography, long on stories, with quite a lot of laughs to bookend with the tears that come at the end, and fortunately it pulls no punches in order to show how the INXS juggernaut came to a terrible halt in November 1997.

INXS was the first band I was massively into, and also happened to be my first ever gig. In fact, one person who really, really should have known better once decided to play a round of ‘what was your first ever gig?’ in the pub once. When I mentioned that mine was INXS on the X tour in 1990 (or was it 91?) he rounded on me, generally putting me down for the fact that INXS did not make for a respectable first gig.

Cue a foul mouthed tirade from me telling him exactly why he was wrong, taking in such important points as INXS being one of the few rock bands who could actually swing, the superlative live show, and the fact that (before all of the post-1995 Paula Yates tabloid free-for-all that culminated in his untimely death) Michael Hutchence WAS cool, was THE man and had all the grace, intelligence and style to be classed as one of the greatest rock frontmen.

This book revels in stories of Hutchence’s showmanship and decadence, but it’s obvious that this was a man who a torn individual. On the one hand he was the rock god personified. On the other he was a caring person, a deep thinker, a worrier, and an all-round sensitive soul.

Particularly towards the end of his life, Hutchence found himself pigeon holed as a louche rock lothario, which for a time- wrongly but almost inevitably- saw him tabloid press target number one in Britain, especially once his ill-fated affair with Paula Yates began. With hindsight he should have moved back to Hong Kong, or to LA, or back to Australia, or just laid low in his South of France villa. But instead he stayed in London, got embroiled, bogged down and generally stuck in every kind of rut imaginable.

I’ve always thought that Hutchence’s own sad personal decline mirrored that of the band. This relatively short book is very good at tracing their career trajectory, and is revelatory in its descriptions of its beginnings as (almost literally and certainly to all intents and purposes) a band of brothers in late 70’s Sydney. After a brief hiatus in Perth while their underage drummer Jon Farriss tried (and failed) to finish High School, the band went back to Sydney. There’s a lot in this book made about the Australian live music scene that was centred on the pubs in those days (nothing like your typical english pub as it happens, but coming over rather as a cross between a german bier keller and a large live music venue).

Then enter manager Chris Murphy, a manager who clearly thought that his new charges could go all the way. He took them out of the pubs and went global, through a series of cut throat record deals and a touring schedule that would make many a lesser band split.

It is to the band’s immense credit that instead of being burned out by such a heavy workload in the 80’s, they actually thrived on it, so much so that they became one of the great live rock acts to date. It helped that their recorded output steadily grew in quality, and by the time they began working with producer Chris Thomas on 1985’s Listen Like Thieves they were poised for greatness. As the book makes clear, this was a band who were left of the mainstream so as to be considered cool, yet mainstream enough so as to have potential mass appeal.

That potential was fulfilled and greatness came, of course, with the mighty Kick from 1987.  For a while they wore the mantle of “The Biggest Band in the World”. After touring their backsides off for a couple of years and being all over MTV, INXS took a well-earned break.

Again, with benefit of hindsight, it’s possible to see to that Kick and the subsequent status it brought them was the pinnacle of their career. It rounded off an incredible decade of great music and sheer hard work.  It was the end of the beginning, but instead of (ahem) kicking on from that, it was also the beginning of the end.

I remember as a fan liking bits of the follow up disc X, but never loving it like I loved (and still love) Kick. As Murphy is quoted as saying in the book, X was not enough of a departure from Kick. He suspected the band had grown somewhat safe and complacent and the alarm bells were ringing in his head for the first time. Hutchence, it was clear even at the time, had taken his eye somewhat off the ball. Still a compelling performer, he was by the early 90’s a tabloid staple, having first rather surprisingly taken up with Kylie Minougue, and then completely understandably having ditched her for Helena Christensen. This was a bloke who had earned his slice of the high life but was perhaps letting that take the place of the music that had got him there in the first place.

Of course grunge in the US and a general return to a more earthy and traditional rock approach in the UK put paid to a lot of the bands who’d made it in the 80’s. INXS could have adapted but a couple of odd career choices followed. Firstly they didn’t tour the album Welcome to Wherever You Are. This isn’t a bad record at all but by this stage I was losing interest. So did a lot of fans in the US according to the book, since the record company wouldn’t promote it like they had previous releases, and the band weren’t going to tour, so that put paid to its chances over there. I remember hearing the lead single Heaven Sent and thinking it was a good rocker, but stuff like Baby Don’t Cry (although I don’t mind it now) struck my teenaged self as being simplistic and overblown. Had they come up with something that wasn’t merely ‘Need You Tonight Part II’, but harnessed the originality and arresting qualities of their best music I’d have stayed loyal. But they didn’t, and so I didn’t.

Things then got odd given all that had gone before and it seems like the band entered a period of uncertainty that they couldn’t quite get out of, and which in the end amounted to a slow decline. For a band who had sold out Wembley stadium barely two years earlier, 1993’s “Get Out of the House” tour, a ‘back to the clubs’  jaunt around smaller venues, sent out odd signals. The band said they wanted to reconnect with their fans in the kind of venues they’d started out in. But of course by deliberately avoiding the kind of arenas they had grown into (and to be fair could make feel like a small, intimate club through sheer force of performance and personality) it partially sent out the signal that the band wasn’t as big as it once was. And they admit as much in the book, Andrew Farriss seeming to imply that it was something of a mistake.

The album Full Moon, Dirty Hearts followed soon after to mixed reviews that erred on the negative. The book is very revealing about the recording of this disc on the island of Capri. While it sounds idyllic in theory, the band were there out of season and the journey to the island recording studio was anything but easy. To make matters worse, the stormy weather outside was mirrored inside the studio by the erratic and often violent behaviour of the band’s erstwhile easy-going and charming front man.

Beginning with the serious head injury suffered in Copenhagen after he was assaulted by a taxi driver (leading among other things to a bruised brain and an almost total loss of the sense of taste and smell) the book goes into the necessary but not voyeuristic detail about the changes in Michael Hutchence in the years leading up to his death. To add to his serious head injury, there was to come the Geldof-Yates-Hutchence love triangle, complicated by a well-publicised custody battle over the Geldof-Yates children.

As the book also makes clear, it wasn’t just Hutchence who was having personal problems by the mid-nineties, and it seems that a combination of personal problems, managerial difficulties and so-so but not stellar musical product were dogging them up to and including November 1997.

Interestingly, the book goes into great detail about the critical backlash against the band in their native Australia. That fateful month saw them back in Sydney rehearsing for a tour of smaller venues in Oz. It was a sort of ‘back to basics’ (i.e. not the biggest venues) tour all over again. This time however, they hadn’t chosen to play those venues: they were more in keeping with the band’s profile. Chris Murphy is clear in the book that the burden of having to play smaller venues (some of which hadn’t sold out) could have exacerbated whatever demons were plaguing Hutchence at the time. Certainly it’s clear that whatever factors drove him to take his own life, an enforced absence from Yates and his daughter Tiger was probably one of them.

Murphy remains adamant that INXS shouldn’t have touched the Australian circuit with a bargepole, not until the year 2000 at least, by which time al animosity would have subsided and they could have come back with a bang. It makes great sense as a strategy, but of course we’ll never know.

By 1997 I no longer listened to INXS’s music. But the news of Hutchence’s sudden death in November of that year still came as a shock to me as it did to so many. Without wishing to overdramatise how I felt at the time, it was like hearing of the death of a friend I hadn’t seen for some years.

A few years ago I saw INXS playing at a smallish venue near me on the tour they did with Canadian JD Fortune, one of the numerous replacements for Hutchence they’ve used over the years. They were great. They still rocked. They swung like the old days. Jon Farris and Gary Garry Beers proved that they are one of the greatest rhythm sections in rock n’roll. Tim Farriss kept it funky. Kirk Pengilly added musical flourishes on lead guitar and sax. And good old Andrew Farriss kept it tight at the back. I sang along to every bloody word that night, words I hadn’t thought of or brought to mind since I was a kid, and I lost my voice from screaming just as I did that first time I saw them. It was a great gig, and Fortune did his very, very best which by most standards was very good indeed. But then again the standard he was up against was the one set by Michael Hutchence. My God, it would have been greater if only Michael were there.

It’s only recently that I’ve taken an interest in their music again.  The other day I even got round to listening to his posthumously released solo album for the first time. I found most of it very difficult to listen to. Not because of the music, which I like, but because of the lyrics.  For all his faults, he was a great performer and on balance the book makes a convincing case for saying that he was a decent man who got terribly, terribly trapped. What I think he needed was a damned good rest. The great sadness is that that rest took the wrong form.

It seems to be the accepted trajectory for rock bands these days, but for all the pretence about making new albums and trying to remain a developing creative force, there comes a point where the general public lose interest and only want to hear the Greatest Hits. It happened with the Stones years ago. It’s already happened with U2. Oasis have a lucrative career as their own tribute act waiting for them, if only they can bury the hatchet and get it together.

INXS could have had this kind of career. It’s moot whether they could have really reinvented themselves after the Elgantly Wasted album, but even if they hadn’t, if they’d have followed Murphy’s advice and laid low for a few more years, they could have been conquering heroes once their style had come back into vogue (their recent chart successes in Australia that coincided with a major TV mini drama show there’s some merit in this argument).  The irony is that Michael showed plenty of signs that he could have had an interesting career and developed in his own right, however.

So in a parallel universe somewhere, Michael Hutchence has just completed his twelfth feature film and his band INXS are gearing up for one of their periodic reunion tours. Rumour has it that he is penning songs for a third solo album, and there is even talk of the band filling the ‘legends’ slot on the Sunday afternoon at Glastonbury, a performance which will rekindle the INXS spark in the UK once again just like it did in Oz last year.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, things are as they are. But at least we’ve got some great music. And there are also many of us with such great memories of the band and our friend Michael.

It’s most fitting at this point to quote Kirk Pengilly, who provides the final words in the book: “All that he [Michael] really wanted in the end was to know that we mattered. He wanted to know that we’d served a purpose. He wanted to know that we’d given people memories.”

In this, they succeeded wonderfully.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quick Review: Renegade, The Autobiography of Mark E Smith

Renegade, published several years ago now, is the autobiography of Mark E Smith, lead singer and leader of The Fall. It is a very funny book.

Imagine you are in a pub and listen in on an amusing and quirky bloke who essentially rants about various things while letting you know bits of his life story into the bargain.

Such people are legion, but not all are as perceptive as Smith and barely any of them are fine musicians and writers like him.

Others may think the book amounts to little more than the insufferable and inconsequential dronings of a ranting Manc, but when all’s said and done it’s harmless fun (unless you happen to be one of the legion of jettisoned Fall members to have received a P45 over the years).

Cheaper than a round of drinks and a lot more satisfying.

And here for good measure is the man in action and giving a quick toot on the kazoo and spinning a yarn.

 

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.

A review of “Dreaming of Jupiter” by Ted Simon.

Summary: 25 years after he first set off around the world on a bike, Ted Simon goes off at the age of 70 to do it all again, this time on a BMW. But the result is still a Triumph. 

Dreaming of Jupiter is a must read for anyone who has read Jupiter’s Travels (I reviewed it here), Ted Simon’s classic account of how he spent 4 years going around the world on a motorbike in the mid-1970s. In large part this later book takes its prompts from the earlier one by trying to answer the essential question: just how much has the world changed in the intervening time?

This time around Simon had family ties to bear in mind, so instead of 4 years, this second journey took a ‘mere’ 2 and half. That’s still no mean feat at any stage of life, but at 70 that’s still noteworthy.

The main difference between this book and its predecessor is that it has a far brisker and more businesslike tone to it. It’s inevitable that if you’re going somewhere again for a second time, then you’re going to want to find out what’s remained the same, whether your memories still bear any resemblance to the reality, and whether any of the people you met first time around are still where you encountered them first time around and still  remember you. The desire to answer questions like these give the book a sort of spine and plenty of ‘drive’ as it were.

While the narrative never becomes unbalanced by the inevitable jaded views in the face of irrevocable and inevitable change, there are points where Simon readily admits that his disappointment overwhelmed him. In Phuket in Thailand, for example, his memories of the paradise it was in the 70’s jarred terribly with the sight of the crowded and commercialised resort it has become. Bureaucracy is another complaint he has compared to the relatively straightforward nature of crossing borders back in the 70s (although this was never that simple in all cases if the original book is anything to go by). Sitting in an Indian customs office trying to arrange for his bike to be airfreighted to Turkey, Simon admits to wanting the journey over right there and then, so ground down was he by the endless form filling and buck passing.

These remain isolated moments, though. As with his account of the first journey, Simon concentrates on the stand-out experiences that he had along the way, and these seem to have been overwhelmingly good. Above all there are a number of very warm and heartening descriptions of meeting up again with people he’d met the first time around, a good number of whom it seems were inspired by their meeting with this inspirational stranger on a motorbike.

There are of course also plenty of new people he meets along the way second time around, many of whom enter the picture when Simon is in need of help. Modern BMW’s are no more immune than their 70’s Triumph counterparts to the hammering that the varied roads of the world can dish out, and there are the familiar accounts of difficulties with the bike and the terrain. For good measure Simon also managed to break bones on two separate occasions on his second trip.

To re-enforce the notion of perhaps the most significant way the world has changed politically in the intervening decades, as recurring motif towards the end of the book sees Simon describe watching the TV at some of the places he stops towards the end of the trip, watching CNN chart the build up to the second Bush/ Blair driven invasion of Iraq.

The final chapter and the epilogue of this book is well worth pondering in detail, in order to get the thoughts and reflections of this well-travelled, urbane and wise man. In Simon’;s case, travel undoubtedly seems to have broadened the mind, but it has narrowed his focus as to what ails the mankind and the planet. Overall he seems to be saying that as a race we seem to lurch from one disaster to another and seem collectively determined to reach the final end which is our own (and the planet’s) oblivion.

But- and it remains a very big but- he retains faith in the goodness and essential helpfulness of people, as shown in the many good and kind people he has met on both journeys around the world.

On a lighter note, I can confirm that this book is every bit as dangerous as Jupiter’s Travels, in that it will make you want to go out and get a motorbike licence if you haven;’t got one already, just in case you ever get chance to travel in Jupiter’s tyre tracks.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ted Simon’s Triumph. A Review of “Jupiter’s Travels” by Ted Simon

Jupiter’s Travels, about Ted Simon’s round the world motorbike journey over four years in the early-mid 70’s, is a justly famous and widely-read book.

As Simon has discovered over the years (documented in, among other places, the opening pages of his follow up book from the early 2000’s, Dreaming of Jupiter) the original book not only proved to be very popular among armchair travellers, but also inspired scores of people to get out of the house, get on their bikes and see the world for themselves. I count myself through circumstances as very much in the former armchair category at present, but who knows? I’m still younger than Simon was when he made his first journey (he was in the his early 40’s) and I’ve always fancied owning a Triumph. The idea of seeing more of the world has always appealed. Mind you, I bet the wife and kids would have a lot to say about it if I suddenly upped sticks and took four years to go around the world like Simon did.

Sponsored by the Sunday Times and with no dependents to keep him at home, Simon set off from England in an uncertain frame of mind, unsure as to whether he was doing the right thing or was just plain mad. These moments of doubt and self questioning are beautifully captured in the book’s opening, along with the more practical parts, which are no less interesting,  about how he learned to ride a motorbike (he was a total novice rider when the idea for the journey occurred to him) and from there started gathering the equipment together for his marathon trek.

His journey through Europe and down through Italy is dealt with in relatively few pages, and it’s when he hits Africa that the prose starts to flow and the vista well and truly opens up. I have read Jupiter’s Travels twice before, and every time I have been utterly captivated by Simon’s descriptions of his passage through that Continent. This is a great book overall, but for me I think it reaches its peak early on. Of particular interest are his descriptions of trying to negotiate roads which aren’t really roads at all, and at times seem like they’d struggle to deserve the description of dirt track. It’s at times like these I got the clearest sense of what a stupendous undertaking this journey (and all others like this) was and is. It really was Simon and his Triumph Tiger out on their own, against the world. If either of them failed then, at certain times in certain places such as out in the desert, it really would have been the end of both of them.

Say what you like about the supposed shortcomings of British workmanship, but that stalwart Triumph is one of the stars of this book. Simon’s relationship with it is clearly one based on respect, although as is to be expected the book is peppered with scenes in garages or stuck on the roadside while various running repairs or even full-scale overhauls are performed. But the bike not only survived but served with distinction, and currently resides in the Coventry Transport Museum (see here for more info).

A curious thing has happened every time I have read this book. After the wonderful sense of freedom and momentum built up when reading of his successful crossing of Africa, the tone changes the moment after crossing the Atlantic that Simon lands in Fortaleza, Brazil. It’s not that the writing flags, but because of the almost total contrast with what has gone before, the narrative does hit a sticky patch of sorts for the simple reason that it was while in Brazil (then under military rule) that Simon was held for a time in police custody. He describes his sense at the time of how much like touch-and-go it seemed as to whether he’d ever be released or not. In the end he made it out, to enjoy a spell of r and r in Rio which is described in detail, after which his way though the rest of Brazil and Argentina is glossed over somewhat. The narrative then goes on to focus in detail on his journey back up the central and eastern parts of South America through the Andes, much of which he made in the company of two Frenchmen who had their own four-wheeled transport.

Central America and then the USA follow, where Simon made a long stop at a kind of commune in Northern California. Once in Australia we get some of the most interesting and perceptive descriptions of people. Simon makes no bones of the fact that he arrived Down Under with a head full of preconceptions and stereotypes about the kind of folk he’d find there, but these are largely dispelled by the interesting assortment of people he encountered, and there are some keenly observed character sketches of the truckers among whom he spent an enforced spell while waiting for the floodwaters of swollen rivers to subside while heading up the East Coast.

After Australia comes the far east, and the centrepiece of this section of Jupiter’s Travels are his travels in India, again a time of fateful encounters and much spiritual rumination about his own nature, and the nature of his journey. One thing that struck me when I first read this book more than ten years ago, and which still strikes me when I read it, is that it could be some time yet before the journey he made overland from Pakistan back into Turkey can be made so relatively safely again. Of course there are ways and means even today, but in some ways the World was a more certain place back then.

Packed full of insight, colourful characters, a sense of wonder at the vastness of the world and a general joie de vivre, I highly recommend Jupiter’s Travels. You don’t have to be a member of the Triumph Owners’ Club or a long distance motorbiker to enjoy it, but be warned: reading the book could well turn you into either one or the other, and possibly both.