Archive for the 'Bookshelf' Category

How did they bury them all?

August 4, 2014

Wild Poppies - photo by Liz Mathews

Wild poppies – photo by Liz Mathews

The centenary of the Great War’s outbreak is being marked in many ways; two projects have particularly moved me.

The first is Neil Astley’s new Bloodaxe anthology of war poems: The Hundred Years’ War, which includes this poem by Valentine Ackland, which I suggested for the collection.

How did they bury them all, who died in the war?

From near and far the tidy packed masses were neatly

Disposed, laid straight, boxed and buried; in a soil

Crowded already and crammed with the old wars’

Great litter of lives spilt. And they buried them all

As the gardener after the autumn fall

Digs in the apples to rot. So the summer’s spoil

Wastes down to mud and the sweetness goes rotten.

They buried them all, and the trees have already forgotten.

(Valentine Ackland, published in Journey from Winter: Selected Poems of Valentine Ackland, edited by Frances Bingham, Carcanet, 2008.)

I’m very pleased Neil chose to include the poem, which is such a powerful statement about the waste and mortal cost of all wars. I read the poem at the pre-launch of the book at Lauderdale House in Highgate, and felt its power to move the audience as I did so.

The reading brought out the breadth of the Bloodaxe anthology, and its global scope; among the highlights Stephen Watts read Isaac Rosenberg’s Louse Hunting brilliantly; Andrew Motion read some of his recent ‘found poems’ taken from soldiers’ own accounts of war; David Constantine read a very moving poem about his grandmother Soldiering On; and Imtiaz Dharker read her superb poem A Century Later, about the Taliban attempt on schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai’s life, which concludes:

A murmur, a swarm. Behind her, one by one,

the schoolgirls are standing up

to take their places in the front line.

I also enjoyed hearing Dawood Azami read some of his poems in the original Pashto, as well as in translation, and it was a pleasure to hear Neil Astley read B.G.Bonallack’s The Retreat from Dunkirk, also in this wide-ranging anthology, which is one of the texts lettered on Liz Mathews’ monumental artist’s book Thames to Dunkirk.

This is an enormous collection; it contains six hundred pages of poetry, some familiar and necessary (Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth, from the First World War, Antonio Machado’s The crime was in Granada, about the killing of Lorca during the Spanish Civil War, Martin Niemöller’s chilling First they came for the Jews… from the Second World War), also much that’s less well known. There’s a striking amount of work in translation, so that war is seen from many perspectives – not just by Germans in the opposite trenches, but also contemporary Taliban fighters. There are many different voices – witnesses, combatants, conscientious objectors, civilians caught up in war, refugees and prisoners, nurses and children.

Women are well-represented, considering the inevitable surplus of soldier-poems in the era the book covers; Anna Akhmatova writing during the seige of Leningrad, Denise Levertov hearing the guns of Dunkirk, Muriel Rukeyser in Spain, Nelly Sachs remembering the Holocaust – they’re all here. I found particularly moving the Polish poet Anna Swir’s poem He Was Lucky (which Neil Astley also read):

The old man

leaves his house, carries books.

A German soldier snatches his books

flings them in the mud.


The old man picks them up,

the soldier hits him in the face.

The old man falls,

the soldier kicks him and walks away.


The old man

lies in mud and blood.

Under him he feels

the books.

So, this is an important anthology, and a tragically contemporary one. Although there’s a reason other than shock value for every poem to be there, many of them are horrific and disturbing. To me, those that are most successful are those – like Valentine Ackland’s – that lament or protest or bear witness or speak defiance imaginatively, rather then by direct reportage. But this book rightly represents every kind of poetry-writing on war.

Neil Astley’s introduction notes ‘individual voices bearing witness to our shared humanity’, but also a disastrous inability to learn the lessons of history. “As Germany’s Günter Kunert writes in his poem On Certain Survivors, in which a man is dragged out from the debris of his shelled house: ‘He shook himself/ And said/ Never again.// At least, not right away.’”



Tom postcard

World War I postcard, with a photograph of my great-uncle T.H. Duffin among the portraits of Heroes of York.

I’ve also been involved in the Imperial War Museum’s centenary project Lives of the First World War, which is to be a permanent digital memorial, recording the experiences of millions of people during the war.  Like the museum itself, the object is not to glorify war, but to acknowledge the contribution of the many people who were involved in the conflict.

I’ve been adding details to the life-story of one Thomas Howard Duffin, my grandmother’s older brother, who died in the Dardanelles campaign. Since he was killed when he was only 18, when my grandmother was still a little girl, half a century before I was born, I’ve never really thought of him as a great-uncle, only as her favourite brother Tom.

Duffin, Thomas Howard - Version 2

Tom Duffin’s photograph from The King’s Book, York Minster          (Reproduced by kind permission of the Chapter of York)

Because he was a casualty of war, it’s easier to find out what happened to Tom than to trace the war experiences of his older brother Reggie, who survived. Poor Tom joined up as soon as volunteers were asked for, in August 1914, when he must have been under age, and trained with a battalion (9th, West Yorkshire Regiment) of Kitchener’s New Army. He and his comrades inhabit their historical moment, eagerly enrolling to defend (as the official message of sympathy had it) ‘the noblest of causes’, with all the naive arrogance and enthusiasm of youth, only to find themselves fighting an unknown enemy on foreign ground, for a theoretical tactical advantage which even at the time was considered by many to be a mirage.

This was Gallipoli, the Turkish peninsula not so far from Troy, which the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force attempted to capture. There, they faced extreme problems of missing equipment, bad supplies, no water, inefficient reconnaisance, chaotic planning and a bizarre over-optimism. Muddling through was one of the Empire’s specialities, however, and these new soldiers fought ‘with great pluck and grit’. Tom’s battalion received a special mention in the commander’s despatch on the landing at Suvla Bay, which remarks that they ‘deserve great credit for the way [the assault] was delivered in the inky darkness of the night’. (Sir Ian Hamilton’s Third Gallipoli Despatch)

After going through three months of intense trench warfare in extreme weather conditions, under almost constant bombardment, Tom fell ill of dysentery – which killed more troops than the actual fighting. Ambulance trains took some of the sick and wounded to hospital in Cairo, and it seems Tom was one of these lucky ones. (Many others died on the hospital ships, and were buried at sea, or died on the battlefield without ever reaching hospital.)

Sister Margaret B. Weatherup, of the Giza Red Cross Hospital in Cairo, wrote home: ‘I don’t know how many cases are in now – wards, balconies and corridors are full. The Dardanelles fighting has been very much worse than in France, at least the men say so. When one batch of stretcher cases came in we were not expecting them. A great many of the elite of Cairo, who were dining at their clubs when the news spread that an ambulance train with very serious cases had arrived, just came out to the hospital as they were, and carried the stretchers in. It looked strange to see four men in evening dress carrying the stretchers. Lord Edward Cecil was one of the helpers. It is not long since he lost his only son.’ (British Journal of Nursing, September 18, 1915.)

A VAD ambulance driver, Alice Christabel Remington, in an IWM interview, recalled: ‘The men that had dysentery, poor things, that was really terrible because they couldn’t be looked after and they were in a shocking state. I used to feel so sorry – they were so ashamed of themselves, they couldn’t help it, but sometimes the smell was simply frightful… The ones that had trench fever and the ones that had dysentery were the most depressed.’ (quoted in The Imperial War Museum Book of the First World War, Malcolm Brown.)

Tom died on 29th November, 1915, and is buried in the Cairo war memorial cemetery. Numbered among the disastrous casualties of the Dardanelles campaign – abandoned a few weeks after Tom died, when the army evacuated the peninsula – these horrible trench-illness deaths seem singularly futile. Like ‘friendly fire’ losses (then called ‘misdirected fire’) it’s hard to envisage such accidental deaths as ‘sacrifices for… Freedom and Justice’, or to make them seem heroic. It seems so wasteful and pointless for Tom to have not had a life, when his death didn’t serve any possible purpose.

Although I’d always vaguely known that he died at Gallipoli, now that I know what happened to Tom in a little more detail I feel – belatedly – as well as a distant sadness, the anger.

In Times Like These

October 10, 2013

Snowtree photo by Liz Mathews

Snowtree – photo by Liz Mathews

When a writer as historically aware and politically astute as Maureen Duffy subtitles a new novel ‘A Fable’, something interesting is in store.  In Times Like These doesn’t disappoint such expectations; it’s provocative, funny, unsettling, and twists to an unexpected conclusion.  There’s a lot to discuss, a lot to (re)consider, a lot of entertainment on the way.  One gets the feeling that the author enjoyed writing this one.

In many ways it’s a playwright’s novel – short scenes carry the action forward with dialogue, there are jump-cuts and close-ups, newsflashes as well as big set pieces; the story moves fast and doesn’t pause for pedestrian explanations.  This works particularly well for the central characters, Terry and Paul, a couple (historian-politician and artist) whose lesbian relationship is a given.

The premiss is that in the near future an independent Scotland comes to head a powerful Celtic Alliance while an ever-smaller England becomes more and more fractured and isolated.  Tribalism and neo-fascist ideologies gain ground, civil liberties start to erode. There are some brilliant evocations of a future London, deserted by world finance, disintegrating yet still just about functioning for tourists.

Against this convincing scenario of a nation unravelling, some time in the not too distant future, is set a narrative of the remote past in the Celtic world of the monk Colm Cille, mapping the slow growth of alliances between little warring kingdoms, and the growing possiblities of art, books, civilization, in times of peace.  The two apparently distant strands create a mutually-revealing commentary on the contrasting yet not dissimilar situations.

There are some wry funny scenes of the art world (too many artists will know just how Paul feels when the wealthy client/patron thinks she’s selling herself, not her work), academe and political life; almost satire but – unfortunately – all too recognisable.  Then the royals are given some hilarious conversations. There are some genuinely scary moments as well; tribal terrorists’ bombing and burnings which threaten the characters the reader has come to care about.

Without giving the plot away too much, it’s not without hope at the end; a heartening suggestion that art is what may save civilization.  But the portrayal of political extremism, bigotry and xenophobic nationalism is depressingly recognisable, as is the chaos involved in re-negotiations of nationhood. Maureen Duffy has let her richly-stocked imagination go to work on all this, but the result is a fable – from which lessons can be learnt – not necessarily a prophecy.

As a Londoner with Scots connections, I’m still hoping that there will be independence for Scotland soon.  (The Union of 1707 is comparatively recent history, although James VI & I hoped to unite the separate kingdoms a hundred years or so before.)  Since then, Scotland has maintained a dignified and convincing separate nationhood which deserves recognition, symbolised for me by the taxi-driver – in a tartan taxi advertising whisky – who drove two lost Sassenachs from Leith to Waverley Station just in time for the train, then refused to be paid, explaining he’d done it ‘for the honour of Scotland.’

But I certainly hope no country goes through the convulsions Maureen Duffy describes so convincingly, before finding equilibrium.

This is a novel to read now, in times like these, and then revisit with hindsight, after time has told…

The Principle of Camouflage

April 18, 2011

Cover image: Sea light, painting by Liz Mathews

Hesketh, an artist, is isolated with her daughter Kezia on a remote coast where they came for sanctuary ten years ago.  The effort of trying to retain her powers of creation has driven her half-mad. Their only neighbour, Crambo, is a wild elemental, bereft of speech, who lives on the beach.  An unknown wounded officer arrives to convalesce with Hesketh and Kezia, but far from being the expected eligible stranger, Fitz is an exiled anti-hero whose love is reserved for London, play-making, and Meredith, a poet.

Their strange existence is threatened by the arrival of a three-man machine gun crew who not only pollute the beach, but also awaken Crambo to the new powers of language – and explosives.  As war sweeps closer, a violent sea-change brings all these castaways to their fate.

The Principle of Camouflage is a magical exploration of place, exile and home, the powers and duties of the artist, the restoration of lost things, the discovery of love, and the survival of hope in an apparently doomed world.

Available now from Two Ravens Press 

(also Amazon, or through bookshops)

‘A true work of the imagination transporting Prospero’s island, and us, to wartime Britain on a shining wave of sea images.’

(Maureen Duffy)

To the North

April 1, 2011

The view from the hill – photograph by Liz Mathews

Recently I wrote about Gillian Tindall’s classic The Fields Beneath.  Then last week I heard by chance a programme on Radio 3, A walk round Camden, the interval talk during a concert from the Roundhouse.  It’s always a slightly weird experience to hear a radio presenter describing a place one knows very well, for the benefit of those who are presumed not to.  It reminded me of the one of the pro-Revolution Russians in Rebecca West’s The Birds Fall Down, who describes

‘a wide railway-cutting, a positive chasm, with many tracks running along the bottom.  The aspect was not unpicturesque, for on the opposite cliff of the chasm stood a line of tall houses, neo-classical in design, which were reflecting an orange sunset from their stucco façades.  London is very exotic.  All these places like Camden Town and Pimlico and Notting Hill have a wild majesty.’

Rebecca West wasn’t mentioned as one of Camden’s writers, and nor was Virginia Woolf  (who mentions it often, if only en route to Hampstead Heath).  This lack was compensated by the inclusion of Gillian Tindall, the local genius of the place, who spoke about Camden Town’s past inhabitants so vividly and knowledgeably that I wished the entire programme – or series – could be hers.  Dickensian characters such as the Cratchits, who ‘tried to live nicely’, were as present in her sketch of the past as Sickert, painting the turns at the Bedford Music Hall, where Crippen’s unfortunate wife Belle Elmore performed (sometimes as a very unconvincing male impersonator).

The Roundhouse, which was the excuse for this perambulation, is a great local institution.  As a child in the 1970’s I lived with a view of its leaky curved roof; it was in a bad state then, not quite semi-derelict but a ‘fringe venue’ in the original sense of the word.  The audience, isolated on groups of benches scattered about the draughty, dripping auditorium, might have been prisoners within a deep black well in some sinister Piranesi architectural fantasy.  Nowadays, after much restoration, it can host the RSC’s winter London season, among many other events.  The old turntable-shaped engine-shed makes a brilliant theatre-in-the-round; there’s only a hint of local nostalgia for its previous incarnation.

Gillian Tindall mentioned that she was born close by this relic of ‘railway mania’, opposite Camden Lock.  I was interested to see that her book about Kentish Town, this ‘one London village’, has been reissued by Eland in a new edition, with an extra chapter.  She will be talking about The Fields Beneath at the Owl Bookshop on Kentish Town Road, on the 5th April at 7pm; an event which I’m sure will be a great local celebration of place and northernness within the inner city.

I’m particularly pleased, not only because I look forward to the event, but also because I’m going to be the next author on the Owl’s programme.  I’ll be reading from my just-published novel, The Principle of Camouflage, which has its celebrations and elegies for London, too, at the Owl Bookshop on the 14th April at 7pm.

A local habitation and a name…

February 3, 2011

Local winter – photograph by Liz Mathews

London may be, as Chesterton said, a collection of submerged villages, but to the inhabitants they are not even fully submerged.  People’s attachment to ‘their’ street may be just as tenacious and appreciative as the attachment of a smallholder to his particular fields… The instinctive allegiance… to a natural habitat, (large trees, hills, streams etc) urban man transfers to man-made landmarks, but the essential nature of that allegiance remains the same.

These words about the local loyalties many people feel for their home ground are from The Fields Beneath, Gillian Tindall’s marvellous ‘history of one London village’.  As the title suggests, she takes a representative urban area and – with a brilliant combination of meticulous research and strong historical imagination – traces its development from grassland to paved street.  This is particularly fascinating to me as the place she maps in such detail (Kentish Town in north London) is local, but the book has a far wider application.

Since it was first published in 1977, many of the ideas Tindall advanced on the importance of their environment for all people (‘places, objects, views – other supports for the human psyche’) have become more accepted.  A revised edition in 2005 expressed relief that much of the demolition threatened at that time didn’t take place, that our ancestors would still feel at home here after all – which must be partly thanks to this book, with its insistence on William Morris’s dictum ‘We are only trustees for those who come after us’.

As befits so eminent an historian, Gillian Tindall differentiates clearly between the verifiable facts, and the myths – of which there are many.  There are unsolved mysteries (where exactly was the Gospel Oak?) and revenant rumours (every damp cellar was once hailed as the lost Fleet River rising), which are explored and explained.  Now, the many inhabitants who have read this much-loved book know exactly where the river runs beneath their feet, feel a pastoral nostalgia  for groves or dairy farms recalled only in street names.  Curves of streets suggest a brook’s meander, abrupt angles mark ancient field-boundaries, old trees in gardens are survivors from orchards, there are even hedgerows remaining from our rural past.

This book has done more than any other to give this community a strong sense of locality and history rooted in the landscape, that common ground which remains so noticeable in these hilly streets.  It has even explained the richness of the soil, which grows such lush shrubs in these city gardens; ‘tough, sticky London clay studded like a currant cake with the fragments of other lives’.  Pevsner’s London 4: North covers the architectural riches, others list the ley lines, Roman roads, Boadicea’s barrow (on Parliament Hill, of course, not platform 10 of King’s Cross Station) and more, but none have quite this taste of the territory.

Famous residents pass through; Mary Shelley watches Byron’s funeral procession make its way through the rain towards Highgate Hill (she thought the place ‘an odious swamp’); Nelson plants apple trees in his uncle’s town garden; Thomas Hardy is distressed by participating in the clearance of a churchyard for the new railway.  But the less well-known, the ordinary residents, are the focus; piano-builders, railway-workers, music-teachers and engravers, many servants. In the fascinating minutiae of their lives are reflected the place’s fluctuating fortunes, from a rural retreat of clean air to a smog-polluted slum, only reprieved late in the 20thC.

For this sort of detailed, local social history the census records are a major source, providing an unrivalled picture of the area’s composition at fixed moments in time.  No-one who has any interest in the past, or values the ability of those who come after us to understand our own time, can ever have felt any doubt about the historical importance of the census.  But things in 2011 aren’t quite as they were; as many people from the Green Party to The Guardian have been saying.  This year the information will be gathered by an American company, Lockheed Martin, the arms and aircraft manufacturer specialising in ‘information gathering’ in the sense of interrogation at Guantanamo.

One of the implications of this is that as an American company, any data they hold can be legally demanded by an agency of the American government, so that the essential concept of the confidentiality of the census is seriously undermined.  Another is that an enormous sum of tax-payers’ money has been paid out to a non-British firm, which seems an odd decision especially now. And, why to a firm deeply incriminated in arms dealing, which many financial organisations – not only ‘ethical’ funds like the Co-op Bank – are expected by their customers to avoid?

This all seems a long way from reading an exemplary local history which typifies the history of many other districts, or the celebrating the research opportunities of the 1911 census. But one of the worst things about this different 2011 census is that it will make all such future exercises in truth-telling and finding far more difficult, since there are obviously going to be many more people than usual who are reluctant to provide answers.  Aside from those communities who have traditionally been hard to persuade to co-operate (because of their suspicions of the use to which their confidential information might be put, and who will have access to it) now there will be many others who feel the same doubts. And the results may not be at all the same in a hundred years.


November 17, 2010

Barrier – photograph by Liz Mathews

Why all this criticism of other people?  Why not some system that includes the good?  What a discovery that would be – a system that did not shut out.

Virginia Woolf, Diary Oct 2nd 1932

Written nearly eighty years ago, in the autumn of 1932, this question of Virginia Woolf’s is still only too valid.  She used the word ‘criticism’ not in the (good) sense of analysis or constructive debate, but of an attack intended to relegate the work under discussion to an inferior position within – or perhaps even outside – a hierarchical structure.  Such criticism is, as she shrewdly remarked, ‘so barren, so easy’.

(When I read this, I was reminded of hearing an American poet in a radio talk, vehemently insisting that ‘95% of poetry isn’t worth reading’ – as though, if true, that would make his own work somehow better – and of Adrienne Rich, including only unknown poets in an anthology she edited, to present the work of writers who’d been left outside.)

Systems grade, measure, reduce to conformity, remove the need for independent thought.  They are anti-enthusiasm, but risk-free.  As such, their existence is perhaps inevitable, but there are degrees of use or misuse of these established judgements and hierarchies.  Later in the same passage Woolf deprecates attempts to fit writers into pre-existing systems, which she describes as ‘blasphemy’, when they should be reverenced for their very qualities of differentness.

This dislike of categorising writers, fitting them in or shutting them out, doesn’t imply an uncritical acceptance of every kind or quality of writing.  Woolf makes strong demands of art; ‘I want to be made free of another world. This Proust does.’  She dislikes the didactic strain, the attempt to impose a philosophy and insist on proving it.  ‘Art is being rid of all preaching: things in themselves: the sentence in itself beautiful: multitudinous seas: daffodils that come before the swallow dares…’

It’s still, in the contemporary world, difficult to imagine ‘a system that includes the good’, but maybe it has become more possible for us to read without the automatic measure-and-grade response, and to avoid cramming recalcitrant books into pre-existing hierarchical systems.  But what the intervening time has also shown, is that it’s less problematic to circumvent conventional literary ‘systems’ altogether, than to invent new ones which are not equally excluding.

Perhaps the best way forward in this quixotic endeavour is – like visualising world peace – to imagine a system that includes the good, and until then at least try not to ‘shut out.’

A matter of luck

October 7, 2010

The view from the hill – photograph by Liz Mathews

For National Poetry Day, one of my own poems. I wrote Sicilian Avenue many years ago; it was awarded a York Poetry Prize by Michael Donaghy, in the early 1990’s.  At the ceremony, where all the prize poems were read, and cheques given out to the winners, he was extremely gracious. (He was also very patient when his audience seemed to prefer it when he played traditional Irish music on the tin whistle, rather than read his own work.)  

But although he was encouraging to me, as a young writer, indeed complimentary about the poem and ‘…the simplicity and intimacy of the narrative and great closure of the last line’, I was also aware that sentiment had played a part in all of his selections.  Not that he chose any poems that seemed to me to be unworthy, but they all had a particular reason to appeal to him.  Mine had that extra ingredient because it evoked a place he knew in London, and of which he was fond.  

(And after all, who would want to read a poem without bringing their own associations to the words, or aligning their own experiences to the work?  What an impossible task it would be to try and ‘judge’ between poems impartially, when the very existence of poetry is the opposite of a measurable or quantifiable state.) 

At the time, I felt slightly uncomfortable at this discovery. Now I realise that it’s merely the element of luck that’s always needed in the competitive process, but also makes that process almost meaningless, so far as grading a work of art ‘best’ or ‘unplaced’.  Inevitably, the results are a matter of the reader’s taste; sometimes one sort of writer is in luck, sometimes another.  I was fortunate that this poem appealed to such a poet.

Sicilian Avenue

Enthroned behind his ziggurats of glass

displaying haberdashery embalmed

aeons ago in the prevailing fashion,

the old boy contemplates an aspic realm;

muffled in solid brass, mahogany,

drawers uniformly filled, precisely labelled,

in copperplate by alphabet and size.

His memory’s heraldic, crested, striped

with regimental and collegiate colours;

he doesn’t seem to think that we’re procuring

old school ties for improper purposes

(although we look like just the kind of women

to ridicule continued tribal marking).

‘Old Carthusians pre-1924’

requires a tremulous ascent of steps,

courteously refusing proffered help.

Something about us prompts him to remark

that ‘Amy Johnson came to us, you know,

to get her aviation things.  Oh, yes,

we did Ladies’ Colonial Wear then’.

He recites, in an archive record’s crackle,

the inventory of pith-helmets and veils,

and canvas carrying-skirts, so necessary

to keep one’s distance from the naked shoulders

transporting one across malarial rivers…

Here Amy Johnson, in the changing-room

trying on cashmere combinations (men’s,

designed to conquer an imagined arctic

not keep a woman warm above cloud-level)

broke down and wept, late, after closing time.

Her tears still echo in his anxious voice

condemning ‘all the things they said about her’

despite her triumphs, in the newspapers.

He found the warmest styles, the smaller sizes,

wished her the best of luck for her next flight,

wrapped the heroic underwear she’d usurped,

shook hands in homage to their odd alliance –

and still he flies her unofficial colours,

a favour filed in his anarchic system

above the patronage of baronets.

A kind of translation

August 10, 2010

Shadowselves – photograph by Liz Mathews

I’ve been reading a lot of books in translation recently, in one of those enjoyable chains of association that’s set off by chance, one thing leading to another, with new discoveries as well as re-discoveries of new contexts for things read separately before.  The problems (and odd advantages) of translation are perennial provokers of thought and discussion, but there’s no arguing about the different light that another literature can cast even on familiar ideas.

Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, for example, in a lyrical translation by Margaret Jull Costa, is referenced by that other much-translated Portuguese writer José Saramago, in his The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, which I haven’t yet read; I’m still on The Elephant’s Journey.  (After Saramago’s recent death, I was moved to read an account of his funeral in Lisbon, attended by  tens of thousands of people, many of them carrying his books.  There was a photo of a book held in the air like a flag, then the inevitable editorial comment that it was hard to imagine a similar outpouring of grief for a British writer – or any other kind of artist, you might add.)

Reis was one of Pessoa’s personae; in the Book of Disquiet he writes as Bernardo Soares.  The introduction explains that he had over 72 distinct ‘heteronyms’ which he used when writing the works which were largely unpublished in his lifetime.  Externally, Soares appears much the same as the writer, but Pessoa found the character different enough to merit its own name; ‘It’s me minus reason and affectivity’.  (Completely other, then…)  These complexities and levels of irony will be discussed and unravelled by scholars, perhaps in perpetuity, but at a simpler level the proliferation of authorial personae perhaps gives a clue to the crucial difference between the writer and their work, which seems almost imperceptible to many otherwise sophisticated readers.

Before going any further, I must confess here that I have read a review of a book by someone I know and immediately remarked that it sounded very autobiographical, before I’d even read it.  (But at least I can differentiate enough to understand that because murder is committed in the book, it doesn’t mean the writer is a killer.)  Any writer must be aware that their audience – if they are lucky enough to have one – contains a proportion of people who would simply lump all of Pessoa’s 72 heteronyms into one authorial autobiography, unmitigated by art.  I first encountered this long ago, at a literary festival, where I read a short story of a very lyrical and fantastic kind, then had an impertinent audience question about the ‘revealing’ nature of the piece.  It really hadn’t occurred to me that the poetic tale of archetypes (mermaids, gypsies at al) could be taken as any kind of personal confession.

This incident has recurred in various manifestations; one which I found disturbing was when a reader questioned me about the dedication in my long poem MOTHERTONGUE – apparently my relationship to the dedicatee (and who they were) made a difference to whether the work would ‘emotionally ring true’.  The implication of this is that a writer’s literal circumstances are what make the work ‘ring true’ or not, rather than some element within the writing and – indeed –  that they can only write about their actual life experience with any emotional conviction.  So, no writing divorces for the happily united, or vice versa; no observation, imagination, empathy, or even research? 

Then, imaginative works are open to the blunt interpretations of cod-pyschology, as though the artist is innocent of all such readings and might ‘accidentally’ reveal their secrets. Recently, in a very obvious train of thought onwards from news about my forthcoming novel, a relation remarked that – in a book he’d actually read – the hero was obviously the author’s fantasy-self, since a succession of beautiful women ‘couldn’t wait to get into bed with him’.  (I could only assure him that my novel is just like that.)  I comfort myself with the fact that The Principle of Camouflage has three very strange narrators, who couldn’t  – surely – be interpreted as anybody’s fantasy selves; not nearly as close as Bernardo Soares to Fernando Pessoa. The lowering part of this is the knowledge that some readers – perhaps the most avid – skim through books for scandal, intimate details, possible revelations, ignoring the dull truth that it’s a little more subtle than that. 

The moment comes when every artist has to accept this as a hazard of the work, and just get on with it.  I was half appalled, half encouraged when I read Maureen Duffy’s introduction to her first novel That’s How It Was – even this brilliant book has suffered from its own absolute success.  Since the author described it as directly autobiographical, it seems that some readers failed to perceive its superb technical command, and read it as an artless outpouring of youthful emotion.  She writes of these undervaluing admirers who have ‘failed to grasp its purpose and structure…[who] believe too that its vividness and intensity were a welling up from memory rather than the deliberate exercise of style’.

If it’s a kind of translation, from lived experience to art, maybe an awareness of the translating process is crucial to the appreciation of the work. And perhaps, for those who risk exposing their imaginations in print, the idea of the 72 alternative authors interposing themselves between the life and the work, will prove to be a virtual guard of honour.

What so wild as words are?

July 16, 2010

Light, air, cloud – photograph by Liz Mathews

‘…it is not so necessary to understand Greek as to understand poetry. It is necessary to take that dangerous leap through the air without the support of words which Shakespeare also asks of us. For words, when opposed to such a blast of meaning, must give out, must be blown astray, and only by collecting in companies convey the meaning which each one is separately too weak to express. Connecting them in a rapid flight of mind we know instantly and instinctively what they mean, but could not decant that meaning afresh into any other words. There is an ambiguity which is the mark of the highest poetry; we cannot know exactly what it means…. The meaning is just on the far side of language.’

On not knowing Greek, Virginia Woolf, (The Common Reader)

This description of reading – the rapid flight of mind, the dangerous leap through the air – seems to me the perfect definition of why great poetry works as it does, for the enthusiast. It’s also an evocation of what it describes; the exhilaration of that unsupported leap of faith, beyond meaning, to the place where the words in their companies gather together to give expression to the unsayable. This surrender to instinctive reading, far from being anathema to the writer, is a necessity for her as a poetry reader. It is the acknowledgement that in such writing there is an element beyond, something that can’t be analysed and given an academic gloss; a mystery that can be recognised but not explained.

The danger, of course, is that the leap may fail, that we will fall flat – and sometimes we do fall in flames. But it’s a risk worth taking; one that Woolf frequently asks of her readers. Even when a writer seems to have completely failed to write without individual words, to blast them into their companies, the attempt is exciting. Not even Shakespeare (nor Woolf) could always achieve it, but the wish to write that undecantable language is always evident, an ambition that demands much from the reader, but rewards us with flight, sometimes.

(At its simplest, it’s a willingness to glide which can work so well for the contemporary audience of Shakespeare. The unfamiliarity of some parts of the language – among passages which are known by heart to many – is rarely a problem in performance; the staging carries the audience beyond merely getting the gist of the sense, to the deeper apprehension of that instinctive understanding. This is a way to read the dramatic lyric, too, as the mind soars over the words.)

For writers who are not necessarily hoping to write ‘the highest poetry’, but do seek to use words sometimes in some of the ways Woolf describes, there is a paradox. So much can be learned from reading like this, from thinking deeply about the ways of language and the techniques of working with it. But then, there is that other, mysterious element; the thing that can’t be learnt at writing school, can’t be defined, coerced, bought, sold or even named – only hoped-for, awaited, recognised.

(‘What so wild as words are?’ Robert Browning, A Woman’s Last Word.)

Talismans and spells

May 11, 2010

Grace and remembrance – photograph by Liz Mathews

‘Books are not seldom talismans and spells…’
(William Cowper)

This magical line expresses an idea familiar to every reader; the book as talisman. This evocative word becomes even more appropriate on close acquaintance. It’s defined by various dictionaries as ‘an object supposed to be imbued with magical powers, an amulet, charm, hence any object held to be endowed with magic virtue… derived from the Greek rite, consecrated object… anything that acts as a charm, or by which extraordinary results are achieved.’ These attractive descriptions are outdone by an encyclopedia which adds ‘esp. an inscribed ring or stone capable of averting evil or bringing good luck’.

It doesn’t take any great leap of the imagination to acknowledge that there are times when a book can be a certain averter of evil, bringer of health or good luck, means whereby extraordinary results are achieved. The intense concentration of imagination, thought, intellectual communication, creativity and responsiveness which goes to create the miracle-working thing results in an object consecrated by both the writer’s and reader’s act – the rite of reading. It blesseth her that gives and her that takes.

As for a ‘spell’ – here the dictionary again breaks into poetry; ‘a form of words used as a magical charm or incantation, from OE tale or narrative… a set of words, a formula or verse, supposed to possess occult or magic powers, a charm or incantation… an occult or mysterious power or influence’. The shortest entry merely reads ‘enchantment’.

That the physical book is an object which carries within it metaphysical powers seems a truth universally acknowledged; the only question is, which book? At different times of life, in different circumstances, various books fulfil the talismanic purpose, though perhaps some remain constant always. What seemed essential when in the VIth Form (for me, Brideshead Revisited), is probably a rare read later, when it’s The Waves (or whatever) which seems to confer a blessing merely by existing. But Emma casts her spell always.

But beyond that, which copy? For some the battered paperback long-carried in the pocket is imbued with power by the number of times it’s been read; others prefer the letterpress edition carefully preserved in its slipcase, rarely read but much admired. Beloved old books read to rags, or new issues in fresh-printed mint condition, they fulfil the talismanic purpose – so long as they are not (in the words of Cowper’s younger admirer Charles Lamb) ‘Things in books’ clothing’.

Impossible to resist quoting Virginia Woolf’s finale from How Should One Read a Book?:

‘I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards – their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble – the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, ‘Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.’