Archive for the 'Lament' Category

No temple but the wood

March 14, 2011

Magnolia – photograph by Liz Mathews

London is a green city. Indeed, parts of it are now classified as an ‘urban forest’.  The combination of parks, street trees and many gardens (including roof-gardens) makes it one of the greenest of all ancient cities.  Most Londoners meet a tree or two every day, many of us are lucky enough to see dozens of them out of the windows.  As David Constantine puts it in his poem Birdsong:

We think our common road a choir of trees.

There are tree-cultish books, not aimed at much-derided tree-huggers, directing people to the remarkable trees of various areas.  Everyone has their own favourites; the giant planes of Brunswick Square, which survived the wartime destruction of most of the surrounding buildings (perhaps protected by the charm of Handel’s aria composed in their praise); the magnolias on St. Mary-le-Strand’s precarious island mid-Aldwych; the parade of blossom on one ordinary residential street or the elegant chestnut avenue along another.

Trees don’t live forever, and they need some looking after.  Councils also have to protect them from the philistines who are afraid of trees and see them only as nuisances that make shade, block gutters, shelter birds – which are also perceived as nuisances – raise their roots and have a sinister urge to crush or poison people unless they are felled or poisoned first.  (Perhaps this is the last remnant of an early anti-pagan representation of sacred trees as harbouring malign deities?)

Pro-tree neighbours periodically have to link hands around a threatened tree to protect it from illegal destruction, but this support is sometimes taken to extremes; our local tree-surgeon told me that he’s often abused as a ‘murderer’ by wrathful passers-by if he has to fell a rotten or dangerous tree.  But the worst threat is still building.  Eighty years ago, Charlotte Mew wrote her searing lament The Trees are Down – so not much changes.

They are cutting down the great plane trees at the end of the gardens…

It is not for a moment the Spring is unmade today;

These were great trees, it was in them from root to stem:

When the men with the ‘Whoops’ and the ‘Whoas’ have carted the whole of the whispering loveliness away

Half the Spring, for me, will have gone with them.

It is going now, and my heart has been struck with the hearts of the planes;

Half of my life has beat with these, in the sun, in the rains,

In the March wind, the May breeze,

In the great gales that came over to them across the roofs from the great seas.

There was only a quiet rain when they were dying;

They must have heard the sparrows flying,

And the small creeping creatures in the earth when they were lying –

But I, all day I heard an angel crying:

‘Hurt not the trees.’

As this poem makes so clear, trees are free, for everyone; their beauty makes a place which people feel is home.

The pastoral ideal of a sylvan grove has a long pedigree in English, and its transfer to the urban environment seems an essential element of its 21stC survival. (These trees shall be my books…) In this romantic spirit, I was pleased to encounter our local ‘urban forester’, an Ent-like tree-keeper, I imagined, a contemporary wood-warden.  But, having been in contact with him, I’m less thrilled to discover that in Islington, hitherto one of the greenest boroughs, tree-planting – like everything else – will be cut in future. So, although the two missing trees from our street-corner spinney may yet be replaced, because residents have asked for them, such re-planting won’t happen again.

Just as government-owned rural ancient woodland will vanish when it’s sold off, so the urban forest will inevitably shrink, if the trees are not cared for or re-planted.  According to the Ents, the benefits of city trees include (but are not limited to) the fact that they: filter airborne dust and pollution, increase air quality, absorb traffic noise, reduce temperature extremes, generate breezes, provide shade, increase privacy, give food and nesting sites for birds and insects, improve quality of life, reduce stress, give proven psychological and health benefits, increase local property values [!], help prevent flooding.

So, if we want to continue being able to live in a green city, we must protect our trees even more carefully than we do already.  This piecemeal destruction of ‘forests’ close to home is yet another unnecessary imposition, presented as inevitable among far worse cuts, just a very minor item on the agenda.  But, as Philip Pullman made clear in his superb lyrical speech against library closures, these false dichotomies and competitions for funds are merely a tactic of ‘divide and rule’; there is no need to choose between such extremes.  It’s just another small, important, thing to add to the list of unacceptable losses against which we will be protesting at the demonstration on March 26th.

Advertisements

Nightingales in Berkeley Square

September 6, 2010

Bees in the lavender – photograph by Liz Mathews

With the odd synchronicity that so often happens after encountering something new, when that same scrap of life reappears everywhere, this week has been plagued by the nightingale.  I was reading Scrapbook for the 1920’s by Leslie Baily (background research, and an entertaining picture of the period).  There I came across the story of Beatrice Harrison, the cellist who played duets with the nightingale in her garden, broadcast for the first time in 1924 in one of the great success stories of early radio.  She recalled that although the bird didn’t join in until nearly midnight, ‘I don’t think he ever sang more gloriously’.  Over fifty thousand of those who listened in wrote to thank her.

(In these early days of ‘outside broadcasting’, it was a bold move to try and catch something as unpredictable as birdsong live, but it was possible to break in to the late night dance music programme – also live, The Savoy Orpheans – whenever the bird began to sing.  This encapsulates the odd mixture of stiff formality and lax lawlessness which seems to characterise the Twenties.)

The experiment was repeated for the next twelve years, and there’s a marvellous picture of her and an excerpt of the musical nightingale on the BBC website.

The day after reading this, I happened to hear a programme in the Proms interval all about nightingales, where Beatrice Harrison made her appearance, and we heard her nightingale again.  Then, there was an even more extraordinary recording.  In 1942, the nightingale was due to be broadcast, and sang as ever, but the programme didn’t go out live because there was an unexpected element in the mix – the steady rumble of bomber planes going overhead in wave after wave.  Instead, the sound engineer recorded it, as a potent evocation of that surreal moment.  Listening to it, as Richard Mabey said, it was impossible not to hear the bird’s voice singing ‘Choose life!’.  (Just as Virginia Woolf’s birds sing ‘Vita!’)

This was a reading from Richard Mabey’s new book The Barley Bird, which I haven’t yet read but certainly will, on the basis of this extract – although on the page it will be a shame to miss his brilliant reading of John Clare’s phonetic notation of the nightingale’s song, a weird poem in itself.  The observation that John Clare saw the nightingale as a fellow-poet is true, too.  Much bleaker is Mabey’s analysis that the bird is rapidly losing numbers in England (it only visits the south), probably because of fewer insects – a result of climate change.  Here was a resonance with the new commission in the Prom, Dark Pastoral by David Matthews, based on a theme by Vaughan Williams, beautiful but elegaic.

The loss of the nightingale is like the vanishing bees; something many people care about not only for practical reasons but because of its poetic, mythic status, the essence of everyday magic.  It’s rather moving what a cross-section of different kinds of people are trying to help the bees – links to some of them here.  One of the happy results of urban beekeeping is that we can now get such local honey in London – ours is made by a beekeeper a few streets away, proudly labelled ‘Tufnell Park honey’.

Earlier this year, among the bumble bees that still visit our lavender, I saw an unfamiliar sort, with black and white stripes on its body.  I was puzzled, until I discovered from the poet Alison Brackenbury’s blog (on a recent post called Bumbling along), that it’s a new bee here, Bombus hyphorum, its range recently expanded by global warming. She has a poem about the bees, too.

We may have no choice but to adapt to this shift in what we’ve known, but before we mourn the absolute loss of our particular bees or birds, we can try to support them, both by practical measures and by invoking their particular magic. In literature, the nightingales will sing forever in Berkeley Square, or Hampstead Heath, or John Clare’s Helpston; on the radio we can hear Beatrice Harrison’s cello partner, Vita Sackville-West’s chorus serenading Ethel Smythe, the bird outsinging the bombers. But we also need to hear them now, in our own time and place, birds alive as well as immortal.

Pastoral no more

April 28, 2010


Clear skies – photograph by Liz Mathews

Writing about the romance of finding the natural world in unexpected places, Kathleen Raine speculated that:

‘Paradise perhaps always retains the aspect of whatever images first reflected it back to us… a dispossessed unheeded beauty – the quarry, the urban park, London trees at night – an image of lost paradise, on the outskirts of the human and urban world.’

This poignant sense that she can only see the little that remains after the Fall, the remnants of some imagined paradise, sounds a strong echo now, when the loss of natural world seems no remote myth but a contemporary happening. The human condition, before, was always to feel a nostalgia for a pre-lapsarian lost Eden, a better place we once knew. Now, that loss lies in the future, literally, as well as the imagined past; as though a new enactment of the old story is taking place before an unwilling or indifferent audience.

Of course it’s still possible to find places where the heavenly beauty of the natural world survives; in the great happiness of those moments the rose seems without a thorn, mortality can be forgotten. (Though perhaps it’s always been closer to our human state to weep that the daffodils must haste away so soon, to stand in the showers of white blossom already blowing down, to feel part of that natural order of change.)

So much art, for so long, has mapped that ‘Garden’ of our inner landscape, or lamented the exile from it, as well as celebrating nature, or protesting against the various forms of devastation which have always threatened it. But now the pastoral is a protest against more urgent loss.

In a poem about the destruction of the environment, Raine couldn’t resist expressing an unquenchable optimism in the powers of the natural world:

And on this doomed decaying city rise
on the last days as on the first,
these marvels inexhaustible and boundless.

Accidentally discovered ‘dispossessed unheeded beauty’ is made all the more precious by its fragility. So we still snatch beauty where we can find it, not waiting only for the rare moments of absolute perfection. Often, the reward is a mixed blessing, rather like the images Raine observed; the magnolia tree flowering alone in a valley of tower blocks; the goldfinch perched on barbed wire. They express our contemporary situation with a strange exactitude.

In the exhilarating moment when the sky was empty of planes, silenced by the volcano, it was possible to imagine, briefly, what the world could be like if paradise wasn’t paved for a parking-lot, if we could once again think of its imperfections as only just less than heaven, rather than an impending loss of earth.

Comrade Artist

March 23, 2010


Walking on the edge – photograph by Liz Mathews

Rather strangely, both my most recent publication, and my partner’s most recent exhibition, carried the Arts Council logo. Although we are personally remote from such kinds of funding, both Carcanet Press and the Southbank Centre receive grants which must be acknowledged as they trickle down to the actual artists. In the past, some individual artists were eligible to apply for various funds, but apparently this has now been entirely abolished. Arts money is only available to arts organisations.

The title of a recent show at the (funded) Whitechapel Gallery, I shake your hand, Comrade Bacon, is apparently taken from a visitors book entry saluting Francis Bacon at a British Council exhibition in Moscow during the days of the USSR. There were certainly many problems for the artist who was a direct servant of that state, if not always the agonies suffered by Shostakovich working for Stalin (though these wouldn’t be so frequently expounded on Radio 3 if he hadn’t managed to outwit his terrifying patrons and make his own music). But even so, there is a joyful idealism in the vision of the comrade artist whose work is recognised as an intrinsic part of the collective effort – and how daft it seems in a British cultural context!

During the Spanish Civil War, the writers who were British delegates to an anti-fascist cultural conference were amazed when field-workers greeted them with cries of ‘Viva los Intellectuales!’ (‘A strange sentiment to English ears’, as Sylvia Townsend Warner tartly remarked.) The delegates’ experience of the cultural deprivation of the workers in their own country had left them completely unprepared for this comradely salute. The expected reply was probably something like ‘Viva los Labradores!’, which, with its implication of class, they’d perhaps have been embarrassed to make. But they did recognise that in this new social order, everyone worked according to their capacity, one task was not glorified over another, and every contribution was recognised. Artists had a job too; those who said (like Virginia Woolf) ‘Thinking is my fighting’ had better think well, then.

Idealism is easy to mock, deflate, prove unworkable. But the establishment of the Arts Council after the war was an idealistic act of almost early Soviet proportion. As Maynard Keynes observed in a 1945 radio talk ‘A very important thing has happened; state patronage of the arts has crept in… at last, at last, they have recognised the support of the civilising arts of life as part of their duty…’ He traces the acceptance, during the war, of the need for ‘all sources of comfort and support to our spirits’, and the power of art to ‘stimulate, comfort and support’. Then, he adumbrates the then-extraordinary idea that there is a large, eager audience for the arts; people have been educated by listening to classical music on the BBC, and will now go to concerts, if such things are available. There’s even a suggestion, almost hidden by his patrician tones and mild language, that artforms which were once the preserve of the few will become available to the many. And the artists themselves will benefit too; ‘new work will spring up more abundantly in unforeseen quarters and unforeseen shapes, when there is universal opportunity’.

Universal opportunity isn’t exactly how most of us think of the Arts Council these days. Keynes’ claim that it would be free of red tape produces a hollow laugh. Yet we two artists – most definitely ‘outsider’, not promisingly ‘emerging’ nor reassuringly ‘well-established’ but slogging along ‘mid-career’ – both had recent opportunities from Arts Council funded bodies to do our actual work (however poorly paid). This will be increasingly unlikely. The funding cuts which have already taken place seriously reduce its capacity to support even the major arts bodies, and must inevitably make funding decisions tend towards the safe bet. After the recent attack on the Universities, the financial future of any cultural organisation must seem unsure.

As far as individual artists are concerned, of course we’ll carry on doing it anyway, even if opportunities in the public sphere dwindle, even if it becomes too easy for potential commissioners to use the excuse of the ‘current financial climate’. We can comfort ourselves with the oft-repeated reassurance that art always flourishes in adversity, that much great work has been produced in circumstances of constraint – sometimes far beyond the merely financial – and so on. But this is a very different future from the one Keynes imagined. Like the embattled NHS, the Arts Council is a last vestige of socialist idealism still hanging on while some residual sense of civilised obligations yet remains.

Spilt Ink

February 4, 2010

At about this time of year, in early February, authors in Britain receive their Public Lending Right payments. Any actual money paid to a writer, for their books, must be a cause for celebration (if not amazement); an annual salute is due to this peculiar institution. For, extraordinarily enough, writers are still paid a miniscule fee from government funds every time one of their books is borrowed from a public library.

This remarkable Right was gained after a long struggle, notably in the 1970’s by Maureen Duffy and her fellow campaigners. An Act of Parliament established PLR in 1979; rather discouragingly, some of its main opponents were librarians who thought it might increase their workloads. Readers were also concerned that they might be made to pay the fee directly – of course, they already paid for library services indirectly via rates and taxes. University or specialist libraries, and private institutions, were not included in the scheme, or might presumably have objected too.

The new PLR was widely seen as a triumph for the socialist principle of the writer as worker-hero, rewarded by the state in proportion to their service to the masses – although it could also be represented as a legal concept relating to the free use of a copyrighted product. But, whatever the socio-political implications, the outcome for the writer was good. The PLR payment, whether it’s just enough for a bottle of wine or makes a noticeable contribution to the writer’s finances, is some recognition that a writer’s work is worth something to our not very literary society. Despite its drawbacks – the sample system’s hiccups, the lack of many ‘alternative’ books, the rewarding of the authors who need it least – it is a rare example of idealism in action.

Apocryphal stories soon circulated of penurious writers repeatedly taking out their own books in order to increase their pay-out; and perhaps then there might have been enough libraries and books for even such a daft tactic to have some minimal impact. Nowadays, it would be difficult to find enough libraries open, with the books in them. The closure of libraries, reduction of their opening hours, and lack of funds to replace books (or buy all but the most obvious new ones), inevitably cuts down borrowing.

Not that the PLR itself is in decline. According to the organisation’s own statistics, funding for the current year has been fixed at around seven and a half million pounds; the fee per loan increased to 6.29p (from 5.98p). This tiny amount of funding means that a writer whose books were borrowed 50,000 times might make over £3,000. Very few do. There is a maximum payment of £6,600, which just over two hundred authors reach – otherwise another million pounds would be divided between them. Of the 35,000 registered authors, almost a third get nothing, either because their pay-out would be less than one pound, or because their books have not been borrowed (most likely because the libraries no longer hold them).

This decline of libraries is painfully illustrated by the statements which show the number of times each title has been borrowed during the year. (The system uses sample libraries for this calculation, so there are sometimes demographic variations, especially if books are of local interest.) There’s a pang to see that a once-popular book has received zero borrowings; this means that the copies have been read until they literally fell apart, and not been replaced. Otherwise, the libraries have been closed or amalgamated, and sold off books – thus the number of ex-library copies available from second hand booksellers.

From the remaining libraries also come statistics which can encourage the writer. I receive the PLR statement for the works of my mother, the Scots historian and biographer Caroline Bingham, and it’s inspiring to realise just how many people – despite the obstacles put in their way – have had the pleasure of reading her books on Robert the Bruce or Darnley, or Royal Holloway College. The history of the Highlands is slightly more dependent on the sample location; the anthology of Scots historical verse has vanished. The two volumes of James the Sixth and First are perennially much-borrowed, and were obviously well-made books.

This statement conjures up, to me, an image of readers in a whole range of libraries; the mobile van crammed with bookshelves whose arrival in a village is a cause of excitement and running out of houses as delightful as the ice-cream or chip van’s; the small local whose rare opening is attended with the punctuality of a church service by an army of regulars; the great civic building endowed by Victorian educational philanthropists to house a vast collection. But this may be whistling in the dark. If public libraries fade away, become overheated day-centres with a few detective stories or outdated reference books for decoration, with one out-of-order computer stuck in the corner, the great idea of PLR will become irrelevant too. So much spilt ink.