Posts Tagged ‘Virginia Woolf’

Flying over Bloomsbury

September 23, 2014

Paper Wings installation at Enitharmon Press (detail)

Paper Wings (detail) artist’s book installation by Liz Mathews at Enitharmon Press in Bloomsbury (photo Liz Mathews)

Maureen Duffy has recently written Songs for Sappho, a cycle of love-poems charting the changing seasons and weathers of a passionate love between two women, from longing in absence to delight in the joys of being together – ‘the myriad faces of love’. These intensely personal texts explore many themes: her own gay identity (Can you love the both of me/ the yearning boy, the woman who’d wipe your tears?), desire (That moment when you open/ your arms and I come in…), pain and uncertainty (I booze on love, on pain, on wine…), and hope for the future (So maybe after all/ a summer of honey and petals/ will break at last…).

On first reading the Songs, lettering artist Liz Mathews was inspired to make a major work: a flying installation that would become an unending artist’s book. She envisaged the poems as flying messages like smoke signals or paper darts, or slung high from an unbreakable line connecting two points and mapping the distance between them, as the words are lifted into the breeze like the beneficent mantras of prayer-flags.

She set each of the 55 poems on a large page of handmade paper, lettering the text in her trademark style, and using unconventional tools – driftwood sticks from the Thames, a goosefeather quill, a reed pen, and wooden clothespegs. She mixed her paint with blood, honey, snowmelt, earth or wine as the text demanded, to make an artwork that reflects both the grit and the eroticism of the song cycle and inhabits the poems rather than illustrates them.

This joint project is Paper Wings, an installation at Enitharmon Press’s gallery in Bloomsbury, which opened yesterday, with the pages slung fluttering overhead like washing on a line with a touch of fairground bunting. The effect of colour, image, and word in fluent combination has transformed the cool gallery space, giving the sensation of walking within the poems themselves.

Paper Wings installation at Enitharmon Press (detail)  Artwork and photo Liz Mathews

Paper Wings (detail) artist’s book installation by Liz Mathews at Enitharmon Press in Bloomsbury (photo Liz Mathews)

Wall-hung artist’s books and paperworks continue the airy theme, with texts by other writers associated with Enitharmon Press and Bloomsbury, including Jeremy Hooker, William Blake and Virginia Woolf. (All these works are also exhibited on Enitharmon’s website.)

After the exhibition, the individual pages will be constructed into an artist’s book in concertina form. There’s also a limited edition of 100 digitally printed half-size facsimile reproductions, signed by poet and artist, showing each poem/page in full colour, and including elements of both installation and artist’s book.  This is the first publication of these poems.

Paper Wings limited edition book and DVD

The printmaker David Mitchell, one of the guests at the private view, wrote to me afterwards ‘It was a very impressive occasion; Maureen Duffy read beautifully, with such directness and modesty, and the walls and ceiling were echoing and accompanying so sensitively…’  And in the artist’s film Paper Wings the poet speaks the words while the camera explores the pages. Duffy reads her powerful poems with utter honesty and conviction; her lived-in voice moves between weariness and laughter, vulnerability and power, making for a deeply moving reading. The one-take live vocal recording is layered into a textured soundscape of wind and weather, blackbirds and buses, London streets and gardens, aeroplanes and seagulls, evoking the physical context of the poems.

Visually, the camera focuses closely on each page, revelling in the rich palette of colour, the exuberance of the handling of paint, and the freehand flow of the lettering. It takes time to explore the physical qualities of the paper – its textures, weight, light-bearing transparency or opacity. And it reveals the vivid detail of the images that contain the poems in all their dazzling diversity, with the jewel-like intimacy of an illuminated manuscript.

The camera’s close engagement involves the viewer as a reader following the movement of the text, accompanying Duffy on the voyage through the cycle. As the pages turn, their cumulative effect draws the viewer into a personal odyssey in collaboration with poet and artist. The apparently simple film-making (with shifting sequences of ‘still’ images animated by the reader’s moving eye) paradoxically results in a genuinely cinematic experience – moving pictures with sound.

Both the book and the dvd are available from Enitharmon Press, and the exhibition continues there until 15th October.

Maureen Duffy, Liz Mathews & Frances Bingham (photo by Peter Target)

Maureen Duffy, Liz Mathews, Frances Bingham at the launch of Paper Wings at Enitharmon Press (photo by Peter Target)






The word is given a body…

May 2, 2011

The river’s mercy  – artist’s book by Liz Mathews (detail, text by Frances Bingham) – photograph by Liz Mathews

Let us then take for our starting point the statement that words are not useful.  This happily needs little proving, for we are all aware of it.  When we travel on the Tube, for example, when we wait on the platform for a train, there, hung up in front of us, on an illuminated signboard, are the words ‘Passing Russell Square’.  We look at those words; we repeat them; we try to impress that useful fact upon our minds; the next train will pass Russell Square.  We say over and over again as we pace, ‘Passing Russell Square, passing Russell Square’.  And then as we say them, the words shuffle and change, and we find ourselves saying ‘Passing away, saith the world, passing away… The leaves decay and fall, the vapours weep their burthen to the ground.  Man comes….’  And then we wake up and find ourselves at King’s Cross.


And it is the nature of words to mean many things… The word ‘passing’ suggested the transciency of things, the passing of time and changes of human life.  Then the word ‘Russell’ suggested the rustling of leaves and the skirt on the polished floor; also the ducal house of Bedford and half the history of England.  Finally the word ‘Square’ brings in the sight, the shape, of an actual square combined with some visual suggestion of the stark angularity of stucco.  Thus one sentence of the simplest kind rouses the imagination, the memory, the eye and the ear – all combine in reading it.

Virginia Woolf, Craftsmanship

(reprinted in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 5, ed. Stuart. N. Clarke)

This response to words – their associations, the freight they carry, their powers of suggestion – is that of a very great reader, to whom words themselves are possessed of the strongest magic.  As a writer, Virginia Woolf was sometimes able to recreate this almost hallucinatory experience of the completed possibility of all words, in a far more subtle but even more intense fusion of imagination, memory and the senses.  As a traveller on the tube, her response to these ‘very rudimentary words’ evidently gave her a complexity of lived experience that few fellow-travellers can have enjoyed (or been inconvenienced by).

The act of reading had already become everyday; the rune, hieroglyph, alphabet – whatever form of letter transubstantiates into the word – no longer a mystery.  This was the inevitable side-effect of universal literacy (or the still-unachieved ideal of it), but Virgina Woolf did not expect this familiarity to bring with it a loss of wonder for other passengers, a lessening of the ‘diabolical power that words possess when… they come fresh from a human brain’.

(Nowadays, it is perhaps more difficult to retain this openness, in the  face of what Kathleen Raine decried as ‘a daily flood of words put to mean uses… words are worn thin with trivial use, emptied of meanings unknown to our materialist society…’  But the words themselves remain in their essential state, to be claimed by the determined reader, used by the imaginative writer.)

Virginia Woolf once wrote, of the speaking of Shakespeare, ‘the word is given a body as well as a soul’, and the making of words visible – written, in print, illuminated manuscript,  ancient calligraphy, contemporary artist’s book, or whatever strange mark-making process by which words are formed – is another re-creation, a kind of embodiment of the process wherein the word reaches from one to another mind, and transforms it, awakening memory, imagination, and the senses.

Every writer knows that their work can be enhanced by its presentation, or marred by it; emphasised by the open space around it, or lost in a babel of misprint and bad type.  Just occasionally we are lucky enough to see our words transfigured, not changed but released into their fullest potential, made visible in a work of art which is both a visual and intellectual reading, given bodies to match their souls.  When the words are reinvested with their original power in this way, it’s impossible not to read them with that creative intensity which carries one on to King’s Cross and far beyond.

Some of my work has, over the years, been honoured like this by Liz Mathews, whose artist’s books and other forms of lettered artwork give the words body and expose their soul.  Her forthcoming exhibition Watermark is at the Ice House Gallery in Holland Park, Kensington, from 7th-22nd May, 11am-7pm daily; it has some works in it based on my texts, as well as those of Virginia Woolf and other writers.


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.’

Truth & Beauty

August 27, 2010

Setts and willow leaves – photograph by Liz Mathews

To tell the truth, or create beauty…’  This is, according to Virginia Woolf’s seminal discussion of language, the business of words.  She imagines a world in which words could be used in such a way that every book or newspaper she picked up would tell the truth or create beauty.

These truths are not only the literal truths of plain fact, but also the more obscure truths – subtle, fictional, nuanced truths which are truer than anything else, indeed nothing less than Rebecca West’s ‘subtler news [that] has to be whispered… the knowledge of reality’.  Picasso’s dictum that ‘Art is a lie that makes us realise truth’ is another attempt to express this mystery.

I think it’s interesting that Virginia Woolf specifically mentions newspapers as possible conduits of the use of words in this unusual way; presumably a mildly satirical comment on the lack of truth and beauty in the contemporary papers. But it’s also a good point as far as factual writing in good faith goes; for the urge to tell the truth, in terms of witnessing how things are and speaking of them, needn’t be in opposition to the creation of beauty – within the writing, at least.

As for creating beauty – so much more difficult than making hideousness – it must follow the telling of truth, it must be an act of creation.  Beyond that, there is no guidance except that beauty is not absolute but diverse; as multi-faceted and wild as the words themselves. 

It’s both challenge and encouragement to present-day writers that, in this little old-fashioned-sounding talk from so long ago, there was the stimulating suggestion that words might one day be put together in this modern way.

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.)

The Revolution is Eternal

June 18, 2010

Early light – photograph by Liz Mathews

Just as the proletariat makes its own use of the heritage of the past, so women must take over the tools forged by men and use them for their own interests… In the wealth that we take over from them we must very carefully distinguish between those things which have a universal nature and those which are marked with their masculinity… a revision, not a repudiation, of knowledge.

(Simone de Beauvoir, All Said and Done, trans. Patrick O’Brien)

Simone de Beauvoir did not intend to jettison the cultural past, even if women were virtually invisible in it; her approach was rather to reclaim her inheritance. The revolutionary way of thinking she recommends is not so extreme, after all; a ‘universal nature’ is what she seeks in the culture of the past, not an anti-masculine one. This desire for universality seems reasonable enough for those of any gender, especially as perceptions of gender have changed so radically in the forty years since Beauvoir wrote. The ‘masculinity’ of which she speaks is maleness of a particular kind; patriarchal, militaristic, industrial capitalist (or feudal), implicitly misogynist.

The comparison with the role of the proletariat is telling; in 1972, when the philosopher made it, perhaps there was still a lingering vision of worker-intellectuals listening to Shostakovich while they wrote avant-garde poetry about their lives in the factory, before going to the Bolshoi in their boiler-suits. But – although she might have liked to imagine these fabled creatures admiring Fabergé eggs for the workmanship, not the diamonds – perhaps her point was that it would be even more difficult for women to revise the knowledge of the past in their own image than it had been for the proletariat, who were once almost as culturally invisible.

This is a philosopher’s answer to a problem which has many variants; if knowledge is contaminated, rethink it. Of course, many people in the past have existed within an alien culture, and perforce become adept at extracting their own interests from it; for outsiders by reason of race or class, politics or religion or sexuality, for dissenters and independents of every sort, reading between the lines has been second nature. So there have always been subtexts, messages in code, infiltration of the mainstream, secret communications, as well as the blossoming of sub-cultures and alternative literatures. But in the revolutionary future, Beauvoir advocates moving beyond this, into the mental fight of revising what already exists, as an accepted cultural heritage, which she presents as a take-over of wealth.

Theoretically, the action she describes is entirely possible. In practice, even the whisper of it has often resulted in the entire heritage of knowledge (some of it unequivocably ‘marked with masculinity’ of the worst kind) being resolutely presented as absolutely universal – how not? Any further discussion has been confined, as much as possible, within the alternative academic disciplines of Women’s, Queer, or Gender Studies, where such stalwart efforts have been made to rethink so much of the past.

But what Simone de Beauvoir had in mind was, I think, something rather more drastic. When I re-read this calmly provocative challenge, I believe she intended it to be taken personally, not as part of a feminism which is merely one possible critical school, but as a complete way of perceiving knowledge for the individual. I remind myself of it frequently, as a way of reading, of considering history and culture, of discovering surprising areas of universality in the past, and of misogyny in the present. (It can be quite exhausting.)

Fortunately, Simone de Beauvoir isn’t the only such inspiration; there are other intellectual revolutionaries of a fervour we can only emulate as best we can. Although so different as a writer, in many ways Virginia Woolf’s view of the past – and indeed present – as unacceptably ‘marked by masculinity’ pre-visioned Beauvoir’s, and much of her critical writing could be interpreted as exactly the ‘revision, not repudiation’ which the philosopher hoped would become commonplace. Woolf’s unforgettable image of joyous destruction of the dead past (in the context of women’s education) is another such call to revolutionary thinking:

Set fire to the old hypocrisies. Let the light of the burning building scare the nightingales and incarnadine the willows. And let the daughters… dance round the fire and heap armful upon armful of dead leaves upon the flames. And let their mothers lean from the upper windows and cry ‘Let it blaze! Let it blaze!’

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.’

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.

In the presence of reality

March 5, 2010

Recently, I was accused of being ‘out of touch with reality’ because I don’t have a television. The person who said this certainly hadn’t thought about it at all, but perhaps felt that I was being pretentious. (She also seemed to believe that it was hypocritical to enjoy films on DVD, unless also watching telly.) What perturbed me, in retrospect, was the assumption, vehemently held, that things on TV were somehow more real than actual experiences. Thus the celebrities chatting she’d watched that afternoon were more true, more like ‘real life’, than the people walking under the beech trees I’d simultaneously seen on Hampstead Heath.

This might not have depressed me so much, except that I’d just had a long cross-purposes conversation with an older person, which exposed a similar confusion. We were talking about beautiful natural sights we remembered – a goose-skein flying along the horizon, a flock of redwings landing in a snowy rowan-tree – and she said that the most extraordinary of such moments, in her experience, had been thousands of flamingoes rising up from their great lake. It transpired that the lake had been in Africa, the marvellous experience on her television. (Of course, the nature programmes are marvellous etc etc, but not – surely – quite the same as a personal encounter?)

But then, think of the eclipse. The total eclipse of the sun, a few years ago now, was broadcast live, so people could see this remarkable natural phenomenon relayed onto their TV screen inside, while it was actually taking place outside. (Is this ‘in touch with reality’?) The reason was supposedly because of the risk of eye-damage – as though the very newspapers hadn’t been giving away free specs to watch it through a glass darkly for weeks beforehand. No, it was because it would seem more impressive, worthy of notice, like a ‘real’ happening, if it could be watched on telly.

Virginia Woolf, again, had strong views on the writer’s relationship to reality, which she was so often accused of knowing nothing about, often by critics who confused it with realism, or a realistic style of writing. In A Room of One’s Own she wrote:

‘What is meant by ‘reality’? It would seem to be something very erratic, very undependable – now to be found in a dusty road, now in a scrap of newspaper in the street, now in a daffodil in the sun… It overwhelms one walking home beneath the stars and makes the silent world more real than the world of speech – and then there it is again in an omnibus in the uproar of Piccadilly… But whatever it touches, it fixes and makes permanent. That is what remains over when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge; that is what is left of past time and of our loves and hates. Now the writer, as I think, has the chance more than other people to live in the presence of that reality.’

There! It’s only the chance, it isn’t automatic, but it is a possibility. As ever, such opportunities bring certain obligations for, as Woolf continues, it is the writer’s ‘business to find it [reality] and collect it and communicate it to the rest of us. So at least I infer from reading Lear or Emma or La Recherche du Temps Perdu.’ For, she finds, having read such books ‘one sees more intensely afterwards; the world seems bared of its covering and given an intenser life. Those are the enviable people who live at enmity with unreality…’

This book – so well-known, so much-quoted – is hardly obscure, certainly neither is Woolf’s clarion-call to the women writers of the future; ‘I am asking you to live in the presence of reality’. But its familiarity doesn’t make it less relevant or, to me, encouraging. There are now more forms of the unreal, in more devious versions, than perhaps ever before. There are also therefore more opportunities for confusion over which is which, particularly when the flamingoes flying up in one’s own sitting-room are so striking, so beautifully filmed. Every strong assurance of the difference, every piece of elucidation, is essential reading and re-reading, especially for the writer who attempts to ‘live at enmity with unreality… to collect reality and communicate it’.

Hearing Woolf

January 28, 2010

This ritual pilgrimage to the British Library is made several times a year, to hear Virginia Woolf. (It’s an easy enough journey there, along sacred bus routes, well worth it to receive the indulgences which are granted to those of us who seek literary benison.) Her delivery is, as always, faultless – though her voice comes from another country, posh beyond all King’s English, received pronounciation, BBC of the ’thirties. The accent is dated to a past which seems more distant than her writing, but the words are fresh as ever.

The talk Woolf gives is Craftsmanship, from a series of lectures called ‘Words fail me’; it’s a riff on English words and their use, history, magic. Even an excerpt gives some inkling of the variations played on the theme, the value of each note. Words live in the mind, not the dictionary (although you can catch them and sort them); they are utterly living. This is the incantatory moment where she takes flight; the words go out and about, on the streets, in company together, words belong to each other, it is their friendships and alliances which make them – sometimes – immortal. Here she approaches the heart of the mystery.

In the dim room, crammed with precious manuscripts, strangers stand tethered by headphones to their listening-posts, hearing the dead speak, seem to address the fellow-citizens of this library world directly. In the lit cabinets – bright pools or sun-shafts in this dark wood – are Shakespeare’s shopping-lists treasured for his pen-touch, the neat texts of Jane Austen no longer hidden from visitors, Aphra Benn’s scandalous scripts or a Bronte notebook, wild weather-stained. Here sometimes is the great carpet-patterned gospel, the scroll inscribed ‘A Keepsake from the Cloud Gallery’, the brush-holder which declares ‘The Pen before Everything’, or the great charter which the English think is nearly a constitution. Also, there is the battered antarctic journal over which I wept as a child, when its final entry For God’s sake look after our people seemed consistent with the ethos of the mahogany manuscript cases, the hush of the round reading-room.

When Woolf’s voice ceases, on ‘multitudinous seas incarnadine’ as an example of the perfect company of words, it’s hard not to recall her distaste for such self-publicity. As she walked home her ‘premonitory shivers and disgusts’ gradually gave way to the feeling of relief that ‘very few people had listened: the world much as usual’. She made a note not to repeat the folly of broadcasting, as she called it, and she never did. Yet she knew that as she read her piece to that anonymous audience of wireless-listeners, she spoke with ‘ease and emotion’, or fluency and enthusiasm, indeed passion. (It does not seem to have occurred to her to address anyone who was actually listening with anything less than a true statement of her private faith.)

Vita Sackville-West, who had recruited her, was an inveterate flasher of ideas on the air, though not so openly revealing of her creed. In fact, she was so persistent a broadcaster that she can still be heard on the radio quite regularly, listening to the nightingale with Ethel Smythe or recognising herself as Orlando. (I’ve even, by the wonders of BBC time-travel, had the pleasure of inhabiting the same programme with her, this century.) Perhaps Woolf deprecated this robust taste for self-exposure, which could only ever be partially truthful and sometimes became actually misleading. Doubtless she considered the unpleasant paradox that her own statements of belief could be construed as vulgar publicity.

Yet, when she had this opportunity to address an unusual audience, Woolf didn’t protect herself with any bland compromise, so her words hold good to another unseen audience. (A few more minutes of the talk can be heard these days on a British Library CD.) She reminds us that words are highly democratic, the ‘wildest freest most irresponsible of all things… irreclaimable vagabonds’ who make alliances with all kinds of foreigners and – full of echoes, memories and associations as they are – don’t like being pinned down to ‘useful’ meanings, for the passing of exams or the making of money. ‘They hate making money.’ What words like, she assures us, are people who think before they use them, and most importantly feel before they use them – in other words, people like her, impassioned and intoxicated by the possibilities of ‘our dear mother English’.

And so, for a’ that, an a’ that – like a grudged photograph allowed unwillingly which is the only extant likeness, snatched snap now treasured image – there her strange voice sounds. We can only be grateful for this one lapse on her part into sound. The survival of relics, after all, often suggests some discomfort on the part of the holy donor. A patron saint is usually chosen for some personal identification with the pilgrim; so this stolen ikon may protect us now, poor writers of the 21st century, as we try to differentiate between those tasks which contribute to the realities of working or thinking, and the demands of mere publicity.