Posts Tagged ‘Edward Thomas’

River writing

June 3, 2013

To the River by Olivia LaingLast week, I was lucky enough to chair a talk about river writing. The speakers were Olivia Laing, who was talking about her beautiful book To the River (which I wrote about here), and Charles Rangeley-Wilson, who spoke about his fascinating search for a lost river, Silt Road. I really enjoyed listening to them discuss the many parallels in their experiences of these chalk streams – The Ouse and The (High Wycombe) Wye. Both wrote a great deal about fossils, love, death, and also stories.

These folk stories were some of my favourite moments of their books – amidst the lyrical nature writing and illuminating history – and seem to me to be perfect instances of landscape influencing imagination. Olivia told the story of Cherry of Zennor, which she came across in a collection of essays by Edward Thomas, who found it in the mid-nineteenth-century Popular Romances of the West of England. Charles wrote about a magical trout. I shall, briefly, fill you in on these tales:

Cherry of Zennor

Cherry, a sixteen-year-old girl, left her family in Cornwall to go into service. She was sitting on the Downs crying with homesickness, when a gentleman came towards her. He offered her a job working for him and looking after his son.

Cherry didn’t understand everything he said, for he spoke in a flowery way, but she decided to take the job.

They went together down a long sloping lane shaded with trees, so that the sun was barely visible. At length they came to a stream of clear dark water that ran across the road. Cherry didn’t know how she’d ford this brook, but the gentleman slipped an arm about her waist and scooped her up, so she wouldn’t wet her feet.

Every day, Cherry had to take his son to a spring in the garden, wash him, and anoint his eyes with ointment. She was told not to touch her own eyes with the ointment. Then she got on with the rest of the work – milking the cow and weeding the garden. Cherry felt suspicious of this ointment and so:

One morning… taking a crumb of ointment, she put it in her eye. How it burned! She ran to the stream to wash away the smarting and there she saw at the bottom of the water hundreds of little people dancing, and there was her master, as small as the others, dancing with them and kissing the ladies as they passed.

It’s not long before her faery master finds out she’s taken the ointment and sends her packing.

The magical trout

Silt RoadCharles Rangeley-Wilson recounts the story as told by a mysterious old lady to the early nineteenth-century Irish songwriter Samuel Lover. Here it is:

There was once a very long time ago, a beautiful young girl who lived in the castle by the lough. She was betrothed to a king’s son, but the story goes that the prince was murdered and thrown into the lough and that she went out of her mind, the poor, tender-hearted girl, and pined for him until at last, so it was thought, the fairies took her away. But then, this white trout appeared in the stream, though it had never been seen before, and there it has remained for years and years, longer than I can express, and beyond the memory of even the oldest hereabouts, until at last the people came to believe that the white trout was a fairy, and so it was treasured and no harm was ever done to it. None, that is, until a band of wicked soldiers came to these parts and laughed and gibed [at] the people for thinking like this and one of the soldiers said he would catch the trout and eat it for his supper. Well he caught it and took it home and the trout cried out when he pitched it into the frying pan, though it would not cook no matter which way he turned the fish or how hot he made the fire, until in exasperation the soldier lunged at the trout with a fork and there came a murdering screech such as you’ve never heard before and the trout jumped out of the pan and on to the floor and out of the spot where it fell rose up the most beautiful lady you’ve ever seen, all dressed in white with a band of gold in her hair and a stream of blood running down her arm. “Look where you cut me you villain,” said the girl. “Why did you not leave me watching out for my true love? For he is coming for me by the river, and if he comes while I am away and I miss him I’ll hunt you down for evermore, so long as grass grows and water runs.” And no sooner had she spoken than the girl vanished and there on the kitchen floor was the white trout and the soldier picked up the bleeding fish and rushed with it to the river. He ran and ran for fear her lover would come while she was away, and descending into this cavern he threw her back into the river and there she has stayed evermore and to this day the trout is marked with red spots where the fork pierced its side.

white trout

I hadn’t known that fairies and rivers were so closely linked. I love the thought of little fairies dancing and kissing each other in the stream. Perhaps that’s why the water feels so cool and tickly when you paddle in it.

Lore of the LandIntrigued by these stories, I went to my very reliable tome of English folklore, The Lore of the Land, to see if there were more tales about rivers and fairies. Endearingly there is no entry for ‘rivers’ in the index of The Lore of the Land, only:

river-spirits … see also mermaids, freshwater

The stories of river-spirits are sinister. The spirit of the River Dart called out ‘Jan Coo! Jan Coo!’ until Jan ran towards it, his friend powerless to stop him, and then Jan was never seen again. There is Peg Powler of the Tees:

one of the most formidable of the many river-spirits lurking in rivers and streams, waiting their chance to drown women and children.

Just as sad is the story of how the River Severn came to be named. The story is traced to the account given by Geoffrey of Monmouth (c.1136) – an old story indeed. An ancient legendery king, Locrine, fell in love with the beautiful Estrildis but was forced by his father to marry Gwendolen. Locrine still loved Estrildis so hid her in an underground chamber where he visited her in secret. This went on for seven years, during which time she bore him a daughter Sabrina. Eventually, Locrine deserted Gwendolen and raised Estrildis to be his queen. Gwendolen, understandably furious, gathered an army in Cornwall and in the ensuing battle Locrine was killed. Gwendolen resumed the throne and ordered that:

Estrildis and Sabrina her daugher be flung into the river that is now called Severn, issuing an edict throughout all Britain that the river should be called by the damsel’s name … whereby it cometh to pass that even to this day the river in the British tongue is called Sabren, which by corruption in other speech is called Severn.

Sad stories of rivers abound. I dutifully looked up freshwater mermaids, but found that they aren’t any more gentle than these river-spirits, and lurk in rivers, pits and pools to lure children beneath to their death.

I’m struck by the darkness felt in these stories, an unnatural sinister edge to the natural beauty of a river. Rivers give life but also bring death. Perhaps only something other-worldy can begin to explain the strange pull of a river, its magnetism that is strong enough to pull you out of this world altogether. Perhaps it was comforting to blame the many drownings on the fairies rather than natural force, or human error. Was Virginia Woolf lured by a mermaid or a river-spirit into the Ouse? I doubt that Leonard would have found comfort in this.

To me, these stories of ill-meaning river-spirits suggest the anarchy of a river, its stubborn wilfulness and refusal to be governed by man. Charles Rangeley-Wilson, whose book hopes for the re-emergence of the River Wye – now buried under a shopping mall – should take courage from these tales.

Midsummer’s Eve is just around the corner – a time when, legend has it, the gap narrows between human and fairy worlds. Beware the river-spirits and freshwater mermaids! It is also the time that Olivia Laing walked along the River Ouse for her book. Did she, like Shakespeare’s Hermia and Cherry of Zennor “see things with parted eye”?  At least she escaped the clutches of the fairies and mermaids and returned to tell her tales. I’d be quite happy for fairies to dance around my paddling feet, although I have to confess, I feel a little wary of getting too close to a river right now, just in case a mermaid were to pull me under. It is, for sure, at least a fine time to read about them.

Mermaid

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The Icknield Way

February 4, 2013

A couple of years ago you could be forgiven for knowing Edward Thomas only as the poet who wrote ‘Adlestrop’. Recently, however, there’s been a huge Edward Thomas love-in, which has made it hard to avoid learning  more about this tragic figure. Thanks to some fantastic literary outpourings from Matthew Hollis, Robert Macfarlane and Nick Dear, chances are that now you know that before ‘Adlestrop’ and the Second World War, Edward Thomas was skint, desperately unhappy, great friends with Robert Frost, perfectly horrid to his wife and wrote masses of prose. (Well you do now, anyway.)

I’ve been intrigued by the thought of Thomas’ prose, now overlooked in favour of his poetry. So I got hold of a copy of The Icknield Way and prepared myself for a treat – here is a book by one of my favourite poets about walking, one of my favourite things. (Incidentally, I am terribly excited about Ramblings on Radio 4 this Thursday at 3pm, which is all about my Walking Book Club – do tune in!!)

Unfortunately, this isn’t quite the mellifluous book of nature writing for which I’d hoped. Edward Thomas wrote The Icknield Way in 1911, when he was ‘mentally and emotionally exhausted’, warns his biographer Matthew Hollis. A contemporary critic scolded, ‘A tired author too soon fatigues his reader.’

Indeed, there are passages which did send me to sleep, usually when Thomas is busy tediously marking out the route. He lists the place names, the milestones, and the turnings. Instead of the trees and flora being as poetic as Nan Shepherd’s spell-like incantations (see here for more on her book The Living Mountain), they are no more than labels and markers, a means for future walkers to find their way:

Just before the second milestone from Princes Risborough, in obedience to my map, I turned to the left and took the right-hand road at a fork. For a quarter mile this was a narrow chalky lane, having at its entrance a sycamore and a thatched cottage, and traveller’s joy all over its low hedge; but crossing a road from Great Missenden it became more important, hard and white, with a green border. I climbed up past the “Red Lion” at Whiteleaf, under Whiteleaf Hill, crossed the Wycombe road, and went down a hedged and rutty lane, laving the spire of Princes Risborough half a mile below on the right.

Here is Thomas, the orienteer, leaving specific instructions and directions to any who choose to follow in his weary footsteps. It’s hardly scintillating reading, in any case.

But while these passages were at best disappointing and at worst a drudge to read, The Icknield Way has its share of beautiful moments, dripping with poetry, thick with Thomas’ struggle to express something strange and mysterious without quite having found his medium.

Edward Thomas might have been exhausted when he wrote the book, but he was evidently still a morning person – far more so than my husband and I, who lie in bed grumbling for more sleep when our phone alarms beep their cacophony of hellish noise. In sharp contrast, it is often the morning passages when poetry is fresh on Thomas’ tongue:

The rooks had been talking in my sleep much too long before I started next day. Their voices and the blazing window-blind described the morning for me before I stirred… The long grasses were dewy cool, the trees lightly rustling and full of shadow, the sky of so soft a greyness that it seemed and impossible palace for a sun so gorgeous.

What a start to the day, full of light and freshness and happy beginning.

Thomas has a surprising knack for describing the people he meets along the way. I loved his encounter with a wild woman at a cottage, where he knocks to ask for water:

Just as I was turning to get water for myself a human being with black hair and wild eyes looked out of an upper window and hailed me with a kind of scream … She was a thin, hawk-faced woman, bare and brown to the breast, and with glittering blue eyes, and in her upper jaw three strong teeth.

They go on to have a bizarre conversation about living in the moon.

Later there is a ‘jaunty’ landlady, with a ‘skittish, falsetto laugh’, ‘anxious to tell me that much as she liked a country life she missed the gas and the bathroom of a London house.’ Often these encounters strain to be cheerful, such as when he offers observations on the jolly life of a country inn, but they are only a passing brightness, and Thomas’s dark mood soon catches up with him.

One of Thomas’s roadside encounters is particularly dark. He writes of meeting his ghostly double:

He was a lean, indefinite man; half his life lay behind him like a corpse, so he said, and half was before him like a ghost … He said that he had been digging all day in a heavy soil, often jarring the fork against immovable flints, lifting more often that not a weight of clay only just short of the limit of his strength. He had thought and thought until his brain could do nothing but remain aware of dull misery and the violent shocks of the hard work … He was stiff and yet unsatisfied with the result of his labour; he felt the dullness of his eyes; and no thing or person in the world or out of it came into his mind with any conscious delight or quickness; yet he still looked along the ridges of the hills from one end to the other, from star to star, without a thought save the sleeping, underlying one that he was growing old.

In moments like this, Thomas’s unhappiness and exhaustion with life become a beautiful means of conjuring something quite mysterious. He writes about darkness falling and the landscape fading and becoming indistinct, ‘slowly the solid world was whittled away’.

These moments in his journey when Edward Thomas confronts his misery and finds something eerie and mystical are very special. Towards the end of the book, there is a startling passage about listening to the fall of rain at night. Again he imagines ‘a ghostly double beside me’, this time muttering:

The all-night rain puts out summer like a torch. In the heavy, black rain falling straight from invisible, dark sky to invisible, dark earth the heat of summer is annihilated, the splendour is dead, the summer is gone. The midnight rain buries it away where it has buried all sound but its own.

Though I’d like to, I can’t quote the whole passage here, as it goes on for a few pages. It is such a troubling passage, a nihilistic meditation on not being part of nature, on surrendering everything to the dark rain. These pages will stay with me as indeed they stayed with Thomas, for he returned to them in his poem ‘Rain’:

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying to-night or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.

The poem is a condensation of this troubling passage at the end of The Icknield Way. Indeed the line, ‘Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon’ is lifted straight from it. That line must have haunted Edward Thomas as, perhaps, it haunted F. Scott Fitzgerald, who remembers it near the end of The Great Gatsby as ‘Blessed are the dead that the rain falls on.’

The Icknield Way is a strange struggle of a book. On the one hand Thomas obsesses with documenting the route, naming the towns, and listing the turnings, the birds, trees and wildflowers. But beneath this surface detail, the spirit of the book is deeply mysterious. As he says in his dedication,

I could not find a beginning or an end of the Icknield Way. It is thus a symbol of mortal things with their beginnings and ends always in immortal darkness. I wish the book had a little more of the mystery of the road about it…

I share his wish, for in those moments when the mystery of the road shines from the chalky path, it is a shimmering, remarkable book indeed.

Emilybooks of the year

December 19, 2012

Looking back on the year, I see that I’ve developed a strange habit of reading in threes. There have been three Elizabeths, three lives, three children’s books, three of all sorts of things. Strange indeed.

So here are my favourites of the books that I’ve read over the past year, clumped, conveniently, into threes.

The Walking Book Club at Port Eliot

3 Elizabeths

I began the year reading Elizabeth Bowen’s intensely atmospheric wartime novel The Heat of the Day which set me up for a year of Elizabeths. Start as you mean to go on, I suppose. Well I went on to read Bowen’s The House in Paris, an entrancing, bewitching novel, which made a whole afternoon disappear. Best of all, it was a year in which I was given a very special edition of Bowen’s Court – EM Forster’s copy no less.

I loved Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel, a novel which every aspiring writer must read not just because it describes so brilliantly different moments of writing – the strange feverish stuffiness of writing non-stop, and the anti-climax of finishing, for instance – but because it will make you laugh hopelessly at yourself, at the sheer vanity of being a writer. We also had a splendid Walking Book Club discussing Taylor’s poignant novel about getting old, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, for which we enjoyed the illustrious company of Clare Balding. You’ll be able to listen to it on Radio 4’s Ramblings in February… watch this space!

The third Elizabeth of the year was Elizabeth Jenkins. The Tortoise and the Hare had me in tears, and Harriet had me in a nightmare. Both are utterly compelling, hellish portrayals of marriage – the first is a heartbreaking portrayal of its death throes, and the second is about a situation so horrific, it’s hard to believe that it was based on a true murder case.

3 houses

My novel, as those of you who read last week’s post will know, is centred on a house and the stories that lie within it. As a result, I have grown quite addicted to books with houses at their centre. I’ve already mentioned Elizabeth Bowen – her Bowen’s Court really is a great portrait of a house.

Rebecca is one of my all time favourite house novels. From that memorable first line, ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,’ the house threatens to overwhelm the new Mrs de Winter. The most memorable moments of the novel are firmly rooted in the house – when she comes down the stairs for the ball, looking like the ghost of Rebecca, or when Mrs Danvers nearly makes her throw herself out of Rebecca’s old bedroom window. This was one of the books we discussed when I took the Walking Book Club to the splendid Port Eliot festival, not so far from Menabilly – the inspiration for du Maurier’s Manderley. I’ve read this novel so many times now, and each time find it utterly gripping, thoroughly brilliant. Perhaps I should allow myself one du Maurier a year.

But my house of the year has to go to the ‘convenient little house’ in Hampstead, which is the focus of Vita Sackville West’s All Passion Spent. Lady Slane’s husband, a great statesman, has just died when we meet her. She defies her foul children, who want to parcel her off between them, and retires to a pretty Hampstead house that she last saw thirty years ago. This perfect, slim novel, a fictional counterpart to Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, is beautifully written, and I especially enjoyed the way Sackville-West’s love of gardening – as attested to by the magnificent gardens at Sissinghurst – periodically surfaces, when she can’t resist arranging a few flowers here, or a ripened peach there.

3 lives

The best non-fiction I’ve read this year has been about the lives of people. The strongest presence has been the poet, Edward Thomas. I read Matthew Hollis’s biography of him, Now All Roads Lead To France – a fantastic book, which managed to turn his rather quiet life into a series of cliffhangers. There was also Robert Macfarlane’s majestic The Old Ways, in which this literary lover of landscapes wrote about journeying on remarkable old paths, haunted by Edward Thomas who was a great walker as well as a great writer. And there was Nick Dear’s powerful play at the Almeida. My favourite Edward Thomas moment of the year was walking with some friends around (the aptly named) Steep, where Thomas lived, and up Shoulder of Mutton hill. It was very special to feel we were walking in his footsteps. Towards the end, we sprawled across a leafy glade and read out some of his poems, accompanied only by birdsong, the wind in the trees, and our steady chomping of Percy Pigs.

I loved reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s letters – a wonderful thick collection, which was a steady and inspiring companion for many months. And now I am reading West with the Night by Beryl Markham, who became my new heroine by about page five. She tells of her childhood in what was then British East Africa, a childhood which included such instances as hunting warthogs with local tribesmen and being mauled by a lion. She grew up to breed and train racehorses, and then became a freelance pilot. This is an extraordinary memoir, bristling with the spirit of adventure, full of the romance of a lost way of life, and somehow Markham has combined a great lyricism with edge-of-your-seat thrilling tension.

3 new novels

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home seemed to lodge in me like a shard of glass, painful, unforgettable and darkly beautiful. Susie Boyt’s The Small Hours was a peculiar and powerful novel. It is about a strange, larger-than-life woman who decides to open a nursery school. It soon transpires that her own childhood has been difficult, to say the least. I suppose it’s what you might expect from Freud’s great-granddaughter. Emily Perkins’ The Forrests follows a family over several decades. What really stood out about it was the quality of the writing, richly detailed, making every mundane moment sing like a poem.

3 children’s books

Like everyone else I read The Hunger Games, and I loved it. It was alarmingly addictive – I have friends who began reading it one evening and had to take the next day off work, as they had to stay up all night to finish it. Cynics dismiss it as a horrid teen novel about children killing each other, but I found it thick with ideas – about CCTV, celebrity culture, society and more.

I reread The Wind in the Willows, which was truly joyful, and even inspired a walk along the Thames, for which we strove to bring all the ingredients in Ratty’s notorious picnic:

coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwidges

pottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater

And I reread A Wizard of Earthsea, an exciting quest about the battle of good versus evil, and – interestingly – the importance of language.

3 of everything else

There were of course other brilliant Emilybooks of the year, which don’t fit into these clumps of threes so neatly – Dorothy Whipple, Patti Smith, and it was certainly a year of Ali Smith, whose new book Artful – not quite a novel, not quite a collection of essays, is something entirely new and mind-poppingly impressive. It was a year of many great ladies, and, lest I forget, a few great men, (like the aforementioned Edward Thomas, Lewis Grassic Gibbon and L.P. Hartley). It has been a year of feeling terrifically happy that there are so many wonderful books to read.

Thank you for accompanying me through a wonderful year of reading. Now I have only to wish you a happy and book-filled Christmas and New Year. Emilybooks will be back in January.

The Dark Earth and the Light Sky

November 20, 2012

Why is it that we’re all so keen on Edward Thomas all of a sudden? What is it about this poet of a hundred years ago that resonates with us so powerfully today?

I happen to love Edward Thomas’s poetry. I read ‘Adlestrop’ at school, like everyone else, but thanks to Matthew Hollis’s new collection of his Selected Poems last year (see this post), then I read many more. And as my interest in Thomas’s poetry grew, so, it seems, did everyone else’s. Matthew Hollis wrote an award-winning biography of Thomas, which concentrated on his friendship with Robert Frost, Now All Roads Lead to France (see this post). This was swiftly followed by Robert Macfarlane’s wonderful The Old Ways (see this), in which the spirit of Edward Thomas lingers like a watchful ghost. And now we have Nick Dear’s new play at the Almeida. What is it that has made so many of us now, suddenly, at once, so fascinated by Edward Thomas?

The first thing one might suspect is that they’re all in on it together. It’s quite nice to picture Matthew Hollis, Robert Macfarlane and Nick Dear going for long walks together up Shoulder of Mutton hill, puffing on clay pipes, listening out for larks, tramping in the poet’s footsteps and being mutually inspired to write their books. But the surprising thing is that each of them says they wrote their respective books about Edward Thomas independent of one another. Indeed Nick Dear talks a little about this on Front Row in an illuminating little interview – about 8 minutes in.

Perhaps these writers were inspired by a conference about Edward Thomas that took place at St Edmund Hall, Oxford in 2005. From this conference came yet another lovely book, Branch Lines, filled with the responses of contemporary poets to Thomas. But none of our writers Hollis, Macfarlane or Dear have contributed to the book. Perhaps this book is another coincidence, a few years ahead of the zeitgeist.

I pondered this very question – why all this Edward Thomas now? – on Twitter (that home of articulate, complex pontifications) and reviewer Wayne Gooderham, who wrote this excellent blog, said that maybe it was because we are coming up to the 100 year anniversary of the start of the First World War. Good point – and actually I’m rather ashamed that it hadn’t crossed my mind – but then I haven’t noticed the same growth of interest in our other war poets. Where are all the new books on Sassoon, Owen and Brooke? In any case, was Edward Thomas really a war poet? Yes, he wrote at the time of the War, and the War is there in the shadows of his poetry, but really his poetry is about the land – England not Belgium. (I loved the way this came across in the set of The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, with its floor of dark earth, even if it did give rise to a surprised titter when Thomas’s wife Helen dug up some potatoes from it.) And beyond this, as Macfarlane points out, his true subjects are ‘disconnection, discrepancy and unsettledness’.

I think there must be something else pulling us towards Edward Thomas.

In his Foreword to Branch Lines, Andrew Motion writes of the appeal of ‘the story of Thomas’s arduous journey towards poetry’:

not simply the pathos of his frustration in prose, but the patient struggle of his efforts to purify his style and “wring all the necks of my rhetoric” describes a process that most poets they undertake (on a smaller scale) every time they pick up a pen to write.

For those of us who aren’t poets, let’s not dismiss so quickly ‘the pathos of his frustration in prose’. All the books make it clear that Edward Thomas only became a poet at the very end of his short life; he didn’t even live to see one of his poems in print under his own name, rather than his pen name Edward Eastaway. As he says in The Dark Earth: ‘Did anyone ever begin at thirty-six in the shade?’ Until this turning point, this late out-pouring of poetry, sparked largely by his encouraging and inspiring friendship with Robert Frost, Thomas was really a hack, scraping together a living by reviewing, clutching at his advances for prose works which he belted out, thousands of words a week – as Muriel Spark put it several years later and about someone else, he was a ‘pisseur de copie’.

And Thomas was deeply unhappy with his existence as a hack. His choice to quit the civil service and earn his living by his pen plunged his family into dreadful poverty. He felt he ‘ruined’ Helen and was thoroughly horrid to her. Take this from The Dark Earth, the book which best captures his cruelty:

I’m sick of everything. Sick of you, sick of the children, whom I know really despise me, although they couldn’t despise me as much as I despise myself for not putting an end to the wretched business! – Stop that! I don’t want you fussing around me. I know what I am, I know what I’ve done to you. Go away.

Thomas is frustrated, dissatisfied, miserable. He suffers from depressive visions of ‘the other man’. But he finds relief – indeed, at times ecstatic happiness – from walking for miles through the countryside, especially in the company of Frost. And he will eventually succeed in his struggle to become a poet.

It’s a potent story, an appealing myth. Of course many of us are unhappy with the daily grind of our lives, and feel a little like frustrated poets – or at least frustrated somethings – suffocated by the 9-5 slog of work. This has always been the case, but recently, with the recession, everything’s been shaken up. People have been made redundant; we are at a near-record high of part-time work, as opposed to full-time. For many people, the decision to leave their jobs, to quit the 9-5 and start again has been made for them. Admittedly, for most people this is awful and they want to find full-time employment again as soon as possible, but for some, perhaps Edward Thomas is a kind of lodestar. Now is the time to write that poem, or novel, or whatever it is that you’ve been meaning to do forever. Now is the time to start, even though you’re thirty-six in the shade. Perhaps we are becoming a nation of poets rather than shopkeepers.

In any case, The Dark Earth left me fervently hoping that if we do become a nation of poets, we aren’t all as perfectly horrid as Edward Thomas! While Matthew Hollis and Robert Macfarlane both make it clear that he was a difficult, unhappy man, and Hollis gives over quite a bit of space to his tricky marriage, perhaps the authors are too much under the spell of Thomas’s wonderful poetry to condemn his behaviour towards his wife.

Seeing it acted out before you, it is impossible to watch Edward’s exchanges with Helen without flinching at his cruelty, wincing at the disparity between his carelessness and her exhausted tending to him.

The virtue of The Dark Earth’s use of multiple perspectives, rather than just one narrator, is that Helen’s voice comes through loud and clear. She loves Edward Thomas in an all-encompassing self-sacrificing passion, and I couldn’t help but think what might have become of her if she hadn’t sacrificed herself so entirely. What happened to the bright young Helen that she remembered, who read the literature brought to her by her lover? Now, as she says when she opens the play, she hasn’t the time to read – she’s too busy looking after Edward and the children.

My understanding is that Helen Thomas has been rather dismissed by the literary establishment. Her books about her relationship with Edward Thomas are out of print, indeed at one point they were banned in Boston. There is a brilliant scene in The Dark Earth which shows Frost returning to England many years later and being very rude to Helen. He says that he has removed his dedication to her in his book of poetry because she ‘insulted …[the] manhood’ of Thomas in her book. Whereas in the past, opinion would have sided with Frost, such is the power of the play, that we side with Helen.

If our collective obsession with Edward Thomas is set to continue, perhaps a publisher will see fit to bring Helen Thomas’s two much maligned books about her husband back into print. Unlike Robert Frost, I for one would be fascinated to read them.

The Old Ways

July 10, 2012

In the British Library’s Writing Britain exhibition, amongst the gems of first editions, scrawled upon typescripts, and radio interviews (including Daphne du Maurier reading her diary entry for the occasion when she first saw the real Jamaica Inn!), there were some video clips of various wild writers in various wild places talking about British landscape and literature.

Robert Macfarlane was among these celebrated writers, which was a happy coincidence, as I have been reading his new book The Old Ways. It’s a beautiful big hardback, too precious a thing to be carted around in my bike bag with my oily lock and leaking packed lunch. So, quite unlike All Passion Spent, which I read all at once, I read The Old Ways discretely, chapter by chapter, half-centimetre by half-centimetre, over a few weeks. The book is split into sixteen chapters and each explores a different path, so it’s rather a good one to read like this. Rather than the sudden rushing gush that comes with reading a book all at once, this gradual process meant that it seeped into my consciousness, drip by drip, permeating down slowly but surely, etching its mark gently but repeatedly. It’s meant that I’ve had some very nice, lyrical, Macfarlaneish thoughts buzzing around the back of my mind over the past weeks.

Amongst all the brilliant ideas, beautiful descriptions and fascinating people who are strewn liberally across the pages of The Old Ways, I particularly like the links Macfarlane explores between walking and thinking. He points out that the verb ‘to learn’ etymologically stretches back to the proto-Germanic liznojan, which means ‘to follow or to find a track’. So following paths is a way of learning and our language is full of instances in which these ideas mingle together. Macfarlane writes:

I have long been fascinated by how people understand themselves using landscape, by the topographies of self we carry within us and by the maps we make with which to navigate these interior terrains. We think in metaphors drawn from place and sometimes those metaphors do not only adorn our thought, but actively produce it.

I like the idea that as we tread on a path, we are also stepping along ‘lines of thought’, or following ‘streams of consciousness’; wandering is a way to ease wondering, and walking a way to ease talking.

He also writes how treading a path connects you to the ghosts who have stepped that way before you. Macfarlane quotes Richard Holmes, who compares writing a biography to:

a kind of pursuit, a tracking of the physical trail of someone’s path through the past.

And so Macfarlane sets out to walk where Edward Thomas (see here and here for more thoughts about him) walked, following the Icknield Way amongst others, conjuring his ghostly presence from the chalky landscape.

But my very favourite thing Macfarlane said was in the British Library video clip. Up popped his head, which, having spent so much time reading his book, felt like seeing a familiar face in a crowd. Then he said, we have a:

densely storiated landscape.

I LOVE it.

I love the way the slippage between stories and striations brings to mind layers of stories, laid out like successive stripes across a rock. Of course it made me think of the novel I’m writing about a derelict house, where each trace reveals a story from a different time. And it also made me think of experiences I’ve had of feeling connected to a piece of literature by virtue of being in the place where it was written. Listening to Moonfleet while driving down to Dorset, for instance, or reading Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water while in Harris.

But it was when I was looking at Chart for the Coming Times, an exhibition now on at Rowing Projects, a friend’s new gallery on Holloway Road, that the phrase ‘densely storiated landscape’ seemed most apt.

Chart for the Coming Times is a collaborative work between Portuguese artists Mariana Caló and Francisco Queimadela as part of their ongoing project, Gradations of Time over a Plane. This installation’s centrepiece is a video, luminously, Bergmanesquely filmed around the chalk cliffs of Seven Sisters, East Sussex. The cliffs are an astonishing sight.

From afar you can see the deep black striations ruled across the white chalk. They look like lines on paper, ready, perhaps, for stories to be written upon. And the very pleasing thing is that that is exactly what has happened. We get a close-up and see that the cliffs are covered with names, which people have carved into the chalk. Stories have been engraved on the striations.

These cliffs are continually being eroded, and so these graffitied names, these words on the striated paper, are ever disappearing. Except for one little patch, which the artists have taken a cast of, and preserved indefinitely in a time capsule, which they ritually buried nearby.

I cycled home still thinking about this storiated cliff, being eroded with people’s names and with the force of the sea. It was only when I was half-way home, somewhere along Holloway Road, that I remembered that I was cycling along what was probably once a holloway, an example of one of the ‘old ways’ about which I’d been reading. I thought of all the cattle that once were driven along this path, trampling it deeper into the ground as they passed, now replaced with the rumble of busses and cars, bolstered up by tarmac. Now it’s part of the A1, a big, grizzly main road, but it is still a path of sorts, and its origin survives, captured in its name. And I thought that just the name – Holloway Road – is a story in itself, conjuring the layers of time that passed during its transition from holloway to road.

The lights changed and off I cycled, feeling a little dizzy at the thought of Holloway Road being the very essence of London’s storiated landscape.

Walking To the River

April 4, 2012

One of my most favourite things is going for a walk. I am at my happiest when strolling along – definitely not too fast or strenuously – looking at beautiful scenery, be it on Hampstead Heath, Hampshire, or Hackney Wick.

Aside from the views, one of the things I love most about walking is talking. I wrote about Matthew Hollis’s biography of Edward Thomas here, in which he wrote about Thomas and Frost’s habit of ‘talk-walking’. They’d go off into the fields and walk for hours, talking all the while, usually of poetry and other lofty things.

No doubt my own talk-walks are a little less high-brow than Edward Thomas’s. But I love the way that once one’s limbs are loosened, one’s tongue is loosened too. All sorts of things that one might normally struggle to talk about come bubbling up like water from a spring – and one babbles away quite easily.

Of course, if there’s no one for company on a walk, then babbling away to oneself looks at best eccentric. Virginia Woolf did it, striding through the Sussex countryside, stomping out the plots of novels, talking to herself all the way. I might hum to myself a little, but usually, if alone, the talking goes on in my head, my thoughts chattering away silently to themselves.

When I feel a bit stuck with my writing – when I get a horrid feeling like there’s a blockage in a key synoptic pathway in my brain – a walk usually sorts it out. Although, when I walk, my thoughts refuse to follow a straight trajectory and dart all over the place making nothing at all coherent, just a very satisfying scribble. It’s when I get home afterwards and sit down to write, that I find the scribble’s unlocked the blockage and I’ve leapt ahead. Phew.

I feel sure there must be plenty of women who walk and write. There’s Virginia Woolf for a start, and there’s also Olivia Laing, whose To the River is just out as an attractive paperback. But, with these exceptions, I really can’t think of any other women who write about walking.

It’s so peculiar! If you think of the big names in English nature-writing (aka walk-writing), they’re all men like Edward Thomas, Robert Macfarlane and Roger Deakin. Travel further afield and there’s Patrick Leigh Fermor, Norman Lewis and Laurie Lee. Where have all the women gone?

Well perhaps they just walked and talked or walked and thought, without writing it down afterwards. Perhaps we women don’t share the stereotypically ‘male’ impulse to spot and catalogue things obsessively, or perhaps we simply don’t have enough confidence in our walks to commit them to paper. Or perhaps I am just yet to find these elusive women walk-writers. I’d be grateful for any pointers, those of you who know something I don’t.

Well, I’m very pleased that Olivia Laing wrote about her walk along the River Ouse. She walks alone, letting her mind meander along all sorts of fascinating watery diversions. Among other things, we get a folklore tale of faeries, a good bit about the Styx, the tragic story behind The Wind in the Willows and there is the frequent tug of Virginia Woolf, who, of course, drowned herself in the Ouse.

I particularly like the way Olivia Laing doesn’t always pretend to be in a bucolic dream in the middle of nowhere. We are jolted back to the twenty-first century by having to cross an A-road, gobbling a curry for supper, or overhearing a filthy conversation in a pub car park. This is definitely the English countryside of today, which makes the moments of wildness all the more special. Our countryside is now cris-crossed by noisy roads, and our rivers, often as not, end in container ports, changed from meandering streams into ‘an industrial river, dark as oil, its surface opaque and unrevealing’.

But the rivers are still there and one can still find beauty in their surroundings, even if that beauty can be jagged and rather unexpected. Laing gives us both ‘the elder foaming with flowers the colour of Jersey cream’ and the sugared fennel seeds in the Indian restaurant, leaving ‘the ghost of aniseed … on the tip of my tongue like a word I knew but could not speak’.

It’s an intensely lyrical book, beautifully written about beautiful places. It’s a book that above all has made me want to put my shoes on and stride out towards a river. And I would never neglect to bring with an enormous and delicious picnic a la Kenneth Grahame’s Ratty:

coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwidgespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater

Thanks Olivia for the reminder. Yum.

Ravilious in the rain

March 6, 2012

The first picture that struck me in the gorgeous new Ravilious book, Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist, was Wet Afternoon. That’s Edward Thomas, I thought, looking at the man strolling down the muddy hedge-lined track, the green-grey sky streaked with stripes of rain.

Well, of course it isn’t Edward Thomas. He was long dead by 1938, the year Ravilious painted it. And yet there is something about the watercolour that summons the spirit of Thomas so much. It makes me think of the first stanza of Thomas’s poem, ‘Like the touch of rain’:

Like the touch of rain she was

On a man’s flesh and hair and eyes

When the joy of walking thus

Has taken him by surprise:

For there is certainly something joyful about the man in the picture, who looks to be almost hopping or skipping, or at least walking jauntily, undeterred by the inclement weather. Perhaps it is Thomas’s ghost. Perhaps it is Ravilious himself. Or perhaps he is just one anonymous man in a long line of Englishmen who delight in treading through the countryside, most happy and himself with the damp bluster of English air on his face and mud on his boots. As Thomas points out in his striking simile, however awful it seems to be walking in the rain at first, suddenly, surprisingly, one can find it rather wonderful.

But James Russell points out in his introduction to A Travelling Artist that Ravilious found the rain could be a bit of a pain, forcing him indoors when he’d far sooner be out in the landscape, using his watercolours. One of the happy side-effects of the rain-forced retreats are the interiors he was forced to paint. I like the way these often show a preoccupation of the outside world, as experienced from the inside.

Both November 5th and River Thames give the feeling of being an onlooker, of looking on a scene from the vantage point of a window above. Yet the dynamism of the scenes is infectious, crossing the barrier of the window and into the quiet room inside. (Incidentally I gave rather a lot of thought to windows in this post about Mrs Dalloway and the Tate Modern.)

My favourite of Ravilious’s inside/outside pictures are where the window itself is actually shown, such as in Room at the ‘William the Conqueror’ and Belle Tout Lighthouse. The first is intriguing in any case due to the strange dark patch in the middle of the foreground, where Ravilious had initially painted a chair. I expect most of you know by now of my preoccupation with the stories held in houses, how much history can be written in such small traces. Well here is rather an interesting trace. A chair was here, and then it wasn’t, yet it’s left its mark, its imprint. Looking at that patch, it’s impossible not to imagine Ravilious moving the chair there and then perhaps a friend coming in and sitting on it for a while, talking to him over a beer which he found ‘as good as any I ever tasted’.

But, aside from this intriguing dark patch, what I love about these two paintings are the way the outside and inside influence each other. The colours are continued – the bluey grey of the exterior landscape in Room is echoed in the curtains and the floor mimics the sea, both in the colour and in the long lines.

The outside colours are inside too in Belle Tout Lighthouse. Here I love the way the light streams in, making the window frames cast shadows that remind one of the path outside. And, despite the brilliant sunshine, you can image the cold wind blowing outside, the exposure of being out there. Inside, however, you are protected. Perhaps you can hear the wind whistling, yet you are able to bask in the filtered sunlight.

The windows of the lighthouse are quite similar to those in my flat and all yesterday morning I felt the same effect here. It was cold, the wind was howling, rattling the windows, and yet the flat was incredibly bright. There was the same feeling of being connected to the outside and yet protected from it. When one’s view is so taken up with what’s outside, it can be uncanny to feel somehow separated; part of it and yet removed from it. The table at which I’m sitting, for instance, looks out on sunny roofs outside. My view of the roofs and chimneys is utterly connected to my table, to my experience of being in my flat. And yet, those roofs are far away and separated not only by distance but by windows too. Sometimes the connection can make one forget the separation, and to be reminded of it so forcefully in Ravilious’s paintings feels somewhat shocking.

Sometimes this outside/inside tension is extended to strange places that seem to be both outside and inside at once. Most striking, to me, is Strawberry Bed, in which Ravilious portrays a space that is outdoors, yet also undercover, the netting forming a permeable barrier between the sky and the ground. Russell points out the ‘hallucinatory detail’ of the nets and also ‘the peculiar quality of the space beneath’. It really is an extraordinary picture. There is a similar feel to his painting Geraniums and Carnations which is filled with diffuse grey-white light but this time the effect is from a glasshouse. And, again, it is the ceiling of the glasshouse where the eye is drawn; this point of connection and separation is where the pillars are pointing and the flowers are climbing towards.

I’m sure you’ll find your own points of intrigue and fascination in this book. It really is a lovely thing, wonderful to leaf through, full of beautifully-reproduced paintings at which one can happily stare and dream over for hours.

A Literary A-Z

February 20, 2012

I can’t believe it’s been such a long time since the most recent instalment of my Literary A-Z. For those of you who’ve been waiting with baited breath since the battle of Rushdie vs Richardson, I can only apologise.

S

Kicking off with S seems a little unfair because S has to be Shakespeare. No room for manoeuvre there. If I had to pick my favourite Shakespeare, I’d choose King Lear. (I wrote about the Domar’s recent production here.)

But, for the sake of making it slightly more interesting, some other S authors that I’ve loved are Ali Smith, J.D. Salinger and – of course – Dodie Smith. My old boss used to publish Salinger’s books and told me that he was very tricky with his covers, never letting a picture on the front, insisting that the design be purely typographical. At school I thought Salinger’s collection of short stories, For Esme with Love and Squalor, was the best book ever. I read it obsessively, many times over. It was a love made defiant when told by my English teacher that it wasn’t substantial enough to be the subject of an essay. Pah, I thought, you just don’t understand. It was all deeply teenagerish and a little silly.

Speaking of silly teenagers, last night I happened to watch the DVD of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, which many of you know is one of my all-time-favourite books. It was a rare instance of being almost enjoyable on film as on the page, thanks mostly to Romola Garai and Bill Nighy. The funny thing was that the film looked oddly like a Brora photoshoot, which, given they’re supposed to be an impoverished family and Brora cardigans cost upwards of £200 a pop, does seem peculiar. Particularly fun bits were the scenes shot in the RIBA building, which was dressed up as a thirties department store. Does anyone else love playing the London place-spotting game when watching anything on screen? Annoyingly the husband tends to get it about five seconds before me each time!

A brilliant S-link is that not far into the film of I Capture the Castle, everyone’s trying to get the Americans’ car out of the mud when James Mortmain (aka Bill Nighy) curses the storm’s ‘cataracts and hurricanoes’. Looking back through the book I can’t find these exact words; instead, Dodie Smith just writes that ‘he was freely damning the weather’. Well Bill Nighy evidently freely damned the weather in the words of Shakespeare’s King Lear. One great S is brought into another great S. Splendid!

T

T is a little more tricky. Edward Thomas? Colm Toibin? Elizabeth Taylor? I’m going to confess that I’ve never got on particularly well with Tolstoy. I’ve begun Anna Karenina several times, and never got much past the ice skating episode. Perhaps I was just too young. (But I worry that I’ll never love the Russians because I always get so muddled with all the long names!) Some Tolstoy that I did enjoy was The Kreutzer Sonata, which Penguin published as a pretty little Great Loves edition.

I think I must go for Edward Thomas. However much I loved The Blackwater Lightship and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, ‘Adlestrop’ wins hands down every time. Even if he was quite horrid to his wife.

U

An impossible letter because I haven’t read anything by John Updike, who seems to be more-or-less the only fiction writer beginning with U.

Then again, I haven’t read any non-fiction by Jenny Uglow, but I suspect I’d enjoy her much more than Updike. I feel particularly fond of Jenny Uglow, in spite of the fact that I’ve not yet read any of her well-acclaimed biographies, or her book about English gardens. This is because as well as being such a successful writer, she is also a very well-respected editor. Editorial Director at Chatto & Windus no less.

When I was shuffling around at the bottom of the publishing food chain, trying to write a novel in the mornings before arriving at the sterile office, the thought that there were very successful publishers who also managed also to have writing careers was tremendously inspiring. It made me think that I might not have to choose between writing books and making them, that I could somehow do both. How I longed to bump into her, strike up a conversation and be given a cup of tea and taken under her wing! Needless to say I never had the courage even to say hello, and, when it became clear that one must be far more senior and important than me to go part-time in publishing and that I couldn’t go on forever doing all my writing very early in the morning and then being brain-dead all afternoon, I took a different path from Uglow and side-stepped out of publishing. But well done her, as there must have been a time when she stuck to her guns and said, no I’m not leaving, I’m going to make this work and do two things very well indeed. U goes to Jenny Uglow.

Now All Roads Lead to France

February 15, 2012

It is somewhat peculiar to be only half-way through February, yet already to have read what will be my best book of the year.

While there are several books that easily make me laugh out loud, or at least snigger, there are very few books that have made me cry. I’m afraid this was one of them.

The sad yet inevitable thing about most biographies is that the subject tends to be dead. All the way through you know it’s coming. It’s not like in a novel, where although there might be the threat of untimely death, there’s a reasonable chance the main character will survive.

Matthew Hollis announces the tragic death of Edward Thomas at the very beginning of Now All Roads Lead to France. It was on Easter Monday, 1917, the first day of the Arras offensive. The contents page reveals that the book stretches only from 1913 to 1917. We will be with Edward for just four years. His death looms over the book, making one dread the turning of the pages, wanting to put off the inevitable for as long as possible.

And yet, in opposition to this desire to put off the end, Hollis creates a page-turner. It’s astonishing really to think that a book about a poet and a few of his literary relationships – in particular his friendship with Robert Frost – can be so compelling, but it’s very hard to put it down. Hollis has cleverly split the prose up into short sections, moving between different characters and different places, holding our attention tightly. And thanks to his love of cliffhangers, literary life has never been so dramatic:

It was a debt that Frost feared he could never repay.

But he had already begun to repay it.

Or:

Edward Thomas was about to become a poet.

I promise, when you read it in context, it feels like edge of your seat stuff.

I wrote about Thomas’s most famous poem ‘Adlestrop’ last year. Hollis explains that Thomas’s favoured method of composition was reworking old prose material that he’d jotted in his notebooks. So it makes for an exciting moment when we read of his train journey in Summer, 1914. At 11.44 the train drew up at Oxford. Hollis quotes Thomas’s notes:

Then we stopped at Adlestrop, thro the willows cd be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 12.45 & one thrush & no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam. Stopping outside Campden by banks of long grass willow herb & meadowsweet, extraordinary silence between the two periods of travel – looking out on grey dry stones between metals & the shiny metals & over it all the elms willows & long grass – one man clears his throat – and a greater rustic silence. No house in view Stop only for a minute till signal is up.

Hollis is such a tease! It is impossible for anyone who’s heard of Edward Thomas to read these notes without holding their breath. This is it. This is the beginnings from which the magical poem will sprout, just a few months later. Yet Hollis doesn’t so much as mention ‘Adlestrop’ the poem here. He just skips on to the weather at Dymock. Needless to say, I read the next sixty pages very quickly, longing to get to the moment of composition itself.

It’s fascinating to see what Thomas has taken from his notes: ‘willow herb & meadowsweet’, the ‘hiss of engine letting off steam’, the man who’ clears his throat’. And, of course, the ‘chain of blackbirds songs’. Perhaps it’s even more fascinating to see what has been omitted. The ‘grey dry stones between metals & the shiny metals’ don’t appear in the poem at all. Strange, as the image of shiny metals could make one think of war, which was very much on Thomas’s mind. Perhaps he wanted to expunge all notion of the war from the poem and preserve it as a final pastoral moment before the war began.

But I must stop all this gushing about ‘Adlestrop’. Robert Macfarlane points out in his nuanced review of Now All Roads Lead to France for the Guardian that the book ‘helps us to understand how much more there is to Thomas than willow-herb and meadowsweet and haycocks dry’. So I shall endeavour to leave the beauty of ‘Adlestrop’ behind.

‘Talk-walking’. Robert Frost’s word for Thomas’s and his habit of – you’ll never guess – walking and talking together. I love it! I am very fond of a long walk and talk. Not quite as long as theirs, which on occasion stretched, rather alarmingly, for twenty-five miles. I love the way Hollis captures the spirit of these walks. Yes there’s all the talking, the musing, the finding inspiration in nature and in each other’s company, but there are also the more human details:

Frost chuckling as Thomas havered over which route to take, Thomas grinning at another enquiry from Frost as to whether they had much further to go.

They seem little more than schoolboys – carefree and happy, free from the weight of the world. And yet, not unlike Thomas’s poetry, beneath the bucolic dream lurks a troubled reality.

Thomas’s havering over which route to take is symptomatic of the indecision with which he is constantly plagued. And, for Thomas, this indecision often manifests itself over his physical place – he is literally not sure which route to take. Should he live with his wife, or stay with his friends? Should they live in London or in Hampshire? Should he go to confront the gamekeeper or run away? And there is the vital decision which hovers over most of the book – should he fight in France or emigrate to America to live with Robert Frost? And, rather neatly, the poem at the heart of it, isn’t ‘Adlestrop’, but Frost’s even more famous ‘The Road Not Taken’. It is unfortunate to say the least that what Frost meant as a little tease about Thomas’s indecision was taken so seriously by him, even going so far as to hasten his decision to go to France. Of course it has also been taken seriously by so many since him.

Coincidentally, you might remember that just a month ago in South Africa I was reading André Brink’s A Fork in the Road. Now I might not have been too impressed with most of the book, but one thing that really stuck with me was what he wrote in his Foreword. He took up this image of a ‘fork in the road’ – or, in Frost’s words ‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood’ – and suggested that rather than just taking one path, you can simultaneously travel both of them:

The traditional either/or is replaced with an incomparably more complex notion of both/and.

Brink quotes the South African artist William Kentridge, with his idea of a ‘highway of consciousness’:

Thought may follow one particular path, but there are all the other paths not taken, and all the other paths still being thought through, or not yet thought of, that language can latch on to at different stages as it goes.

It’s taken the example of Edward Thomas for me to fully understand this idea. For surely that’s exactly what happened to him.

Thomas enlisted in Summer 1915 and thus embarked upon his army career that would see him volunteer to serve at the Front. He chose the road to France, not America; the road of soldier, not poet.

Yet, apart from a short gap, all the while Thomas was in the army, he continued to write poetry. A nice detail in the book is a photograph of one of his poems composed in 1916. On the page it looks just like prose. Thomas disguised it so that none of the other soldiers would know he was a poet. But it certainly is poetry, with capital letters used to indicate new lines and paragraph breaks for new stanzas.

And, although Frost went through a frosty (sorry) patch and stopped responding to Thomas’s letters for a little while, Thomas continued to write to his American friend, desiring his company all the more. His final words to Frost were these:

You are among the unchanged things that I can not or dare not think of except in flashes.

His friendship with Frost is ‘unchanged’, their paths still close even though Thomas had chosen the path away from him. And, luckily for us, while physically treading the soldier’s road to France, Thomas still mentally trod the road of the poet.

EmilyBooks of the Year

December 19, 2011

Here, for your delectation, are my favourite books of the year. That is, books that I read over the past year, rather than books that were published over the past year. It must be strange and exhausting to read only the newest of books. I have to admit that I find those ‘books of the year’ lists that one reads in the newspapers at this time of year a bit dull. Lists are only really interesting when one understands the rationale behind the selections. So this is less of a listy-list (listless, ha!) and more of a chatty, discursive one.

Looking back, I suppose this year’s reading has been dominated by old women. This was my year of Jane Gardam – first The Man in the Wooden Hat, then Old Filth, then (again) – to calm pre-wedding jangles – A Long Way from Verona. And to keep Jane Gardam company, there was also Diana Athill’s Instead of a Letter and Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. All brilliant books. All written with elegance and subtlety and quite brilliant matter-of-fact wit. Some of these had a certain ‘coming-of-age’ element, which I inevitably find irresistible. For that very reason, other books of the year were Monica Dickens’ sublime Mariana and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle – both of which can happily be described as ‘hot-water-bottle fiction’, i.e. blissfully comforting and snug. They would probably make it on to my desert island books.

It’s also been a year of reading rather a lot about houses, thanks to the novel I’m writing about a derelict house. Particularly good books, in which houses feature rather prominently, have been (as well as the already mentioned Mariana) Bowen’s Court, Howards End, The Small Hanand Rebecca. Bowen’s Court is written in such a unique voice, and is rather long, and I read it rather concentratedly (often in the bath) that by the end I felt like I’d made a new friend. It helped that Elizabeth Bowen had told me so much about her family and her own personal history during the course of her book. I long to read more by her and often think back to that very great voice booming through my head in the echoey bathroom and wish I could listen to it some more. I suspect I might revisit her in my Christmas reading.

Howards End was every bit as brilliant as I expected it to be. I really do think that Forster is one of the very best writers. Although that’s a terribly unfashionable opinion to hold. And Rebecca. Well I suppose Rebecca, like Mariana, combined a house book with a coming-of-age story. Winning combination as far as I’m concerned. Someone famously said of it that it’s the only book where the murderer gets away with it. That throws a rather alarming light on it.

The other classics that I’ve really adored this year have been Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig and a newly-published collection of Edward Thomas’s poetry. I’d been longing to read Beware of Pity ever since I read and loved Zweig’s autobiography The World of Yesterday a year or so ago. Beware of Pity is intensely psychological, a bit like Crime and Punishment, and is written so breathlessly that there aren’t even any proper chapter-breaks. It really is almost impossible to put down. Oddly enough, I read it soon after reading Crash by J.G. Ballard and tried to draw some comparisons between these two books about crippled people, but ended up just feeling bemused that the books could both revolve around the same thing but be so irreconcilably different. It was a joy to return to Adlestrop with Edward Thomas’s Selected Poems. Nature poet extraordinaire. I should also like to add in here by first encounter with Gavin Maxwell in The Ring of Bright Water, which was the perfect thing to read in the Outer Hebrides – a funny, eccentric book about living with an otter in Scotland. Although the best bit isn’t actually in Scotland, it’s when he’s trying to take his otter home on an aeroplane and the otter causes utter farcical delightful chaos.

But enough of all this old stuff, I have read some new things too. And actually some of them were quite cutting edge and very very good. They made me feel tinglingly excited about writing today. Ali Smith’s There but for the is a delightful riff of a book, jumping from pun to pun to pun, all within bigger meta-puns. It’s very clever but also very enjoyable. A playful love of language radiates from the book, which makes it hard to resist. Landfall by Helen Gordon was very good too, seeming to be quite a normal sort of book and then suddenly swerving into something quite extraordinary.

But – best of all – is A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, which I’ve just finished reading. This book has been so ridiculously over-hyped that I almost felt I knew so much about it just from everyone going on and on about it that I couldn’t quite be bothered to read it myself. But oh my god what an absolutely genius, brilliant book. It is written with such verve, so sharp, so funny – yet also quietly sad. It’s a book which screams NEW YORK at you. It is New York. Essentially, Egan looks at a group of characters who work in the music industry. Each chapter takes one of the characters at a certain time (jumping back several decades hopping forward into the future and stopping off at moments in between) and captures various moments in their lives. I loved it and could go on about it for hours, but shall limit myself here to one particular aspect that I found to be fascinating and brilliantly-realised: the future. There are two chapters set in the future. The first one is written in power-point slides, as though, by then, this is how people communicate. Lawns are a dream of the past, as you have to have loads of carbon credits to get them now, and there is a strange alien solar plant which also harvests moonlight. The other chapter sees the very clever invention of ‘pointers’ – toddlers who ‘point’ at what they want on people’s ubiquitous ‘handsets’ and thereby determine powerful trends. So, for instance, several bands have brought out songs to appeal to ‘pointers’, because the children literally ‘point’ at the handset to download it and the sales shoot through the roof. Having endured several nauseating conversations by yummy mummys in the bookshop about how ‘Little Rupert and Milly’ are so intuitive with their iPhones, this felt like an alarmingly plausible vision for the near-future. It is WEIRD how tiny children take to iPhones and iPads so easily and intuitively. How weird to think that this could be such a strong connection that it could essentially make them the ultimate consumer.

I shall end, appropriately, with Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending. I expect, as it won the Booker, you’ve probably read lots about it already. It is very clever, very addictive and it’s likely that, as soon as you finish it (which will be soon after you start, as it is slim and so unputdownable), you will want to start again to try and figure it out. The cold, sparse way in which it’s written didn’t bother me as much as it might have done. Perhaps it was because it’s a cold, detached sort of story so that style is perfect. It’s a very good book. And a beautiful object too.

All in all, a brilliant year of reading. I wonder what next year holds in store.