Posts Tagged ‘John Donne’


January 22, 2014

Those of you who might have thought I was slacking off in not providing a post for your delectation on Monday, I hereby prove you wrong! I was merely getting you hungrily excited for THIS:

Six Views from a Window

Click through to read my essay in the brand new issue of the wonderful Junket.

Enjoy! And I’d love to know of your own window-gazing thoughts and experiences.




Sunset Song

August 13, 2012

There was no post last week because I was up in the wilds of Ardnamurchan, staying somewhere so beautiful and remote that there was no electricity, let alone an internet connection.

I have often mentioned my predilection for reading books that match the setting. This wee trip to Scotland was a welcome opportunity to revisit the pile of Scottish books I bought when we went to Harris last year, and I got too caught up with Gavin Maxwell’s wonderful Ring of Bright Water to read any of the rest of them.This time, I picked Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. And so I embarked upon one of the most enjoyable reading experiences of my life.

Every day, in the late morning – once we’d blearily risen and tidied the mess from the previous night’s drunken antics, which in a caravan swiftly becomes mountainous – I poured a mug of coffee and climbed up on to the rocks where I sat and read, the breeze snatching my hair, alone apart from the occasional gull and eagle. Every very few pages I looked up and saw Arnamurchan lighthouse, marking the most Westerly point on the British mainland, poised over a sandy white beach, on which the boys were usually playing Frisbee or beach golf.

In the other direction, loomed the Lord-of-the-Rings-like islands Eigg, Muck and Rhum, and – if it was really clear – there was a glimpse of the Outer Hebrides too. What a view! (The artfully placed book marks the very spot where I sat.)


Admittedly, Sunset Song is set in a different bit of Scotland – in the fictional Kinraddie, just inland from Aberdeen. And when Gibbon writes so lovingly of the land there, he is writing about the hills, not the sea. But still, I felt I was breathing the same fresh Scottish air, experiencing the same feel of the landscape – far more dramatic than anything England’s got to offer.

Sunset Song is about Kinraddie and its community. It was written in the 1930s and – aside from a whistle-stop, bonkers, Danny Boyleish historical tour in the Prelude – set in the few years preceding the First World War. These years, although harsh and tough, are portrayed as something of a golden age before war comes and wreaks destruction on the community. The story centres on Chris Guthrie, who we meet when she’s just sixteen, torn between pursuing an intellectual life of studying English books or a more visceral appreciation of the Scottish land:

Oh, Chris, my lass, there are better things than your books or studies or loving or bedding, there’s the countryside your own, you its, in the days when you’re neither bairn nor woman.

That tight inversion ‘your own, you its’ reveals just how close Chris’s connection is with the land, as indeed is everyone’s who works their croft in this community. It reminds me of John Donne’s line in ‘The Good Morrow’, ‘my face in thine eye, thine in mine appears’ and perhaps this mingling of people and land is not unlike that of lovers, without wanting to get too D.H. Lawrence about it.

This division between books and the land is echoed in other divisions portrayed in the book – brain and body, town and country, but most fundamentally, English and Scottish. And this is felt most keenly in the language:

Every damned little narrow-dowped rat that you met put on the English if he thought he’d impress you – as though Scotch wasn’t good enough now, it had words in it that the thin bit scraichs of the English could never come at. And Rob said You can tell me, man, what’s the English for sotter, or greip, or smore, or pleiter, gloaming or glunching or well-kenspeckled? And if you said gloaming was sunset you’d fair be a liar…

I think my favourite of these words has got to be ‘glunching’, which Gibbon thoughtfully translates in the much-needed glossary at the back of the book to mean ‘to mutter half-threateningly, half-fearfully’. I now fully intend to glunch at people.

Perhaps a nation’s roots are felt most keenly through its language. This would explain why we spend so much time tirelessly chatting with Americans to point out the differences between ‘lift’ and ‘elevator’, ‘pavement’ and ‘sidewalk’, ‘petrol’ and ‘gas’. Difference is more identifying than sameness and it is usually with a feeling of pride that people cling to these points of variation, especially if they are the underdog, the smaller, less powerful party. Small wonder then that the Scottish crofters in the book feel so protective over their language. Keep on glunching at those posh English chaps who rule over you and are going to make you fight to your deaths in Belgium, say I! English is seen as a snobby thing, as a way of raising yourself up above the commoners, and, moreover, it is seen as false. For as Chris comes to realise:

The English words so sharp and clean and true – for a while, for a while, till they slid so smooth from your throat you knew they could never say anything that was worth the saying at all.

Of course I disagree. But I expect that if I lived in this marvellous rugged countryside, with a language born to express it, I’d also feel that English words never said much that was worth saying.

Gibbon himself evidently felt this tug in opposing directions, one Scottish, one English. In her introduction, Ali Smith tells how he was born in the Scottish parish of Arbuthnott – on which Kinraddie was based – but then moved in later life to English suburban Welwyn Garden City. For the more Scottish of his books he used the pen name ‘Lewis Grassic Gibbon’, adapted from his maternal grandmother’s name, but his English books were written with his English name James Leslie Mitchell.

As you might have gathered from the various quotations, while Sunset Song is written in English, it is an English fused, idiosyncratically, with bits of Scots. Words like ‘meikle’, ‘bit’ and ‘quean’ (to mean respectively ‘great’, ‘something vaguely derogatory’ and ‘girl’) are used so often that they are part of the rhythm of the language, punctuating it so frequently that you take on the inflections in your head. Thankfully, I refrained from talking like this to my friends, but it was certainly an easy lilt to pick up and one that resounded in my head while I sat there on the rocks looking out at the islands.

Sunset Song revels in this unique synthesis of language. It is English enough for an Englishwoman, like me, to read, yet it is undeniably Scottish. You need the glossary, but you don’t resent looking the words up, and before long you can feel the sense of the words without having to check them every few minutes. The result is a prose that really sings and dances off the page, not unlike the Ceilidh that takes place during one of the happiest moments of the book.

It is a marvellous book – but it is for sure a book, and Gibbon takes care in Sunset Song to associate books with Englishness, as opposed to Scottishness. Is Sunset Song then a claiming of literature for Scottishness, an appropriating of this English medium into something Scottish? It has been heralded as ‘the first really Scottish novel’ and the language certainly makes an English reader think in Scots – albeit a doctored version of it. Or is it a conquering of Scottishness by English, an act of colonisation, of capturing the Scottish land within a book? It is words that describe the landscape and many of them are English ones. Most importantly it is called ‘Sunset Song’, not, as Rob would have it in the quotation above, ‘Gloaming Song’. It is a troubling paradox indeed.

As well as reading, we did a little walking up in Ardnamurchan. We climbed to the top of a nearby mountain, sat there and watched two eagles soar through the valley, while someone in the distance struck up a tune on the bagpipes. It was too perfect for words. Then we clambered down, scrabbling through the gorse and the heather. I am particularly bad at those kind of scrambles and feared that the Scottish land might take revenge on my clumsy English feet (clad in rather smart new walking boots), but somehow I got to the bottom unscathed. Not so our Spanish friend who fell off the side of the rockface and tumbled half-way to the bottom of the mountain, the offending loose piece of rock bouncing alarming after him. By a miracle he survived, but perhaps the Scottish land was indeed protesting. Fine, it said, you English scum can trample the heather, but a Spaniard too? Not likely. If nothing else, it certainly made our Spanish friend start glunching.

Dinosaurs at Dungeness

March 27, 2012

My husband and I got out of London and spent the weekend in Dungeness – a coincidence of a lucky break in the bookshop rota and six months of being married was too happy a thing to let pass us by.

It’s a strange place, Dungeness. The man in the hotel described it as ‘Mad Max country’. It certainly feels wild, unkempt, eerily disregarded and forgotten about. Old boats, shipping containers, and rusted winches strew the endless expanse of shingle beach; industrial flotsam left behind by the retreating sea. A nuclear power station gently hums, looming behind two lighthouses, which look almost like fairground rides.

The person most associated with Dungeness is the artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman, who moved there when suffering from AIDS. He eked out a strange garden from the inhospitable shingle, scrubby plants arranged around odd bits of flotsamed rusty metal. His house, Prospect Cottage, still stands, and you can walk right up into the garden, which is overlooked by a John Donne poem mounted on the side of his house. The poem is the beginning and end of ‘The Sun Rising’, setting a peculiarly hopeful scene of daybreak and beginning, given that Jarman’s life was drawing to its close.

But Derek Jarman and John Donne weren’t so much on my mind. Instead, as we wandered across this strange landscape, I kept thinking of Virginia Woolf. This was in part because I am reading Olivia Laing’s wonderful To the River (of which more in a future post), in part because Dungeness is just a short hop along the coast from Woolf’’s East Sussex, and in part thanks to the profusion of lighthouses. This, in spite of the fact that Woolf never, to my knowledge, went to Dungeness. I can’t see any mention of it in her letters or diaries, in any case. I’m not sure she would have liked it much. So bleak and strange the landscape.

But the feeling I got at Dungeness reminded me very much of a preoccupation in her last novel Between the Acts. At university, I always felt this was the novel that I understood the least, the one that I didn’t quite get, in which I couldn’t quite discover the genius that was, doubtless, there. When I’ve read it, read about it, and thought about it since, I’ve admired Woolf’s playfulness with words, the feeling of her listening to language as it is spoken, and her success in capturing that on the page.

But what I was drawn to at university was her preoccupation with prehistory. Time and again in Between the Acts the long-ago past is summoned and strangely conflated into the present day. Perhaps this is clearest near the beginning:

… [she] had spent the hours between three and five thinking of rhododendron forests in Piccadilly; when the entire continent, not then, she understood, divided by a channel, was all one; populated, she understood, by elephant-bodied, seal-necked, heaving, surging, slowly writhing, and, she supposed, barking monsters; the iguanodon, the mammoth, and the mastodon; from whom presumably, she thought, jerking the window open, we descend.

It took her five seconds in actual time, in mind time ever so much longer, to separate Grace herself, with blue china on a tray, from the leather-covered grunting monster who was about, as the door opened, to demolish a whole tree in the green steaming undergrowth of the primeval forest. Naturally, she jumped, as Grace put the tray down and said: ‘Good morning, Ma’am.’

I hope you don’t mind the long quotation, but it really is so tremendously clever, I couldn’t bring myself to cut it short. I love it when novelists bring dinosaurs into the equation. One of my favourite bits of Dickens is the opening of Bleak House, when ‘it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn-hill’. But back to Woolf. What the hell is she doing with time?!

First of all we are told quite clearly that the real time of the present are the two hours, ‘between three and five’. But she (who is, in fact, Mrs Swithin) uses those two hours to think of a strange prehistoric time, imagining it both in the large scale of continental geography and in the minute realisation of rhododendron forests in Piccadilly. The ‘monsters’ are really quite extraordinarily described – I like the way Woolf picks out their imagined movements: ‘heaving, surging, slowly writhing’, and then there’s the threat of violence, felt so often in Between the Acts, in ‘barking’. But this strange vision of the past is made relevant to the present. Here we are back in the moment, ‘jerking the window open’ and the link is openly stated: ‘we descend’ from the monsters.

On to more odd time stuff: there’s the ‘actual time’ of ‘five seconds’ contrasted with the ‘mind time’ of ‘ever so much longer’ and this time is used to try and separate this strange conflation of worlds: to distinguish Grace, the servant, from the monster of Mrs Swithin’s imaginings. The monster hasn’t been left behind in pre-history, he is still there and – now we get a flash of the future – ‘about, as the door opened, to demolish a whole tree’. This very clever episode is brought to a brilliant, bathetic close: Mrs Swithin jumps at the servant putting down the tray and wishing her good morning. The reality of mundane life is here. It is ‘morning’. The monsters of the past are gone.

But the monsters stay lurking close to the surface throughout Between the Acts. Again and again, we feel that time can conflate, that something that happened so long ago could burst through the surface of the present. Mrs Swithin says, later on, ‘Once there was no sea … no sea at all between us and the continent.’ Later, Giles kicks a stone ‘a flinty yellow stone, a sharp stone, edged as if cut by a savage for an arrow. A Barbaric stone; a pre-historic.’ History and pre-history are there, in the stones, in the landscape, literally, just below the surface.

No there weren’t any dinosaurs at Dungeness. But there was something about the feeling of abandonment there, something about the way the sea drifted ever outwards, exposing more and more shingle, rendering the boats and winches useless, that felt epic, connected to a bigger time scale than we can easily imagine.

Not far from Dungeness, we sought out the ‘Listening Ears’. These things, of which I’d never heard, but which the husband was determined to find, are extraordinary old concrete structures that were built to ‘listen’ to approaching aircraft and act as an early-warning system. They were built around the time of Woolf’s writing, in the twenties and thirties, but were swiftly rendered obsolete by the invention of radar.

You can only see the Listening Ears up close on special tours in the summer, so we climbed to the top of a shingle bank and looked at them in the distance across a vast moat. The husband threatened to swim over there.

The Listening Ears are magnificent and strange. More abandoned things. More relics of a time that’s past. More pieces of obsoletism. Looking at them there, standing huge amidst the scrub and gorse, they seemed impossibly ancient and indestructible. They looked so odd they could almost be Aztec. And I couldn’t help but imagine them in thousands of years’ time, overgrown with jungle – perhaps forests of rhododendron bushes. What would they think, whoever discovered them? Would they think they were methods of worship, of praying to the sky gods, ways to listen for omens in the wind? I felt as though time were conflating before my eyes, that something from the thirties could be from an ancient civilisation, and yet could also date us as an ancient civilisation.

Perhaps I can’t convey the feeling quite as elegantly as Woolf, but it was certainly very strange indeed.

A Literary A-Z

May 3, 2011

Time for episode two in the series – D,E, and F.


‘Dahl for D’, someone commented on the first installation of this literary A-Z. But what about Dickens, eh? Or Dalrymple? Or Dostoevsky? Or, for that matter, Donne? D seems to have particularly rich pickings.

Dahl is indeed a strong contender – for his adult short stories, fantastically weird and chilling, as well as his better-known children’s work. But, one doesn’t have to look hard to discover that he was not a very nice man. As Kathryn Hughes in the Guardian put it:

No matter how you spin it … Roald Dahl was an absolute sod. Crashing through life like a big, bad child he managed to alienate pretty much everyone he ever met with his grandiosity, dishonesty and spite.

In light of the stiff competition, perhaps this nastiness is reason enough to put Dahl to one side.

William Dalrymple is in the shortlist because his book From the Holy Mountain was the first piece of travel writing I read. A friend at school gave me a copy and I was absolutely blown away by it. It also meant that I spent most of my GAP year writing a journal in a rather overblown literary style. I think that luckily it’s now got lost somewhere.

Dostoevsky, yes he’s good, but, personally, I never get on as well with the Russians as I’d like. The writers that is, not the people. Some of my best friends are Russian.

So D, when scrutinised a little more rigorously, comes down to Dickens versus Donne. It’s a strange clash – the master of the neverending sentence versus the master of concise imagery.

Dickens is undoubtedly one of the great British novelists. His sentences may be long, but you want to get to the end of them because of his brilliant plots. Bleak House, I remember a friend telling me, five minutes before one of our first year exams at Oxford, was the first ever detective story. His stories endure, now adapted for television, film, stage, musical …

But, Donne. Well, ‘the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together’ was Johnson’s famous critique of his metaphysical images. And it is by pulling out the gaps between different ideas, ‘yoking’ them so violently together that he achieves such surprising, unique, concise, and effective images. The lovers are ‘stiff twin compasses’, so that when one ‘far doth roam’ the other ‘leans, and hearkens after it,/And grows erect, as that comes home.’ (I can still remember sniggering about this at school.)

And if I’m honest, and I’m a bit ashamed of this soppiness, I’ve got to choose Donne, because, to my mind, he writes about love better than anyone else. ‘My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,’ from ‘The Good Morrow’ is beautiful and perfect. It can’t be beaten.


I’ll cut to the chase here. Eliot versus Eliot. Another case of novelist versus poet. George versus T.S.

George Eliot is magnificent. Middlemarch is widely accepted as one of the greatest novels of all time. Virginia Woolf said it was ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people’. I have always preferred Daniel Deronda, for reasons which I go into in this earlier post. Her novels are full of terribly astute observations, such as this one from Middlemarch:

Will not a tiny speck very close to our vision blot out the glory of the world, and leave only a margin by which we see the blot?

Clever lady. And great plots too.

T.S. Eliot. Well he’s also clever. At times, admittedly, he’s more than a little obtuse. I remember spending hours puzzling over his Four Quartets at university. I decided that to try to get to the bottom of it, I’d draw pictures of what I thought he was saying. I ended up drawing endless circles, and decided that that was the whole point. It didn’t go down particularly well in my tutorial. There are some marvellous images in his poems, some, which Johnson might have thought were also yoked by violence together. But I feel particularly fond of T.S. for his playful children’s poems. Whenever I get in a muddle about something like:

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable.

Then I console myself with something from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, be it Macavity, Mr Mistoffelees, or even Growltiger:

His manners and appearance did not calculate to please;

His coat was torn and seedy, he was baggy at the knees;

One ear was somewhat missing, no need to tell you why,

And he scowled upon a hostile world from one forbidding eye.

But enough deliberating … I’m going for George Eliot. Just because I think it would be wrong not to.


F is obviously Forster. But I shall swiftly mention some other excellent Fs too: Fitzgerald, Flaubert, Fanon, Faulkner. Now back to Forster.

Forster is possibly my favourite writer. Full stop. I think he is a genius. His novels are a perfect mixture of neat, satisfying plot and meaty ideas. He is very good at writing about the English. Especially the English abroad. How do the English respond to a different country, to a different landscape? (I wrote about his use of landscape here.) And how do English good intentions make everyone else suffer?

I suggested to someone in the bookshop that he might enjoy Forster, to which he replied that he thought Forster was something one read only at school. It’s a terrible shame that Forster’s work has accrued the dust and must of a classics, the forbidding black jackets, the scary expectation of something impossibly high-brow. Really his novels aren’t difficult at all. And to prove my point, I shall end this post with is ingeniously mock-casual opening to Howards End, which I defy anyone to find intimidating:

One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister.

If you haven’t read any Forster, well one may as well begin with Howards End.