Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

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.


Birthday books

November 12, 2012

As you’ll have seen from last week’s post, Thursday 8th November was my birthday. I suspect that you won’t be surprised to hear that I was given a few books as presents. They are all rather special – and one is little short of a miracle.

First, my friend Sophie – evidently inspired by my endless stories of strange things that happen in the bookshop – bought me this funny little book Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell. It is packed with all sorts of silly lines:

‘Is this book edible?’

‘Do you have any books in this shade of green, to match the wrapping paper I’ve bought?’

‘Hi, I just wanted to ask: did Anne Frank ever write a sequel?’

This exchange is particularly familiar:

Customer: You don’t have a very good selection of books.

Bookseller: We’ve got over ten thousand books.

Customer: Well, you don’t have the book I’ve written!

I still can’t get over quite how many strange things happen in the bookshop. At least once a week, I have an extraordinary encounter. You might remember the time when we chased the notorious Mr Men thief – an old lady who actually had a real get-away car and driver waiting for her outside. Just last week a strange man came in asking for books about herbs and then told me I had the face of an angel. ‘It’s your Grandfather’s face,’ he said, to which I replied that my Grandfather didn’t look particularly angelic.

It is truly an extraordinarily weird place to work, yielding one bizarre encounter after another. But it’s surprisingly tricky to convey the oddness of it to friends. Those exchanges – so loopy when they happen – lose something in translation, fall a little bit flat, and I’m usually left with a yawning husband trying to change the subject, while I wonder how I can be a writer and such a terrible story-teller. One day, I will sit down and write a book about it, and maybe then, I’ll manage to convey something of its strangeness. For now, at least I can comfort myself with this record of other booksellers’ similarly peculiar encounters – thank-you Sophie!

My aunt-in-law (probably the wrong technical term) gave me a very handsome Everyman edition of Doctor Thorne by Trollope. This was particularly good timing as I have been longing to get stuck into a big thick engrossing novel, rather than all these slim ones to which I seem to have grown addicted. Added to which, a friend just got back from her honeymoon and said that one of the best bits was reading so much Trollope. Praise indeed! I must read some, I thought to myself, as I’m ashamed to say I’ve not read any Trollope at all. No excuses now, I can’t wait to begin.

My mother-in-law gave me a beautiful exhibition catalogue of Sylvia Plath’s drawings. I hadn’t realised that Plath was an artist as well as a poet, and it’s fascinating to look at these intricate, beautiful drawings. There seems to be a honeymoon theme amongst these birthday books, as many of Plath’s drawings date from her honeymoon with Ted Hughes, in Paris and then Spain. They are mostly of things – pots and fruit, stoves, bottles, a few of buildings – roof tops, a ‘colourful’ kiosk, and not many of people.

I remember studying Plath’s poetry when I was at school, I think it must have been for GCSE. Bits of them have stayed resolutely with me, which is surprising as I have a terrible memory for specific quotations and am usually much better at  hanging on to the gist of things, while the actual words are forgotten.

Not so with Plath: I still have ‘Love set you going like a fat gold watch’, and the ‘bald cry’ of the child, mouth ‘clean as a cat’, ‘vowels rising’ from ‘Morning Song’. I remember ‘the swarmy feeling of African hands’, and the horrid idea of a coffin ‘of a midget, /Or a square baby’ in ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’. Most of all, I remember her poem ‘Mushrooms’ – ‘nudgers and shovers / In spite of ourselves’ – the threatening feeling of which freaked me out so much that I’ve struggled to eat our fungal friends ever since. Now I think of it, I suppose that like her drawings, her poetry is often full of things, rather than people. As Carol Ann Duffy, who has just brought together a selection of Plath’s poetry in another very beautiful book, wrote for the Guardian recently:

A vocational poet like Plath gives life back to us in glittering language – life with great suffering, yes, but also with melons, spinach, figs, children and countryside, moles, bees, snakes, tulips, kitchens and friendships.

Children and friendship are almost lost amongst the melons, spinach, figs, moles, bees and all those other things.

I’ve saved the miracle for last.

My mother very sweetly and thoughtfully told me that she’d like to buy me a special book – a first edition of something I loved – and suggested that it could be repeated every year, so she could help me to build up a library. (You might remember that she gave me this beautiful set of Virginia Woolf letters and diaries for my twenty-first.) So off we trotted to Peter Harrington, a fine antiquarian bookshop in Chelsea.

We went upstairs to the twentieth-century literature section where I let my eyes drift slowly across the very tall bookcases, packed with tantalisingly old and special-looking books. I stopped towards the end of the Bs, when I saw Bowen’s Court by Elizabeth Bowen. I’ve not read many books by Elizabeth Bowen, but those I have, I  adored. (I wrote about Bowen’s Court itself here, The Heat of the Day here, and The House in Paris here.) I asked the bookseller if he had any other books by Elizabeth Bowen, thinking that this might be a chance to get a special edition of one of her books that I had yet to read.

The bookseller leapt off his antique chair and bounded over to the bookcase. ‘That Elizabeth Bowen’s a great book,’ he said.

‘I know,’ I replied, ‘I’ve read it.’ I felt a little smug, for not many people have read Bowen’s Court, an idiosyncratic history of her ancestral home, Anglo-Irish family and Ireland itself, which is now out-of-print.

‘Look.’ He fished it down from the shelf and opened it up.

My eyes nearly dropped out of their sockets. There on the first page was this:

I realised then that when the bookseller had said it was a great book, he wasn’t talking about the writing, but the actual thing itself. This was a great book indeed.

I picked it up and held it, feeling the book weigh heavy in my hands. I told myself that I was holding a book that E.M. Forster had held. This was the actual book that Elizabeth Bowen had given to E.M. Forster. They had both held it, one after the other. I wondered if she had posted it to him, inscribing it, wrapping it up and taking it to he post office to send. Or perhaps she had given it to a mutual friend, who she knew would be seeing him soon. Or perhaps she gave it to him herself, when she went round there for tea one day. ‘Morgan, I do hope you like my new book,’ she might have said, over a slice of cake. There is a whole story here in this book aside from the one written in its pages. This story is nearly invisible, its traces remaining in that pencil inscription and in where it might fall open more easily (pages 62-3, 98-9, 222-223), or where there are liver spots of moisture (page 83), even a corner a little bent (229).

I read Bowen’s Court after I came across it in Alexandra Harris’ wonderful book Romantic Moderns. I thought it would be useful research for my own novel, which is about the stories held in a derelict house, and added it to my list of ‘house books’ – books in which houses have a real presence, along with those like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Judith Flanders’ The Victorian House and E.M. Forster’s Howards End.

When it came to writing my novel, there were three quotations from all my house reading that I found particularly inspiring and which I decided to use as epigraphs. The first is from Howards End by Forster:

Houses have their own ways of dying, falling as variously as the generations of men, some with a tragic roar, some quietly but to an afterlife in the city of ghosts.

The second is from Bowen’s Court:

With the end of each generation, the lives that submerged here were absorbed again. With each death, the air of the place had thickened: it had been added to. The dead do not need to visit Bowen’s Court rooms – as I said, we had no ghosts in that house – because they already permeated them. Their extinct senses were present in lights and forms.

So you see, to have chanced upon Forster’s copy of Bowen’s Court, so soon after finishing the first draft of my novel, felt like a miracle.

I can’t wait to read all these books – to giggle at other booksellers’ weird encounters, to become thoroughly absorbed in a huge dollop of Trollope, to gaze at these drawings of objects that inspired such a poet, and to hold Bowen’s Court in my hands, gently turning the pages while thinking of Forster doing the very same thing in June 1942.

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.


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.

Derek Walcott’s enigmatic arrival

May 21, 2010

Something excruciatingly embarrassing happened the other day in the bookshop.

It was well into the evening and the shop was almost empty when an old man shuffled his way in, announcing his arrival by means of a loud hacking cough. The cough was so bad that I was nervous of catching TB if I got too close. I tried to appear willing to help (albeit from a distance) but the old man completely ignored me and began to paw pondersously at some books, evidently happy to be left alone to browse. And cough.

Eventually he staggered his way further into the shop and at that moment another customer appeared, asking for some help. Ten minutes or so later, I looked around and saw that the old man was sitting down on a chair, not reading, just staring into space.

Oh no, I thought, it’s half an hour before we close and a tramp has taken up residence. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind tramps at all. I think the only reason we’re not really supposed to have tramps in the shop is because other customers have been known to complain. But, as I mentioned, the shop was almost empty, so he wasn’t disturbing anyone else. I was just nervous that he might refuse to leave when it was time to lock up.

I decided not to worry about it, and that I’d ask my colleague what to do when she reappeared – she’d been off helping a customer downstairs for quite some time.

At that moment, my colleague skipped up to me, out-of-breath, in a flap, rather stressed out. ‘Oh my god, Derek Walcott’s here and I can’t find any of his poetry.’

‘Derek Walcott? Wow, I love Derek Walcott. How amazing! Where is he? Have you been helping him downstairs?’

‘No, he’s just over there, sitting down. These two women who are friends of his have been asking me to find his books.’

Yes, you have deduced correctly. I thought the Nobel-Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott was a tramp.

In my defence, I’d like to point out that I never recognise anyone famous. The other day someone had to tell me I’d just been serving Orlando Bloom. (I’d assumed he was just a rather cocky, handsome chap, who had more money than sense, grabbing twenty expensive hardbacks off the shelf in about five minutes flat.) And, I suppose, writers are particularly hard to recognise because often one knows their work better than their face. Still, I remain suitably humiliated and embarrassed by the mistake.

Perhaps it was an attempt to make amends, more likely just curiosity, but I did some hunting around the internet to find out a bit more about Derek Walcott, who, other than seeming like a tuberculosised tramp, really didn’t come across as particularly charming. For instance, when I told him we’d sold so many copies of his new collection White Egrets that we’d completely run out, he just grunted at me. Yes, grunted.

I discovered there is a rather ungentlemanly snipey rivalry between Derek Walcott and V.S. Naipaul. This erupted particularly viciously when Walcott recited a poem called ‘The Mongoose’ a couple of years ago. The poem begins, ‘I have been bitten, I must avoid infection/Or else I’ll be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction’ and continues in this vein.

The poem is, journalists concluded, Walcott’s revenge for a rather backhanded article that Naipaul wrote about him in the Guardian, in which Naipaul praised his very early work, implying that his later work wasn’t really up to much.

I also read another poem from Walcott’s collection White Egrets, published on the Guardian website (so I don’t feel quite as nervous about copyright infringement by reprinting it here):


This page is a cloud between whose fraying edges

a headland with mountains appears brokenly

then is hidden again until what emerges

from the now cloudless blue is the grooved sea

and the whole self-naming island, its ochre verges,

its shadow-plunged valleys and a coiled road

threading the fishing villages, the white, silent surges

of combers along the coast, where a line of gulls has arrowed

into the widening harbour of a town with no noise,

its streets growing closer like a print you can now read,

two cruise ships, schooners, a tug, ancestral canoes,

as a cloud slowly covers the page and it goes

white again and the book comes to a close.

Perhaps it was because Naipaul was in my mind after learning about the Mongoose debacle, but the poem immediately brought to mind a moment from his book The Enigma of Arrival. I’m sure neither Walcott nor Naipaul would be thrilled about the connection.

About a third of the way through Naipaul’s book, the narrator – a writer from Trinidad, who’s moved to Wiltshire – remembers when he first left the Caribbean several years ago. He describes the view from the aeroplane window and notices the transformation from what is seen from the ground:

At ground level so poor to me, so messy, so full of huts and gutters and bare front yards and straggly hibiscus hedges and shabby back yards: views from the roadside. From the air, though, a landscape of logic and larger pattern: the straight lines and regularity and woven, carpet-like texture of sugar-cane fields, so extensive from up there, leaving so little room for people, except at the very edges; the large unknown area of swampland, curiously still, the clumps of mangrove and brilliant-green swamp trees casting black shadows on the milky-green water; the forested peaks and dips and valleys of the mountain range; a landscape of clear pattern and contours, absorbing all the roadside messiness …

Surely the effect is similar to Walcott’s ‘headland with mountains … ochre verges … shadow-plunged valleys and a coiled road’?

Of course a vital difference is that Naipaul’s narrator sees the island at his moment of departure, of taking off, of leaving a landscape of childhood behind. Walcott’s is an image of arrival, of landing, of the ‘streets growing closer’ rather than further away.

But Naipaul also describes an arrival in the Caribbean. This is right at the end of the book, when the narrator returns to Trinidad and describes the changes wrought on the landscape:

Where there had been swamp at the foot of the Northern Range, with mud huts with earthen walls that showed the damp half-way up, there was now a landscape of Holland: acres upon acres of vegetable plots, the ridges and furrows and irrigation canals straight … No narrow roads; no dark, overhanging trees; no huts; no earth yards with hibiscus hedges … But highways and clover-shaped exits and direction boards: a wooded land laid bare, its secrets opened up.

The romantic, nostalgic ‘roadside messiness’ of his childhood Trinidad has been erased; ‘hibiscus hedges’ and ‘shabby back yards’ have been replaced with clean ‘straight’ irrigation canals and highways. The narrator has seen Trinidad as ‘a landscape of clear patterns and contours’ before, when he first left the island, when looking down from the aeroplane. But when he arrives, the change in perspective is brought about by time rather than point of view. And what makes the arrival so tragic, so hopelessly nostalgic, is that it should be a return, a going back to the initial point of view of roadside shabbiness. The narrator has landed in Trinidad, but he can’t regain that initial perspective of his childhood. As he says: ‘we couldn’t go back. There was no ship of antique shape now to take us back.’

So there is nothing really particularly enigmatic about the arrival back in the Caribbean in Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival. The Caribbean landscape has been transformed irrevocably into something new – into ‘a landscape of Holland’ – and all that is left of the messy romance of the old is nostalgia.

Ironically, it is Walcott’s image of arrival that is more mysterious. He links old and new together. The road in his poem isn’t a brutal ‘highway’ with ‘clover-shaped exits and direction boards’, it is ‘a coiled road/threading the fishing villages’, seemingly organic, vital, part of the island’s indigenous way of life. The island is ‘self-naming’, retaining its own identity and its ‘shadow-plunged valleys’, rather than being like ‘Holland’ and ‘laid bare’, like Naipaul’s island.

And whereas Naipaul states, ‘There was no ship of antique shape now to take us back’, Walcott describes boats from all eras: there are ‘ancestral canoes’ sitting alongside modern ‘cruise ships’, seventeenth-century ‘schooners’ and ‘a tug’.

Walcott’s poem transcends time, binding old and new together in a beautiful image of hopeful synthesis – even if it’s only a momentary glimpse, in between the clouds. But for Naipaul, the present has erased the past, and, sadly, I can’t see Walcott lending him one of his ‘ancestral canoes’.

A Literary Environment Secretary

May 10, 2010

In the Review section of Saturday’s Guardian – my favourite bit of newspaper – John Crace, writer of the Guardian’s Digested Reads, composed a fantasy literary cabinet. He’s a very clever man, and his list made me smirk in a rather smugly erudite fashion. I particularly liked his putting JG Ballard up for Transport Secretary because of his book Crash (see my post on it here).

But I was somewhat disappointed with his choice for Environment Secretary, Graham Greene (it’s in the name). Yes, ha ha, but surely there are better candidates.

The environment is terribly in vogue at the moment and several authors are addressing issues of climate change – in both non-fiction (An Inconvenient Truth, The World Without Bees, The Plundered Planet etc.) and fiction (Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood, Ian McEwan’s Solar, Douglas Coupland’s Generation A).

But I don’t think that one would have to choose from today’s crop of climate-change-aware writers. Frankly, I can’t think of anything worse than making Ian McEwan more smug than he is already. Although climate change and the environment are quite modern concerns, if one combs through Britain’s literary past there are several environmentally-aware writers waiting to be picked.

Of course the Victorians would be out of the picture. The Industrial Revolution, perceived by most of them as brilliant change and progress is now acknowledged as probably the biggest man-made environmental disaster ever. If only Dickens had been as concerned about emissions levels as he was about the slums.

But the Romantics would be good. Nature was terribly important to Wordsworth and Coleridge. Perhaps they’d incentivise Staycations in the Lake District.

For my ideal literary Environment Secretary, however, I’d go back to Andrew Marvell. He was a politician, serving as MP for Hull from 1659 until his death, but also appreciated nature, images of which frequent his poetry. In fact Marvell often uses nature as metaphor for politics. In his poem ‘Upon the Hill and Grove at Bilbrough‘, he shuns mountains, which ‘fright’ Heaven and ‘deform’ Earth, in favour of hills, more ‘courteous’ to travellers:

Not for it self the height does gain,

But only strives to raise the Plain.

He transforms a hill into a symbol for democracy, a way of raising everybody, preferring it to a mountain which is harder to climb. I rather like this idea. Perhaps his Republican politics and love of hills would lead to a policy of ‘Hill-Walking For All’ – everyone would be entitled to a few days a year in which they should go rambling through nature. I often think, having grown up in London, how easy it is to be divorced from nature. Remember that Ali G clip when he goes to the countryside and sees a cow? (‘What the fuck is that?’ he asked in horror/shock/bemusement.) If every city-dweller had to spend just a bit of time in the countryside it would increase people’s awareness of nature and – one hopes – would increase their respect for the environment.

Elsewhere Marvell writes about gardens, comparing them rather unfavourably with fields and untampered-with Nature. In ‘The Mower against Gardens‘ he portrays gardens as artificial, as ‘vex’ed, a place where flowers are ‘taught to paint’, the result of some gross fecundity. Fields, on the other hand, are ‘plain and pure’. Gardens are shown to be artificial places of seclusion from the public world (the fields) and Marvell’s disdain for the private world, separated from public life is clear in this unflattering portrayal.

Gardens are better for Marvell in ‘The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Faun‘, in which the garden is so overgrown that it is ‘a little Wilderness’. I can imagine that this wouldn’t go down quite so well in Middle England. No water features, exotic flowers and gnomes – replace them with local wildflowers and let them get overgrown. Not quite Alan Titchmarsh.

But if gardens are metaphors for poetry, Marvell suggests that poetry shouldn’t be full of artificial beauty, gaudy colours, flowery lines, cut off from the public world, but should in fact be a way of engaging with the wilderness – with public life – just in a smaller, more manageable, contained form. Art should engage with politics, in other words, rather than only being concerned with its own aesthetic ends. I wonder how that would go down with the East End art scene. It would be a shame if this idea sparked a resurgence of the Tony Blair days, when Oasis were round at Downing Street for tea all the time. But I suppose it could be a way of spreading political awareness to the masses. Perhaps the Lib Dems could get Banksy to do their next campaign.

It’s just a shame that Marvell’s engagement with politics, and nature, was predominantly only in his poems. Although he became an MP in 1659, until then he spent most of his life as an academic, tutoring rather than being politically active. But I’m sure we could get him to agree to be Environment Secretary. All we’d have to do to cajole him out of his cloistered garden would be to make a wild roof garden on top of the Houses of Parliament. And, best of all, it would have to be open to the public.

Dreams and poetry

April 16, 2010

Last night I went to sleep feeling quite anxious. I knew I had to write my blog today and couldn’t think of anything to at all to write about. I soon fell asleep, but the worries must have crept into my sleeping brain, as I had rather a peculiar dream. I dreamt that I would solve the problem of having nothing to blog about by writing a poem and posting it on the blog. However, the only way I could compose the poem was by separating a huge lump of cooked spinach into little rectangular clumps on my plate. The size of each clump represented the length of the line of poetry. It wasvery important to make several clumps of spinach exactly the same size or else the lines wouldn’t scan properly – they would have too few or too many syllables.

I woke up and, I have to admit, it took a little while to get over the disappointment of not having a poem perfectly formed in my head. I even had a cursory glance in the fridge to see if there were a bag of spinach hiding in there, which might coax some verse out of my subconscious. Then I remembered I’d had some spinach for lunch – that must have been where that bit of the dream came from – and I realised that it was really just an anxiety dream.

So no, this wasn’t a Coleridgean ‘Kubla Khan’ moment. Or a Keatsean ‘Sleep and Poetry’. Never mind.

But then, Coleridge, Keats or anyone else back then wouldn’t have just dismissed it as a Freudian ‘anxiety dream’. I expect if they’d dreamt about arranging spinach into a poem they would have awoken and written something wonderful – even just a fragment of it. (In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, a splendid spinach patch decree … ) Freud and therapy and the dismissing of such moments of creative inspiration into ‘anxiety’ or ‘penis envy’ or something similarly disappointing weren’t on the scene at all. 

The earliest dream poems that I know are Chaucer’s. He certainly didn’t put dreams down to anything Freudian. In fact at the beginning of ‘The House of Fame’ he writes:

For hyt is wonder, be the roode,

To my wyt, what causeth swevenes

 He goes on to list all sorts of possible reasons for dreams (or ‘swevenes’), from ‘folkys complexions’ (the balance of people’s bodily humours) to ‘dysordynaunce / Of naturel acustumaunce’ (a disordered routine), or lovers ‘That hopen over-muche or dreden/That purely her impressions/ Causeth hem avisions’ (who hope too much or are afraid that their powerful emotions cause their visions).

I suppose, in poetry, this last explanation can often be the right one. Think of Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’. The ‘knight-at arms, / Alone and palely loitering’ falls in love with a beautiful fairy who takes him to ‘her elfin grot’:



And there she lullèd me asleep

And there I dreamed – Ah! woe betide! –

The latest dream I ever dreamt

On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too

Pale warriors, death-pale where they all;

They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci

Thee hath in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,

With horrid warning gapèd wide,

And I awoke and found me here,

On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here

Alone and palely loitering,

Though the sedge is withered from the lake

And no birds sing.

What a warning to an obsessed lover! Once under the spell of a beautiful lady, you are as good as dead. ‘No birds sing.’ Not even Keats’s nightingale (‘light-wingèd Dryad of the trees’) is there to keep the poor pale love-lorn knight company.

Well, I’m pretty sure my dream about writing a poem in spinach wasn’t a warning about falling in love. And sadly it wasn’t really a moment of inspiration – there is no green-tinged poem to follow.

But at least it gave me something to write about. And it meant I spent all morning happily reading poetry. So there’s not much to complain about at all.