Friday, February 05, 2016

Frank Norris: The Octopus (1901)

Tulare County Landowner Map by Britton & Rey, 1901

There was a strenuous gaiety in the air; everybody was in the best of spirits. Notes of laughter continually interrupted the conversation on every hand. At every moment a group of men involved themselves in uproarious horseplay. They passed oblique jokes behind their hands to each other – grossly veiled double meanings meant for the women – and bellowed with laughter thereat, stamping on the ground. The relations between the sexes grew more intimate, the women and girls pushing the young fellows away from their sides with vigorous thrusts of their elbows.  (Book I, Chapter 6)

The recipe “New World Zola” describes The Octopus so well, both in strength and weakness, that I'm left scratching around for something to add. (“New World” must be taken as referring not only to the locale of the novel but also to the writing when it expands into prosy mysticism.)

What isn’t Zolaesque is the map, which is recognizably Marlboro Country; all space, and scale, and mechanized straight lines. It’s a place in which isolation is inevitable, and The Octopus describes a fragmented society in which individuals rarely occupy the kind of shared mental space that we take for granted in a Victorian novel; say by Gaskell, Trollope or Eliot. When Norris gives us a communal set piece, as for example Annixter’s party (from which the opening quotation is taken), he emphasizes the centrifugal forces that pull people away from each other, so that the cohesion of this society is seen as something of an effort. When the railroad people break it up, the dispersal is alarmingly swift and final.

This is expressed most strongly in the chapter that switches pointedly between the helpless fragmentation of the Hooven family and Presley’s sumptuous dinner at the Gerards. We had been led to suppose that Presley and the Hoovens were, in Tulare County, something like comrades and equals; now Mrs Hooven starves to death, while Presley samples ortolan patties. (Like many another poet, Presley feels an empathy with the poor but is himself amply secured by well-off friends).  

There is, it’s true, a certain crudeness in the manipulation of this chapter’s contrasts. Perhaps too in the horrible image of the massed rabbits being killed (this comes just before the shooting of the ranchers, and implies a rhetorical point about the unhealthy foundations of the ranchers’ society).

But elsewhere, that point is made without so much contrivance; for example in the fifteen-page sequence that begins with Dyke’s waking at the start of “a busy day” and ends with our glimpse of him drinking steadily at Carraher’s, by now well aware that he has been ruined by the railroad (moral: don’t put your business partners in a position where they profit from your failure). The domesticity with which the sequence begins  (Dyke’s riotous games with his little daughter) is misleading. We are told that “he was a bighearted, jovial man who spread an atmosphere of good humor wherever he went”. This man, so fully and happily integrated into the society of the home, must surely have an equally robust integration into the larger society of Tulare County. And indeed, Dyke is liked; he brings a pleasant atmosphere into a bar. Yet the assurance with which he speaks of his success as a hop-grower suggests, in hindsight, a certain blindness; an assumption that all around him partake in his happiness, and that his own life more or less is their life. In this large landscape one is often alone, and such a mistake is natural. But when his terrible rage and despair come over him, they are not really shared by his friends, and his problem, though it attracts intense interest, is in every sympathetic word more clearly placed: it’s his problem. Annixter, the best-hearted of them, articulates only fatalism; he already subsumes Dyke’s personal suffering into the vague contemplation of a group of people who appear marked for disaster.  What’s happened also touches off Carraher’s angry rhetoric, but he’s an automaton. Carraher’s repulsive “comradeship” is scarcely less illusory than the bottle, in whose company we leave Dyke;  an image of final isolation.

This isolation means that the book breaks up into accounts of individual struggles that are important only to those individuals: Magnus and his corruption; Annixter’s involvement with Hilma; Presley worrying about his great poem; Vanamee and his obsession. The death of S. Behrman, trapped beneath a grain-chute, is highly unsatisfactory by the standard of nineteenth-century plotting; it is a meaningless accident; but possibly defensible in this saga where people’s lives are impermeably separate. In a Victorian novel we would learn who raped and destroyed Angéle; here we don’t: “the tragedy had suddenly leaped from out the shadow with the abruptness of an explosion... To Angéle’s mind – what there was left of it – the matter always remained a hideous blur, a blot, a vague, terrible confusion”.

There is no society. The nearest thing to it is the railroad people themselves, but they are something different, not a human community but a synergic operation; an institution.  [When the ruined Magnus says “I’ll turn railroad”, he makes a capitulation somewhat like Winston’s in 1984. ]

The book follows Vanamee and Presley in attempting to make a coherent sense of the world that depends not on human society but on more gigantic forces: WHEAT, FORCE, LIFE. This is highly inadequate, but a century later we are still struggling with the question. 


But as all I've said so far tends to emphasize (what is perfectly true) that The Octopus is over-written, I reallly want to make some redress.

I grew up reading Westerns and watching black-and-white Westerns on TV. I therefore considered the Western a natural sort of literary form, and I suppose always felt a vague, subconscious surprise that no work by “great” novelists ever seemed to contain mesquite, Lazy Y brands or Colt .45s.  

The Octopus comes closer than most, and among the longueurs of Hilma’s thick hair and the WHEAT and Vanamee’s sixth sense there are some really exciting scenes in which Norris puts all that aside. The train hold-up is one, all the better for being presented indirectly and, for the most part, in mercilessly anti-heroic contemplation of the passengers in Annixter’s wagon. Then there’s the pursuit and capture of Dyke, the shooting of the ranchers, and (no less brutal and upsetting) the last days of Mrs Hooven. It’s, at times, a very involving book.  


The conflict between ranching and railroad interests also forms a background to the social experiment (beginning in 1908) of homesteaders in Eastern Montana; a tragedy recounted in Jonathan Raban’s Bad Land: An American Romance (1996); an absorbing book, the best of his that I’ve read. It also plays a part in Serge Leone’s film Once upon a Time in the West (1968), where one can perhaps see some of the European elements in Norris’s conception making a homeward journey.

Much the clearest explanation of farming that I have read is John Seymour’s The Countryside Explained (1977). “When I was young the child’s role in the harvest field was to chase the rabbits which bolted out of the shrinking square of standing corn left in the middle of the field and to kill them with sticks, for rabbits were a pest then and were also very good eating; but the arrival of myxomatosis, which killed nearly all the rabbits, also killed this.” 

It all presents a very different view from the dysfunctional gigantism of Norris’s description, in which the squeamish Northern Europeans go off to picnic while the slaughter is performed by aroused, degraded Mexicans (The Octopus has all the racism of its era and genre).

Studio Portrait of Tom Santschi

[Image source: Santschi directed and played the lead in the 1915 silent movie The Octopus, based (loosely, I imagine) on Norris's novel. Can't find any stills from the actual movie, unfortunately.]


Thursday, February 04, 2016

Libby Houston

[Image source:]

This is not the post I planned to write today, but I want to note it down while I think of it.

I was scanning through Tom Raworth's wonderful Notes (his blog, really), and in his account of the Lee Harwood memorial night in Brighton (25/9/15), he mentions a poet called Libby Houston, "whom I remember as the only woman poet in an overwhelmingly male reading scene of the early 1960s". As if that wasn't intriguing enough, he remarked that she might be the only poet of that era to have a tree named after her: Sorbus x houstoniae . ( .

That doesn't tell the half of it. Houston has done lots of work on the botany of the Avon Gorge for the university of Bristol; she's a skilled rock climber, She discovered Sorbus x houstoniae herself: there's only one known specimen and it can be reached only with ropes. It's a natural hybrid of Sorbus aria (the common whitebeam) with Sorbus bristoliensis (one of several unique endemics in the Avon Gorge).

All this is well documented on her Wikipedia entry. [Sadly, the beautiful photo used to illustrate Sorbus x houstoniae is, in fact, just Sorbus aria; ripening berries and big winking leaves photographed in Vivary Park, Taunton.]

Houston has published several poetry collections and I eventually tracked down an online poem on John Harvey's blog: :  I guess it's OK to reproduce it here:

In 1943
my father
dropped bombs on the continent

I remember
my mother
talking about bananas
in 1944

when it rained,
creeping alone to the windowsill,
I stared up the hill,
watching, watching,
watching without a blink
for the Mighty Bananas
to stride through the blitz

they came in paper bags
in neighbours’ hands
when they came
and took their time
over the coming

and still I don’t know
where my father
flying home
took a wrong turning

Apparently this was the first poem from her first collection, A Stained Glass Raree Show (1967), so it may not be very representative.

There are also three quotations and a nice photo of Libby Houston (with Sorbus blossom) here:

I'll update this post when I find out anything more.

Oak carving of Libby Houston by Alistair Park, 2014

[Image source:]

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Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Up the Indal from Järkvissle

The out-house

My father's boat-trip

My father loaded the inflatable dinghy onto the roof of his car. I imagine it was the blue Toyota RAV4, but it may not have been, because I don't know exactly when this happened.

Perhaps it was during one of those summer months when he was alone at the cottage, before Mum came over to join him.

The boat was an inflatable dinghy with an outboard motor. I seem to think it was grey and yellow. He inflated the dinghy when he arrived at the cottage and then it stayed all summer, when not in use, leaning against the shady end of the out-house. I wonder if the dinghy is still at the cottage, or if Miranda has it now?

He drove down to Järkvissle and launched the dinghy in the river. He started the motor and headed upstream. (Most likely he took a fishing-rod with him.)

There was a small island in the river. He landed here and drank his thermos of coffee. He was alone.

The idea was to go all the way up to Långliden, if not further. But a little below Långliden, the outboard suddenly packed up.

So he decided to let the current float him back down. However, it was soon apparent that the strong river Indal would always drag the dinghy towards one or other shore (and therefore towards all the hazards of submerged rock, fallen branches and snapped fishing-tackle).

So in fact he had to row all the way.  He was tired out when he got back to Järkvissle, but exhilarated. And ravenously hungry.


[We never really had a name for the whole of the outbuilding.  We referred to the three rooms (each with its own door to the outside) as "Redskapsbod" (toolshed), "Uthuset" (in fact, a bedroom) and "Vedbod" (woodshed). These were the italic names on the key-tags, a little fainter each year.]


Tuesday, February 02, 2016

from snow to hydroelectric


I went once in the snow. From the moment
                                you breathed it you breathed
the prolonged continuity of that subzero.
It was the beginning of April, the birch-forests
    all black sweeps, the zigzag frozen
river.  And the pylons looked like wheelchairs
                                      outside a hospital.


    Something like the forest sea
The beautiful simplicity of their
whose rounded, knobbly thoughts
    are entirely of them, of the life
that excludes me. The shape of a head
    is a history, so plastic as an infant is
to the simple (unanalyzable) subcutaneous
patterns of the nation, the thing that
    affects us into stereotype. The child
      sleeping on the train, gawky-limbed,
is already with the national expression,
    though Mum is Chinese. Is it the
Swedish words that shape the face?
    Perhaps – not how you pronounce them
but what you have to say, who you
             have to be,
the way anyone can live here, and
            the skiing, they,
wild strawberries and
    the factories by the lake, totalities,
                                       toilet paper...


[   W O O D
M A G I C  ]

The whole wailing body of the nyckelharpa
is spruce that is still being sawn at.
Sun glitters on the river of Joel Böhlén
in the music, but the shade of the woods
drips in the chilly summer evening,
but the music spools without comment
in the sawing hands of the old men,
but the mushrooms bloom on the needle earth.


Shell    Gazprom    Murmansk   Putin   Sarin


Attachment loyalty sentiment frozen
nostalgia return no return emptiness
guilt and postured guilt, regret and
Emptiness of a teeming forest, deeper
                                             in –
if I was writing this in the forest!
Fake, flounder, blankness, indifference,
dead grass, bond and bonding
    with the last empty never-satisfied
wave of the evening close in
    a wood where you’ve never been,
though you’re still there, terrified of
it, night closes, a chocolatey
      night from the wrong climate
and you fidget on the happy fringe of
      a real life, histrionic performance
hide everything from the moss,
    the fringeing pines and dark
strawy waving of defiance flags.


Daylight sees in all the gaps.
    The walls and the door are all
                 thin deal, a box of light;
I could pilot it up into the midnight
       I feel I could hover
high over the woods, high over the houses,
    the whole hydroelectric valley


Monday, February 01, 2016

Augustus K. Gardner: The Conjugal Relationships as regards Personal Health...

Unidentified married couple from Iowa, circa 1890

Augustus K. Gardner, MD: The Conjugal Relationships
as regards
Personal Health and Hereditary Well-Being
Practically Treated

Gardner was Professor of Clinical Midwifery in New York Medical College. This book was written some time in the last thirty years of the nineteenth century; my copy was the Eighth Edition (1918). It was widely popular, or at any rate widely distributed, no doubt in part because of recommendations like this, in Hall’s Journal of Health:

Such important information is given in this book in reference to the more healthful bringing up of our daughters, morally and physically, and the relation of the sexes, that no parent will fail of reading every line in the book with the most absorbing interest. It is a boon to womankind.

The title is, I feel, rather misleading. It is not a medical book but a polemical one which, like some later works of popular science, is chiefly concerned with stating conclusions whose bases cannot be examined. Gardner draws energetically but unspecifically on his own authority and that of his (male) fellows; on what “the history  of every day confirms”, on what is “undeniable”, what “should require but a moment’s consideration to convince any one”.

And these are his conclusions.

- that the pampered modern woman is in physical decline
- that excessive sex is debilitating
- that continence is not physically harmful
- that all other methods of avoiding procreation (except the safe period) are both sinful and unhealthy; for example conjugal onanism, the use of tegumentary contraception, etc.
- that it is shameful and dangerous for the old to have sexual relations
- that it is sinful and dangerous to indulge in “personal pollution”
- that abortion is murder of one’s own flesh and blood
- that the polka and all other fashionable habits of the modern young woman are exceedingly dangerous
- that tampering with natural procreation produces hereditary weaknesses in children.

In short, they fully support recent statements of Presbyterian and other clergymen, whom Gardner wholeheartedly admires.

These statements are no crude utterances of rhapsodists, thoughtless demagogues, or ambitious, charlatan sensationists. They are the carefully expressed opinions of thoughtful and conscientious men, aiming to repress wrong-doing, to promote virtue, to guard against “the sins which do so easily beset us”.

[To anyone who studies late nineteenth-century patriarchalism, the word “guard” is soon seen to carry an immense mythical weight. It evokes men on the outposts of the Roman Empire, perhaps Regulus on Hadrian’s Wall.]

Gardner is a poor writer, and his own natural wooliness is exacerbated by a deliberate policy of – well, let him say it:

Verbiage has been sometimes expressly selected instead of distinct statements, and a roundabout sentence has often been used as the substitute for an expression which might offend sensitive minds. Especial care, it will be observed, has been used not to admit anything which might administer to the depraved appetites of the prurient-minded, and, above all, not to make any statement of facts, with such details, as might be perverted from their intended purpose to serve unworthy or improper ends.

(This is in itself quite roundabout, but you get the point.) Accordingly, such passages as this one, near the end of the chapter on “Personal Pollution”, are open for anyone to interpret.

The sensuous intemperance is sufficiently to be reprobated when its aliment is drawn from vigour of physical energy, the heightened imagination, the mind pampered by the ordinary stimulation of the aesthetic as delineated in marble, spread out on the glowing canvas, where the great artist Guido portrays Io, with rapturous eye upturned, as if to meet halfway the king of the gods; or by the perusal of the lubricious writings of the day, whose foul impurity is too often gilded by genius – or by the public exposure of the cheap charms of the modern meretricious stage. But when even these coarse excitants for depraved minds – dead to all ordinary sensations – when these fail and recourse is had to super-stimulation of a more gross, mediate and materialistic character, when nature is set aside and imaginative bestialities are foully substituted – when woman degrades the nuptial couch by copying the foulness of the bagnio – then farewell to female purity, to virtue, to any thing worthy!

Gardner considers “delicacy” highly important, and of special value to women, as he explains in reference to the question of sex during menstruation (Gardner finds Moses a sensible guide on this matter, and quotes Leviticus at length).

In fact the woman when she has her periods takes the greatest care to conceal it from all eyes. She is affected instinctively, we will not say willingly, in her dignity. She considers her condition as a blot or an infirmity; and although her modesty – the most incendiary of the female virtues – has been spared by the omnipotence of her husband, she blushes to herself at the tribute she is compelled to pay to nature. To constrain her in this condition, to submit to conjugal caresses, is evidently to do violence to what is most respectable in her nature; it is to cast her down from her pedestal; it is to rob her of the prestige which the graces of her sex assure to her. Love has need of poetry, and accommodates itself illy to the gross realities of the animal life. Do not seek to contradict such legitimate repugnance. The first step in this path infallibly leads to ruptures the most to be regretted.

But it is not only at the menstrual epoch that the wife should conceal from the husband the details of the lower necessities to which she, as well as he, is subject; we would desire that she should endeavour never entirely to lay aside her natural charms of modesty and delicacy even in the intimacy of the bedchamber. She will gain more than she can think in constancy and love – the most cruel enemies of which come from the destruction of the illusions and from satiety.

More than one married woman will find in these lines, if she discovers all their meaning, an explanation of the inexplicable weariness of her husband...

To illustrate Gardner’s stately authoritativeness I take a couple of sentences from the remarks about contraception:

We have at our disposition numerous facts which rigorously prove the disastrous influence of abnormal coitus to the woman, but we think it useless to publish them. All practitioners have more or less observed them, and it will only be necessary for them to call upon their memories to supply what our silence leaves.

We may, we trust, be pardoned for remarking, upon the artifices imagined to prevent fecundation, that there is in them an immense danger, of incalculable limits. We do not fear to be contradicted or taxed with exaggeration in elevating them into the proportions of a true calamity.

Both “delicacy” and “forthrightness” may thus excuse the absence of evidence. (He does not use the word “contraception”, and perhaps it wasn’t yet current – sometimes the existence of a term implies social acceptance).

The function of the book is most clearly brought out in the chapter about abortion, which presents a sequence of stories of spiralling horror.

A lady who one November came to me “to get rid of a baby because her husband was going to Europe in the spring, and she wanted to go with him and couldn’t be bothered by a young one”, failing to enlist me in this nefarious scheme, finally found a – I was going to say, physician – a somebody... I was called to her some weeks afterwards, and she was almost exhausted with cellulitis and pyæmia. Her husband sailed for Liverpool in June without her, as she had not been able to sit up for nearly six months... she is a miserable invalid... She had then three children; her oldest son was accidentally drowned, and her two daughters died of scarlet fever while the family were spending a winter at Matanzas for the mother’s health ... the result of that disastrous inflammation is the disorganisation of both ovaries, and she is inevitably childless...

A lady determined not to have any more children, went to a professed abortionist, and he attempted to effect the desired end by violence. With a pointed instrument the attempt was again and again made, but without the looked-for result. So vigorously was the effort made, that, astonished at no result being obtained, the individual stated that there must be some mistake, that the lady could not be pregnant... in due process of time the woman was delivered of an infant, shockingly mutilated, with one eye entirely put out, and the brain so injured that this otherwise robust child was entirely wanting in ordinary sense.... Ten years, face to face with this poor idiot, whose imbecility was her direct work...

At the end of the chapter, Gardner appeals to the clergy of America, “because they are the great moral lever-power of the country ... I have endeavoured to put the physical argument in their hands ....” And such anecdotes have of course circulated ever since.

I don’t want to suggest that these terrible stories are folklore in the sense of being untrue, though the latter one seems all too like those nightmares in which we frenziedly try to kill someone who merely becomes more and more mutilated and alive. But Gardner, who was I suppose an immensely experienced, genuinely conscientious, and highly respected man of science, did carry a lot of folklore around in his head, unwittingly forming his judgments.

I might, if I had been inclined, have made different quotations that allow us a little more sense of fellow-feeling; as when he praises sunlight and physical exercise, or argues that women are by nature as strong as men. His intentions were good, but what he thought he saw was what he already credited. 

This is apparent in his comments on those listless, pasty, degenerate beings who have been onanists, or physically excessive, or used contraception; and he is also a firm believer in the inheritance of factors related to the time of conception.

[E]very one has been able to make the observation, a more or less considerable number of times, that children, the issue of old men, are habitually marked by a serious and sad air... As they grow up, their features take on more and more the senile character, so much so that every one remarks it, and the world regards it as a natural thing... Our attention has for many years been fixed on this point, and we can affirm that the greater part of the offspring are weak, torpid, lymphatic, if not scrofulous, and do not promise a long career.

[Was this folk-belief in Dickens’ mind when he wrote Dombey and Son?]

we do know, that children begotten by men of general good habits, who may be at this particular time much affected by intoxicating drink, do inherit marked evidences of its consequences in their dispositions....

The general enthusiasm attendant upon Jenny Lind’s musical tour in this country, did, to my own knowledge, markedly affect the children generated by parents full of the musical fervour of that period, and these children are now all over our country, developing a musical taste very uncommon before in this land.


[Parents] should sedulously avoid connections during those periods when procreation is most likely, at times of physical debility when recovering from disease, worn by business cares, gloomy and despondent, oppressed by grief...

I would like to know – but I don’t – whether Gardner’s book would have been considered cranky and “Creationist” at the time it was written. I suspect that to nearly all its readers it would have looked like – and would therefore have been – science.


Views on Gardner’s topics are always in a state of flux. In writing the above I made many assumptions about a liberal consensus that large parts of the world would reject. The idea that unrestrained sex tends to be debilitating and harmful to health becomes unexpectedly prominent in Germaine Greer’s work from Sex and Destiny onwards. (The same book demonstrates in vast detail how beliefs about human reproduction continue to be riddled with folklore, especially among experts. There may be something intrinsic about the miracle of new individuals coming into existence that strikes at our logical foundations; at any rate, it seems to turn the brains of intelligent people to mush.)  


Sunday, January 31, 2016

Pub carpets of Swindon

Carpet at the Savoy (Wetherspoons), Regent Street, Swindon

An economic diner who's keen to vary locale, if not menu, is well served in Swindon town centre, where there are currently three Wetherspoons pubs within a few minutes walk of each other.

We chain-fans thoroughly appreciate the safety of our uniform experiences as we travel round the globe, piqued only by the faint exoticism of a different payment method or a different way of serving tea (I'm thinking of our visits last year to McDonald's in Quinn's Rocks, Perth WA).

One of the more unexpected and remarkable delights for the chain tourist is the carpets in Wetherspoons pubs, each of which is said to be unique.

So anyway, here's my Swindon contribution to documenting this remarkable business. Above is a swathe of carpet in the Savoy, a converted cinema at the top of Regent Street. (We often get a jacket here, and it's thanks to its excellent bookshelves that I recently wrote about Scott's St Ronan's Well.)

And guess what, it doesn't seem to be unique. At least, it looks identical to the carpet at the Kentish Drovers in Peckham High Street.

Carpet at the Groves Company Inn (Wetherspoons), Fleet Street, Swindon

This is the zappily abstract carpet at the Groves Company Inn in Fleet Street. It makes me feel like I'm in a close-up photo of sunflowers.

Local press stories suggest Wetherspoons may be selling off the Groves soon, so enjoy it while you can. We hadn't eaten there for a while, but went there yesterday and it was as relaxed and pleasant as ever. [The third Wetherspoons pub, the Sir Daniel Arms in the same street, tends to be a noisier gathering-place.]

I don't know whether it was just down to  a momentary problem with stocks, but the chips I had yesterday with my scampi were NOT coated in flour!  Hurrah!  (This habit of coating their chips, hateful to all wheat-avoiders, is one of the worst things about Wetherspoons. I blame Frankie and Benny's, myself.)

Carpet at the Woodlands Edge (Hungry Horse), Peatmoor, W. Swindon

Anyway, this blog refuses to give Wetherspoons ALL the attention.

Being an instinctive non-completist, except where Sir Walter Scott is concerned, I'm not only choosing to exclude the Sir Daniel Arms from this survey but I'm including the probably-not-at-all-unique carpet at The Woodlands Edge, the Hungry Horse pub at Peatmoor in West Swindon. I had scampi there, too.


Saturday, January 30, 2016

someone came

Someone came
down the steps from dockside.
A staff man hurried and apologized to her.
Another man looked as if he'd like to apologize too.
Chestnut hair. Her
toddler's poll, fluffier.
He picked up his son and swung his son's shod feet out of the way. The child relaxedly gazing, familiar hoist, absorbed in his thumb. Oil on the tarmac.
The clouds pulling over, and the sea pulling away. Sump.
Mystery of the open shop. The green flyers, terracotta bring and buy, and the sky-blue magnetic healing.
The dog puts its nose in the base of the harbour wall. She pulled on the lead; the dog trotted along.
Girls and boys by the toilets, girl laughing loud, and the boys swearing like they owned the gangway.
A boy spilled a can. It rolled about, pulsing 7-up on the district centre.
Wet wind, with rain in it, how wet depends which way you face, made the puddles jump.
A lack of worry in his enfeebled time.


Friday, January 29, 2016

Robert Louis Stevenson: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)

Old Chelsea, by John Atkinson Grimshaw

Stevenson was concerned that Zola's pronouncement "I insist upon the fall of the imagination" reduced fiction to a transcript of life. He thought the writer should "half-close his eyes against the dazzle and confusion of reality". Stevenson was wrong, but Zola overstated the case: his great works are triumphs of the imagination. Anyway, Stevenson could only be the writer he is. His best book is possibly In the South Seas, which is the most open-eyed. But half-closure did lead him to such incomparable things - in their way - as Treasure Island and Jekyll and Hyde, an amazingly prescient parable. I don't know if it influenced Freud directly, but it certainly looks that way.

Jekyll insists on distinguishing his own identity from Hyde's, but under stress before Lanyon, this breaks down to some extent; Jekyll's medical "we" comes through Hyde's voice. Hyde's taunting speech to Lanyon expresses Jekyll's scientific triumph over Lanyon. Perhaps what happens in the parable, i.e. the increasing ineffectiveness of the chemical switch, amounts to Jekyll's recognition that in the end it's too much of a strain to keep up the pretence of Jekyll and Hyde being two distinct persons.

It's a world in which all the normal characters are slightly imperfect: sly (Jekyll), theatrical (Lanyon), dusty (Utterson), an idle socialite (Enfield) etc.

Utterson likes to think of Jekyll, Lanyon and himself as three old friends, but Lanyon has evidently long disliked Jekyll.

The battering down of the door compares to the body jumping in the road under Hyde's blows. Though Poole and Utterson don't know it, their own riotous act is killing Hyde (i.e. the certainty of discovery makes him take the poison).

The book's weather, fog, wine and leaping cockroaches suggest a London heavy with psychic tension seeking relief.

Hyde is of small stature. Jekyll has some rationalizing ideas about that, but we can look deeper into it:

Accounts of Hyde are beautifully varied depending on the implied consciousness of the observer. Lanyon's medical narrative is amusingly distinct - Poole's sentimental but sometimes powerful conceptions are very well worked out too. It's the maid who, we suppose, reports seeing Hyde belabour the old gentleman "with ape-like fury"; Poole speaks of "that masked thing like a monkey"; Jekyll himself of "the ape-like tricks that he would play me". This line of analogy might arise from a culture digesting Darwin. What is unspoken is that Hyde's small stature is also child-like. He has a fierce love of life, he is conscienceless but, accordingly, completely frank in his passions ("'Have you got it?' he cried. 'Have you got it?'"), he can be timid (the meeting with Utterson), he weeps. It is not only Jekyll who can feel, along with all the revulsion, a sense of pity for someone so unformed. And after all, Hyde is like a child in another respect: prior to Jekyll's draught, he has no former existence and no history.

Jekyll's analysis is not quite to be trusted. It's he who defines Hyde as all evil, other people as a mixture of good and evil;  comfortably assuming that in his own case the proportions are about 90 to 10. But the nature of his good, except as a way of repressing his evil, is not given concrete form. Perhaps one way of reading the parable is as disputing, not only his assessment of the proportions, but the adequacy of these terms good and evil.  


Kipling's bogey-tale "The Mark of the Beast" (1890) owes something to Jekyll and Hyde. Fleete's metamorphosis into a wolf-man, obviously, but it was particularly that beating down of the door by the righteous that stayed with Kipling: the horror that most excited him was the sober necessity, by the righteous, of tortures not to be printed (involving red-hot shotgun barrels), and the different "give" of leprous skin under your boot.

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Thursday, January 28, 2016


I may have done, I can't remember; if it was as long ago as last November hair and lard extrusions may well have done stabat.

                                 resembled      fronds     the    sky   through  brisk  fronds

no chance of me remmbering my doctor complints brick nibbling pewter sheep.

                     starr        heath

it water-stole could have been you sequins in rough cushion. stood, standing in the black square with the (you stood concerning)  bleak rosebuds if it could be called morning standing.  and everyone disappeared by us.

                                father       mother  

concentrating face, on the old walls collarbone

may well have frilled my fingers too in the winter; I am patient too. in there with her shoes off. A very long time


Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Anton Chekhov: The Shooting Party (1885)

[The Shooting Party is an early work, not re-published in Chekhov's lifetime. This, his only full-length novel, is no masterpiece, but if it's to be read at all it's essential to read it without knowing the ending, which I'm about to reveal. So make up your mind if you want to read on.]

A youthful Anton Chekhov wearing country clothes

[Image source: Wikipedia]


"I felt suffocated," says the editor, supposedly Antosha Chekhonte himself, on the final page. We do, too.

The Shooting Party is a novel in a frame. The inner novel is narrated by, and purportedly written by, Sergey Petrovich Zinovyev, an investigating magistrate. The murders he describes (they come late in the book) are in fact committed by him; his novel itself does not confess this, but "only a fool" (as Zinovyev himself remarks) would fail to observe the clues scattered through the later pages; the more so as the editor Antosha Chekhonte underlines them.

When the identity of the murderer is finally established, a transformation occurs in our view of the narrative. We become aware of how much trust we automatically place in the first-person narrator of a story. During the reading we've been continuously unsettled by the brutalities of the narrator (not the murders, but his other behaviour), and we've continuously sought ways to forgive them in order to be able to carry on trusting him. Every time he admitted something against himself, we added a minus to his moral ledger but we also chalked up a plus in his honesty ledger. We've accepted, as by convention, that he sees more sensitively into the motives and feelings of those around him than the other, relatively insensitive, characters. Now that his own character is finally seen to be psychopathic, we wonder how much else is unreliable about his narrative; for example, all those times when he reports other characters calling him "the best of men", or reports himself led astray by the moral turpitude of others, or reports women falling for his good looks and refined manners. There's actually no answer to these questions. The Chekhovian insights in the narrative imply a humane compassion that apparently doesn't square with Zinovyev's own indifference to the fate of those his actions have ruined. The result is a feeling of moral suffocation that bears more than a slight resemblance to the effect of cheap genre fiction in general, but is in fact brought about by other means.

In hindsight, much of Zinovyev's insights appear as "poetic", a literary sentimentality. Try this:

Never before had Zorka borne me so zealously as on that morning after the burning of the banknotes. She, too, wanted to go home. The lake gently rolled its foamy waves: reflecting the rising sun, it was preparing for its daytime slumber. The woods and willows along the banks were motionless, as if at morning prayer. It is difficult to describe my state of mind at the time. Without going into too much detail, I shall merely say that I was delighted beyond words – and at the same time I was almost consumed with shame when, as I turned out of the Count's estate, I saw by the lakeside old Mikhey's saintly face, emaciated by honest toil and illness. Mikhey resembles a biblical fisherman. His hair is as white as snow, he has a large beard and he gazes contemplatively at the sky. When he stands motionless on the bank, following the racing clouds with his eyes, you might fancy he sees angels in the sky . . . I'm very fond of such faces!

When I saw him, I reined in Zorka and gave him my hand, as if wishing to cleanse myself through contact with his honest, calloused hand. He looked up at me with his small, sagacious eyes and smiled.

(transl. Ronald Wilks, 2004)

In such passages we discern another writer behind Zinovyev's clichés. This other writer is less idealistic and less flippant. It's that same distance from the actual words that Chekhov sought in his plays.



Monday, January 25, 2016

botanizing in bed

This is a post about my duvet-cover. I was going to illustrate it with a Tracey Emin-style photo of my bed, complete with crumpled tissues (residue of last week's cold)  but yesterday I saw the same cover on display in the Ikea showroom and realized the lighting was much better there.

The duvet-cover is called "Strandkrypa", one of those delightful names that Ikea use as they gradually commoditize the Swedish dictionary. Strandkrypa means Sea-milkwort (Glaux maritima), a common coastal plant in Britain (though I've never noticed it myself), a less common one in Sweden. Obviously the name has a certain relevance to the design, though Strandkrypa isn't one of the species illustrated.

My sleepy entertainment, when waking late on a Saturday morning, has been idly wondering about the source of these botanical drawings and what I might be able to infer about their date and locale from the species, which are named in italic Latin (the species-name, as well as the genus-name, being capitalized). This idly nerdy post is the eventual upshot.

The twelve species were evidently chosen by the designer for match of colour: the flowers are either yellow or pinky-white or both. They are:

Samolus valerandi  (Brookweed). A somewhat elusive plant. Quite rare in Sweden, on Baltic coasts. A bit more frequent around coasts and fens in the UK, though  I've only seen it once, at Kenfig Burrows near Cardiff. It's rather a surprise to look at the distribution map:  though distribution is near-circumpolar (and in the southern hemisphere, too) it's possibly more common on the coasts of N. Europe than anywhere else. Apparently there are a dozen other Samolus species worldwide, but all much more local.
Lysimachia vulgaris (Yellow Loosestrife)
Asperula odorata (Woodruff, now named Galium odoratum)
Saxifraga hirculus (Marsh Saxifrage). Rare in the UK (North Pennines, Scotland). Rare (much reduced) in southern Sweden. Less rare in northern Sweden (Härjedalen, Tornedalen), Denmark and Finland.
Matricaria chamomilla (Scented Mayweed, now named Matricaria recutita).  I've now discovered that this is also known as "German Chamomile" (whereas Chamaemelum nobile, or Chamomile, as the UK Field Guides name it, is also known as "Roman Chamomile"). Both species are sources for the herbal product "Chamomile", but predominantly the former. So most Chamomile Tea is, in fact, Scented Mayweed tea. See, I told you this would be interesting!
Bellis perennis (Daisy)
Ranunculus sceleratus (Celery-leaved Buttercup). Common in most of UK (except high ground of north and west) and in southern and central Sweden.
Linum catharticum (Fairy Flax)
Oxalis acetosella (Wood-sorrel)
Hypericum pulchrum (Slender St John's-wort). Definitively a W. European species. Extremely local in W. Sweden (Bohuslän, Halland). Fairly common in dry heathy places throughout the UK, though I've only ever seen it once (in Fore Wood, Crowhurst, East Sussex).
Carum carvi (Caraway). Only a scattered introduction in the UK, but a common native in Sweden and Central-Eastern Europe (In Sweden it's called Kummin). Tends to confirm my hunch that these drawings came from a Swedish Flora.
Cardamine palustris (Cuckooflower, now named Cardamine pratensis)

Time for bed!

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The museum

[Image source (above and below):]

These fragments I have shored against my ruins  

Somehow, modernism was in favour of museums. It was also anguished by them, by catastrophic history and a distasteful present, so the characteristic mode was irony.

By the time of the New York school, history seemed more catastrophic still. The poets begin to see the museum's contents in a different way. The details of the history you are supposed to be interested in became ridiculous. Irony died. A strong feeling of healthy irresponsibility blew through the room. It became apparent that the museum and its spaces and the items on display are crucially about now and here.

                                     whether it's the form of
Some creator who has momentarily turned away,
Marrying detachment with respect, so that the pieces
Are seen as part of a spectrum, independent
Yet symbolic of their spaced-out times of arrival;
Whether on the other hand all of it is to be
Seen as no luck.

(from John Ashbery's "Clepsydra", in Rivers and Mountains 1966. The first couple of pages of "Clepsydra", which include the above extract, are online here)

The third poet in Penguin Modern Poets 19, Tom Raworth, perceives the modernity too:

looking at the etruscan statues in the louvre there is a green
       patina on my hands my expression has taken its final
everything becomes modern inside these cases there is
       nothing without touching

children crawl under the glass      things are reflected several

(from "Six Days", in The Relation Ship (1966))

Ashbery's idea of the "spectrum" becomes a "prism" in Lee Harwood's "The 'Utopia'" (Landscapes, 1967).

The table is very old and made of fine mahogany
polished by generations of servants.
And through the windows the summer blue skies
and white clouds spelling a puffy word.
And on the table the books and examples
of embroidery of the wild hill tribesmen
and many large and small objects - all of which
could not help but rouse a curiosity.


At times it is hard to believe
what is before one's eyes -
there is no answer to this except the room itself,
and maybe the white clouds seen though the window.



ISIS destroys triumphal arches in Palmyra

As has often been pointed out, Daesh is philosophically just as western as it is eastern; indeed, the example of Daesh reveals such distinctions as inadequate to account for moves within a globalized world (though, of course, much remains in the stereotypes to be deftly exploited).

Daesh's intention to make a bonfire of both the nation-state and accumulated cultural riches is something that many of us will uncomfortably recognize as our own deep aspirations put into hideous practice.


"embroidery of the wild hill tribesmen".

Khamak and other Afghan embroideries are of course the art and labour of women. But owned and displayed by men, at least until they end up, - as a result of what transaction? - on this so-polished table...


Interview with Lee Harwood by Andy Brown in The Argotist Online - no date is given, but I should think it was around 2008.

Recent short (but helpful) take on Ashbery's "Clepsydra", by John Koethe.

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Friday, January 22, 2016

Rev. J. Jackson Wray: Simon Holmes, Carpenter (1886)

Brief notice in The Spectator, 16th October 1886

[Image source:]

Chapter I begins with verse by Anna Letitia Barbauld and ends with Spenser. In between it's as the title says: GIVES THE READER A VIEW OF ASPENDALE AT SUNSET; AND A GLIMPSE OF THORPE ASPEN AFTER NIGHTFALL.  Wray is a skilful writer; but what catches my eye is how the popular English novel was such a strong form in this era  (1886)  that it could convincingly support Wray's evangelical Christianity, which might seem fundamentally at odds with it;  which does indeed lead certainly away from naturalism towards soul-adventure.

Of the titular hero Wray (sounding rather like the early George Eliot) says: "I will at once avow that the quaint and intelligent old carpenter is a special favourite of mine, and ... I intend that he shall stand in the same relationship to my readers ..." At first this doesn't seem very likely: Simon's incessant homilies, coupled with an unfairly-rigged record of guessing the future, provoke our rebellion. But eventually we do grow fond of him. By the usual measures of drama he does not play a very active role in plots that are primarily concerned with younger characters; in Wray's evangelical conception, however, the real action takes place much more on the spiritual plane than on the visible one in which the younger folk are captured by Spanish bandits, cast adrift in an open boat on the Atlantic, etc. Interspersed with these high adventures and loves are low-life comedy with Peter Prout the miller, Tim Crouch the cobbler, and others; all very skilfully intermixed. Three marriages are triumphantly achieved, and the heroic Ethel Spofforth belatedly goes to her rest.

This night-scene will stand for the rest.  The disgraced Alfred has returned incognito to his beloved village, and meets the drunk cobbler.

At one side of the road, in a recess of hedge and bank, there was a pump whose clear cold waters had been available for Thorpe Aspen from time immemorial. Alfred was inclined for a drink out of the well-remembered spout, and Tim seemed to have some views in the same direction. The cobbler laid hold of the pump handle and set to work with vigour to fill the trough with water. Then down he went on his knees, and doffing his battered hat he plunged his head into it, once, twice, thrice, and rose cool and sobered to his feet. He rubbed himself fairly dry with a big coloured pocket handkerchief from his pocket, put on his hat again, and turning to his companion said—
     "There! That's mah prescription for cheeatin' the ninepenny. Noo, Mr. Alfred, give us a grip o' your hand. Ah knoa yo', bud your seeacrit's as seeafe wi' me as if it were locked up i' the Bank o' England. If you'll cum' along o' me, oor Sally 'll gi' a corner an' a rasher o' bacon, an' jump at t' job. Ah reckon yo' deean't want to be knoan."

(On the following page, Alfred's brother Robert risks his life to rescue the lovely Ruth Hartgold from the burning house; a fire whose progress was interrupted for other chapters.)

Also, you will want to hear Simon Holmes in homiletic flight; to the pious, fading Ethel:

We knoa, as you say, an' you an' me'll just go on trustin' an' prayin' and waitin' on Him 'at says, 'Call on me in the day of trouble, an' I will deliver thee.' He either means it or He doesn't. If He doesn't, why there's nowt for it but just to shut up t' Bible an' drift doon i' the dark. But if He does, then He means it oot an' oot, an' t' biggest faith 'll fetch the biggest blessing from the throne of God. O Miss Ethel, Miss Ethel! Neither your prayers nor mine can stop midway on the rooad te Heaven. They're winged wi' faith that's stranger than an eagle's wing, an' accordin' to oor faith it shall be done.

To the despondent widow Atheling:

Ivery thing's goin' on all right and reg'lar, an' sum o' theease days, it'll be a case o' 'lang leeaked for, come at last.' ... It seeams te me that this mornin' afoore t' posst com' in you were all drinkin' the watters o' Marah, bitter an' brackish beyond degree. Noo the good Lord's tossed a wonderful healin' tree intiv it, an' you've gotten a sweeter teeaste i' your mouths then you've had for monny and monny a dark an' cloody day. Surely you may ha' fayth te beleeave that God 'll go on te be gracious, an' that by-an'-by you'll sit amang the palm trees an' the wells of Elim, here in your oan ingle-nook wi' Mr. Robert an' Mr. Alfred at your side. The Wonder-worker that did this for yo' can do t' other.

It was interesting to me that the still-so-prevalent expression, a case of (as in "It's a case of wait-and-see") goes back as far as this. See how differently adjusted Holmes' dialect and expressions are to his different audiences.

Of Wray's own language, two things stood out:

"O Mr. Ravensworth!" she said, in soft and winsome tones, "you are sad. Dear friend! tell me what it is?"
As she spoke the dark eyes of this fair daughter of the South were filled with tears, and there was that in her tones which revealed a secret which was not as yet understood by herself, nor recognized by her own young and gentle heart.
Just at that moment Ephraim Hartgold entered the little parlour , Ruth's own peculiar snuggery. Taking Inez by the hand and seating himself by her on the sofa, he drew her to him. There was a winsome gentleness in his tones and words as he said– "Where is thy father, Inez?– Where is Captain Lanyon?"
There was that in the tone of Harold's voice that displayed how deep were his feelings on this subject.
It was now Señor Bonanza's turn. Alfred thought he had never seen any nobler or more winsome features in living man than those that met his gaze when that gentleman rose from his place, pushed back from his brow his whitening hair, took Alfred's two hands in his, and said–
"Speak freely, please," he said looking down upon her with those wondrously winsome eyes, and in a tone that might well encourage her, and did.

Winsome=cheerful, pleasant, attractive (according to my dictionary). This now-obsolete word I had mostly associated with descriptions of females; Wray uses it of old men, the engaging Ephraim and his friend Señor Bonanza, in celebration of kindly paternalism to young women (not actually their own daughters), a type of encounter that may now be almost extinct.

There was that in (the young person's face, tone, etc) - this expression hallows the solemn and dramatic moment of revealed feeling by placing it beyond the narrowness of words. The idea is that these feelings, formerly hidden in the youth as only potential, are now brought to light; now the owner is seen to have become - permanently - the person they will be from now on. In Wray the feelings are owed to God and love, simply; in later Imperialist novels they may also be connected with patriotism, public school, the finest clay, etc.

When you see such expressions here as "What in the name of all that's wonderful" and "he said fervently", you realize that the popular novel of the next fifty years has an input not from the Church of England but from the evangelical tradition.

[The Internet records little as yet about J. Jackson Wray. He was, I believe, Pastor of the Whitefield Tabernacle in Tottenham Court Road. He died in 1892. I imagine him to have been a popular evangelical preacher as well as a prolific author: homespun homilies and histories of the dissenting tradition as well as novels like this. According to the numerous press notices advertising his other works, these novels were seen as particularly suitable for boys and girls, but not exclusively: "A capital book for all classes, old and young, lovers and married. A good story, told with much feeling. No one will read it without having their faith in God strengthened", says one of the encomia.]

Whitefield's Tabernacle, Tottenham Court Road (J. Prickett)

[Image source: . I expect it was in a worse state than this at the time Wray was pastor. The original building was pulled down and replaced in 1890. ]


Thursday, January 21, 2016

Arto Melleri on Zola

Arto Melleri in 1982

[Image source:]

The Finnish poet Arto Melleri (1956 - 2005) “attacks Zola as a new-style writer of a media age, and invokes the poets of the past as alternative sources of insight and guides to truth.” (Contemporary Finnish Poetry, ed. Herbert Lomas). 

Melleri's career as a poet more or less came to an end in 1998, when he was hit by a car and suffered brain damage.  (He also wrote plays and short stories).  He was a Bohemian writer somewhat in the Saarikoski mode, at least as far as alcohol was concerned, but his preoccupations were quite different. Saariskoski was a displaced Karelian and his lifelong debate was with Lenin. Melleri was an Ostrobothnian with a family tradition of Laestadian mysticism; he had an antipathy to agitprop poetry and a commitment to a truth beyond history.

Essay on Melleri by Immo Pekkarinen, discussing the above Zola thought:

To Melleri, realism only "replaced the roses of the mirror-frames with snakes" ( “vaihdoit peilinraamien ruusut käärmeisiin” – Zola, NSV: 93), leaving the principle of reflection and representation untouched. Film and television are embodiments and extensions of the representational dreams of the Enlightment. In the modern world, thus, the romantic ideal of living presence is displaced by a fascination with ever newer and better means to mediate and multiply representations. The connecting of people into the "field of electric experience" rips them violently from their traditional life worlds.

And he quotes these lines (from "The Ferris Wheel")  about the destructive coming of TV to rural Ostrobothnia:

The runaway newsreel
gallops ever new images into the room.

in a movement too fast of the Ferris wheel
sit grandpapa, Daddy, mamma,
the hand, the maid, brother, sister
and Hankkija's agricultural agent!

Wikipedia article on Conservative Laestadianism, a strict form of Lutheranism still common in western Finland.

"Conservative Laestadians often have large families due to their belief that contraception is a sin. They believe that God is the lord of birth and death. They do not have a television at home because of the showing of offensive and sinful programing. They do not drink alcohol or listen to pop music. Recently however, the Internet is blurring the line between television and no television as many watch television programming on the Internet."

Essay on Melleri by Maris Gothóni:

Gothóni says: "Interviewed, Melleri has always spoken against stylistic trends and conceptions, things like ‘postmodernism’. The truth lies in the decomposed and the materialised. His polemical poem against Emile Zola’s naturalism asserts that perspectiveless painting is closer to reality than a photograph or a telegraph."

Poem by Arto Melleri (translator unknown), found here:

You experience human growth
by becoming more insignificant

By seeing clearly up ahead
how the sail of ambition
no longer lends shade

Experience human growth
by becoming lighter

When useless ballast has been tossed
it stays there, in the wake,
floats or sinks, for fish or fowl

Human growth
by not despising the sea chart, the compass

By no longer naming your ships
Niña, Pinta, Santa Maria
By knowing that America has existed
before it was found

Human growth
by not naming everything all the time

By not being so stupid
By not being stupid?


Herbert Lomas' translation of Melleri's poem "Zola" appears both in Contemporary Finnish Poetry (Bloodaxe, 1991), and in the more ample selection in Three Finnish Poets (London Magazine Editions, 1999).

In the earlier part of the poem, Melleri contrasts the poet of former times:

The poet
     lit by his secret lantern
         did what your brilliant gaslight
              could never accomplish, Émile.

Later on, he writes:

The radiotelegraph and the photograph
     have told more lies
         than perspectiveless painting
             or the gossip steaming
in old biddies' skirts from washhouse to washhouse.


But still, I can't agree with Melleri about Zola, though I've pondered this thought (at least in its reported form) for many years.

I believe that naturalism is what we need most and is what we writers have been resisting ever since. Something in naturalism.

The deficiencies of electronic media are still understood to be deficiencies only because of a naturalistic standard, namely, the standard of our consciousness which believes in truth.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

John Ashbery's eyes

.... are indeed blue, but a greyish type of blue.

Lee Harwood's "As Your Eyes Are Blue. . ." and  "For John in the Mountains" are closely related poems, both recalling the same flowery and meadowy trip to the mountains. (I would assume, in France or Switzerland.)

In the latter poem, he writes:

                        a dark snow
darker than your eyes'
dark snow

Ashbery's eye-colour compared to the blueish-grey colour of snow in shadow. To spell it out.

John Ashbery and Lee Harwood, Paris 1965 (Photo by Pierre Martory)

[Image source:, where it was reproduced courtesy of Lee Harwood (I've blown up the small JPG, which is why it looks blurred)]


Kenneth Koch's much-quoted 1965 conversation with John Ashbery.

Essay by Andrew Field about the early Ashbery and pragmatism:   (with particular reference to the opening line of Some Trees, "We see us as we truly behave:")

Essay by Bob Archambeau about Ashbery's art world at the end of 1940s:

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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Melodies of eastern Jämtland (Joel Böhlén)

This is a CD that I picked up at the hemgård behind Bispgården church the last time I was there, in 2013. It was made by two local musicians principally to document the compositions of Joel Böhlén, another local "spelman", who had died in 1969.

If you could hear the CD, you'd hear a sprightly bunch of dance tunes like "gånglåtar", polskas, waltzes and so on. (More about these here). The typical repertoire of the Swedish "spelman" tradition.

You can hear several of Böhlén's melodies (and see Gränsfelan performing them) on this Järkvissle Film & Media TV programme.

This TV film is called "Ekon från Långsjönäset" and was made, I think, in 2009. By that time most of Gränsfelan's members had died. But the film includes substantial footage from an earlier film, "Gränsfelan på Långsjönäset" (1987).

Below is my quick translation of the CD liner-note.

A documentary

This is a documentary made by two folk-music enthusiasts, Erik Englund (violin) and Bertil Westlund (guitar). These recordings were made over three sessions.

The music consists mainly of tunes by the fiddler Joel Böhlén (1889 - 1969). Joel was born with a rich musical ancestry but in the poorest imaginable circumstances in a little croft in the woods above the hamlet of Österåsen in what was then Fors parish in eastern Jämtland. It was said that his family had such torn clothes you couldn't even make rags of them. Later, they moved to Långsjönäset, a hamlet even deeper in the woods.

[Apparently Joel's forebears had also been musicians. On the Järkvissle program there's a couple of pieces by Manne Böhlén, but that's all I know on the subject.]

[The particular Österåsen mentioned here is on the west bank of the Indal directly opposite Utanede (Google Maps doesn't record these tiny places). Långsjönäset is in the plateau hinterland, far to the west of the river.]

[Stop Press: Fors parish disappeared in 2001 but, as of January 1st 2016, has been re-instated.]

Joel's gifts showed themselves early, and a trader was willing to fund his education, but it never happened. Instead, he ended up working on the land and in the woods.

Joel composed a very large number of melodies, but he could neither write nor read music, so the majority of his tunes are gone for ever. One of his playing companions, Oskar Annell, very fortunately put together a notebook with some of Joel's melodies, and a few more were transcribed by Erik Gerdin of Järkvissle.

At the end of July 1969 Joel celebrated his 80th birthday. Erik Englund and a number of other fiddlers visited Joel at his home, where he was confined to bed because of illness. When they performed some of Joel's own melodies he said: "I wonder if anyone will play my tunes once I'm gone!" Joel died on the 19th September the same year.

Erik Englund was part of the fiddle-group Gränsfelan, who had several of Joel Böhlén's tunes in their repertoire.

Erik had a few doubts about making this recording at the age of 86! But he decided to do it anyway, with the intention that the music should be documented and might inspire future generations to perform Joel Böhlén's melodies and to keep his music alive.  [Just in time: Erik passed away later the same year.]

Erik Englund was born in Böle, in the former Fors parish, in 1919. Self-taught fiddler. He was awarded a gold Zorn Medal in 2001. [Swedish award for folk musicians.] On this CD Erik plays both first and second fiddle on all tracks.
Bertil Westlund was born in Reva, in the former Fors parish, in 1939. Self-taught guitarist. [Reva is a small hamlet on the W. bank of the Indal, some miles south from Böle. It used to have, and perhaps still does have, a summer music festival.]

May 2005

Recording by Tony Backlund and Emil Höög of Ljudgriparna HB.
Liner-notes by Sören Nilsson.  [Also one of the presenters of the Järkvissle TV film]
Layout and photo by Bruno Wiklund.


(The first 19 tracks, plus track 24, are Joel Böhlén compositions)
1. A-Major Trall (gånglåt). A "trall" is a tune. In Swedish folk music there was a kind of wordless vocal music called "trall" - trolling or warbling. The tune somewhat recalls this. Google translates "Gånglåt" as "marching tune" but we are not talking about military marching, this is more like a 2/4 stroll or amble (lit. walk-tune).
2. Ängom Gånglåt. Ängom (also shown on maps as Ängum) is south of Boda on the eastern side of Indalsälven.
3. Rotstrand's Nacken (polska). Mysterious. I don't know if Rotstrand is a place (strand = shore) or a person (rare surname). "Nacken" could mean "nape" (perhaps in a topographical sense), or it might be a typo for "näcken", the violin-playing naiad that is part of Swedish folklore and is often associated with the spelman (folk-musician, typically fiddler). A "polska" is a usually halting 3/4 dance (unlike the faster, gliding waltz).
4. Polska in D minor.
5. Grandfather's waltz (Joel's paternal grandfather). Doubtless a spelman himself!
6. Gånglåt in B.
7. Grandfather's polska (Joel's paternal grandfather).
8. Feast polska. "Kalas" means party or feast. In this case I'm assuming a village feast, where spelmän typically perform.
9. Waltz for Eivor.
10. Klippen polska. Klippen is on the western side of Indalsälven, opposite Järkvissle.
11. Lillbäcken polska. Lillbäcken is presumably a local place-name, but I haven't managed to track it down.
12. Schottische at Ängom. See track 2. A "schottis" is a 2/4 dance, slower than a polka.
13. Polska in G major.
14. Old People's Gånglåt.
15. River Dance (polska).
16. Långsjönäset waltz. Joel's home village (see liner-note and TV film).
17. Sun glittering on Indalsälven. The beautiful river Indal, the central feature of Fors parish.
18. Twilight on Gussjön. A fairly large lake a few miles to the east of the Indal valley.
19. Farewell to Ängom. See track 2.
20. Summer Trall (gånglåt). Composed by Erik Gerdin of Järkvissle. For "trall" see track 1.
21. Jämtland Polska. Traditional.
22. Old Jämtland Wedding March. Traditional - still a very well-known tune.
23. Tune by Erik Englund (Jämtland polska).
24. Here we go! (polka). A polka is a 2/4 dance.


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