Monday, May 23, 2016

Carol Watts' Occasionals, superficially



It's a basic rule of experimental poetry that you don't write about birds. When this rule is ignored, as in Allen Fisher's chapbook Birds, it causes furrowed brows. The resultant poetry tends to be neglected. And on the whole I've neglected Occasionals (Reality Street, 2011), a whole generous book of poetry about mainly quotidian nature, including plenty of bird action among other things. But increasing interest in When Blue Light Falls  made me pick this off the shelves (out of a cardboard box, in fact) and begin to think about it again. In this bigger book too I find a commitment that stops me in my tracks. I don't quite know what the commitment is to. I don't even know if the poet does, altogether. She has sort of dived without measuring the depth.


*


Only superficials today. The poems are dated like a diary of a year, so here's some appropriately May/June-dated extracts. The parenthesized titles are mine.



(Gushing water:)

Tell me it returns, the soughing. Of
deliberate rivulets, the construction
of sluices . Sinking, the heaviest stones,
rolling. The change of prospecting a.
Gold rush, do they glint. In deposits,
rolling, slower at the base. A small girl
trips along, her mind would be elsewhere.
The drains are overcome, the hill washes.
Where culverts might once, now it is.
Matter. For survival, the overcoming
of life wells from. Below....



(Fledglings:)

Flight, is brown. Heaviness rising, as
much commotion as gesture....

                     .... Fledging is
however. The point where the brink. Is.
Teetering, with much beating. Of wings,
clinging on with delicate. Claws, to any
available nest. It beetles over quite
vertiginously. Will it fall. Has turned into
a swallow, such luck. She said, and not
that heavier. Deal, rib cage consternation.



(Children playing in sand dunes:)

sharpness of. Green whipgrass, cuts.
A possibility, and children charge.
Up, piling down local mesas, limbs
combusting thoughtlessly, flung
faster. Than the sand allows, they
find themselves abrupt. As matter is.
Cooling, in the darkness of. Dug down.
Out of the wind, the cliff is matted.
Heat, the breeze has not caught on.





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Thursday, May 19, 2016

Harold P. Clunn: The Face of the Home Counties (1936)


High Wycombe in the 1930s

[Image source: https://www.wycombe.gov.uk/pages/Sports-leisure-and-tourism/Tourism/Historic-sites.aspx]


Harold P. Clunn: The Face of the Home Counties (1936)

... Portrayed in a series of eighteen week-end drives from London. I am in fact looking at the New and Revised Edition, produced some twenty years later. It has new illustrations and a few references to e.g. the great flood of 1953 that devastated Canvey Island, and the burgeoning growth of Crawley, first of the post-war New Towns, but in essence the ethos of the book remains that of 1936.

Leisure motoring was then something dramatically new, and yet something very unlike what it connotes today. Clunn exulted: "the construction of the new arterial roads leading out of London, and the widening and reconstruction of the older roads, have made the Home Counties seem like one vast playground laid out almost at our doors". His eighteen intricate routes take us through every town and in some areas nearly every village in the south-eastern corner of England.

DRIVE SEVEN: From the West End to Colchester, Dedham, Ipswich, Felixstowe, Dovercourt, Walton-on-the-Naze, Clacton-on-Sea, and back by Brightlingsea, Tollesbury, Maldon, Danbury, Billericay, and Brentwood to the West End.

That sounds like a lot of driving, leaving little time for pausing at even the major stops (i.e. the ones that get named in this outline). Oddly, Clunn's hefty book didn't bother to include route maps. There was as yet no naming-system for the roads themselves.  Clunn did not seem to anticipate any difficulty in following his directions, though there would be difficulties now, and Sat Nav would be hopeless at this. I started to realize after a while that these drives are ideal conceptions, an elegant means of avoiding the tedium of a mere catalogue. A medium of portraiture, as the subtitle says. 

Still, I think the challenge of following each of Clunn's routes over eighteen successive week-ends would make a fine project for a retired person with plenty of time and spending-money.      

What transformed leisure motoring most of all is the motorway network, which began to emerge in 1958. For us a week-end away is usually about getting as far away as possible in a straight line, and then pootling about in exotic surroundings, getting a chance to wind down a bit before shooting back down the motorway on a Sunday evening. "Touring" (the origin of "tourist") is almost an obsolete idea, except for owners of camper-vans.

The town of High Wycombe consists principally of a very long continuation of the main street extending all the way along the valley of the little River Wye from Loudwater almost to West Wycombe, a distance of five miles. (The Wye enters the Thames near Bourne End.) Thus, excepting in the centre of the town, which is old and dignified, High Wycombe bears the appearance of some large London suburb of little interest to the motorist.

That last phrase catches us up short. The "motorist", in our own time, is a person of very limited interests: chiefly, getting from A to B and the price of fuel. In Clunn's work, however, the motorist is interested in guild-halls, Norman churches, sea defences, the hotel balcony from which Disraeli made his first speech, and important local establishments such as the Royal Eastern Counties Institution for Mental Defectives (Colchester), the Masonic Girls' School (Rickmansworth), the Meltis Chocolate Company (Bedford), etc. Local manufacture is noted: High Wycombe is a centre of the chair and furniture trade; the industries of Bedford include agricultural implements, engineering, brick and iron works, and hand-made lace. Harlow New Town is worth a visit for its modern town planning. Clunn's idea of what touring the Home Counties means is to some extent still Victorian in spirit. His motorist is a moneyed professional whose "tours of inspection" are indeed not purely hedonistic, but still retain a sense of visiting and assessing the inheritance of Empire.

Clunn's prose style is, you will already have gathered, a little buttoned-up. He will not address the reader as "you", sometimes speaking of "the motorist" but most often of "we" (a doctor's we) : "About one mile west of Seal we come to the cross-roads for Sevenoaks and Farningham, and here we turn to our right..."  Views are "spacious", spires "lofty", hotels "stately" and "commodious". He betrays hardly any sense of humour, and his enthusiasm is more apparent in the thoroughness of the work than in ecstasies, though there are exceptions, as here, of "the largest and finest garden-city in the British Isles",

A week in Bournemouth affords pleasures and charms which can hardly be matched even by the most famous pleasure resorts on the Continent. Here there is something for everybody. To be able to choose between pine-woods, the sea-shore, and streets of the most elegant shops, all in a mild yet sunny climate - that is something rare. The very idea of anybody feeling depressed in a place like Bournemouth seems preposterous.

I don't know Bournemouth particularly well, but the generally pristine elegance of Clunn's seaside towns is impressive, comparing them with their state today, e.g. St Leonards on Sea, then adorned with a pier (since demolished) to match that at Hastings (finally reopened three weeks ago, after a decade's closure), not to mention Warrior Square, "considered by many people to be the largest and finest square in England", now a neglected space of melancholy public gardens adorned with notices about antisocial behaviour, surrounded by cheap lets and buildings too dilapidated to let at all. But change creates new centres of attention, too. Clunn had comparatively little to say about Hastings Old Town, "a congeries of narrow medieval streets and fishermen's huts, though many of these are being demolished under a local slum-clearance scheme." Today the black-painted net-houses are the iconic image of the town. Here at Rockanore and around the Cafe on the Beach at Glyne Gap our excitatory centres are connected with wildlife and heritage: we're much more interested in a turnstone than a smart terrace. We don't even glance at Warrior Square, but we greedily photograph the sea-front notice about the marine life of Goat Ledge, and dream of spotting dolphins.

Peacehaven already had the "by-word" reputation from which it has even now not quite recovered. Bad reputations take time. The pretty village of Hawkhurst (Kent) was already in Clunn's time only picturesquely associated with the notorious Hawkhurst gang. But the gruesome murders at the Crumbles (Eastbourne) (1920, 1924) were still too fresh: it would take another half century to quiet them sufficiently for people to flock uninhibitedly to the marina complex with its multi-screen cinema, chain restaurants, retail outlets and everything one could desire.   

Of smaller places along the way Clunn will at minimum give the population and tell us what the church is made of, its architectural style and the number of bells. He is also very interested in elevation, perhaps because steep roads were still something of an adventure, but also because he has a high appreciation of good air and of extensive views ("from which seven counties can be seen"). Thus Caterham and Hindhead are little Switzerlands, and in Ashdown Forest "the scenery is wild, the air most exhilarating, and the views over the undulating green forest-country delightful". But he shows no interest in wildlife, though he admires fine woodland from a distance.

Clunn's own routes may be an ideal to be admired rather than studiously followed, but motoring excursions were certainly popular, as reflected in the new roadhouses.

One and a half miles from Watford and situated on the beautiful by-pass road which skirts the town on the east side is the Spider's Web, a palatial roadhouse with a French restaurant, a swimming-pool, and a ballroom with a balcony leading out on to a delightful terrace.

Or, at Hook:

the new 'Ace of Spades Roadhouse and Swimming Pool' which has been erected on the north-west corner of the Kingston by-pass road. This is one of the pioneer roadhouses, and here meals can be obtained at any hour of the day or night. The 'Ace of Spades' is an informal sort of place much favoured by London motorists who come here to enjoy themselves. Dancing takes place every evening until 3 a.m. except on Mondays, and ample accommodation is provided for cars.
   
These roadhouses vied with the magnificent cinemas as the icons of democratized leisure.


*

Dagenham... a vast new garden suburb of London with 115,600 inhabitants... The population is almost a wholly artisan one, and there are no better-housed workers in any other great city in the world. 


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

iconic skylines from May water-meadows

Glastonbury Tor from Clyse Hole, 15th May




s if things happened,
make fontenay ooze pain of a muster

                               huddled

£drunk  ---  pangruel make

huish my elbow in  weater
damaged plaster
it was

                                                  swish

bloodriver tango
a the heathy
clouds in lost lego

I feel judged                  pike shrinking in the depths

will bandage the musts

                   they are always Rostov's

crop checkers                                                        

'I remember this old coat'
holding the lining out
the pectoral ink-stain





Oxford skyline from Christ Church Meadow, 17th May

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Monday, May 16, 2016

Carol Watts, When blue light falls




This pamphlet When blue light falls  (published by Peter Hughes' Oystercatcher Press in 2008) is the first tranche of a longer sequence. 

What is here is sixteen poems. The first eight (even-numbered, 2 - 16) are like a very slow meditation on blue light, particularly the blue of the sky. The second eight (odd-numbered, 1 - 15) are formally different, the words arranged in very short couplets; the vocabulary and images become less spare ("Ukrainian", "cottonwoods", "lias") and the topics proliferate. But behind this second half, and connecting it in some way to the concerns of the first, there's a distinct diurnal sequence from early morning through to night. 

This second part is sometimes agitated, in fact it's the seriousness of the thought that compels attention throughout. From the splintered vocabulary come ideas of glass-blowing and television. Some idea of extinction too, as in this poem, from the first half of the sequence: 



8



yet it is uncertain

if there is this habitat of blue

to speak of



turning its bleak constancy

to what might shine

at my lived

                     and fortunate

door



a grip loosened into it

might fall or

                      fly


without

a word







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Friday, May 13, 2016

H.A.L. Fisher: A History of Europe (1935)

Napoleon at Austerlitz Dec 1805 (painting by François Gérard)

[Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_of_the_Third_Coalition#/media/File:Austerlitz-baron-Pascal.jpg]




H.A.L. Fisher: A History of Europe (1935)


With a preface to the one-volume edition written in January 1936. The date is arresting, of course. Fisher’s 1,300 pages lead us, as it seems, right up to the threshold of a European catastrophe; yet the author, though plainly guessing much of what was to come, has no firm knowledge of what is constantly in our minds. This is how the book ends:

Europe, then, has now reached a point at which it would seem, as never so clearly in past history, that two alternative and sharply contrasted destinies await her. She may travel down the road to a new war or, overcoming passion, prejudice, and hysteria, work for a permanent organization of peace. In either case the human spirit is armed with material power. The developing miracle of science is at our disposal to use or abuse, to make or mar. With science we may lay civilization in ruins or enter into a period of plenty and well-being the like of which has never been experienced by mankind.

In the mean time the war has left us with an evil legacy. The moral unity of Europe is for the time being broken. Nordic paganism assails Christianity. An insane racialism threatens to rupture the seamless garment of civilization. May future generations close the rents, heal the wounds, and replace our squandered treasure of humanity, toleration, and good sense.

Both destinies, you might say, came to pass; first the ruins and then the plenty. By “the war” Fisher means of course what he calls the Great War and what we call the First World War. Part of the evil legacy, ironically, was that right-minded ideal of good people (as in Gladstone’s Midlothian Campaign of 1879, and embodied in the Treaty of Versailles), self-determination of the nation-state.

The sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan, among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eyes of Almighty God as can be your own.

That was a remarkable and admirable thing to say for the prospective leader of a colonial Empire, but it was colonial thinking nevertheless. The idea of a single, unified native people was not even expressed, it was such a basic assumption. In Europe, the failure to clearly distinguish nation and ethnicity, national self-determination from ethnic self-determination, would be critical. For how could it work where peoples divided by religion, language, and culture inhabited the same ground? The break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, last of the imposed medieval (non-national) hereditary and religious unities, fuelled by well-meaning rhetoric about the right of national self-determination... it spelled trouble. Even more problematic is its applicability to parts of the world (in fact, the majority) where the concept of a national organism is itself a piece of alien culture that cuts right across the real affiliations that matter to its inhabitants; but that consideration takes us beyond Europe and right up to the present time...

A few lines earlier, Fisher meditates on Europe being no longer the unrivalled leader of industry. “It must take its stand on quality. It must live on its taste, its ingenuity, its good sense.” That seems like good prophecy too. Think of IKEA with its “Swedish design” all over the masthead and its actual production beneficently distributed through less favoured parts of the world.  There in miniature is the economic reason why the myth of European superiority has been so energetically and subtly sustained; why the reputation for quality, above all, is a resource that must be allowed to others in a permanently graded manner. If you have some, we must still have more.  

I seem to be writing about this backwards. The Epilogue begins:

After some twenty million years of life upon this planet the lot of the major part of humanity is still, as Hobbes once described it, “nasty, brutish and short.” Of its two thousand million inhabitants some hundred and fifty million are still living very close to the hunger limit.”

Seventy years later, the figures are 6.5 billion (total) and 850 million (undernourished).

In detail, naturally, Fisher is like every historian laid open to the ironies of hindsight. This is about Poland in 1933-34:

A second benefit conferred upon Poland by this remarkable man [Pilsudski] is a good foreign policy. Non-aggression pacts signed with Russia and Germany have brought a sense of security to a nation which dreads nothing so much as a renewal of war in Polish territory.

Similarly Fisher has hope for the other new states brought into existence by the treaty of Versailles, and invigorated by land redistribution:

There were many who lamented the disappearance of the great country houses, which had played their part in the art, letters, and politics of the middle east [i.e. of Europe] for so many centuries. But one of the results of this wide agrarian revolution was that a strong cordon of peasant owners was drawn between Russian communism and central Europe.

How irrelevant that “strong cordon” was, events were to show. All these countries fell pitiful victims to the ensuing horrors; all, to some extent, played a part in perpetrating the horrors; peasant ownership might salve some wounds, but it inflamed others, e.g. the resentment of (traditionally non-landowning) Jewish communities.  

Surprisingly, the shape of Europe imposed by the Treaty of Versailles has to a large extent survived; of course, some of the nations have split into smaller units.  I don’t know if any Hungarians still resent the loss of Transylvania, or if Vienna is still far too large a capital city for the shrunken Austria. At some stage these things do get forgotten, or none of us in the present could ever be contented.  

Many among the Allies hoped that the U.S would sign the Treaty and itself join the League of Nations. If it had done so, the guarantor of those vulnerable new nations would have had a lot more muscle: might the Second War itself have been avoided? (Uneasy speculation for those of us who think present US and British entanglement in the Middle East is wrong.) Anyhow, President Wilson’s nation was in Republican reaction against Europe’s troubles, and the Allies were disappointed on both counts.


*


High-level overviews work best when you're reading about something you don’t know much about. That’s how I feel, anyhow. Perhaps there are some informed people who have a real taste for masterly précis; the same kind of people, maybe, who admire a well-chosen anthology. But what I was struck by was what I knew especially little of: The Seven Years War, Napoleon’s campaigns, Bismarck. Diplomacy in general.   

I also found it interesting that the partition of Africa by European nations is first described as being motivated by a common desire to suppress the pan-African slave trade and to improve social conditions (p. 1126). The later page on British Imperialism suggests more acquisitive motives: “As usual they had secured the best places [Egypt, Uganda, Nigeria]... Yet the English were not content. Steadily during the sixties, seventies, and eighties they kept extending their tentacles... The climax was reached in 1889-91 when Cecil Rhodes, fortune-hunter and empire-builder, snatched Rhodesia” (p. 1159). – Yet this last act is seen as an affront to Germany, not Africa. I suppose the assumption is that the Africans had no nations, so could not be put out by what happened.

The chapter about slavery begins: “In the history of Europe so far as it is known to us there are two chapters marked by a special note of infamy.” These are, it emerges, the Roman slave trade centred around Delos in the second century BCE and the transatlantic slave trade of various European nations (of which Britain was the most successful and most inhumane) in the 17th-19th centuries. Fisher can say frankly that Britain was the most guilty because he is just about to say that at least abolition started in Britain too. The crucial steps to abolition were taken, as he admits, at a time that was in a way propitious: just after slave-owning America had been lost and just before industrial Lancashire had acquired a motive for defending slave-grown cotton. On the other hand, it took place in the middle of the naval war with France at a time when “every sailor from Nelson downwards declared that [the slave trade’s] abolition would be the ruin of the British Navy...”

However, the point is of course that Fisher’s opening sentence couldn’t have been written ten years later. That there would, on a scale of millions, be a third and fourth chapter in Europe's book of infamy, was yet unknown. (After genocide Hitler intended to revive slavery too. The Slav races, already slaves in name, were to be slaves in fact.)


*


I want details. Let’s be a bit more probing about this. I’d recently read Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Reason Why (1953) – a brilliant double biography of Lords Cardigan and Lucan. The book leads up to that terrible hour at Balaclava, but deals with much more: one chapter is about Lucan’s experience as an Irish landlord during the potato famine and clearances. Fisher devotes a whole chapter to the Crimean War, but he gives only one sentence (and that a dull one) to the famine and clearances. That’s a disastrous slight on a book that purports to be about “Europe” (in actuality, the emphasis in the more recent centuries is overwhelmingly on France, Germany, and England).    

On the Crimean War Fisher’s account of diplomatic and military bungling is full of sharp lessons vaguely reminiscent of the classical historians; as if writing this kind of history is a behaviour that creates its own subjects. In its own terms this is good writing, and is for use: modern makers of foreign policy, attend!  Reading Woodham-Smith’s book, on the other hand, we are overwhelmed by something quite outside that classical range, that is by the differentness of Victorian society, the uniqueness of the disaster. Yet where does summary stop? It’s like the layers of the onion, and Woodham-Smith’s book too is surmise and generalities; this, however, is the level of granularity that I prefer to read.  



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Thursday, May 12, 2016

F O T O, poems 71 - 80

The hole at Döda Fallet (poem 75)





71. (Writing in Sveja café)

Rain blew us in here, among almond cakes sheened
with icing: the commonest things! postcards, souvenirs,

the stillness ― nailclippers glinted yellow and blue.
The tea chinked. Outside, prowling, the rain continues.



72. (Spinning wheel at Sveja café)

Slowly this spinning stopped. It went with its people
who one by one lay down in hospitals and stopped.

No spinning for me!  No mild face, no clasp or hat,
no share in any of the homespun things they hoped.




73.  (Red moss in the forest)

By the way-side, the wanderer’s pillow:
prod, and a cool damp rises. I tried to forget it,

but my fingers don’t forget: for many years
they have begged to sleep in the free forest.  



74. (Döda Fallet the Dead Fall)

A sculling water stood, sucked into a braid between trees
and boiling, twisting, exploding in the past,

that hollow place. Bare stones, and the smell of coffee.
A bee hums flatly, crossing the same river twice.



75. (Looking through a hole in the rock Döda Fallet)

The river’s whorls left the stone drilled and in two places
ventilated with our day. You up there, me below.

We shouted so each could hear the space around.
I’m not a mirror or a telly, I am the one you know.



76. (Setting off ― hat on back)

Raindrops kindled on an aspen-leaf; unrolling over fields
the sun sharpened each edge of trees with newer light.

Maybe they look now as they really are, living in stillness.
With us it’s different, we launched wheeling on menstrual routes.




77. (Laura writing Holmstagården)

You shield this, not to keep secret for always,
but to present mocking and hear with delight.

You dress up a whole stretch of yourself at once,
to slay me beside the pines in the sunlight. 



78. (Dad and me by bonfire)

The smoke rose far off, I hurried to come and stand by you.
Then we regard the flames and share the distance

you couldn’t help imposing, when I was born. In the midst
of youth I was there: you made me, yet it felt like chance.



79. (Bonfire ­ smoke and sun)

Leafy boughs crackle, turn red and evanesce.
Thick smoke chivvies us sideways. The sly-heap dwindles.

Twenty-five summers of burning, to make out this garden
a nature with paths, a hymn of sky and details.



80.  (Laura raking bonfire)

Then we scrape it back, hush it into a calm oval
like a sleeping breast, a shallow mound.

The trees breathe again their damp gaseous food.
After dark, it glows softly and pink, warm all round.




*

Back-story. Walks and cottage chores around Utanede in E. Jämtland.

71-72 A cafe that operated for a few years at the south end of the village.
74-75 The famous "Dead Falls", the exposed river-bed at the former site of Storforsen, now a tourist attraction a few miles further up the Indal valley. I gave a brief account of what happened here: http://michaelpeverett.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/flowers-from-jamtland-july-2013.html
78-80 Bonfires are only permitted during, or soon after, rain.
79. "Sly". Local word for straggly young trees and bushes, which grew very rapidly and had to be cleared from the garden every year.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

late cherry blossom

Wild Cherry (Prunus avium) at Moredon Park, Swindon 7th May 2016




2016 has been a great season for Prunus fans and an unusually elongated one. The mild December of 2015 meant that early types like Cherry-plum and Blackthorn began to blossom a month early. But then March and April stayed generally chilly, so the middle varieties lingered.  And these late varieties are actually a week or so later than normal. 



Prunus 'Kanzan' and Prunus avium growing from the same rootstock



A common but arresting sight: Prunus 'Kanzan' like most ornamental cherries is normally grafted onto the more powerful rootstock of our native wild cherry Prunus avium . If the tree is neglected the graft usually manages to put up a flowering shoot of its own, and then for a few seasons you may see this pretty equilibrium between pink and white blossom.



Prunus 'Kanzan' and Prunus avium growing from the same rootstock


The brotherliness is illusory. Without human interference 'Kanzan', though a vigorous variety compared to most other ornamental cherries, is soon out-competed by the shoots of native cherry and reduced to a sad little branch or two.



Prunus 'Kanzan' and Prunus avium growing from the same rootstock


Prunus 'Pink Perfection'

A couple of overheads of 'Pink Perfection', taken in Bath on 8th May. Is this the most luscious blossom of them all? Its two parents are supposed to be 'Kanzan', which you've just seen, and 'Shôgetsu', which you're about to see...

In addition to its numerous other virtues, 'Pink Perfection' strikes me as holding on to its blossom unusually long. Later in May I've noticed it still close to immaculate when 'Shirofugen', and even 'Shôgetsu', have deposited most of their petals on the ground.

Prunus 'Pink Perfection'


Prunus  'Shôgetsu'

Prunus 'Shôgetsu' (or 'Shimidsu' as my generation called it) is the last of the main ornamental cherries and this tree was only just coming into bloom, at sunset on that glorious 8th May (Swindon). Later the blossom will be almost pure white but at this stage you can see how the tree earns its nickname of "Blushing Bride".


Prunus  'Shôgetsu'


Prunus  'Shôgetsu'


Prunus  'Shôgetsu'


Prunus  'Shôgetsu'

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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Allen Fisher in snippet view



From "Dog":

                      Using derelict waste lovely tresses

my ramifications can be three storeys necklaces
of tunnels over an acre of woodland fleet of foot
ideally deciduous with ample ground cover
of furze broom shrub but including abandoned mine shafts sitting opposite
Three of my dogs are lurchers licked
the cross-bred grey-hounds spring smoke light
that Gypsies use to catch food heard all this
Although their coats are rough finishing all distance

they are gentle, prissy creatures hold my hand
with a horror of muddy feet among the deathless
and an aversion to rough games.  the lyre and wobble box
My residence in Britain goes back to hedgerows herdsmen
just after the dawn of consciousness. turns slowly
The place names of pate and bawson wide pathed
brock and grey are added to the palette after red and blue
Or Badger ham on the menu produces a violet hue

Older than and tangled by cities amazed all laden
they haven't been there since collars were invented ...


"Dog" is a longish piece (26 eight-line stanzas), the first piece in "Art Bisaster Continuum" which is one of the four sections in Dispossession and Cure which is the fourth book in Fisher's magnum opus Gravity as a Consequence of Shape.

Behind "Dog" lies London, a London seen in long reaches of time, and considered through the eyes of a dog. As Art Bisaster Continuum proceeds we're aware of successive waves of invasion by Barbarian, Badger and Beaver. There may be some parallels being drawn with feral City traders. That's what I'm getting from it today, anyhow.

"Bawson" is an extraordinarily obscure word. It might be the variant on "bawsand" (streaked with white on the face - of horses) mentioned in Boucher's Glossary of Archaic and Provincial Words (1833). I'm not confident though.

I suppose the original jacket of Dispossession and Cure is brock and grey!

(Reality Street are publishing the whole of Gravity - it will be about 500 pages - later this year.)

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Monday, May 09, 2016

The Handbook Encyclopaedia of Engineering


Lancia V12 Aircraft Engine showing 53 degree angle between cylinders

[Image source: https://oldmachinepress.com/articles/page/8/]


Handbook Encyclopedia of Engineering (1928)

1,240 pages, blackbound; a book for the trade, published New York (The Industrial Press, 1928) and London (The Machinery Publishing Company, Ltd, 1929). Editor, Franklin D. Jones. Inscribed by the original owner (in black ink italic capitals of mesmerizing regularity) E. G. CAMP. MARCH  I929

Considering how central a part engineering performs in our civilization, it’s remarkable how few of its terms have entered common language. When we do use them, we’ve often misappropriated them. For instance, the “flash point” of oil is the temperature at which the volatile surface vapour will ignite, distinct from the “fire point” at which the oil itself will ignite.

Consulting this book as preparatory reading for the fine literature of its time (which perhaps was one of my secret motivations for getting it) is on the surface an unfruitful pursuit, since literary people never knowingly refer to these topics. But beneath the surface, the conditions of all their literature depends on them. And to “their”, you might as well add “my”.

Because of this utter separation between what I know about and the core interests of the encyclopedia, the most interesting reading often occurs at the frontiers. For example, jute, celluloid and cork are included only because of their occasional uses in engineering (respectively: cable filler, electrical insulation, friction clutches) but the description of their properties from these vantage-points feels enlightening. The book is also pleasingly comprehensible when outlining mathematical and chemical concepts, how chimneys work, varieties of carpentry joint (re patternmaking) and other topics that are not industrial engineering itself. On alloys, castings, gear-teeth and so on, the detail is dismaying, it condemns my ignorance:


CRANKSHAFT COLD SAW. The crankshaft cold saw cutting-off machine is arranged for carrying two saws upon a single arbor so that two cuts may be made simultaneously when sawing out the web of a crank.


Here, as mostly, we're reading about a machine that manufactures bits of another machine. Hence another of my motives, hoping to learn how a car engine works, was disappointed. Instead I've learnt how to manufacture one. Using the technology of 1928.

It’s refreshing to find that the entry on “File History” begins with the skin of the dogfish and has nothing to do with computer storage.

The first manufacturer of nuts and bolts was Micah Rugg in MarionConn. in 1818. The new industry remained very small-scale for the next 20 years. In England, the first factory was Thomas Oliver's, in Darlston, Staffs (1838).

The Enclyclopedia contains no trace of humour and the main sources of its infrequent references to humanity are notable inventions (cotton gin, telegraph, telephone; often with heroic struggles over patent) and methods for calculating wages and regulating labour. The philosophy of labour is of the time-and-motion variety, chiefly concerned with graded penalties for slackness and absenteeism. The following entry might have been more accurately titled, Non-liability etc.


LIABILITY OF EMPLOYER. The liability of an employer for injuries sustained by an employe is based upon the well established law that an employer is not liable for the payment of damages for injuries sustained by an adult employee, if it is proved to the satisfaction of the Court that the workman was injured as a result of his own negligence. Where an employer knowingly hires a minor without his parent’s consent and requires him to do dangerous work, in the performance of which the minor is injured, the employer may be liable, even though the minor’s carelessness or negligence may have contributed to a great extent to the occurrence of the accident which caused the injury; but if it is shown to the satisfaction of the Court that the minor falsely stated his age and the employer believed he was of legal age, the employer may be relieved of liability for injuries sustained unless the injury was due to the employer’s neglect.




Friday, May 06, 2016

Prunus 'Amanogawa'



Now that it's getting on in the season, I was keen to find a cherry tree to photograph on my lunchtime dash into central Swindon, and I was rewarded with this, a Prunus 'Amanogawa' at one end of Commercial Road, somewhat dwarfed by buildings. 

Of course 'Amanogawa' isn't an unusual variety, it's probably the most commonly planted these days, but usually in small private gardens that it would be intrusive to peer at too closely, so I normally only get to see it from a distance. 'Amanogawa' is easy to spot, on account of the unique growth-form and the blossom-colour, which from a distance is the palest of pinks. (Approximately the colour of Common Valerian, or a black cherry yoghurt.)  

'Amanogawa' often seems a rather straggly thing, trying to look like a cherry that's perfect for narrow spaces and not doing a particularly good job of it. It rarely lives up to its hopeful nickname "Lombardy Cherry". It can look anorexic in a low-maintenance front garden , or appropriately skeletal outside the new Care Home. I almost prefer it when it starts to widen out, but that's also when I begin to question if it's such a great choice for a small garden anyway. When 'Amanogawa' widens it's from near the ground (the "trunk" being only a few inches high) so you then lose that space completely. But if you'd chosen e.g. 'Pink Perfection', you'd still be able to put a bench or a baby-buggy under its dappled shade. 

But, with all these strictures, 'Amanogawa' blossom is really marvellous: pink buds, and very pale semi-double flowers, much visited by bees. I wish it was planted more in public places. A small grove of 'Amanogawa' in a park would be a wonderful place to stray through.  











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Thursday, May 05, 2016

What did you do in the eighties?

The pilgrim, from an MS of the C-text  of Piers Plowman

[Image source: Bodleian Library . This is MS Douce 104, parchment, dated 1427. It refers to the famous passage in C VIII 160ff.  (B V 515-536 in the online text).]


I need less stuff. So the time has finally come, nearly thirty years after finishing my PhD thesis, to get rid of a whole ring-binder of photocopied texts from University libraries. (I remember how I pondered, as I greedily monopolized a secluded copier, whether it was legal to photocopy a whole book.)

Let's take a last farewell.

1. First up, the whole of the Z text of Piers Plowman. The ms had been long known, and dismissed as a corrupt version. The editors Rigg and Brewer presented the text anew, along with highly persuasive arguments that this was in fact the earliest version of the poem that would be Langland's life-work.Here are two lines from Z:

Myllares and mynstrales and masones somme,
Of all libbynge labores lopen forth there...

So little have I kept up with Piers Plowman scholarship that I was astonished to read (in Wikipedia) that the Z hypothesis has not won general acceptance, and even more so to hear of Lawrence Warner's claim that the B text in the form we know it incorporates large elements of C.

2. '"Quod" and "seide" in Piers Plowman' . Neat typing. My interesting article, published in Neuphilologische Mitteilungen.

3. George Kane's edition of the A text. This and the Kane-Donaldson B text were the scholarly editions of my time. Doubts about their method and their numerous conjectural emendations were there from the first, and slowly gathered force. But the completeness of their apparatus should be credited with making the articulation of demurring viewpoints possible.

4. Substantial extracts from John M Bowers' book, The Crisis of Will in Piers Plowman. The page I'm looking at speculates that Langland had connections with Worcester cathedral school.

5. Chapter Two of A.V.C Schmidt's The Clerkly Maker: Langland's Poetic Art. I must have finished my thesis by the time I photocopied this; I was still under the momentary illusion that I would carry on ploughing my half-acre, but of course the call of a wider world - of literature, that is! -  was too strong. I'm not sure I ever got round to reading what I'd photocopied. (I spot, in passing, Schmidt's comments on Langland's use of identical rhyme, and him comparing it with another poet with Malvern connections, Geoffrey Hill.) I had been a great admirer of Schmidt's edition of the B Text, which is I believe the basis of the online text of Piers Plowman. (Schmidt's text, a late and uncharacteristic triumph for the moribund Everyman series, became in effect the canonical text of the internet age by presciently eliminating the obsolete characters (thorn and yogh).)

6.  John Norton-Smith, William Langland. This, on the other hand, was a book I referred to quite a lot, critical yet appreciative, a challenge to weak praisers. His approach from a wide literary learning (as opposed to medievalism) - in the first three pages we grapple with Coleridge, Chaucer, and Browning - appealed to me. He was, as I learn from reading an obituary that I stapled to the back of one of the photocopies, an expat American, a friend of Philip Larkin, a good jazz musician who was once asked to join Louis Armstrong's band, a student of C.S. Lewis, a committed Oxonian (he despised "Cambridge") whose career lay mostly outside Oxford, an "old-fashioned" scholar (i.e. no truck with theory), a drinker and anecdotalist, and he could be crushing, outspoken and tactless, getting into hot water with progressive student politics at Dundee. A typical conservative don of his time perhaps. But I admired this book greatly. (I was such a shy student that in those days I had no real awareness of the political dimensions of what I was reading.)

There follow various substantial hand-written notes on other medieval studies and texts. There isn't the least chance that I, or anyone else, will ever look at them, and if anybody did I doubt if there'd be much to reward them. A lot of the time I was only amusing myself, and reading widely but without direction; not much of this got into the thesis. Nevertheless I apparently am not quite ready to bin them. Not this evening, anyway. There is a sort of fear: as if these never-consulted notes on the Roman de la Rose, Deguileville, saint's lives, medieval sermons and the like, carted from one gaff to another, might somehow constitute who I am. I might wake up the next day and find I don't exist!


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Wednesday, May 04, 2016

the near side of the world










When I went to other side of the world last year I encountered for the first time two things that would soon be mundane here too. One was contactless payment, which was breaking out all over, but I'd never used it prior to that memorable breakfast in South Fremantle on my first day. The other, which still isn't in the UK yet but has just survived legal challenge, is plain packaging for cigarettes. I looked for a long time at the yellow packet thrown away on the beach. (Significantly, I can't remember now what brand it was.) I wish I'd brought it home as a souvenir!

Meanwhile, my copy of Hazel Smith's new collection has arrived from NSW. Hazel was one of London's "future exiles" back in the 1980s, and I learnt of her work from the anthology of London poetry Floating Capital (eds. Robert Sheppard and Adrian Clarke). 

What's here is very different and, from a read of three of four pieces, fully as exciting as I'd hoped. Here's an extract from "Soundtracks". The feet referred to at the beginning of the quote have been heard, in boots, on the other side of a wall. 




The feet became a face. A house burns into light. A careless guess becomes a premonition.

What country are we hovering over, you say, as we hurl into outer space. Is this a heatwave or a blizzard? A microphone sways in the wind trying to find an ideal position. Geography becomes an art form, rising from its own ruins. 

The walls of the rooms are severely dented with urgent, unidentified knocking. A plane continues to soar and swoop but can't find the courage to land. It could be a warning or a confession, it could be a desert or savannah. You hear a chord faintly in the distance: a destination or a rejigging?

You kept asking where we were going and demanding to see a map. It was below zero, the wind swirled then dispersed, the horizon oozed unease. We took the first road, and even though it didn't seem to belong to us, we kept on going. 

Unquenched, we walked past a field of discarded keyboards. The river was switched off though flowing. In the distance the ocean, fatally wounded, groaned. Time swayed like an out-of-orbit drunkard. The earth was studded with torn dollar bills, broken lamps and carcasses. 









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Sunday, May 01, 2016

Froward

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Alex La Guma: Time of the Butcherbird (1979)

Original jacket, pulpy fun that blithely (or perhaps carefully) by-passes the novel's racial context


This is the second La Guma novel that I've read. I've gone straight from his first (A Walk in the Night, 1962) to his last, Time of the Butcherbird (1979).

It was a controversial novel, and the implication of its relative inferiority to its predecessors has tended to linger on. (Maybe the original jacket didn't help much.)

South Africa was in crisis, and the novel partakes in that crisis. Violence spills over. (La Guma never pretends that violence is accurately-directed. Murile hits his bull's-eye with Hannes Meulen, but he also takes out Edgar Stopes, a man he's never met.) The novel laments individuality but sees it as dispensible, even unwanted, in present circumstances. For the first time La Guma devoted much of his novel's energy to white characters, but the prose is tense with its struggle to see those white characters as other than empty shells. There are two very different brands of racism in the bigoted Afrikaner and complicit English groups, but both are equally destructive. That of course is a humanist way of looking at it. Time of the Butcherbird could be seen as a novel where the novel's intrinsic humanism is in distress and is tested. Also tested is the noir style that La Guma began from: that too depends on a security of humanist response, on which its hard-bitten manner plays a piquant variation.

Noir, nevertheless, remains an important bedrock of the book. Whether it's Meulen talking to Steen or Mma-Tau talking to Murile, the prose makes no explicit judgments, it merely narrates. The compression and selection still accounts for a large part of the book's power and poetry.

I think it's a fantastic book. It certainly is less perfect than A Walk in the Night but then it's twice as long and much more ambitious.

What might be, and has been, considered thinness in the characterization is really down to a deliberate honing of repeated motifs. These are sparse people in a sparse country. Shilling Murile is nearly always "the one who was called Shilling Murile", and his only prop is his pair of boots. Madonele is always thinking about the tobacco. (Both the tobacco and the boots are connected to Murile's ten years in jail.) The unfortunate Timi is excited and innocently drunk: what else do we need to know about him? And characters of whom we see much, such as Edgar Stopes, turn out to be obsessively narrow in their outlook, always thinking and feeling the same things. In the drought (endless, so far as the book is concerned), nature too is composed of the faintest variations on repetition: every day the sun burns and the dust swirls. It's the passing of time, but it's also, as the title says, a time. A static condition. "Our course is set," says Hannes Meulen.

The primary images are of faces, land and sun. La Guma's writing  is unashamedly inventive on these subjects, like a pulp author.

'There,' her father said. 'You see you are going to have a wife who will out do you in public activities, so be careful, son.'

Meulen chuckled, 'She can help me with my speeches.'

'What -- about wild flowers?' Rina asked and they laughed.

The rest of the meal was frikadells, yellow rice cooked with raisins, boiled vegetables, beet salad and apricot chutney. They passed dishes among them and Steen called on the servant to bring the peach brandy from the lounge.  (p. 63)


Rina wants to borrow trucks to transport drought-stricken wild flowers to parks where they can be preserved. Meulen is happy to lend her the trucks, once they've been used to take the evicted kaffirs to the railway for transportation into the Karoo.

Conversation at dinner is high-toned, about the challenges and duties of preserving God's culture and racial purity in a time of liberalization.

Before dinner, Steen had mildly cajoled Meulen for using the word "kaffir": - "We call them Bantus now."  But a few moments later he says:


'I suppose those black things will move?'

Steen inherited money and hasn't needed to farm for a few years, but he's still very interested in making his pile from the minerals concession.

La Guma's book really has some admiration for the principled, orderly lives of the Afrikaners; compared to the shallow, hopeless, unhappy consumerism of the British South Africans Edgar and Maisie.

So he sees the ingrained racism of Steen and Meulen as a tragedy for their own people as well as for the peoples they oppress.

How far the depersonalization of Steen's remark can go, comes out in the account of what happened ten years before, during the wedding night of Meulen's sister.

Such a celebration ought, you would think, to bring reconciliation between people; and that's how the drunk Murile sees it. Actually its effect on Meulen is the opposite: to make him even prouder, even more repulsed by the subject race, and even more punitive. Murile and his baby brother are treated to volleys of "baboon" and "filth". But most telling of all is Meulen's reponse to Murile's plea of acquaintance.








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Lanius collaris

[Image source: http://www.ispotnature.org/node/764019]


In southern Africa the "butcherbird" is the Southern Fiscal (Lanius collaris), a kind of shrike. (Unrelated to the Australian butcherbirds, which are in the magpie family.)

The bird was named from its habit of impaling insects and other food on thorns. The butcherbird is considered beneficial, especially by farmers whose animals were tormented by ticks. He is "a hunter and a smeller-out of sorcerers", as Shilling Murile says.

So the novel meditates on a time of violent cleansing.


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The wealthier Afrikaners have stinkwood furniture in their homes. This is Black Stinkwood (Ocotea bullata), formerly prized by cabinet-makers for its beautiful close-grained timber, but no longer commercially available due to over-exploitation.


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When Meulen arrives Steen is reading "a story by Potgieter". This was the Dutch author Everhardus Johannes Potgieter (1808-1875), romantic, extremely patriotic, a firm believer in trade and a good businessman.







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Extensive essay by Kathleen M. Balutansky (Google Books has nearly all of it) in The Novels of Alex La Guma: The Representation of a Political Conflict (Three Continents Press, 1990). Structured around the symbolisms of the title and the opening and closing paragraphs.

Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane, "Sharpeville and its Aftermath: The Novels of Richard Rive, Peter Abrahams, Alex La Guma and Lauretta Ngcobo" http://ariel.ucalgary.ca/ariel/index.php/ariel/article/viewFile/1886/1843. Argues that Butcherbird suffers from the author's long exile and resorting to a non-South African readership; it is less concretely imagined than his earlier urban works. Says there are minor mistakes "such as putting Sesotho words in the mouths of Xhosa-speaking Africans from the Cape where his novel is set".

Annie Gagiano, '"The Tree Goes on":Reconsidering Alex La Guma's Time of the Butcherbird' in English in Africa Vol 24 No 1 (May 1997).  Available on Jstor: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40238836
Troubled by the novel's apparent celebration of Murile's revenge killing.

Louis Tremaine, 'Ironic Convergence in Alex La Guma's Time of the Butcherbird'. http://jcl.sagepub.com/content/29/2/31.extract . In the one-page extract, Tremaine refers to La Guma's observation, a few years earlier, that the colour bar made it impossible for any South African writer to portray both white and black characters with equal inwardness, and points out that Butcherbird is his first book to attempt to portray white characters at length.

Anders Breidlid, "Resistance and Reaction in Alex La Guma's And A Threefold Chord". http://www.soas.ac.uk/soaslit/issue1/BREIDLID.PDF Thinks in depth about Benita Parry's criticism that La Guma's realist fiction isn't an adequate form for a genuine resistance literature or oppositional discourse.

Simon Lewis's review of Nahem Yousaf's Alex La Guma: Politics and Resistance (2001) . Asks the question, how do we read La Guma's Fanonism now, given that the apartheid regime ended without a civil war in 1994? (La Guma died in 1985.) https://muse.jhu.edu/article/44713

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's In the Name of the Mother: Reflections on Writers & Empire has a chapter on La Guma's In the Fog of the Season's End, (Selected pages on Google Books.) He points out that some of the changes disernible in Butcherbird, compared to its predecessor, are down to the  intervening Soweto massacres following the children's uprising in 1976.  Time of the Butcherbird was written when the long-foreseen civil war seemed to be already under way.



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My earlier piece on Alex La Guma's first novel, A Walk in the Nighthttp://michaelpeverett.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/apartheid-eyes.html

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