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.

Labels: , , ,

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 entire Swedish dictionary. [One slightly annoying consequence being that when you enter a Swedish plant name into Google and search for images, you're likely to end up with a load of pictures of mattress protectors or kitchen chairs...]

 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!

Labels: ,

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.

Labels: , ,

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: . This is an early 19th century engraving. I imagine the building was in a worse state by the time Wray was pastor. It 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.

Labels: , ,

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:

Labels: ,

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.


Monday, January 18, 2016

Émile Zola: La Débâcle (1892)

Battle of Sedan, 1st September 1870
[Image source:]

Here the omniscient narrator shades into being a historian, and is then not omniscient, because he hasn't invented what he tells us about. However, we rarely dissent from him; he does not choose to put the principal political or military decision-makers on stage and does not claim an understanding of the motives of Macmahon or Thiers, only reports what was said about them. The battle of Sedan is seen from the perspective of troops and civilians who are generally bewildered by the apparent decisions of their leaders. On the other hand the brutal realities of war on the ground are exposed as perhaps in no previous novel. Since no individual can see much of the whole canvas there is quite a lot of the narrator, and even in the character's accounts and conversations he is often secretly present, this is certainly not naturalism in the sense of people only talking about what they could have seen in their own words. Consider e.g. Silvine's second-hand account of the Prussians passing through Beaumont. The characters are devices, sometimes viewpoints, sometimes broadly symbolic, coincidental meetings abound, and these fairly overt manoeuvres need not cause unease since all that really matters is that figures are ready to hand in order to build the terrifying pictures by which the book proceeds, the shambles of a hospital in Sedan, the starvation on the Iges peninsula, the boat-trip through a burning Paris. Ultimately what drives the narrative is not the characters but our desire to be shown exactly what happened, shown this admittedly in a Zola manner, but the emotive colouring does not seem exaggerated in view of the enormity of the events. A more subtle artistry does not seem required here, Zola had anyway sufficiently proved himself at that, and he is quite fluidly willing to employ devices of popular fiction to advance his story.

A little fall of plaster made him look up. It was a bullet that had chipped a bit off his house, one side of which he could see over the party wall. This annoyed him very much, and he fumed:    'Are those bastards going to demolish it for me?' Then he was startled by another little thud behind him. He looked round and saw a soldier, who had been shot through the heart, falling on his back. The legs made a few convulsive movements, the face stayed young and calm, suddenly still. This was the first man killed, and Weiss was particularly upset by the crash of his rifle as it fell on the cobbles of the yard.

The experience of the real beginning of the battle of Sedan is fascinating to Zola. Having built up to it so slowly all through Part 1, he replays the beginning three times in the first three chapters of Part 2. First we have Weiss and Delaherche at Bazeilles, as above. Then we have Jean Macquart's company on the plateau of Floing. Then in the third chapter we go right back to the middle of the night with Henriette inside the town of Sedan, and move forward again. There is a desperate poignancy in this last flashback, knowing as we already do what is so soon to come; Conrad learnt from this technique. The three sequences can all be synchronized with each other through the sudden outburst of sustained gunfire that takes place at exactly four in the morning.

The curious matter-of-factness with which, for each observer, the sundry events of existence, however uncomfortable or foreboding, suddenly transform into the full-on horror of a battle: that's what Zola is after. The misery and exhaustion of the campaign up to that point has been emphasized to the full, but only to point up that this, after all, is as nothing compared to the brutal frenzy of killing that is to follow. Brief, paradoxical lapses still interrupt the widening conflict. It is still strangely local. Delaherche, at serious risk of being killed on the way from Bazeilles, suddenly "made up his mind and ran all the way to Balan, whence he regained Sedan at last without too much trouble." Suddenly the fighting in Bazeilles seems unreal, something the mind finds hard to accept. Or  Maurice, just after witnessing this: "Just then a piece of shell smashed in the head of a soldier in the front rank. Not even a cry - a jet of blood and brains, that was all." - Just after witnessing this, "As he looked round he was very surprised to see down in a lonely valley, isolated by steep slopes, a peasant unhurriedly ploughing, guiding his plough behind a big white horse. Why lose a day's work?"

These chapters ought to make interesting reading for a new soldier. It's a paradox of La Débâcle that while it seems to provide all the material anyone would require for an utter repudiation of war in any shape, it also allowed its nation of readers a strong surge of indignant patriotism and the message that France ought to be better armed and better led, more ready for modern conflict.


Thursday, January 14, 2016

the red tractor

Yesterday evening Laura and I called into the local Toby carvery for dinner. It's a good place to get a cheap mid-week meal. (At the week-end, on the other hand, you may find you're driven crazy by double-queueing, buying drinks you don't want while waiting for your buzzer to vibrate, and significantly higher prices.)

I went for our usual meat-free option (you get given a square plate, so they know to charge you less), but Laura, concerned about her protein intake, decided to have a slice of turkey. Not being much used to the business of meat, the sight of a steaming new turkey being bounced into place on the carvery deck nearly made her change her mind, but she stuck with it.

Over dinner we speculated about the meaning of "Succulent British Farm Assured" and the accompanying Assured Food Standards symbol (The red tractor with a union jack background). The shadowy standards used by the mainstream non-organic food industry can be quite hard to pin down.

One thing it apparently does mean is that the turkey was farmed, processed and packed in the UK. (In contrast to the mere presence of a union jack, or the words "100% British",  which mean nothing of the sort.)

For the rest, "Products bearing the Red Tractor logo have been produced to some of the most comprehensive and respected standards in the world". Products are "regularly" checked by an independent body. Standards cover safety, animal welfare, traceability and environmental impact. I quote from . The scheme is about building authority, respect and trust, valuable to an embattled industry.

The actual standards, or some of them anyway, are here:

Disappointingly, none of the online material covers turkey. I had a look at the broiler standards instead. (The broiler is what you and I call "chicken". Unlike the egg-laying type, it's a hybrid between two different jungle-bird species).


Planned stocking densities must not exceed 38kg/m2 for broilers and 30kg/m2 for poussin. 
24 hour rhythm includes periods of darkness lasting at least 6 hours, with at least 1 uninterrupted period of darkness lasting at least 4 hours.  (Notoriously in the turkey industry, very long periods of low-light have been used to boost productivity.)
Windows of size at least 3% of floor area are a recommendation but not compulsory. 
Stockmen walk within 3m of every bird and encourage them to move.
There's a separate standard for lairage and slaughter, which talks a lot about the snagging-line.

To be fair, the bulk of these documents are about elements of farm management good practice that, unless you are a farmer yourself, you won't have envisaged at all (the bait plan when using bait to eradicate rodents, the managed manure plan, forbidden and allowed sludges, and so on). It certainly is comprehensive.

Basically the logo affirms that industry good practice has been followed: nothing more. Bernard Matthews Farms are among those accredited and maybe it's they who supply the turkeys found on Toby carvery decks.

Broad-breasted Whites, the most popular breed in intensive farming

[Image source:]

The turkeys we roast never breed. They're slaughtered before sexual maturity; their short lives are spent piling on the pounds with their fellows in what is effectively an elongated fledgling-life. Their home is a gigantic rearing-farm (old aircraft hangars are sometimes used). The eggs come from a separate breeding-farm. The weight of the mature male Broad-breasted White would injure the hen so artificial insemination is used. Breeder's meat is too tough for roasting but it can be used in processed meats.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Émile Zola: L’Assommoir (1877)

Wood engraving of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's drawing of working girls for the illustrated edition of 1878

L’Assommoir is the seventh of the Rougon-Macquart sequence and the first that is still widely read, though Thérèse Raquin (1867) precedes all of them. Sometimes being a part of a larger sequence prevents due recognition. L'Assommoir is one of the supreme European novels and it really stands alone in Zola's work, despite such jaw-dropping successors as Germinal (1885) and La Terre (1887).

In English you have no choice but to read L’Assommoir through a haze of jerky interference, even in Leonard Tancock’s translation. That’s unfortunate if only because of Zola’s huge importance in the history of the British novel. If you have ever wondered why, around 1875, the amazing fertility of its own glory days, masterpiece after masterpiece, seems to yield incomprehensibly to a trifling loss of confidence, then this is why. Zola, above all, made our authors understand themselves as incapacitated (Ibsen was possibly the second most potent author in this respect – i.e the reproof was publically felt).

Thus in April 1866, Wilkie Collins wrote this, in his Foreword to Armadale:

Estimated by the Clap-Trap morality of the present day, this may be a very daring book. Judged by the Christian morality which is of all time, it is only a book that is daring enough to speak the truth.

Ten years later (January 1877), Zola’s Preface says:

L’Assommoir is without doubt the most moral of my books... It is a work of truth, the first novel about the common people which does not tell lies but has the authentic smell of the people.

In these combative prefaces the two novelists used almost the same language, but once Zola had done it you’d be laughed at if you spoke that way about books like Armadale.

There is thus a Zola-shaped recess in the English novel, and in the next generation it’s followed by a Zola-shaped idea of what a serious novel is, by now so ingrained and so coloured by the individuality of good authors (Conrad, Hardy, Joyce, Lawrence..) that we sometimes mistake it for their own idea. I’m sorry to say that they were, on the whole, very ungrateful.

Tancock sometimes succeeds brilliantly, but at such a long distance in time and place from the rue de la Goutte d’Or, he knew he had an impossible mission. At its worst the prose looks clunkily bolted together out of stock expressions that don’t quite fit, e.g.

she pitied her brother, that ninny whose wife deceived him up hill and down dale, and it was understood that the only reason why she still set foot in such a madhouse was for her poor old mother’s sake, who was obliged to live in the midst of all these abominations.

At least Zola’s text was speaking the same language as its characters – French, I mean. But then Zola’s project had intrinsic impossibilities of its own. He appropriated the speech of the streets, an essentially oral form, and tried to use it to make paragraphs in a novel, the wrong tool for the wrong job.     

“Up hill and down dale” is a phrase that you’ll never hear in real life except in some connection with transport, this being the only context where its powerful old image flames into life. There is a decorum in common speech that resists transferred usage, unless it is instantly seen to be natural (in which case it just as instantly ceases to be transferred usage, and becomes a part of the common inheritance in its own right). Extension of usage, the pressure of words placed in new contexts, is a literate practice intrinsically alien to the language of the Goutte d’Or and to any other common neighbourhood, where speech is a highly conservative medium and tiny deviations mark the outsider, the person who can never be “one of us”.

This ill-chosen phrase is presumably Tancock’s fault, but he’s not helped by having to slip these oral ready-mades into a syntactic framework that consists of essentially literary language like “deceived”, “it was understood”, “who was obliged to live”, expressions that are only used in educated settings. That has to be Zola’s responsibility, the basic contradiction in his method, which is something every novel needs to have. Fortunately for the world he had the necessary drive and insensitivity to carry it through. 

When it operates as a kind of continuous unattributable commentary the method does have a slippery potential. As the paragraph continues, we drift away from Mme Lorilleux’s thinking into wider seas:

The whole district fell upon Gervaise. She must have been the one to lead the hatter astray. You could see it in her eyes. Yes, in spite of the ugly stories, that artful dodger Lantier got away with it, because he went on with his gentlemanly airs in front of them all, strolling along the pavements reading the paper, full of gallant attentions to the ladies, always giving them sweets or flowers. After all, he was only behaving like a cock among hens, a man’s a man, and you can’t expect him to resist women who throw themselves at him, can you? But there was no excuse for her; she was a disgrace to the rue de la Goutte d’Or.

The commentary doesn’t speak with a single voice, since for the space of a brief shimmy it seems to admit the “artful dodger” Lantier’s culpability. We’ve seen what happened between Gervaise and Lantier, or we think we have, so this commentary about Gervaise we assume to be a cloud of commonplace-sexist prejudice and something that Zola doesn’t intend us to accept. At the same time it has its influence on us, because its pattern is at least comprehensible. We have not after all seen Gervaise’s eyes. She didn’t mean to trap Lantier, but then you can argue that Lantier, pace Virginie’s conspiratorial fantasies when he turns up, is a sponger and a drifter rather than a Macchiavelli. He wasn’t really responsible for Coupeau fouling the marriage bed with lakes of vomit. And didn’t Gervaise tacitly accept what was bound to happen from the moment Lantier moved in? Goujet thought so. The neighbourhood view, unlike the one that we take as bourgeois readers of a bourgeois form, at least acknowledges Gervaise’s rare moment of triumph, even if the neighbourhood condemns it. 

You need a pattern, even if it’s far from accurate, and in the next paragraph we see Gervaise working out her own changed circumstances on the basis of more or less accepting the neighbourhood myth. It’s like a communal thought-process.

Amid the general indignation Gervaise lived on, calm, indolent, half asleep. At first she had felt very guilty, very dirty and disgusted with herself. When she left Lantier’s room she washed her hands and then wetted a cloth and wiped her shoulders hard enough to take the skin off, as though to wash away her shame. If on such occasions Coupeau tried on any funny tricks with her she would fly into a temper and run off shivering to dress in the shop. Similarly she would not let Lantier touch her if her husband had embraced her. She would have liked to change skins when she changed men. But gradually she got used to it. It’s too tiring to have a bath every time! Her laziness melted away her scruples, and her longing to be happy made her get as much pleasure as she could out of her troubles. She was as indulgent towards herself as towards others, and was only anxious to arrange things so that nobody was too put out. After all, you see, so long as her husband and her lover were happy, and the home went on in its regular routine and everything in it was fun and games the livelong day, and everybody was nice and comfortable and pleased with life, there was nothing to complain about, was there? And besides, when all was said and done, what she was doing couldn’t be all that terrible, since it was all working out so well to everybody’s satisfaction, and you are generally punished if you do wrong. So her lack of shame had turned into a habit. It was now all as regular as mealtimes; whenever Coupeau came home drunk she popped over to Lantier’s bed, and that happened on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at least. She shared out her nights, and had even taken to leaving her husband in the middle of his sleep when he snored too loud, so as to finish off her own sleep quietly on the lodger’s pillow. It wasn’t that she felt more attached to the hatter. No, it was simply that he seemed cleaner and she could sleep better in his room – she felt she was having a bath. In fact she was rather like a dainty cat who loves curling up on nice white linen.

The paragraph begins firmly and makes its way to the phrase about changing skins as one changes men. In the same way the end of the paragraph suddenly crystallizes into the picture of the dainty cat. Both of these are things that we see Gervaise thinking, and they act like searchlights into her mind with their common emphasis on cleanliness and bathing (by the end of the paragraph, this has ended up meaning being in Lantier’s bed).

But between these illuminations the central part of the paragraph is cloudy with parallel syntax and dithering qualifications like “after all, you see... and besides, when all was said and done...”. Coincidentally or not, “fun and games all the livelong day” is another judder of the Tancock/Zola phrase-bolting machine. One of the difficulties Zola makes for himself is that he hasn’t worked out a way of representing the silences of consciousness. His Gervaise is compelled by the methodology of the novel into a discursive and verbal awareness of her situation that is exactly how she wouldn’t think or choose to think, and this is compounded by her being made to employ the street-language designed for a different social context, which is bound to make her discursiveness seem silly. She is not a novelist or a debater, and Zola has to make her into one, even when she’s sick and starving in the twelfth chapter. Nevertheless his method does lead to a dreadful effect in the final pages, when Gervaise is wandering in her mind and the prose gradually withdraws from her consciousness, eventually objectifying her as a huddled body under the stairs in Bru’s kennel.

Still from Albert Capellani's silent film of 1908

Where the method really catches fire it becomes a brilliant expression of excited awareness – this is when Zola is going with the strength of the street-talk and not trying to make it do things it was never intended to do. This is Gervaise giving way to the thrill of the pawnshop:

Gervaise would have gladly sold up the whole lot; she was seized with a frenzy for popping everything, and would have shaved her own head if they would have advanced something on her hair. It was all too easy; you couldn’t help going there for some money when you were longing for a four-pound loaf. The whole shoot went that way – linen, clothes, even tools and furniture. In the early days she took advantage of good weeks and got things out of pawn, only to pop them again the following week. But later she couldn’t be bothered about her belongings and just let them go and sold the pawn tickets. Only one thing broke her heart,....

The prose does wonderfully with this dire over-heating, and it is still doing it near the end, e.g. in Gervaise’s fascinated participation in Coupeau’s death:

Seeing the doctors laying their hands on her husband’s body, Gervaise wanted to touch him too. She went up timidly, put her hand on his shoulder, and kept it there a minute. Good God, whatever was going on inside there? The dance seemed to be going on right down deep in his flesh, the very bones must be jerking about. From some remote source tremors and waves were flowing along under the skin like a river. When she pressed a little harder she could sense, as it were, cries of pain coming from the very marrow of his bones. All you could see with the naked eye was wavelets hollowing out tiny dimples, as on a whirlpool, but beneath there must be frightful commotion. What a sinister job was going on down there, like a mole boring away! Old Colombe’s poison was wielding the pickaxe on that job. The whole body was soaked in it, so what the hell – the job had to be finished, crumbling Coupeau away in a general, non-stop shaking of his whole carcase.

At such moments Gervaise ceases to be a case, the barriers come down, commentary gets left behind; it’s me and you, hellbent.

The novel begins in 1850 and ends some twenty years later. Zola has seamed so far into previously unworked chambers that we can easily overlook his cop-outs, but there are one or two. Generally his over-arching scheme of the Rougon-Macquart families does no good to the novels. Here, it leads Zola into beginning his book by taking the familiar path of introducing an outsider, Gervaise from Plassans, into a new neighbourhood. This has the initial advantage that he can describe that neighbourhood through an outsider’s fresh eyes, but it also means that he largely fails to confront working-class experience as seen from within the structure of a family. Zola wishes to reserve Claude and Étienne for other books, with the odd effect that Gervaise appears to have no consciousness of her sons after they have been relocated. At the time of her lonely death, she has two sons (or, as he later decided, three sons) in the prime of manhood. These sons were born to her and Lantier before the novel begins. Its difficult to decide whether Gervaise’s lack of emphasis on her own motherhood is a novelist’s insight into the reality of dispersed families or whether it’s just a convenience that frees her up to play out her tragic decline on the stage that Zola has assigned to her. It’s a matter of observation that families near the foot of the social ladder are often divided by longstanding separations that no-one feels it’s possible to overcome – it only makes more trouble – so you learn with surprise of children or brothers who live in the next street but are totally out of contact. Many people lead such extremely circumscribed lives, maintaining them with such difficulty or lassitude, unable to accept even the most minimal derangement that any leg-up necessarily entails, that contact with relations soon founders. But these observations are misplaced; such family separations occur because of distress and Zola nowhere concerns himself with Gervaise’s feelings about her sons, distressed or otherwise; in the early pages they are quietly children, and then they disappear, but this ought to mean more in the book than it does. Gervaise also has a sister in Paris, whom she never contacts.

Nana is a different matter, and yet not altogether. Conflicts between Nana and her parents are dealt with at length, but in these striking pages there remains a sort of vacuum, at least to my eyes. Coupeau’s rages and his sentimentality are comprehensible expressions of drunken feeling, but there is a blankness where we look in vain for Gervaise, elsewhere so implausibly verbal, to show some awareness of herself as a mother and Nana as her daughter. It’s understandable that Nana should be experienced by Gervaise primarily as a trouble, but what’s odd is that she seems to be only the same kind of trouble that you might incur by taking in someone else’s teenage child. For whatever reason, the bond on which all animal society is founded seems to have gone missing from Zola’s novel. What I end up thinking is that the novel is falsifying its account by omitting daily hours in which Gervaise and Nana must have interacted in undramatic ways that would in fact have seriously complicated the catastrophic image that Zola is trying to project.      

But no matter. All reservations aside, L’Assommoir directly confronts the most concealed of society’s existences with an amplitude that even now few other novels have ever managed. For hundreds of pages, unbroken by the entrance of even a single educated person, it operates outside bourgeois limits in the nearest yet most intractable of territories. Now that we are not exactly bourgeois ourselves, and a clearer understanding of the world around us at last seems possible, it ought to be one of the dog-eared books we do more than read. 

Rue de la Goutte d'Or in 2012

[Image source: , a wonderful post collecting the 2012 images and sounds from the neighbourhood of Zola's novel. Its present-day inhabitants are mainly N. African immigrants.] 

Labels: ,

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

William Canton (1845 - 1926)

William Canton, portrait photo by Walter Stoneman

[Image source: National Portrait Gallery]

What I've been reading is a 1925-ish pamphlet from the series The Augustan Books of Poetry Edited by Edward Thompson. William Canton's early poetry, written in the 1870s, gained attention (e.g. from Thomas Huxley) for its adoption of up-to-date materials from Darwinism, geology and archaeology. In later years Canton (1845 - 1926), editor and leader-writer for the Glasgow Weekly Herald, was mainly known for his children's books and popular Christian works (A Child's Book of Warriors, Dawn in Palestine, etc). Some of the poems here date from after the death of his beloved daughter Winifred Vida in 1901.

Canton's principal themes are A: huge vistas of time and B: children, about whom he writes very sweetly and warmly. This is the end of "A Philosopher":

Take them to bed, nurse; but before she goes
Daddy must toast his little woman's toes.
Strange that such feeble hands and feet as these
Have sped the lamp-race of the centuries!

That last couplet, combining his two themes, goes into my page-long anthology of the best of William Canton. True, it might have been written by any number of Victorian poets, but not all perfections are individual. Some short-hands, such as the word "sped" (in that fragile moment before motoring was invented), are achieved communally. (Indeed, as much as Rimbaud's Bateau ivre, Canton's lines are a sort of birth-pang of motoring, already envisaged in dreams before the reality was engineered.)

But my favourite poem is "The Haunted Bridge", partly because I have no logical explanation for the suggestive phrase "citron shadow". The ancient bridge, now cut adrift from roads, is haunted by a little lad, a Roman truant who has gone a-fishing

And, dangling sandalled feet, looks down
     To see the swift trout dart and gleam --
Or scarcely see them, hanging brown
     With heads against the clear brown stream.

It does not exactly suggest a  Roman scene, sandals or no, but that's what makes the poem interesting. A similar appropriation of the past occurs in my other favourite poem, "Woodland Windows" - these are "foliage-fretted lancets" through a line of elms, which Canton oddly calls woodland;  those pillared elms, now long gone from the English landscape, did not grow in woods but around field edges. Anyway, the poet, glimpsing first an old fisherman and then "two bright sunburnt tots at play", then meditates the past into the scene:

Within the woodland's pillared shade,
    I seem from some dim aisle to see
That shore by whose blue waters played
    The little lads of Zebedee.

(Those bright-coloured stained-glass narratives of Victorian churches are obviously a birth-pang of Technicolor, already envisaged blah blah...)

The major poem here is "Through the Ages", which is in three parts, the first a dramatic Stone Age tragedy featuring a sabre-tooth tiger. This section is fascinatingly crude;that is, it pre-dates a consensus about how to portray  prehistory in literature.

                 By the swamp in the forest
                      sings shrilly in glee
                 The stark forester's lass
                     plucking mast in a tree --
And hairy and brown as a squirrel is she! 

The second section is a grand processional covering vast expanses of time:

For lo! the shadowy centuries once more
With wind and fire, with rain and snow sweep by;
And where the forest stood, an empty sky
Arches with lonely blue and lonely land.
The great white stilted storks in silence stand
Far from each other, motionless as stone,
And melancholy leagues of marsh-reeds moan,
And dead tarns blacken 'neath the mournful blue.

These eras and sea-pictures are eventually populous and as we reach recorded history they even begin to name some individuals; the last is Oliver Cromwell.

The third section is a comic schoolroom scene in which an eloquent but droning professor is gently ribbed by a lively class of girls, but then young Phemie suddenly awakens in her imagination the scene with which the poem began. The verse looks like this: -

           Monstrous bird stalk stilted by as
             She perceives the slab of Trias
Scrawled with hieroglyphic claw-tracks of the mesozoic days...

Not only the professor, but the whole poem, is reoriented through this mockery. The mixture of registers is piquant: the question underlying each of the poem's sections is: in what way are our lives altered by this unearthing of the past?  "Through the Ages" stands modestly at the head of a proud succession that  would include Doughty's The Dawn in Britain (1906), Kipling's "Puck's Song" and others, the first part of The Anathemata, Peter Riley's Excavations, etc.

(Other readers may not value that modesty as I do. This was an age in which the poet's eagle eye, the colonialist's eagle eye, the ruling-class Englishman's eagle eye, the journalist's eagle eye, were omnipresent assumptions: all subsumed into the colonial image of a border-guard who stands watch, and who sees beyond the petty camp-fires of the women and of lesser men. Surely Canton, scion of a family of colonial administrators, would naturally assume that complacent patriarchal mantle? From what I can see in this pamphlet, it didn't occur to him.)

(An earlier version of this note appeared in Intercapillary Space)


Powered by Blogger