Thursday, December 29, 2016

Bo Balderson: Death and the Minister (Statsrådet och Döden, 1968)




When people talk about the classics of the Scandinavian crime genre, they tend to mean Scandinavian Noir: authors like Henning Mankell, Kerstin Ekman, Camilla Läckberg, Stieg Larsson, Carin Gerhardsen, Jo Nesbø, Arnaldur Indridason, Peter Høeg, Maj Sjöwall / Per Wahlöö and so on.

But the "deckare" (whodunnit) has been many other things too. Few are more off-the-wall, and yet more deeply satisfying, than the eleven "Statsrådet" ("Cabinet Minister") novels of Bo Balderson, published between 1968 and 1990.

The premise sounds like a trainwreck.  The investigator is not a detective but a larger-than-life, spontaneous, dubiously-competent, skin-of-his-teeth maverick of a cabinet minister, a post he's attained to largely by accident. The narrator is his brother-in-law, lecturer Vilhelm Persson, a reluctant and often aghast participant. The murder mysteries are classical Christie constructions with a limited range of suspects. The cabinet minister is also polyphiloprogenitive, and by the end of this first novel is expecting his fifteenth child. He's a kind of god, but Balderson has learnt the valuable lesson of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, that if you are going to introduce a kind of god into your story then the most acceptable way of doing it is to make them a bit of a buffoon.

If Balderson had submitted a synopsis, he'd never have got near a publisher. Instead, he submitted the completed novel, and publishing it must have been one of Bonniers' easier decisions: it was irresistible. The vocabulary is wide and idiomatic (a significant challenge to my Swedish-language skills), the book is full of political and social comedy in a somewhat Wodehousian style. But the fun doesn't detract from the meaty main course, an ingenious and very satisfying crime mystery which opens up unexpected depths of feeling and insight normally excluded from this type of book.

Many people, including perhaps the author himself, regard this debut novel as his masterpiece. On a small island in the Stockholm archipelago, one of the few summer residents, an elderly woman, is found murdered one evening. The fleeting figure of the putative murderer is witnessed by two other islanders. Most of the residents have no alibi: typical of Swedes on holiday, they are pottering singly about their cottages at this time in the evening.  The blundering police investigator, desperate to make a success of his first big case, turns out to be a former pupil of lecturer Persson, a connection that's a constant embarrassment to them both. Meanwhile the national newspapers are in uproar about a cabinet minister who claims (truthfully) to have been sitting in his outside loo for an hour and a half at the time the murder took place.


*


We were just getting on to dessert when the door suddenly opened and a broad-shouldered stocky gentleman bustled in with a little black hold-all in his hand.

-- Might I speak to the person in charge?

He raised his voice in the way that people do when addressing a large assembly.

-- The person in charge?  echoed the minister, surprised. *

-- Yes, of course, a camp or establishment has someone in charge whom one may speak to. Would that be you?

The minister explained that he wasn't "the person in charge" but just a normal husband and father who was having dinner with his family.

The man stepped back a pace. It was hard to say if he were more appalled or impressed.

-- My name is Dr Moberg. I was asked to come here to see to a patient. I was on my round of home visits at the far end of the district and that's why I've been detained until now.

The minister told him that the patient's wound had already been bandaged and that he was now quite comfortable in his own home, and Dr Moberg responded by saying what he thought of people who allowed him to set off on unnecessary journeys to remote islands. The mounting fury in his face and the way he flung his hold-all to one side suggested that expressions like "thoughtless" and "impudent" composed but a genial prelude.

To calm him down I rose and introduced the minister. Something I've observed is that it normally takes the wind out of an incensed person's sails once they realize they're face to face with a cabinet minister. Even if it's the very minister who has incensed them in the first place.

But Dr Moberg was made of sterner stuff. Informed that he was in the presence of the Home Affairs minister, he now lost all sense of restraint.

-- So it's YOU! he snarled, and the veins stood up on his neck. I've been wanting to have a word with YOU for a very long time! Do you have the least idea of the conditions your provincial doctors are expected to function in? Do you know how many hours' sleep I've managed in the past week? Or the week before that? Do you know how long it is since I last sat down to read a newspaper? Do you have the faintest notion of how many people live within my district? And what are you doing about it, you who are responsible for all this?

As if he realized it was beyond human capacity to answer all those questions he took a few swift steps up to the cabinet minister and felled him to the ground with a single, well-aimed blow.

The children helped to drag the minister to the sofa in the living-room, meanwhile uttering appreciative comments like "What a strong guy, eh?", "Right on the chin, did you see that?" and "Daddy went down like a sack!"

Once the minister was propped up on the sofa the formidable doctor stepped forward and examined him. Clearly Dr Moberg was not one to neglect a duty of care.

-- He'll come round in a few minutes. (He seemed rather to lament this fact.) Here's my card, and here's some powdered aspirin.

Then he gathered up his hold-all and departed.

The minister woke up just in time for coffee.

He wondered what had been going on. The children told him the full story, using raw and expressive language. He rubbed his chin, shifted about as if checking that no bones were broken, and said very little. But you could tell that he had plenty on his mind.


(Statsrådet och Döden, end of Chapter 14, translation by me)









I chose the above extract at random and immediately got bogged down in one of the book's tricky idioms:

-- Föreståndaren? svarade statsrådet begåvat.

"Begåvat" is the adverbial form of "begåvad" (gifted, talented), so the sentence literally means something like

"The principal?", answered the cabinet minister brightly.  

But both adjective and adverb are often used sarcastically in Swedish, and in the particular context of narrative dialogue this sarcastic usage is now the predominant one.  (The SAOB entry, from 1901, supplies no hint of this, but I got help from native Swedish-speakers on a translation forum.)

Thus:

 ”Det är jag”, sa jag begåvat när hon svarade

"It's me", I said brightly (meaning lamely) when she picked up the phone.

”Jylland”, sa jag begåvat medan Tine väntade på att mitt minne skulle börja fungera igen.

"Jylland," I said brightly (meaning uncomprehendingly), while Tine waited for my memory to kick in.

Maken tittade förvirrat upp från en av alla de skrifter han omger sig med och svarade begåvat: - va?

My husband looked up confused from all the papers around him and answered brightly (meaning vacantly): "Eh?"


So what is really being conveyed in Balderson's sentence is not the brightness of the minister's response but, on the contrary, his bemusement, gawping, being all at sea.

Perhaps even those expressions don't quite capture the full flavour of the Swedish, which suggests the well-meaning but hapless efforts of someone trying to be alert and intelligent.


*

The novel's leading character is never given a name but is referred to throughout as "Statsrådet": The Cabinet Minister.

In Swedish this is not particularly jarring as people are often referred to by their job-titles rather than their names. (Indeed, fifty years ago this was the normal form of polite address.)

In the Swedish text "Statsrådet" is soon accepted as a familiar nickname: it acquires overtones of fondness (or sometimes exasperation).

When translating the text into English it's a constant problem that "the minister" produces just the opposite effect: it threatens to reduce intimacy, and to distance the hero from his family and surroundings.






"Bo Balderson" is a pseudonym; the true identity of the author has been jealously guarded by his or her publishers and agent for the past 48 years, and remains undisclosed.

This has proven to be excellent publicity, especially when newspaper articles have speculated that Balderson must be someone well-known, such as a senior politician or an author famous for other books. (The smart money, however, has long been on the relatively humble college lecturer Björn Sjöberg.)

A number of email interviews purporting to be with Bo Balderson have appeared over the years. I discovered this one in Svenska Magasinet, a free magazine for Swedes on the Costa Blanca, in 2008. The interviewer was Iwan Morelius, founder of DAST magazine (about Swedish crime fiction), and it was brokered via Balderson's literary agent Bengt Nordin. (Both interviewer and agent were by this time resident in Spain.)

The interview sounds convincingly genuine to me, but you never know. Some people argue that Bo Balderson was the publisher Åke Runnquist, who worked for Bonniers (with special interest in crime fiction) and who died in 1991, which would of course explain why no further novels have appeared since 1990.


IM: One final question: When will you reveal yourself? As Ingalill wisely remarked in one of her articles about you,  it seems rather a shame to be unmasked only after your death. Wouldn't it be better to plan this "disclosure" in a spectacular way perhaps, something that only you can think up? Consider!
BB: I'll do it when I'm awarded the Nobel Prize. At the beginning of the ceremony, I'll be wearing my mask, but once I've been handed my prize by the King I'll take the mask off, and then everyone'll say: "But he already won the prize, several years ago!"


Online text of the interview (in Swedish):
http://www.dast.nu/artikel/bo-balderson-intervjuad-jag-ar-inget-scoopobjekt






Here's another post about a forgotten corner of the "deckare" genre:

http://michaelpeverett.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/trippel-deckare.html



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Thursday, December 22, 2016

Jörg Demus plays the Claviharp at Ringve Museum (1977)

The English-style garden at Ringve Museum near Trondheim




We love the shapes of boats, and of violins. By long evolution, and by restless striving against the intractable constraints of natural forces, a form emerges that appears optimal and classical. Being an answer to Nature’s question, it becomes in a certain way a part of nature; though the violinist knows from his calloused chin that the instrument is not quite optimal, and contains many measures of failure, pain and compromise. But the pain, like a high price, to a certain extent validates the form: it is worth this. 

But if a fiddle can be compared with a yacht, most of the thousands of other musical instruments that have been invented are more like rafts. Most of them didn’t work well enough and strike us now as amusing travesties, testaments to misplaced ingenuity.

The Ringve Museum, near Trondheim, is Norway’s national museum of musical instruments. Jörg Demus is an Austrian pianist who has made many recordings. The “pianoharpe” (from the Norwegian liner-notes) is the instrument known in English as a claviharp, claviharpe,  keyed harp or harp piano. This one was made around 1870 by  Christian Dietz, instrument-maker of Brussels. (The claviharp was invented by J C Dietz in around 1813.) It is a decorative instrument, lacquered in Japanese style. It has a six-octave keyboard and looks rather like a small upright piano, except that instead of an enclosed chamber for the strings, a sweeping harp-like frame rises in front of the player’s head. The strings are plucked rather than hammered, and the instrument weighs far less than a piano does.  


The Ringve Claviharp (left)



In the recording of 1977, Jörg Demus plays a number of short pieces by Debussy, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and others on this instrument.

The chiming, bell-like tone of the melody line in the upper register is at once striking. (It seems, however, that this can be restrained, as in the piece by Bach.) I don’t know how the piano-harp is played, but I assume it is entirely by means of the keyboard and the two pedals. It hardly sounds like it. Though that clear bell-like tone is beguiling, one is immediately aware of a stealthy scuffle of apparently unrelated sounds behind it. In the bass a muffled thump half-conceals the note. There is a continuous, inconsequent background of soft thuds, perhaps a side-effect of the mechanics. Sometimes even the higher notes sound muted, and sometimes in the midst of passages we hear a quite different sound: a sharp, unresonant twang that sounds a bit like someone striking the strings of an unamplified electric guitar.   

No instrument is without its limitations, and the piano-harp would seem to have more than most.  Some of the noises just mentioned sound as if they are not under the performer’s control, fine musician though he obviously is. The tempi have a perennial flutter about them, so that the notes in a run are of slightly unequal lengths;  an effect we eventually come to accept as intrinsic, rather as we accept the stumbling rhythm of a peal of bells. The dynamics, too, seem widely varied, suggesting that the performer does not always know if a note will plang or plink. Just as precision tempi seem to be difficult, so do precisely marshalled chords; they tend to be played broken, and the pieces seem to come to a halt with odds and ends of notes.

Yet the music is delightful. It is also exciting, because it opens a door, and lets us overhear, faintly, how different our culture could have been if, through some accident, the piano-harp had stood in the piano’s place. With repeated listens we begin, without conscious effort, to learn the aesthetic of the piano-harp.

Eventually there comes a point where it is difficult to assert with real confidence that we are better off for not having to make do with the piano-harp. An instrument’s limitations, quite as much as its strengths, are what give the music and our conception of the instrument a “character”, which is perhaps the essential factor in being able to interpret what we hear as having a “meaning”, that is to say a cultural significance. Therefore limitations in an instrument do not produce limitations in the wisdom of what can be said with it; in fact, the technical challenges they create provide opportunities for exposing, and polishing, new facets of that wisdom. Just as fully functional languages can be composed from any number of narrow selections of all the noises that a human voice can make,  so we could have made music as natural and as human with different instruments. The difference, utterly transforming as it would have been, is not clearly a difference of value. [The difference that it makes whether, for instance, we grow up speaking English or Italian, is something that can only be contemplated by those who are fluent in both languages; those who are, of all people, the least prone to claim that one language or the other is superior.] 

But I have written this in the past conditional, as if the piano-harp is an odd, trivial, dead end of the sort that interests only those mostly elderly folk who knock about in museums. But in fact, to listen to it is to hear the certain future as well as a curiosity of the past. Our musical instruments, like our languages, will change and are slowly changing every day. And these changes, in any aspect of human culture, affect all the rest, so that even when something does stay the same (such as a sound recording) it is now heard differently – a recording of the Léner Quartet sounds not like a string quartet but like an old string quartet. Which is one application of Gösta Ågren’s poem, The Ego:

            The one who never changes
            becomes another.  



 *

There was a serious fire at Ringve Museum in August 2015. Some instruments were lost on upper floors. Fortunately the ground floor rooms, such as the "Beethoven" room that contains the piano-harp, were not affected.  


Ringve Museum




*


Jörg Demus, LP Sleeve from 1978



Jörg Demus (b. 1928) is an Austrian pianist. He has made prolific recordings including a complete edition of Schumann's piano music. You can find lots of his musicianly and sensitive performances on Youtube. 


*


On YouTube you can hear several pieces performed by Daniel Grimwood on a claviharp restored by David Winston.  Here are two that demonstrate the instrument's sonorities particularly well.   









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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Jennifer Cooke notes





Yesterday's virtual ramble began, I think, by searching for online poems by Jennifer Cooke. She's a poet I've slowly got more curious about, e.g. most recently from reading the anthology Out of Everywhere 2, which contains her South Mimms Motorway Services poem, or 11/12 of it anyhow. In the past I've always ended up being put off by reports of her attack on self-improvement books. This time I decided to press on regardless. I'm glad I did. I discovered for instance her enthusiasm for Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, which I totally share.

The South Mimms poem "STEEL GIRDERED HER MUSICAL" is in part violent fantasy-narrative somewhere between W.H. Smith, Starbucks and the toilets, somewhat recalling the McDonalds episode in Keston Sutherland's Stress Position. This, and other poems that I've previously read online, are high-energy, brutal and grimy. They were collected in * not suitable for domestic sublimation (Contraband Books, 2013).

Review by Claire Hurley in Shearsman Magazine, who emphasizes the comedy:

http://www.shearsman.com/ws-blog/post/1465-claire-hurley-reviews-jennifer-cooke


Five poems in Great Works ("Honda's Right Hand Works Hard", "REEMOIR", "CARBORUNDRUM MORNS", "SONNET A", "THE SECOND DAY"

http://www.greatworks.org.uk/poems/jco1.html




but stories won’t leave edges
alone days lived without understanding
always a finger tip’s reach out of hers
why it is more tales come snap saturation
more brokenbabiesandcriesandlegsrunning
                                                                       you
                                                             have
                                                     a
                                        hand
                            full
                    of
          my
hair
stretched taut she lies floorward thinking beyond image or symbol to colour’s uncertainty
and three others intact stand one squats looking to not touch yet at the vulnerable surface
telling the day’s sun into aches and eyes floppy this time rinsed still without conviction
veined redness tints her in-looking for the others around near here perhaps without a
torch on the ward she shudders into stillness.

(end of "THE SECOND DAY")




Cooke has since published another poetry book in a very different mode, Apocalypse Dreams (Sad Press, 2015).  [Since then, the apocalypse seems to be picking up pace. But Cooke was already contending that we were in it.]

Andy Spragg interview with Jennifer Cooke about Apocapalypse Dreams (Datableed magazine). The poems are all real dreams dreamed by Cooke. They are apocalyptic as in: they are dreams about the final moments, the end of all things.


http://www.datableedzine.com/aspragg-and-jcooke-interview


The work originated in her DPhil work about the Plague, beginning with Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year.  Studies like that give you vivid dreams. The book that came out of those studies is Legacies of Plague in Literature, Theory and Film (2009). You can read quite a lot of it thanks to the Amazon Look Inside! feature. The first page of the introduction had me hooked.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Legacies-Plague-Literature-Theory-Film/dp/0230219349

The last epidemic of Plague in western Europe was in 1720 in Marseilles. It has since remained as a gruesomely memorable metaphor for afflictions that are perceived as indifferently smiting a whole population; in contrast to the way that most people perceive diseases such as cancer or Alzheimers, as a disease that strikes down an individual. (Though, to be fair, cancer has a rich metaphorical life in our culture too; but it has a different set of connotations.)

Sometimes the afflictions that are compared to a plague are demonized groups within (or seen as parasitic upon) society, e.g. "Plague" has been used to stigmatize groups such as Jews, gays, migrants..

*

Cooke also edited and introduced Scenes of Intimacy: Reading, Writing and Theorizing Contemporary Literature (2013). You can see a PDF of her excellent introductory chapter via Academia. The intimacies are about sex, mourning, death and other things that are difficult to talk about.

Here's a more complete list of publications. As of Dec 2016, there's a couple of interesting ones that are still going through submission.

http://www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/aed/staff/academic/jennifer-cooke/

*

I wanted to read some poems from Apocalypse Dreams, and I found six of them in the Australian Cordite Review, which did a special edition on British and Irish poetry in March 2015.

http://cordite.org.au/content/poetry/irishenglish/

It also contains five poems by the brilliant Andrea Brady  (I guess they are also in her latest collection, which I haven't seen yet), and significant pieces by such faves of mine as Peter Larkin, Francesca Lisette and Nat Raha. And lots of other good things too.


Anyway, here's one of the apocalyptic dreams. Nice to see those bleached corals emerging in a final-moments scenario, especially in an Australian publication!




Sky Writing


The democracy of water: shocking

really in the stratified worlds we are losing.

But these internal compulsions of tidal ligaments

deeper, older than me

and simply unstoppable.


On the edge I consider these realities

with the likelihood I will die

and the sure knowledge that if I live

I don’t know what that will mean,

look like, be or where located.

At best: pain; an after blank.


Like the others, I give myself up

to the waters. Acquiescence

is inevitable.

We bob. Quickly, sinking a bit, swimming a little

tugged.


We are happy – are we stupid?

Horseplay and banter despite

the swill of speed and the salt swallows.

[Do worse things happen at sea?]

Here is the corner. Ahead – hello Homer! –

a rocky basin swells and falls, white and blue and spray.

The very meaning of spume.

Sea contractions expose coarse corals, smash

matter to matter.

We are bloodless; shit fish.

And it is just water coming down on people.







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Friday, December 16, 2016

Winter branch patterns

Italian Alder (Alnus cordata), 16th December 2016


The typically busy crown of the Italian Alder. Still with quite a few green leaves, along with lots of large "cones",  and at the branch-tips lots of large unopened catkins.



European Lime (Tilia x europaea), 11th December 2016


This is a project that's never quite got off the ground. It's about teaching myself to recognize the characteristic shapes of the leafless or nearly leafless winter branches of different trees against the sky.

Of course there are many other identifying features, even in winter: for instance the bole and its bark. And with trees one sees a different set of features at different distances: if you can get right up close to the twigs you can examine the buds, or in the distance get a better idea of the overall habit and the shape of the crown. The idea of what I'm looking at here, I suppose, is to be able to identify branchwork against the skyline even if you don't have a well-grown tree: for example, when a branch protrudes out of a hedge.

First thing I discover is that when you look at the pictures afterwards it's difficult to decide which way up they are.  The above photo showing the lime-tree's hairline crack effect was taken more or less overhead.

The one of an elm-tree below -- well, I think I've got it the right way round, but I'm a bit disconcerted by the vertical cloud in the background!

In this case the key feature is what I think of as "herring-bone terminated by large fork". That pattern is not present here in what you might call its Ideal or Platonic form; the closest approximation is the branch on the right.



English Elm (Ulmus procera), 11th December 2016


Field Maple (Acer campestre)


Field Maple, still with lots of keys. The pedicels of the keys are persistent, remaining as whiskers long after the keys have fallen. Mostly rather short side-branches, which end in a knobby terminal bud.

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Thursday, December 15, 2016

America is a fun country...


[This post has now been published in Intercapillary Space:
http://intercapillaryspace.blogspot.co.uk/2017/02/america-is-fun-country.html]







Franz Kline, Mahoning (1956)

[Image source: http://whitney.org/Exhibitions/AmericaIsHardToSee?&artwork_id=13464&filter_id=24. The painting is in the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York]



America is a fun country. Still, there are aspects of it which I would prefer not to think about. I am sure, for instance, that the large "chain" stores with their big friendly ads and so-called "discount" prices actually charge higher prices so as to force smaller competitors out of business. This sort of thing has been going on for at least 200 years and is one of the cornerstones on which our mercantile American society is constructed, like it or not. What with all our pious expostulations and public declarations of concern for the poor and the elderly, this is a lot of bunk and our own president plays it right into the lap of big business and uses every opportunity he can to fuck the consumer and the little guy. We might as well face up to the fact that this is and always has been a part of our so-called American way of life.  ... 



(From John Ashbery, The Vermont Notebook , 1975)



The president in 1975 was the unelected Gerald Ford, who took over after Nixon's resignation in 1974.

Still, Ashbery's poem seems an eminently fitting welcome to the new era of Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson.

Reading this today, it seems clear enough that the "higher prices" (where we might have expected "lower prices") are the price paid for indifferent environmental destruction. America is one of the most polluting countries on earth. In gross volume of pollutants, it is second only to China. But in per capita pollution, it's way ahead of China, and right up there with Australia and Saudi Arabia, the dirtiest nations on earth. (2011 figures from the Union of Concerned Scientists.)

Somewhat paradoxically, all three nations - USA, Australia and Saudi Arabia - have surprisingly high poverty rates; compared, for example, to European nations. Paradoxical, because it costs money to be a polluter. The main polluters are rich nations. But maybe there's also something about massive social inequalities that links with the unfettered burning of fossil fuels.


Child Poverty Rates in the USA:
http://www.globalpolicy.tv/shamefully-high-child-poverty-rates-in-the-united-states/?gclid=CjwKEAiAm8nCBRD7xLj-2aWFyz8SJAAQNalaZTjWr6OCAGwVLZdJKM2weFP_47VoVGU2SVj8xbgIZBoCmtLw_wcB


*

Ashbery's diatribe is not, of course, quite what it seems to be. Ashbery is having a lot of parodic fun with slipshod phrases like "so-called" and "cornerstones". Something is being performed here: it's an almost typical rant, contemptuous of "pious expostulations" and sentimental for "the little guy".

In The Vermont Notebook as a whole, Ashbery's country-bus rides lead to a direct critique of lazy distinctions between the rural/natural and the urban/artificial, along lines we might now associate with queer theory.

Christopher Schmidt writes of Ashbery's career preoccupation "to misrepresent the line between the natural and the artificial, and to recuperate what is normally deemed waste..."

(Christopher Schmidt, "The Queer Nature of Waste in John Ashbery's The Vermont Notebook", Arizona Quarterly, Vol 68 No. 3 (Autumn 2012), pp. 71 - 102.)

https://muse.jhu.edu/article/486613/pdf )

And the theme of waste in The Vermont Notebook is picked up again here:

Brian Glavey: The Wallflower Avant-Garde: Modernism, Sexuality and Queer Ekphrasis (Oxford University Press, 2016)

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=CnyECgAAQBAJ&pg=PT144&lpg=PT144&dq=%22America+is+a+fun+country%22+ashbery&source=bl&ots=EjGpKcTeSv&sig=s9r6hYv_pD2ebVq33UcN4svB6NY&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjD7MOfvvbQAhWqKsAKHa76BX8Q6AEIGjAA#v=onepage&q=%22America%20is%20a%20fun%20country%22%20ashbery&f=false


*

Reading Ashbery as an environmentally-concerned poet might seem rather ridiculous. But I expect we'll get used to it. As it becomes clearer that hard capitalism wants a trial of strength about the environment, we'll perhaps start to read a lot of things differently. We'll see that Ashbery's work, for instance, is linked in manifold ways, some rather obvious and some less so, with the things that are being wrested from all of us.



Douglas Crase and John Ashbery at Niagara
 in 1975


[Image source: http://www.douglascrase.com/newsletter.htm]

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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Joanna Baillie

A willow on Hampstead Heath, 3rd December 2016



At first, Joanna Baillie (1762-1851) published her grand sequence of Plays on the Passions in tranches But in 1812, following the volume on Fear, she decided it would be better not to publish them any more but to hold them in manuscript. She realized that theatre companies preferred a "new" play to one already in print.

https://ia802305.us.archive.org/17/items/aseriesplaysinw05bailgoog/aseriesplaysinw05bailgoog.pdf


I've been thinking about Scott epigraphs again. Joanna Baillie turned up in a chapter-heading to Kenilworth.

Like Ann Radcliffe, her career as a writer began around 1790. She quickly became famous. She was a good friend of Scott's. She came from rural Scotland, but since 1791 had been living in England, first in Colchester and later in Hampstead. (The exact date she moved to Hampstead is disputed, but it was around 1799.)

 She never married, was an ardent philanthropist and was widely admired, and loved, and even compared with Shakespeare, but her works fell into profound eclipse by the 1830s.

Opening a page of her plays at random, I seem for a moment to be back in Othello ...

ACT III SCENE III of  ORRA: A TRAGEDY


A Chamber with a small Bed or Couch in it ; enter Rudigere and Cathrina, wrangling together.

Rud. I say begone, and occupy the chamber
I have appointed for thee : here I'm fix'd
To pass the night.

Cath. Did'st thou not say my chamber
Should be adjoining that which Orra holds ?
I know thy wicked thoughts : they meditate
Some dev'lish scheme ; but think not I'll abet it.

Rud. Thou wilt not ! — angry, restive, simple fool !
Dost thou stop short and say "I'll go no further?"
Thou, whom concealed shame hath bound so fast,— 
My tool, — my instrument ? -- Fulfil thy charge
To the full bent of thy commission, else
Thee, and thy bantling too, I'll from me cast
To want and infamy.

Cath.                       O shameless man !
Thou art the son of a degraded mother
As low as I am, yet thou hast no pity.

Hud. Aye, and dost thou reproach my bastardy
To make more base the man who conquer'd thee,
With all thy virtue, rigid and demure ?
Who would have thought less than a sov'reign Prince 
Could e*er have compass'd such achievement ? Mean 
As he may be, thou'st given thyself a master,
And must obey him.  — Dost thou yet resist ?
Thou know'st my meaning.

   (Tearing open his vest in vehemence of action.) 

Cath. Under thy vest a dagger ! — Ah too well,
I know thy meaning, cruel, ruthless man !

Rud. Have I discover'd it? -- I thought not of it :
The vehemence of gesture hath betray'd me.
I keep it not for thee, but for myself ;
A refuge from disgrace. Here is another :
He who with high but dangerous fortune grapples,
Should he be foil'd, looks but to friends like these.

    (Pulling out two daggers from his vest.)

This steel is strong to give a vig'rous thrust ;
The other on its venom'd point hath that
Which, in the feeblest hand, gives death as certain,
As tho' a giant smote the destin'd prey.

Cath. Thou desp'rate man! so arm'd against thyself !

Rud. Aye ; and against myself with such resolves,
Consider well how I shall deal with those
Who may withstand my will or mar my purpose. ...


Joanna Baillie, engraving by John Henry Robinson after portrait by Sir William Newton


[Image source: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp53387/joanna-baillie]



Here's one of Baillie's poems.




A REVERIE.



Beside a spreading elm, from whose high boughs
Like knotted tufts the crow's light dwelling shows,
Where screen'd from northern blasts, and winter proof,
Snug stands the parson's barn with thatched roof;
At chaff-strew'd door, where, in the morning ray,
The gilded mots in mazy circles play,
And sleepy Comrade in the sun is laid,
More grateful to the cur than neighb'ring shade;
In snowy shirt unbrac'd, brown Robin stood,
And leant upon his flail in thoughtful mood:
His full round cheek where deeper flushes glow,
The dewy drops which glisten on his brow;
His dark cropt pate that erst at church or fair,
So smooth and silky, shew'd his morning's care,
Which all uncouth in matted locks combin'd,
Now, ends erect, defies the ruffling wind;
His neck-band loose, and hosen rumpled low,
A careful lad, nor slack at labour shew.
Nor scraping chickens chirping 'mongst the straw,
Nor croaking rook o'er-head, nor chatt'ring daw;
Loud-breathing cow amongst the rampy weeds,
Nor grunting sow that in the furrow feeds;
Nor sudden breeze that shakes the quaking leaves,
And lightly rustles thro' the scatter'd sheaves;
Nor floating straw that skims athwart his nose,
The deeply musing youth may discompose.
For Nelly fair, and blythest village maid,
Whose tuneful voice beneath the hedge-row shade,
At early milking, o'er the meadows born,
E'er cheer'd the ploughman's toil at rising morn:
The neatest maid that e'er, in linen gown,
Bore cream and butter to the market town:
The tightest lass, that with untutor'd air
E'er footed ale-house floor at wake or fair,
Since Easter last had Robin's heart possest,
And many a time disturb'd his nightly rest.
Full oft' returning from the loosen'd plough,
He slack'd his pace, and knit his thoughtful brow;
And oft' ere half his thresher's talk was o'er,
Would muse, with arms across, at cooling door:
His mind thus bent, with downcast eyes he stood,
And leant upon his flail in thoughtful mood.
His soul o'er many a soft rememb'rance ran,
And, mutt'ring to himself, the youth began.
  "Ah! happy is the man whose early lot
Hath made him master of a furnish'd cot;
Who trains the vine that round his window grows,
And after setting sun his garden hoes;
Whose wattled pales his own enclosure shield,
Who toils not daily in another's field.
Where'er he goes, to church or market town,
With more respect he and his dog are known:
A brisker face he wears at wake or fair,
Nor views with longing eyes the pedlar's ware,
But buys at will or ribands, gloves, or beads,
And willing maidens to the ale-house leads:
And, Oh! secure from toils which cumber life,
He makes the maid he loves an easy wife.
Ah, Nelly! can'st thou with contented mind,
Become the help-mate of a lab'ring hind,
And share his lot, whate'er the chances be,
Who hath no dow'r, but love, to fix on thee?
Yes, gayest maid may meekest matron prove,
And things of little note may 'token love.
When from the church thou cam'st at eventide
And I and red-hair'd Susan by thy side,
I pull'd the blossoms from the bending tree,
And some to Susan gave, and some to thee;
Thine were the best, and well thy smiling eye
The diff'rence mark'd, and guess'd the reason why.
When on a holy-day we rambling stray'd,
And pass'd old Hodge's cottage in the glade;
Neat was the garden dress'd, sweet hum'd the bee,
I wish'd both cot and Nelly made for me;
And well methought thy very eyes reveal'd
The self-same wish within thy breast conceal'd.
When artful, once, I sought my love to tell,
And spoke to thee of one who lov'd thee well,
You saw the cheat, and jeering homeward hied,
Yet secret pleasure in thy looks I spied.
Ay, gayest maid may meekest matron prove,
And smaller signs than these have 'token'd love."
  Now, at a distance, on the neighb'ring plain,
With creaking wheels slow comes the heavy wain:
High on its tow'ring load a maid appears,
And Nelly's voice sounds shrill in Robin's ears.
Quick from his hand he throws the cumb'rous flail,
And leaps with lightsome limbs th' enclosing pale.
O'er field and fence he scours, and furrow wide,
With waken'd Comrade barking by his side;
Whilst tracks of trodden grain, and sidelong hay,
And broken hedge-flow'rs sweet, mark his impetuous way.





Winter sunshine on Hampstead Heath, 3rd December 2016







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Sunday, December 11, 2016

"Lochiel's Warning" (Thomas Campbell)

The Clan Cameron grave marker at Drumossie Moor (Culloden)

[Image source: http://jackdeighton.co.uk/tag/culloden ]



Proud Cumberland prances, insulting the slain,
And their hoof-beaten bosoms are trod to the plain.
But hark! through the fast-flashing lightning of war,
What steed to the desert flies frantic and far?
'Tis thine, Oh Glenullin! whose bride shall await,
Like a love-lighted watch-fire, all night at the gate.
A steed comes at morning: no rider is there;
But its bridle is red with the sign of despair.

(from Lochiel's Warning , by Thomas Campbell)


I've been threatening for ages to write a post about Scott's A Legend of Montrose, which I read while we were on our travels through France and Spain back in September. This is an offshoot.

Scott  always prefixes his chapters with poetical epigraphs. Ann Radcliffe seems to have initiated this practice; Fennimore Cooper did it too.  In Scott's later novels he often made up the epigraphs himself (and palmed them off as Old Play or similar). But in his early days the epigraphs are an enriching dialogue with other material.

Chapters 6 and 7 of the Legend are both headed by highly pertinent quotations from "Lochiel's Warning" by Thomas Campbell: in relation to highland uprisings, and to foreseeing the future. More distantly, these epigraphs hint that the uprising in Scott's book is doomed to end badly.

Campbell is a poet I often seem to cross paths with. He had a happy knack for encapsulating an idea in a memorable line, in this case (re "the second sight"):


                    And coming events cast their shadow before.


Campbell was a contemporary of Scott's and they were both based in Edinburgh for a few years around 1800-1810 so I suppose they knew each other fairly well. "Lochiel's Warning" is an exciting recitation-piece that Campbell wrote in 1801 and I should think it was highly influential on Scott's own narrative poems. Campbell, in his turn, was much taken with Scott's brilliant ballad of "Cadyow Castle", written in the same year.

Campbell's contemporaries lamented his early loss of poetical powers; his poems subsequent to 1809 were not admired. Scott himself said: "Thomas Campbell's afraid of the author of The Pleasures of Hope"* - i.e. the splendid poem with which Campbell had burst onto the scene in 1799.

*John Wilson et al, Noctes Ambrosianae ,Vol ii Page 67.

"Lochiel's Warning" is a dialogue between a prophetic seer and the historic figure of Donald Cameron of Lochiel. The poem transforms into mythical terms something that was actually true. The "Gentle Lochiel", like many of the other chieftains who agreed out of loyalty to follow Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745, sensed that this ill-judged enterprise would be bound to end in calamity. Contrary to the hints of the poem, Lochiel didn't die on the field of Culloden but he was badly wounded and fled to France, dying two years later without ever returning to Scotland.

The Battle of Culloden, 16th April 1746, was the last pitched battle on British soil. Around 2,000 highlanders and 300 government troops were killed.  It led on to brutal reprisals by "Butcher" Cumberland. The name of Culloden was long and resentfully remembered.

The streets of Soho did reverberate
With drunken Highland men
Revenge for Culloden dead
The North had rose again
But it would turn out wrong

(From "The NWRA" by The Fall, 1980 Lyrics in full)

Mark E. Smith's lyric re-evokes the mythic motif of a northern rebellion that is foreseen as going wrong from the start. Despite the sardonic side-glance just quoted, the song is really about northern England rather than Scotland.

Indeed historically the two regions have often taken different sides, just as in Scotland the highlands and lowlands were often opposed to each other. As regards the most recent Rising of the North, most of Scotland and at least one Mr Cameron were on the other side. Whether this rising will "turn out wrong" too I don't know, but the spirit of doom-laden presentiment lives on.


Scanlon, Hanley, Hanley, Smith, Riley: The Fall on 24th October, 1980 (at the General Wolfe in Coventry) 

[Image source: http://thisthen.co.uk/bands/the-fall/general-wolfe/ . Photo by Mark Osborne.]


"The NWRA" appeared on the album Grotesque (After The Gramme), Smith's most coherent realization of northern existence.

I'm sure it's pure coincidence, but in another song on the album, "Impression of J. Temperance",
the monstrous birth is delivered by an overpaid vet whose name is Cameron.






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Thursday, December 08, 2016

Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart (1958)




Chinua Achebe's game-changing first book has almost a separate existence from the rest of his books. It is immensely famous and widely-read.

Things Fall Apart was the first African novel to directly portray the arrival of colonization. A book for Africans, written in a lingua franca: English, a language that becomes reconstructed in the process. Things Fall Apart conducts a conversation with the European literary tradition whose importance continues to resonate. The effect of reading it is transformative. The long, wonderfully realized, unromantic, credible picture of Igbo life in the 1870s that occupies the first two thirds of the book is crucial. By then we're prepared to see how the incomers, well-meaning or not, wreck a culture they don't understand.



*


And so the neighbouring clans who naturally knew of these things feared Umuofia, and would not go to war against it without first trying a peaceful settlement. And in fairness to Umuofia it should be recorded that it never went to war unless its case was clear and just and was accepted as such by its Oracle - the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves. And there were indeed occasions when the Oracle had forbidden Umuofia to wage a war. If the clan had disobeyed the Oracle they would surely have been beaten, because their dreaded agadi-nwayi would never fight what the Ibo call a fight of blame.

But the war that now threatened was a just war. Even the enemy clan knew that. And so when Okonkwo of Umuofia arrived at Mbaino as the proud and imperious emissary of war, he was treated with great honour and respect, and two days later he returned home with a lad of fifteen and a young virgin. The lad's name was Ikemefuna, whose sad story is still told in Umuofia unto this day.

The elders, or ndichie, met to hear a report of Okonkwo's mission. At the end they decided, as everybody knew they would, that the girl should go to Ogbuefi Udo to replace his murdered wife. As for the boy, he belonged to the clan as a whole, and there was no hurry to decide his fate. Okonkwo was, therefore, asked on behalf of the clan to look after him in the interim. And so for three years Ikemefuna lived in Okonkwo's household.

Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children. Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo's fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father. Even as a little boy he had resented his father's failure and weakness, and even now he still remembered how he had suffered when a playmate had told him that his father was agbala. That was how Okonkwo first came to know that agbala was not only another name for a woman, it could also mean a man who had taken no title. And so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion - to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness.

During the planting season Okonkwo worked daily on his farms from cock-crow until the chickens went to roost. He was a very strong man and rarely felt fatigue. But his wives and young children were not as strong, and so they suffered. But they dared not complain openly. Okonkwo's first son, Nwoye, was then twelve years old but was already causing his father great anxiety for his incipient laziness. At any rate, that was how it looked to his father, and he sought to correct him by constant nagging and beating. And so Nwoye was developing into a sad-faced youth.

Okonkwo's prosperity was visible in his household. He had a large compound enclosed by a thick wall of red earth. His own hut, or obi, stood immediately behind the only gate in the red walls. Each of his three wives had her own hut, which together formed a half moon behind the obi. The barn was built against one end of the red walls, and long stacks of yam stood out prosperously in it. At the opposite end of the compound was a shed for the goats, and each wife built a small attachment to her hut for the hens. Near the barn was a small house, the "medicine house" or shrine where Okonkwo kept the wooden symbols of his personal god and of his ancestral spirits. He worshipped them with sacrifices of kola nut, food and palm-wine, and offered prayers to them on behalf of himself, his three wives and eight children.

So when the daughter of Umuofia was killed in Mbaino, Ikemefuna came into Okonkwo's household. When Okonkwo brought him home that day he called his most senior wife and handed him over to her.

"He belongs to the clan," he told her. "So look after him."

"Is he staying long with us?" she asked.

"Do what you are told, woman," Okonkwo thundered, and stammered. "When did you become one of the ndichie of Umuofia?"


(from Things Fall Apart, Chapter II)


Online text of the whole novel:
http://l-adam-mekler.com/things-fall-apart.pdf




*


Achebe's 1975 lecture "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'":

http://kirbyk.net/hod/image.of.africa.html


A brilliant article by Kittitian-British author Caryl Phillips, recounting his conversation with Achebe about Conrad:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/feb/22/classics.chinuaachebe



*


Achebe's death in 2013 triggered some powerful testimony to what a novelist can still mean in our own time.

Chinelo Okparanta (AGNI online):
https://www.bu.edu/agni/essays/online/2013/okparanta.html

Wole Soyinka and JP Clark:
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/mar/22/chinua-achebe-wole-soyinka-jp-clark?

Wole Soyinka's earlier poem, "Elegy for the Nation: for Chinua Achebe at 70":
http://brittlepaper.com/2013/05/elegy-nation-soyinka-poem/

Pusch Commey (New African Magazine):
http://newafricanmagazine.com/salutations-tributes/

Genie Gratto:
http://www.blogher.com/farewell-chinua-achebe

Jules Chametzky (Massachusetts Review):
https://www.massreview.org/blog/tribute-chinua-achebe




Jacket of the 1958 Heinemann edition



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Wednesday, December 07, 2016

P.G. Wodehouse: The Mating Season (1949)

Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster and Stephen Fry as Jeeves (a still from the Eastman/Granada TV series Jeeves and Wooster, screened between 1990 and 1993). 



For around five years in my teens, my reading consisted solely of P.G. Wodehouse, along with a few westerns, half-despised war books (Sven Hassel), and pony books borrowed from girlfriends. Wodehouse’s writing career (of around 75 years) produced 90 books, and I think I owned about sixty of them in the end.

The influence marks me; when I’m being amusing I still appropriate his expressions. Something that I wish to praise stands out “like a jewel in a pile of coke”. Perhaps the influence was baneful; I found a humorous way to justify idleness to myself. Why did I need this?


It's difficult, as pop fans well know, to have any objectivity about the things we adored in our teens.
But I'm certain that of Wodehouse’s "permanent claims to distinction" - to use the language of his own time -  the first five Jeeves novels are pre-eminent: Thank You, Jeeves (1934), Right Ho, Jeeves (1934), The Code of the Woosters (1938), Joy in the Morning (1946) and The Mating Season (1949). Later Jeeves novels are slimmer and repetitious (*SEE NOTE BELOW). His other supreme writings are the earlier Jeeves short stories, maybe the two volumes of golfing stories, and The Luck of the Bodkins, perhaps too the war-time broadcasts: I think that’s all, but it’s more than enough. (On this side of the Atlantic at least, Wodehouse’s distinguished career in musical comedy is unknown.)

In his proper world the Wars do not exist (perhaps, you might add, not in the broadcasts either). But this has given the books longevity: what we do find in them continues to have, at least by analogy, a vigorous existence in daily life; we (at least, we boys) socialise, drink, get into scrapes, bet on horses, make clubman jokes and pretend that cancer or despair don’t exist... we pretend that our chief care is to grab food, or we come over all mock-epic and pretend that to have to spend time with someone socially inept, to attend a boring meeting perhaps, would be an appalling disaster to be avoided at all costs.  

Which is not to deny that the image in Wodehouse has no allure whatsoever for most people.

I thought I would quote from the book, and make the usual sort of comment about how reluctantly one attempts to explicate the humour.


For no dog, white or not white, woolly or not woolly, accepts with a mere raised eyebrow the presence of strangers in bushes.


Or


’Did you hear Master George Kegley-Bassington on the subject of “Ben Battle”?’

‘Yes, sir. A barely adequate performance, I thought.’


As this is Wodehouse’s last truly great book, written in his late sixties, one naturally looks for signs of autumnal decline or “serenity”. There aren't many. The page that is spent recapitulating the story of Bingo Little’s baby is an early example of how Wodehouse will subsequently eke out his last quarter-century of production. The ending (and indeed a page or two of the village concert) have an undramatic sweetness about them, perhaps what might be imagined from an author now banished from England. But the plotting was never more perfect (consider how effortlessly he produces the complex situation of Bertie and Gussie impersonating each other, and how much of the subsequent action derives from this apparently frivolous complication). 

From a biographical point of view there is more about the War than appears openly. The poems of Christopher Robin are pilloried, and surely it’s no accident that A.A. Milne was prominent in the torrent of condemnation that Wodehouse earned for his collaborative acts. The very language of high moral reproof, endlessly voiced during the war, is here used repeatedly for comic effect, for example by Esmond Haddock:


’The fish-faced trailing arbutus!’

’He’s not a bad chap.’  [He, being “Wooster”, i.e. Gussie Fink-Nottle. Bertie’s mild demur reflects a confused desire to speak up for both of them at the same time.]

’That may be your opinion. It is not mine, nor, I should imagine, that of most decent-minded people. Hell is full of men like Wooster...’


or Gussie:

’Well, let me put you quite straight, Wooster, as to what my stand is in this matter. I shall not say “Begorrah”. I shall not say “Faith and begob”. I shall not assault policemen with an umbrella. In short, I absolutely and positively refuse to have the slightest association with this degraded buffoonery...’


Gussie’s Malvolian objections are of course soon deliciously undermined by Corky’s Treatment A, though he remains characteristically brusque. Bertie says:


’You’ll knock ‘em cold. I’m sorry I can’t play Pat myself --‘

‘A good thing, probably. I doubt if you are the type.’

‘Of course I’m the type,’ I retorted hotly. ‘I should have given a sensational performance.’

‘Corky thinks not. She was telling me how thankful she was that you had stepped out and I had taken over. She said the part wants broad, robust treatment and you would have played it too far down. It’s a part that calls for personality and the most precise timing...’


Bertie comments:


I gave it up. You can’t reason with hams, and twenty minutes of Corky’s society seemed to have turned Augustus Fink-Nottle from a blameless newt-fancier into as pronounced a ham as ever drank small ports in Bodegas and called people ‘laddie’.


Corky is a film star. Hollywood and the stage are the author’s cakes and ale. They stand for humanity, tolerance and love, and he must have turned to them with relief as a support against the tirade of righteous condemnation he faced in England.  The values of stage and screen are pervasive in The Mating Season (think of the terms in which Catsmeat and Bertie set about ghosting a Fink-Nottle love-letter: “’A golden-haired child, if you will allow yourself to be guided by me, with blue eyes, pink cheeks and a lisp. I think a lisp is good box-office?’”)

Perhaps, in his incarceration, weakness, age and sense of having done wrong, he also turned to Marcus Aurelius. "

Does aught befall you? It is good. It is part of the destiny of the Universe ordained for you from the beginning. All that befalls you is part of the great web.

In The Mating Season a running joke is made out this.

I doubt, as a matter of fact, if Marcus Aurelius’s material is ever the stuff to give the troops when they have just stubbed their toe on the brick of Fate. 

But that's in the world of his fiction, where all troubles are trifling. I think he had really been consoled by Marcus Aurelius, as by Shakespeare. At any rate Bertie’s respect for the classics is a notable complement to his Hollywood values.

Wodehouse’s comedy incorporates tolerance because tolerance is also a way of letting yourself off: as Bertie does about opening telegrams that are not addressed to him. “You know how it is,” he remarks. This argument persuades us completely. 

Bertie’s profound wisdom is after all self-serving.


My mental attitude, in short, was about that of an African explorer who by prompt shinning up a tree has just contrived to elude a quick-tempered crocodile and gathers from a series of shrieks below that his faithful native bearer had not been so fortunate. I mean to say he mourns, no doubt, as he listens to the doings, but though his heart may bleed, he cannot help his primary emotion being one of sober relief that, however sticky life may have become for native bearers, he, personally, is sitting on top of the world.


Bertie’s comic despairs reflect the author’s real ones. There is a double perspective in a sentence such as:

When Esmond Haddock in our exchanges over the port had spoken of the times that try men’s souls, he hadn’t had a notion of what the times that try men’s souls can really be, if they spit on their hands and get right down to it.

To all which it may be objected that Wodehouse’s values were exactly the same before those notorious war broadcasts and all the talk about treachery. Of course; what he did so publically then was just an instance of the same tactic that he had resorted to throughout his life. He knew himself to be a gentle, flexible, timid kind of loser, and his books were written for losers. 

*

Epigaea repens, the "Trailing Arbutus"


The Trailing Arbutus is a well-known wildflower of the NE USA and Canada, but is little-known in the UK. It must have struck Wodehouse that the name would make a splendid insult.


*

NOTE  


The Mating Season was written in France in 1946. Wodehouse delayed his pending emigration to the USA in order to complete it. According to Wikipedia, referencing Robert McCrum, the next few years were unsettled and Wodehouse didn't write another novel until 1951.


One of the later, slimmer and repetitious books is Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, published in 1963 when Wodehouse was in his eighties. Stuck on a desert island with only this, you would still benefit from that curiously powerful shot of joy and optimism that no-one else has found the formula to.

Here we are back in Totleigh Towers, scene of Code of the Woosters (one of the great novels). Motifs from the past abound, e.g. a midnight trip to the kitchen to tuck into steak-and-kidney pie after enforced abstinence; being treed on furniture by Stiffy Byng's fierce Scottie dog Bartholomew; Spode chasing after another character to break his neck; a school treat (reminiscent of that prizegiving and also the village entertainment in The Mating Season, but here presented only from a distance, not as a "big scene"). A good deal of the book is taken up with summarizing material from earlier books; a good deal more with Bertie's intertextual ruminations on the English language, literature and the Bible:  a joyous habit that now threatens to become a tic.  

The conversation that followed was what you might call - I've forgotten the word, but it begins with a d.

But still, I admire that sentence (it's Bertie and Madeline Bassett) even as I write it out, meaning to criticize it. And there is much - just not quite as much - hidden away in this text. e.g. Stiffy Byng: 

"I don't believe Uncle Watkyn likes you, Bertie. I noticed the way he kept staring at you at dinner, as if appalled. Well, I don't wonder your arrival hit him hard. It did me. I've never been so surprised in my life as when you suddenly bobbed up like a corpse rising to the surface of a sheet of water. Harold told me he had pleaded with you to come here, but nothing would induce you. What made you change your mind?" 

Of course I'm quoting this just for the corpse, but a reader needs all of the context in order to fully appreciate the fineness of Stiffy's expression; it only makes its perfect strike when you understand the complete social set-up.









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Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Motivé deckhand

Stop-gap post. Cycled home yesterday evening eagerly anticipating my imminent Gumtree sale, a snacky dinner and sitting down to compose a nice fat blog-post. 

Everything went just as planned, but when I sat down at the computer I felt incomprehensibly reluctant, lazy, unsettled. Why don't I want to write about nature, or mountains, or modern poetry, or even Shakespeare? I wondered. Don't I like these things anymore? It all felt stale; the world felt stale. I sat and scanned a book about music psychology, without pleasure, without taking it in. Then I realised that I had a cold coming on. It needs so little, just a few chemical switches,  to completely change our personalities.



Winter Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) showing new and fading blooms

Friday, December 02, 2016

Wild Cherry in December

Prunus avium, Swindon, December 1st, 2016


Wild Cherry (Prunus avium), after hard frosts. Photos taken at my home in Moredon, Swindon.



Prunus avium, December 1st, 2016


The long leaves are now a monochrome brown, dry and crisped. 99% of the leaves have fallen off, but even so the tree doesn't quite look bare, because the other 1% are spread through the whole crown.



Fallen leaves of Prunus avium, December 1st, 2016



Today's things-I-still-didn't-know-about-cherries is  all about names.

I was recently reading Bo Balderson's Statsrådet och Döden, a Swedish whodunnit with a relatively rich and demanding vocabulary, and in it I came across the strange-looking word bigarrå . When I looked it up in the dictionary I was astonished to find that it meant a cherry-tree. (These particular cherry-trees play quite a significant role in the story.)

The normal Swedish word for cherry is körsbär (pronounced more or less as "sherss-bear"). The first syllable is cognate with cherry and the second syllable with berry.

[In English, these two words rhyme with each other, according to the common tendency for English words that are somehow connected in meaning to evolve towards similar sound and spelling, so that eventually the language is enriched by numerous word-clusters that are almost poems in themselves. Cherry-berry-merry-sherry-perry ;  fluster-bluster-duster ;  nearest and dearest ; gleam-glint-glimmer-glitter-glance-glass-glimpse ..... that sort of thing.]

More research has revealed that bigarrå is quite a common word in Sweden, where it means any sort of cultivated sweet cherry, the kind you grow in your garden and feast on straight off the tree. (Ultimately, these sweet cherry varieties are all derived from Prunus avium.)

In the UK, by contrast, the word bigarreau is purely a technical term, used by fruit-growers (I had never come across it until today.)

It originated of course in France, where it has a narrower definition than bigarrå. It refers specifically to eating-cherries with a two-tone (bigarré) red-and-white or red-and-yellow skin, and a firm yellow flesh. This more or less equates to the so-called "white cherries", varieties such as White Heart or Napoleon or Royal Anne or Rainier. Because of the long-established predominance of "black cherries" in supermarkets and Kentish lay-bys, these parti-coloured cherries now have a certain novelty-value and are much appreciated by enthusiasts.




Winter buds of Prunus avium, December 1st, 2016

The distinctive clustered buds, a feature that's almost restricted to oaks and cherries.


Prunus avium, December 1st, 2016

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