Wednesday, November 14, 2012

I'm reading Gaston Bachelard's Poetics of Space for a long essay on Emily Dickinson. Bachelard is a self-described addict of what he calls 'felicitous reading', a term which I'll be using in the future. Bachelard - a former philosopher of science now writing on poetics - writes, 'Sometimes, even when I touch things, I still dream of an element.' I think a whole shimmering tone poem a la John Adams could spring from this phrase.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

I feel as though a landmark in my reading life has arrived in the mail: the Collected Poems of Robert Lowell could – I suppose – be seen from a distance given its heft. He dwarfs Elizabeth Bishop’s output (which is not by any means a total victory).

My favourite lines in English literature (this month) come from his ‘Banker’s Daughter’:

And so I press my lover’s palm to mine;
I am his vintage, and his living vine
entangles me, and oozes mortal wine
moment to moment.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The other day at breakfast a visiting American student expressed her impatience with the way the British sign their texts – and the occasional email – with an x. ‘What is that about?’ she said, wrinkling her nose. When I arrived two years ago I was equally mystified. A new friend lent me my first mobile and I embarked on a perilous voyage through the murky waters of British texting. When I received a message with an x, I blinked. Are we twelve? I wondered. Packed inside that x was dolphins and fairies and ponies and best friend bracelets and necklaces and desperate attempts to symbolize feelings in early attempts at love letters. It made me think of a high-voiced schoolgirl a la Baby Spice. British women seem to use it more than British men, though L said he used it with his male friends. (They are, however, very posh.) What’s more, I received texts and emails from near-strangers with x’s on them. It was obviously no deep sign of affection, just an encrypted gesture. Before I knew it, I ventured an x in return as a sociological experiment. I was speaking their language. Within days, it had become a habit. My message felt naked without an x. This is what scaremongers fear about text trends: meaningless linguistic corruptions suddenly becoming fraught with implications. If you send a message with an x to someone but don’t receive one back, what does it mean? If you are annoyed at your correspondent, can it be sensed with that small omission? What happens when you double or triple the x’s? Is that an increase in affection, in well-wishing, in persuasion? I have no answers. Nor can I explain why I add an x in my texts, aside from the (mislaid?) feeling that I am communicating textual energy, warmth, or well-meaning. In the meantime, I have become attached to the process, defensive of the x. It seems to me a rite of passage.

Friday, October 26, 2012

October is the cruellest month

It's coming to the end, now.
So I thought I ought to celebrate this, my favourite dying month, with one of the voices in my head.

The name - of it - is 'Autumn' -
The hue - of it - is Blood -
An Artery - opon the Hill -
A Vein - along the Road -

Great Globules - in the Alleys -
And Oh, the Shower of Stain -
When Winds - upset the Basin -
And spill the Scarlet Rain -

It sprinkles Bonnets - far below -
It gathers ruddy Pools -
Then - eddies like a Rose - away -
Opon Vermillion Wheels -

Emily Dickinson

Sunday, September 30, 2012


It would be the day it poured: the day of liberation from nearly three months stasis in Oxford. I took the 6.56 train Worcester, having the day’s first proper cup of coffee in the cheap Brief Encounter-ish tearoom in Worcester, and then onto Hereford, creeping along the Malvern Hills, the fields inundated with rain, the wet crops, the sheep cringing into the hedge thickets and soggy apple orchards. I’d forgotten about rural buses and their lacksadaisical reliability. I’d missed the bus from Hereford to Hay-on-Wye by five minutes and it was two hours until the next one. Cursing, I walked into Hereford (grey, depressed, with a strangely hospitable European piazza in the centre) for a bacon butty – which, I now know, is impossible to eat without coating your eyebrows with brown sauce – and a stroll through what was promisingly called The Butter Market but was really a church bazaar affair in the town hall.

And thus to my destination. Hay-on-Wye is set on a hill and impossible to navigate.

The streets seemed to shift shapes when I had my back turned. I stomped down alleys, getting lost in residential culs-des-sac, running up and down the hill to find my bearings. In the distance, the hills were monochromatically green in the distance – emerald with darker hedges which subdivided them, shouldering heavy mist and suffering the ubiquitous rain.

Autumn hasn’t reached Wales yet but there is a single flaming tree in front of Hay Castle, which stands gothically at the top of the hill. Richard Booth, the man who made Hay-on-Wye the village of books by opening his shop in 1962, has since resigned his crumbling castle, trailing with vines, beset by rooks, and studded with a large CAUTION sign. The bookstore that used to function on the ground floor is now dismantled and the emptied dusty rooms with warped timber whispered bad luck and sadness.

The best bookshop award went to the marvellously stocked Poetry Bookshop. The owner had a puppy he was trying to train, which was kept in a wire cage while Japanese tourists browsed, laughing at the names of poets and asking for expensive nicely illustrated copies of Tennyson. The puppy, a long coltish thing, leapt out of its confines but caught its leg on the cage and yelped melodramatically to a general disturbance.

For lunch, I was directed to the ivy-covered Blue Boar at the top of the hill, on the other side of the castle. It was wood panelled, fire-placed, carpeted, empty. I ordered lamb and the best glass of red wine I’ve had since Burgundy. The room was later peopled by a large woman who approached her bacon and brie sandwich with great intent, and an octogenarian with a Beckettian face, wearing a waistcoat and an expensive paisley scarf. The two men at the bar left to sheer their sheep.

I gallivanted back to the Poetry bookshop for a second run only to be turned away by drawn curtains. When I called the number on the front door the owner said they were closed firmly, in the cold manner of bookshop owners who’ve had no patience waiting all day in an empty shop only to be beset by strangers in their late afternoons. I returned forlorn – after several wrong turns – to the Blue Boar, planning to warm myself with a powerful espresso and my melancholy. I saw my bus and went over to meet the conductor only to be told I had missed the last bus to Hereford and I’d better come with him to Brecon. Farewell, village of books. Farewell ruinous geography. Farewell sodden shoes and lovely fireside espresso. From Brecon, home of the great 18th century actress Sarah Siddons, a bus to Abergavenny, a train to Hereford, to Oxford, where - upon my alighting - it started to rain.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Attention poetry mavens: any suggestions for good contemporary poets (either in general or particular collections)? Have sudden appetite but very little idea where to start. Any advice welcome!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

It's been raining all day, that splendid (as long as you're not out in it) gloomy continuous fall of rain which demands umbrellas and Wellies. There's a film crew on Holywell and I can only presume it's Lewis. I'm imagining a fierce sodden twilight confrontation of the murderer, macs slick with the rain, torches on angry wet faces, etc.

This is what happens a day after the autumnal equinox. It doesn't rain this heavily usually - this is a proper find-your-favourite-jumper day. It makes me think of this scene:

'It's an owl', said Peter. 'This is going to be a wonderful place for birds. I shall go to bed now. I say, let's go and explore tomorrow. You might find anything in a place like this. Did you see those mountains as we came along? And the woods? There might be eagles. There might be stags. There'll be hawks.'
'Badgers!' said Lucy.
'Foxes!' said Edmund.
'Rabbits!' said Susan.
But when the next morning came there was a steady rain falling, so thick that when you looked out of the window you could see neither the mountains nor the woods nor the stream in the garden.
'Of course it would be raining!' said Edmund.

- From The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe

There's a wireless. And lots of books. But they'll discover the house of course.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The view from Southbank

Embarrassingly, last year I went to London only once. I intend to make it up this year. On Wednesday, I took my first excursion to the National to see Simon Russell Beale in Nicholas Hytner’s production of Timon of Athens. The primary plot of Shakespeare and Middleton’s play – of a wealthy man whose estate collapses due to his unrestrained generosity, and turns feral misanthrope after being abandoned by his friends – was effortlessly adapted to a satire of present day London. The first scene, in which a painter and a poet discuss the works they’ve produced in Timon’s honour, is set in an art gallery which Timon’s bounty – and name – had just embellished. (The ancient woman next to me told her friend that the large painting was Goya’s Christ chasing the moneylenders out of the temple). The employment of a revolving stage coyly referred to the wheel of fortune which is set against Timon (in an early scene he walks against the direction of the revolution to the next scene) as well as a convenient and elegant prop device, wheeling in a banquet table or a hip lounge or a banker’s desk with the swift suggestion of cameras showing the seasons change. The second half, showing Timon in his fallen state, altered Shakespeare’s forest to an industrial wasteland near docks. Rather than becoming a hermit, Timon is a bum in plaid and beanie, clutching a cart.

The secondary, Alcibiades plot was transformed and shaped in a way that would suit the new setting – a kind of violent hoodlum occupy wall street movement which had very little real objective and ended by being utterly absorbed into the way Athens/London operated. It emphasized the plays’ social commentary but was, we thought, the weakest aspect of the performance.

Apemantus, G and I agreed, had had his lines cut, which was unfortunate as Hilton McRae carried the philosopher’s glowering mangy glamour easily. Deborah Findlay as the feminized steward, Flavis, had an unfortunate tendency to moan rather than act.

But Beale is exquisite to watch. He carried off both extremes of Timon’s condition magnetically, though perhaps the quirkiness of his maddened poverty reminds me of his recent performance as Falstaff in BBC’s recent Henry IV 1 and 2. He declines from a well-presented man with a bit too much flair for extravagant shows of affection and, like Lear, an inability to know himself, to a little squat man, a snapping turtle, with consummate control over spasmodic gestures, hoarding his wheelie bin, manipulating and taunting his visitors with the gold he’s found and despises.

The play was followed by lasagne in Le Ballerina in Covent Garden, where all the other diners were either pensioners or French. We all quarrelled about the bust of a man bewigged in the 17th century fashion: is it a singer? Monteverdi? Scarlatti? The waitress said the owner changed his identity every night. Tell me if you find out who he is.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Spurious and Spuriouser

There have been times where I have stopped on the street and suddenly had the thought that I do not have thoughts. All around me are people whose brains are knitting and unravelling problems, meditating on beloveds or categorizing errors. Largely, when I move, I think with my body, or I fret. I may notice my surroundings, or I move with such impatience that my journey is fuelled entirely by desire but no reflection. Once, upon such a re-realization, I sat on nearby steps, desperately trying to think about thought and subsequently becoming narcissistically distressed. This is just the sort of problem that haunts Lars Iyer’s Spurious.

Spurious is the clearly signalled offspring of Waiting for Godot. The plot is as solid as a pair of worn knickers. Two academics, the unnamed narrator and his friend/antagonist W., speak, reproach, agonize, try to create meaning, try to write, try to think, try to contribute, acknowledge their own uselessness, struggle against inactivity and superfluity. It is the triumph of the absurd. They know – or are certain – they are derivative and this paralyzes them with melancholy.

Literature softened our brains, says W. – ‘We should have been doing maths. If we knew maths, we might amount to something. As it is, we’ll amount to nothing.’

The narrator is a shadowy character. The reader knows him through W.’s injunctions which are tinged with a loathing which betrays W.’s unpleasantness. The two travel with a certain English sad-sackedness paying homage to a modernist European greatness. They visit each other’s university towns. The narrator has a patch of growing damp which does not alarm him – it interests him – but it terrifies and outrages W. It’s an obvious metaphor but no less effective. It becomes a kind of decrepit leitmotif. The novel, in short sections, further divided into paragraphs. Revelations, and failures, come in single lines. The paragraphs are like days on a calendar, just passing time as the apocalypse looms. Their egos, their notebooks, their pretences, their strained hours of thought, their alcohol, self-castigation, their straining for a leader, their tiny projects which postpone the sense of the inevitable (messianism, Hindi, mathematics).

It feels like an exercise book, a means of exorcism. The writing is pared and simple, clear and honest. It is unpretentious in its exposure of the characters’ pretensions. The scattered italics stress the voice of anxiety.

The novel hits very close to the bone – my bone at least. It is the swan song for anyone who suspects there is no justification for them doing – or attempting to do – the things they love. Or rather, do compulsively. It is perhaps the love song of every academic who sees through the farce of their endeavour, to the discomforting truth that what they’re doing may be pretence. It is the tantalizing presence of the actual held behind a veil which shames them into realizing their pretence.
Spurious is the first of a trilogy; the second, Dogma, has been published but the third not yet.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Boxer Beetle Booker

This week, while daily commuting to London and back, I’ve been getting some reading done. Shakespeare, Sewall’s biography of Dickinson, and - at last - some non-required reading.

Ned Beauman’s addition to this year’s Man-Booker Longlist for The Teleportation Accident reminded me of my long intention to read his first book, Boxer Beetle, written at the disgustingly unripe age of 24. I have had my suspicions that Beauman is – with this tremendous head-start – going to go very far indeed, perhaps as another Amis. But those Beauman shows the same precocity, his realization is rather different.

Boxer Beetle is at heart a ripping piece of genre fiction – a mixture of mystery and smut. It has the enjoyable pace of a cheap yarn. This is not to degrade it: Beauman has attempted to marry a vividly fluid prose with a bright and curious mind which is evidently drawn to the tawdry.

The novel is the story of a modern-day Nazi-memorabilia collector who is pulled into a mystery involving a gay Jewish boxer, a plummy entomologist-eugenicist, and a ring of 1930 fascists. This is a woefully inadequate summary, and much like the one given on the back of the book, but to say much more will spoil the ride. It’s a collision of disciplines - twentieth-century history, genetics, fascist politics, Judaism, atonal music, and constructed linguistics – which brashly shows the fruitfulness and range of the author’s mind. There is the inevitable postmodern cameo from the author’s own namesake, an online presence named ‘nbeauman’ who briefly appears and bows out.

I’ve learned to judge a book’s verve from its first sentence – a trick I’ve learned from my friend K, who’s memorized the first lines of all her favourite books. Beauman’s is a keeper: ‘In idle moments I sometimes like to close my eyes and imagine Joseph Goebbel’s forty-third birthday party’. Narrated by an odorifous young man named Kevin, the novel prances along, veering between the modern-day and the inter-war past, with regular digressions, as befits the habit of talented young male writers with the hots for Lawrence Sterne.

However, Beauman gives away his youth and inexperience – or perhaps his own taste – by writing two-dimensional characters which are not unlike their genre-bound counterparts: the rich fat hoarder; the mysterious ‘Welshman’ with a gruff voice and a gun; the priggish English gentlemen (who is all too afraid of admitting his own homosexual leanings); and young women who prance and strike others smartly with their umbrellas. The sexual encounters are written with the gaudy tastelessness of Romance fiction, and there is altogether too much shouting, yelping, screeching, screaming which carries the novel from the antic to the hysteric and hyperbolic.

That being said Boxer Beetle is a success, especially for a first novel. It was difficult to put it down between Tube rides. I’d recommend watching Beauman’s productions carefully from now on.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Lives of Others

I find it hard to disabuse myself of the notion that the biography is a secondary art. It takes the stuff of other peoples’ lives, mostly the salacious bits, and tries to make a conclusive narrative out of what is essentially fragmented. Those who can’t write their own material, become biographers. Or even worse, become writers whose sole metier is autobiography: those often shapeless (or alternately, deformed with over-significance) baggy monsters. I don’t feel that way about published journals. Journals seem fundamentally more honest. It is where self-knowledge, if possessed, gives itself away.

At an Oxfam booksale a few months ago I picked up a copy of Richard Holmes’ Footsteps , an autobiography of his experiences as the biographer of Romantic figures like Mary Wollstonecraft and Shelley. I recognized Holmes; his huge Shelley and Coleridge biographies are still well thought of. It was in reading about Holmes’ younger years as a waifish biographer, living hand-to-mouth in Europe and following the exploits of his subjects with a detective-like inclination for a story, that I began to reconsider. Holmes writes of himself as a young man possessed by his subjects, living with them as his intimate companions as he tried to stitch together what happened between Shelley and Clare Clairmont in Italy, or Mary W. in Paris during the Terror.

The author divulges his subjects’ experiences at the same time he describes his own travels: ‘In Italy my outward life took on a curious thinness and unreality that I find difficult to describe. It was almost at times as if I was physically transparent, even invisible.’

And later

‘The Shelleys’ life in Rome was, in a sense, much more real than my own. My life was a figment of my own imagination, whereas theirs was to me an absolute, historic reality – no detail of which could be invented or falsified, not even the weather.’

(Severn's posthumous portrait of Shelley)

Holmes is – of course – a stylishly confidant writer. There is never a pure chronology, a straight forward listing of the facts. Life is what is reported, and it is reconstructed – idealistically perhaps – from an intimate knowledge of the subject: an exhaustive knowledge of private correspondence, personal testimonies, public personae, printed ephemera, published works. It is an exercise in supposition.

Holmes describes it thus:

‘Essentially, the dramatic nature of the biography – its powers of re-creation – are fatally undermined. The literary illusion of life, the illusion that makes it so close to the novel, is temporarily or permanently weakened. In short, where the biographical narrative is least convincing its fictional powers are most reduced. Where trust is broken between biographer and subject it is also broken between reader and biographer.

‘The great appeal of biography seems to lie, in part, in its claim to a coherent and integral view of human affairs. It is based on the profoundly hopeful assumption that people really are responsible for their actions, and that there is a moral continuity between the inner and outer man. The public and private life do, in the end, make sense of each other, and the one is meaningless without the other. Its view of life is Greek: character expresses itself in action: and can be understood, if not necessarily justified.’

This has made me reconsider my relation to biography and those who write in that mode. It’s possible to have writers like Holmes who have a pure sense of their vocation, a belief in biography as a significant (and perhaps ultimately doomed) exercise. In response, I’ve got his Shelley bio on my shelf and I’ve ordered his history on the Romantics’ approach to science, The Age of Wonder.


Also, Neuman’s Traveller of the Century is fantastic. More to come.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Selection

I went to Blackwells this afternoon to buy a unit of fiction and I found choosing extremely difficult. I am always plagued with the feeling that the same book is being written over and over – a novel during wartime London; a tale of young women vying for the stage in the 1920s; an affair set in the present day; an old man remembering his first sexual experience; a historical romp beaded heavily with elaborate camp; stories of young male vagabonds whose consciousnesses disintegrate while walking the streets at night. Books on shelves – with their bright loopy covers and vibrant letters and bumptious puffs - seem to mean nothing. Perhaps this is a result of not reading contemporary fiction for so long. The hackneyed book news, the schools of fiction, the masters writing classes, review readers, Costa and Orange awards; what do they mean? It took me two trips and at least an hour of choosing and then discarding everything and clinging to Diego Marani’s Finnish Grammar and thinking At Last I Will Buy It. This is my raft. This will save me. And then tossing everything out to buy Andres Newman’s Traveller of the Century. It’s a Pushkin Press book, and was (sort of) endorsed by the late Roberto Bolano. Time will tell. Emily Dickinson needs a male companion.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A house, not in Paris, but covered in vines. I wake as early as I can force my body up – nearly noon – and scamper around the house, looking out windows and vantage points, photographing nooks, admiring sunlight in crevices or on the old chicken coop. C tells us later that there had been Easter chicks and a cock, and the woman who worked for them told them that the chickens had all been carried off by a fox. Strange, but no matter. More chickens were bought to raise. The next year, the same thing happened. All the chickens carried off by a fox. This, together with the fact that the orchard is full of healthy trees that never manifest ripe fruit, confirms C’s suspicion about the French in general and his housekeeper in particular. The French are lazy and try to get away with everything, he said with disgust, momentarily forgetting his thoroughly French heritage.

A and I walk into the village to buy baguettes. I practice the most important phrase I know, Est-ce que je peux prende deux croissants, and the women behind the counter consent. We eat lunch in the orchard, a glade on the side of the house clouded with trees and the sounds of humming insects. White butterflies zigzag and the grass shimmers like wavelets. I drowse in a low chair and feel Keatsian. The next few days repeats the process: most of the house wakes late, and we eat in the orchard. The humidity increases and nothing is more pleasant than a dip in the rocky-bottomed river. C’s favourite swimming spot is occupied by a young French fisherboy, and C curses him from what he perceives as our disadvantaged spot.

After two days in Joncy, the humidity builds up to an almost unbearable climax while we are at lunch trying C’s Ratafia, a heady local liqueur made of white wine, space, and fruit. The weather breaks suddenly, raining and then hailing fiercely. E runs about outside for a shower. Even the small arbour is no cover. We eat dinner inside and watch the storm with satisfaction. It appears that Burgundy cannot be satisfied without dramatics and we approve.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Au reservoir, Angleterre

The passport control in Dover was French and, despite me rocking back and forth, we had no problem leaving English soil. He smiled and waved us forward. And so onward: on to the ferry, that lumbering giant of duty-free shops and European tweens dressed in American sports paraphernalia and practicing their smoking and football hooliganism. On to the noticeably different French landscape, with its tall slim trees and wild underbrush, and tawny Van Gogh wheat fields. We drove into Burgundy after midnight in a lightning storm. I’ve never seen such violent electricity at so close a range, splitting the sky in several places at once, and lighting the vineyards which spread for miles on every side. C, our host, rolled down the window to crow. ‘Do you smell that?’ he said, breathing in the thick, humid storm-air. ‘That is the vines. That is the smell of wine.’ He continued to exclaim ‘vineyard!’ at every plant we passed. ‘Look at that? That field’s covered in vineyards. And on the other side? Vineyards.’

The small villages we passed through were idyllic: small clusters of cafes, boulangeries, and war memorials. A town named for frogs, Grenouille. And finally Joncy, where we pulled into the drive after four, hanging back in case the house was occupied by thieves and smugglers. C walked around the house cursing the locals who usually tend the house. ‘Typical French,’ he said. ‘We’ve been paying them all year. And look at the gravel! And the garden!’ He invited the men for a smoke in the orchard, and pacified E and I with a small thimbleful of Armagnac to send us into a deep sleep. When I finally laid down, the early morning air was filled with pastoral sounds: of cocks arising, of cows bellowing, of the lark’s motet.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Today the humid air turns Oxford into Southern Illinois. I cycled to the store for cold air. There’ll be a thunderstorm. Tomorrow, maybe, as the Yorkshire man at the first aid course I attended yesterday in Kidlington suggested. But we won’t be here, I hope. A friend invited us to his house last week and we have taken him up on it, setting off for Burgundy by way of Dover and Calais. The past week has severely tested our spontaneity: I won’t be sure today is not a day trip until the authorities let us – and our various identity documents - into the country. Should we prove lucky, there’re orchards and vineyards and a week of sun in store for our pale selves.

The choice, as ever, is what books to bring. The winners are:

Emily Dickinson complete poems & letters Simone Beauvoir’s autobiography, vol. 4 Journal of the Goncourts Complete Stories of Mavis Gallant Spurious Swann’s Way Mapp & Lucia

Notably, no Shakespeare. Nothing with footnotes was the rule.

See you in a week, then. Or tomorrow, if we’re turned away. Cross fingers for us.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The long Jubilee weekend is almost over. I didn’t go to London to see the queen floating down the Thames on her royal barge. I watched the rain pour all day and listened to the radio. No champagne, no sponge cake. Most of my friends are passionately anti-monarchy and so the hubbub has largely been afar and mostly consisting of my theft of the JCR’s Commemorative Times for a souvenir. I’ve not been converted to republicanism but I do wonder what royalists mean when they congratulate the Queen for doing such a good job, for ‘doing what only she can do best’ (without any clear indication of what that is). At any rate, the pageantry has been magnificent. And I am counting the Daily Mail’s offer of free Jubilee tea-towels after mailing in three tokens.

This afternoon I begin a two-week language portfolio exam which will count for next year’s finals. In the meantime, I’m trying to keep my brain limber and supple and quiet. So I’ve been reading Susan Sontag’s latest volume of journals, As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh, which I bought weeks ago but has been lost in the tumult of the term. The journals of writers and thinkers reveal a wealth of fragmentary ideas and unexpected anxieties. Sontag’s journals are like scrapbooks of thoughts, film tickets, and books glossed by casual throwaway lines – behind those lines are lived experiences. She hints at plots (matricide, dialogue between Orpheus and Eurydice), and makes lists of ‘Regenerative Experiences’:

Plunge into the sea
The sun
An old city

Or creates her aphoristic judgments, my favourite so far being ‘Style: the manner in which things appear to us as designed for pleasure.’

I suppose I will have to set her aside until the end of June, along with the wonderful letters of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, and the mystery-dramas on Radio 4 extra.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Today in class we spoke about landscape and the Romantics: the local, the foreign. Wordsworth in the Lake District, Burns & Scott in Scotland, Byron in Italy. I read most of Fiona Stafford’s book Local Attachments, which I’d been meaning to read for the past year. Stafford’s book proposed no new theses but was a wonderful, thoughtful survey of the Romantic writers and their understanding of place. Places which created what Heaney called ‘adequate poetry’, poetry as important to freedom and survival as weapons or politics. (An assertion which friends of mine have found very difficult to swallow.) Wordsworth was lucky, as Keats recognized, to be born in the Lake District; to be able to return. I wonder if you only ever are at home if you know the names of the landmarks, of the streets or paths, the hills, the rivers, the trees and bushes. Unlike you have the vocabulary, you cannot be a part of it. But by naming aspen, alder, wych elem (as I am learning) or Rothay or Cherwell or Swartvlei, you signal your recognition of the singularity of the place. Then you can carry it around with you. Then as you sit in the rooms of some far-away city, you can say it quietly to yourself, biding the time until you come back.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Glory be to god for dappled things. The sun’s out in an unprecedented effusion – five days of straight heat. No work has been done. Still,

‘Upon such days, with such-like sloth Who wants to study?..’
(Nabokov’s very long Cambridge poem)

The Great British Summer has arrived. ‘After all,’ said A, ‘if we can’t have a put on a Great Summer with an Olympics and a Diamond Jubilee, it’ll prove we are a rubbish country. We are a rubbish country.’

Finally, my Anglophilia – which I now wear under very domestic retiring colours to distinguish me from day-visitors – can blend in. The flag bunting on the streets, the window displays (the one at Boswells is particularly glorious and Elizabeth-studded). Every newspaper feature has a list of ten Great British _____ (fill in the blank.) - cheeses, destinations, monarchs, fabric prints, restaurants, novels, icons, country walks. The ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ motif, which has gained loyal followers in the past few years, has been maximally exploited as a street meme. Bottles of Pimms are out , Summer VIIIs down at the river, wafts of cheers coming from the Exam Schools as finalists finish.

I took a midnight walk to the meadow two nights ago and saw the rapeseed glowing in the dark, the canal boats dozing and the ducks hidden in their nests. None but the mosquitoes were out.

Monday, May 21, 2012


After dinner and the library is empty. Other glittering students with champagne glasses have gone to the hall. We ate mango on the steps in the rare sun. I’ve got a flash of what I thought Oxford would be, but only comes in wisps. I’m trying to find something David Hume wrote about sentiment and sensibility. The only Hume books our college library has are two huge maroon-covered tomes, donated to the college when it was a still a dissenting institution in Manchester. The date on the bookplate says 1878 and some of the pages are uncut. These are a frowning, mutton-chopped Unitarian pair of books, and the typography looks not a little Wild West-ish. Concerning Moral Sentiment, here we go...

Friday, May 18, 2012


When A told me he was getting a Kindle, I was – predictably - disgusted. The arguments on either side are tiresome. It’s better for your eyes; it removes you from reality; you can transport more books; it’s unsociable and ultimately industry-killing. I’m aware that my rebuttals are a blend of aesthetic and idealistic. Nevertheless my feelings are strongly held and immoveable. One of the reasons I told him I liked books despite their heft and impracticality is something John Updike wrote – that books are ballasts and should weigh us down. When we move we’re apt to think it’s just too easy; the regret and memories and hard work comes later. But when you’ve got books you have to plan, you have to give away, you have to store, have to half-break your back with effort. What you do physically mirrors your inner reality. Moving is difficult.
After toting my books from various libraries and bookstores today I almost want to retract that statement. The Complete Correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, VS Naipaul’s newest collection of essays, and a book by Tom Paulin may have been £2 each, but they nearly broke my bike basket, not to say my arms, in the transporting.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Letting go

Strangely for someone who gets sometimes debilitatingly stuck in remembering, I find the places I've lived in the past imaginatively arid. They feel like they're stuck under a coffee table and are beyond re-use. My experience growing up in George was so antipoetic that I find it hard to believe that South Africa provides imaginative wheat alongside the chaff. Aside from whatever JM Coetzee or Damon Galgut have gleaned. Or whatever Marilynne Robinson has sculpted from the Midwest. I'm sure I'm not alone in the embarrassment of one's birthplace. It's an inevitable part of weaning. But I am surprised and proved wrong.I came across the blog Letting Go by accident and I found it hard to believe that the writer is in a landscape I know well but have found unable to put into words.
The English have a long tradition of writing in the country. The words for English flowers and birds and insects and animals pervade literature. This is a common experience for postcolonial lovers of English literature, people who know about badgers better than their own dassies (rock rabbits). In South Africa the bluebottle is a small jellyfish no bigger than a 50p piece which floats on the afternoon tide. They come in menacing clusters and their stings are vicious. I've been told the aloes that grow on the beach act as ideal salves, though I have never been stung. When I read in the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that Lucy saw a bluebottle on the ledge next to a Bible in the room where she found the wardrobe, I imagined a miniature Portuguese Man o'War dessicated and collapsed. It was an image out of place and still familiar, as though CS Lewis had come across a description of one in a dictionary and liked the exotic contrast it provided, the cobalt blue of stained glass windows in the dull room. Until I found out that the English bluebottle was a fly.
In reading Letting go, which is about much more than the South African flora and fauna, I realised that reflection is still possible in the southern hemisphere. That people find the just word for things in different landscapes. This gives me hope that those words will someday uncover themselves for me.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Adopted Ancestors

I picked up ancestors at a charity shop last week for 50 p each. Now they stand on my mantelpiece.
Their personalities seem quite clear to me. So let me indulge myself & frivolously divine them.
This lady (Florence?) is wearing cheap mourning. She's beautiful but her face is petulantly furrowed. Quick but not a nuanced thinker. I surmise she has been left by her lover (a sham marriage, perhaps?) with an inconvenient baby.
This photo was taken in Oxford in August 1876. His name might be Matthew. He's definitely studying for the ministry. A sincere (if naive) face. He will probably marry and have children but nurse a hidden unspoken passion for someone else all his life. More to come...

Monday, April 23, 2012

Lake District

It’s been a week since our return, and in this week of heavy bustling and hours of staring at computer screens and collections, I’ve tried to hold onto the Lake District. It goes so fast. And really, it took three days for the ludicrous grandeur of the scenery to sink in.
We caught the train from Oxford to Windermere by way of Birmingham New and Preston stations. It’s the first time I’ve crossed England and I craned out the window to catch impressions. The prettiest stretch of country was Oxfordshire, between Oxford and Banbury, which was caught in a mist, and the Lancashire/Cumbrian countryside between Preston and Grasmere. In between were large stretches of green and of ripe yellow rapeseed, interrupted by smokestacks, dirty stations, and industrial towns; trailers penned in next to sheep.
Grasmere is idyllic, the Disney world of England. Its old world prettiness makes everything beside it look contaminated. The mountains rise steeply around the valleyed village, and dry stone fences braid the hillsides. Sheep graze everywhere and lambs stood under their stoic-faced mothers' bellies, stamping their hooves and wriggling their tails while they suckled. We walked through the small village (entirely pubs, restaurants, inns, and cafes), and wandered alongside the Rothay to skip stones, throw pooh sticks, and count the obscene numbers of daffodil clumps. (Whether they are native to the area or planted by gung-ho Wordsworth devotees who mutter ‘I wander lonely as a cloud’ on the hour I don’t know. The church, outside of which Wordsworth and his family are buried, is filled with the pungent smell of rotting daffodils.)
That evening we ate dinner at a pub called the Traveller’s Rest, which was down the main highway from our bed n’ breakfast. The sheep were being gathered in when we walked down the side of the A591 to the pub. A night of good food and wine followed – we were the last to leave. Outside we realised our mistake in forgetting a torch; there were no lights on the roadside and any illumination of the path came from the beams of passing cars. Above our heads the stars shone fierce and coldly. It’s the moment that stands out most to me from the entire weekend: the biting valley air, our unsure footsteps in the dark, and the wheeling constellations above. It's hard not to break the Wordsworth out: The universal spectacle throughout Was shaped for admiration and delight, Grand in itself alone, but in that breach... That dark deep thoroughfare, had Nature lodged The Soul, the Imagination of the Whole. Prelude, Book XIII

Friday, April 13, 2012

To the Lake District for the weekend: lakes, mountains, gingerbread, spring lambs, and Wordsworth.

Friday, March 30, 2012

This past term went by so quickly in part because I edited the Arts and Books section of the fantastic Oxford student newspaper Cherwell. (My co-editer and I enjoyed it so much we are staying on to edit the Culture section as a whole this Trinity.) The highlight was the ability to publish a brief interview with the writer Lydia Davis as a part of our double-page spread on Women Writers. Here's the interview.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Following her w(h)imsey

Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night opens with its heroine, the crime-novelist Harriet Vane, thinking back on her time as an undergraduate at Shrewsbury College, Oxford. Shrewsbury, a fictional college, is located on St. Cross Road. Vane thinks of the college fronted ‘by the trees of Jowett walk, and beyond them, a jumble of ancient gables and the tower of New College, with its jackdaws wheeling against a windy sky.’ Shrewsbury, then, is just across the road from my own college, also in the shadows of New; a propitious beginning to a book.

I read Gaudy Night while I should have been revising for my collections. Mischievously, each chapter is headed by an epigraph from a Renaissance work: prose by Burton, stanzas from Sidney or Spenser. I told myself it was revision, but it was a heady escaping plunge into the allure of golden age detection.

Harriet Vane, once accused of the murder of her lover, since liberated by the aid of Sayers’ gentleman-detective Lord Peter Wimsey, returns to Oxford to celebrate Shrewsbury’s Gaudy Night. When a poison-pen and poltergeist begins to wreak havoc on the women’s college, Harriet is summoned to lend a detecting hand. But, while Harriet is a mystery writer, she is no detective; we must wait for the appearance of the dashing Wimsey to set all to right. (Sayers’ female power only takes her so far. We are not sorry because Lord Peter is always a welcome guest.)

Sayers writes with charm, though she betrays her class. Snobbery is a virtue in Lord Peter, who carries it off with self-deprecating aplomb; in Sayers it is regrettable.

Aside from it's bon-vivantish 30's atmosphere, the novel’s strength is its timely addressing of the Woman Question. Published at 1935 by a recent Oxford graduate of Somerville (Sayers was of the first women to be awarded a degree by the University), the novel is set at a time where women have not been fully integrated into the university and their position is a tentative one. The female dons of Shrewsbury discuss their own position: can they as intellectual women expect to enjoy a domestic life?

Miss Hillyard, the high-strung history tutor believes ‘everyone in this place has an inferiority complex about married women and children. For all your talk about careers and independence, you all believe in your hearts that we ought to abase ourselves before any woman who has fulfilled her animal function.’

And a student, when asked how she will keep her fiancĂ© from knowing of her academic success in her final examinations, says ‘…it will be awkward if I do that. Poor lamb! I shall have to make him believe I only did it by looking fragile and pathetic at the viva.’

Must they subjugate their public lives as intellectuals to the personal sphere of mother and wife? Are they unfeminine? Are they psychologically repressed virgins? Harriet is no longer a virgin, which makes her the target of some unpleasant attention.)

Though no longer as urgent as they were in 1935, these questions are still appropriate. The unoriginal answer to which Harriet arrives will not be a surprise.

Gaudy Night is, sadly, a novel without blood. And I think the conclusion to its mystery betrays the excitement to which the reader is lead. Still, it is an enjoyable read, a tantalizing mystery, an excellent panegyric to Oxford. It will be beloved by anyone who loves a good ‘What ho, Jeeves’ breeziness mixed with the sharpness of a woman who isn’t afraid drawing a little blood with a scratch of her pen.