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...