Saturday, 27 August 2011

TS Eliot & East Coker; Edward Thomas & Dymock

I've been following with interest the debate over a proposed housing development between the Somerset town of Yeovil and nearby East Coker, waiting for someone to point out that change is central to TS Eliot's vision in the poem he named after the village. He didn't live there, but his ancestors had done, which made the village the perfect setting for a meditation on time and timelessness. An Anglo-Catholic who would have made a marvellous Zen Buddhist, Eliot was much preoccupied with the subject of time, which he talked about in terms of motion and stillness, squeezing whole histories into a few lines. This is how East Coker begins:

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.

And a little further on:

Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.

Eliot was less interested in the place itself than in the changes wrought by the passage of time on that place. The village itself he knew towards the end of its 'wind breaking the loosened pane' period. After a century of more or less continuous agricultural depression and urban growth had left villages empty and decaying, the motor car brought new people - artists, writers, commuters, Imperial retirees - to renovate houses, campaign for bypasses and object to new development.

This process continues today, with a flow of people to the semi-rural south and a consequent demand for good quality housing. You're not likely to come across many rustics dancing around midnight bonfires... I can't say whether people should be allowed to fulfill their dream of a life in bucolic Somerset or not, but I don't see that TS Eliot has much to do with the argument.

A more genuinely poetic piece of country, and one that doesn't seem to be threatened by anybody, lies around the Gloucestershire village of Dymock. I first explored the area while researching orchards and cidermaking, discovering in the process that Edward Thomas and Robert Frost had lived and worked there shortly - by which I mean weeks - before the outbreak of World War One. Frost was already gaining a reputation by this point, in good measure thanks to Thomas's reviews of his work, while his friend was still writing and researching the generally tedious but occasionally brilliant books of prose that he finally stopped writing when he joined the army.

Frost inspired Thomas, but the war allowed him to stop writing prose, freeing his mind for his brief, prolific career as a poet. In August 1914, the future was not looking especially rosy for Thomas - it rarely did - but he enjoyed his time with Frost, which the pair spent endlessly roaming around the valleys and wooded hills. Thomas's tendency to agonise over the smallest decision led Frost to write his most famous poem, 'The Road Not Taken', which began life as a personal joke but then took off on its own:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could 
To where it bent in the undergrowth

Anyway, you can still wander miles around Dymock, visiting the straggling villages where the poets lived. There is a Poets Walk, which I took last year, although I'm not sure the local farmers had been told of its significance. From what I remember the first part involved navigating through a field of sweetcorn that grew more than head high. Then there were barbed wire fences to negotiate and finally a bull. I think I turned round at that point.

Wonderful to see the new biography of Thomas getting a lot of attention, as he has been badly neglected. At his best, he can give you the shivers...

As the team's head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed the angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.

The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker's round hole,
The ploughman said. 'When will they take it away? '
'When the war's over.' So the talk began –
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
'Have you been out? ' 'No.' 'And don't want to, perhaps? '
'If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm, I shouldn't want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more...Have many gone
From here? ' 'Yes.' 'Many lost? ' 'Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.'
'And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.' 'Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.' Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.

'As the Team's Head Brass', 1916

Friday, 26 August 2011

Richard Beard: 'Lazarus is Dead'

Brothers Limbourg, The Raising of Lazarus, 1416
Richard Beard is an unusual kind of writer, and an extremely unusual kind of British writer. In fact he ought to have been French, or Eastern European. He handles words with a poet's care and, though his outlook is essentially comic, he is rigorous in his approach to subject and structure.

For his 1996 debut 'X20', he bent the form of the novel to reflect the experience of its protagonist, Gregory Simpson, who quits smoking and decides to write something every time he craves a cigarette. In 'Damascus' (1998), the constraint is linguistic, with almost every noun in the book taken from The Times on the day the Maastricht Treaty came into effect (1 November 1993), making British people citizens of Europe.

This would mean very little if Beard's fascination with form wasn't mirrored by his desire to get to the bottom of things. He is less a teller of stories than a seeker after truth. How do we know a decision is the right one? What grounds do we have for certainty in any given situation? In 'Becoming Drusilla' (2008) he set out to learn the truth about his old friend Drusilla - formerly Drew - Marland, exploring the transsexual experience in a sensitive, personal, finely structured narrative that blended genres (biography, travel writing, history) with wit and verve.

So to his new book, 'Lazarus is Dead', which is I think his most interesting to date. The rigorous structure of the early novels is there, with chapters built around the number 7, but the writing has the easy flow of Beard's non-fiction books. Following the model of 'X20' the life story of the protagonist (Lazarus, the only person Jesus calls 'friend') is woven into a wider meditation on his role in Christian tradition, which sounds a bit dry but isn't - I finished the book at a sitting. What makes it so gripping is Beard's limitless curiosity. He wants to know what Lazarus died of, and what being fatally ill in 1st century Palestine was like. He wants to know what it's like when you childhood pal is hailed as the son of god. He wants to know what it means to die, and what it means to return from the grave.

Giotto, The Raising of Lazarus, 1304
The historical evidence for Lazarus's existence is, well, non-existent, the Biblical evidence scant. Yet Lazarus has been portrayed in words and pictures countless times, and it is this evidence - a kind of collective imagination - that Beard draws on, sharing the views and versions of writers, painters and film-makers across the centuries. A rather dull review in The Observer last week failed to get the point, trying to read 'Lazarus is Dead' as if it were a conventional novel rather than a thought-provoking, moving and literate exploration of a world-famous character who may, or may not have existed.

Rembrandt, The Raising of Lazarus, 1630
I've found some of the paintings Beard mentions in the text, and one or two others that he doesn't. An illustrated edition would be a treat. But what on earth, I find myself wondering, will he write about next?

William Blake, The Raising of Lazarus, 1795

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Cerne Abbas Giant in Pictures

Frank Dobson, The Giant, Cerne Abbas, 1931 (copyright Frank Dobson estate)
I came across this fabulous picture illustrating a review of Alexandra Harris's book 'Romantic Moderns' in The Art Newspaper. I particularly like the cloud preserving the giant's modesty and can imagine the conversations between the artist and Shell's advertising supremo Jack Beddington that led to its addition. Actually, it's the shadow cast by a cloud that conceals the celebrated phallus, which is surely a physical impossibility.

The point is, though, that Beddington thought this glorious chalk figure too good to leave out when he was commissioning the paintings of British landmarks that were supposed to encourage motorists to buy Shell products. Antiquaries and tourists had been visiting Cerne Abbas since the 18th century, if not earlier, although depictions of the figure were not necessarily true to life.

Samuel Hieronymous Grimm, The Giant, Cerne Abbas, 1790

On the southern declivity of a steep chalk hill, called Trendle Hill, to the north of the town, a gigantic figure has been traced, representing a man holding a knotted club in his right hand, and extending his left arm; it is one hundred and eighty feet high, and well executed; the outlines are two feet broad, and two feet deep; between the legs is an illegible inscription, and above, the date 748: it is by some antiquaries referred to the Saxon times, and supposed to represent one of their deities; by others it is thought to be a memorial of Cenric, son of Cuthred, King of the West Saxons, who was slain in battle; and according to vulgar tradition, it was cut to commemorate the destruction of a giant who ravaged that part of the country, and was killed by the peasants: the figure is occasionally repaired by the inhabitants of the town. (Samuel Lewis' 'A Topographical Dictionary of England', Vol. I, [1831])

Images of the giant were not hard to come by in the 1930s, when numerous postcards carried its photograph. The increasingly widespread use of aerial photography offered a new perspective, which artists may have exploited to give a clearer view of the figure... Paul Nash made watercolour sketches of the giant before the war, while he was researching 'The Shell Guide to Dorset', and during the conflict.

Paul Nash, The Cerne Abbas Giant, 1935

Eric Ravilious, meanwhile, gave the figure a martial air in his painting, made during a whirlwind visit in December 1939. His version, incidentally, may allude to a different kind of censorship. The people who covered over the white chalk outline of the giant at the start of World War II were not concerned with modesty; their aim was to prevent the pilots and navigators of the Luftwaffe using the distinctive figure as a landmark.

Eric Ravilious, The Cerne Abbas Giant, 1939 (private collection)


Post-war, the Cerne Giant has been restored to his full glory, and artists have returned to paint this strange personage. While his image is better known than ever before, the giant's history remains murky. It seems unlikely that he is, as past historians used to surmise, a Roman tribute to Hercules, or even a Saxon homage to some long-forgotten deity. Medieval writers were as keen on oddities as we are nowadays, and though the White Horse of Uffington was often described - as a wonder almost as great as Stonehenge - the giant is not mentioned until after the Civil War. Who first carved out this unforgettable shape, and why, we may never know.*

David Inshaw, Cerne Giant (copyright David Inshaw)

 *May 2021: well we now know it was carved in the 10th century, so that's the when sorted out. Just need to work on the why and the who.