Monthly Archives: August 2016

Dear Jim… (#1) re: T. S. Eliot

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The front of the postcard: T S Eliot and Virginia Woolf. Photo by Lady Ottoline Morrell

Dear Jim,

After I moved to Leamington, and the process of unpacking began in earnest, one of the things I found in amongst the flotsam was an old postcard you sent me with T. S. Eliot and your gal Virginia on the front. There is something interesting about seeing those two together, missing only Joyce in order to complete the meld into some sort of Modernist super-Transformer. It is particularly interesting in the context of a card from you to me: my favourite writer sat beside yours, and interesting knowing there was genuine warmth between them, despite Eliot’s general distrust and dislike of womankind.

While looking for something to read that was writing related – a habit I often use for encouragement – I pulled down from the shelves my copy of Lyndall Gordon’s The Imperfect Life of T. S. Eliot. Cracking it open I was reminded by the inscription that it was given by you to your ‘dearest friend, on Christmas 2015.’

The book follows the biography of Eliot with the aim of illuminating the art he produced in his life, and so I thought this an excellent opportunity to read his poems again and his plays for the first time. I open up my Complete Poems & Plays and find ‘To Jon, at Christmas 2012.’ The formal address ‘To Jon’ ages it as much as the date.

So I have started The Imperfect Life and… well, one should never meet one’s heroes. The imperfections abound. The cold, pompous and frequently cruel Eliot of reality is hard to match up to my internal reactions to his works. Especially when those works are so significant to me; ‘The Hollow Men’ was the poem which rescued poetry from an uninspiring GCSE teacher. Reading it in my second year at uni was first time poetry happened and I thought: Oh yeah, this is doing something in my brain; I am having the feels about this.

Then of course there is Eliot’s misogyny, his antisemitism (he would not even capitalise ‘Jew’ or ‘Jewish’ until 1962), and the secondary infection of finding Bertrand Russell conducting a sordid and mean-spirited affair with Vivienne Eliot. Two heroes for the price of one.

But despite this the work still stands. And I allow myself hope. Woolf has just been introduced into Eliot’s story, Pound is drifting further away. Perhaps Bloomsbury’s bohemian influence will affect a softening; perhaps as the picture in the photograph develops he might become less terrible.

Which reminds me that Eliot was the first brick in the eldritch edifice of our friendship. I remember you remembering the first time we met: your lit-student brain being pleased to find a scientist with a favourite poet. That Eliot was that poet was a bonus. I also remember that Mrs Dalloway was one of the first books you ever lent me.

Another strange thing for me in reading The Imperfect Life, is that Eliot’s poetry is ‘explained’. Connected up to his biography, but also interpreted in light of the things he intended by it. I don’t yet know how I feel about that, C– W– once mentioned that ‘The Hollow Men’ was about WWI vets, and I recoiled. Maybe that was who Eliot’s Hollow Men were, but it wasn’t mine. Mine were far more like the men of The Waste Land‘s ‘unreal city’, the dead eyed commuters whose accidie was catching.

The rest of the poem is sinister fragments – just places and pictures – as far as I’m concerned. The dry cellar, the twilight kingdom, the dead land, those eyes, that shadow. Whatever literal interpretation there is, I can’t help but feel knowing it might push out the weird feeling I get in my gut while reading those passages in abstract. There’s not many works of art I feel that way about – reading is more often ‘of interest’ or a source of entertainment for me, and analysis often wrings more of both from a book or play. So when a piece does something more, as ‘The Hollow Men’ did, I get almost superstitious about it. I don’t want that weird feeling in my gut-brain to get replaced by something more interesting perhaps, but less weird in my head-brain.

So why am I risking it now with The Imperfect Life? In part it is because Eliot matters too much to me and my writing for superstition to win the day. With ‘Prufrock’ and The Waste Land he managed two more gut-brain poems, with the rest of his major works he does the toppest notch of head-brain interests; and he even sneaks a few entertainments in with ‘The Hippopotamus’ and the lyrics to Cats. So I do want to know more about what he did and how he did it. But I approach that knowledge with the trepidation that comes from messing with something you don’t fully understand. I’ll let you know how it goes.

In the meantime, it feels appropriate that this first ‘letter’ in what will hopefully be a productive collaborative bloggáge – written at a desk about twelve minutes walk from your own a geographical closeness represented in metaphor by the picture postcard above – be about Eliot in some way.

This letter is also a thank you note, for the Complete Poems & Plays of Eliot you gave me back in 2012, and for The Imperfect Life of his you gave me last year; but also for the many, many, many, many words of your own that you have written and/or waffled at me, and for your having read/listened to the many, many, many words of my own that I have waffled at you and/or written.

Here’s to many, many, many more,

Jon

Read Jim’s reply here.

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June’s Reading

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A few of my favourite things.

It’s been a while since I did one of these (see May’s here) for more on why there has been such a delay see the most recent life update (here). But I did read a decent amount in June. Eight books to be precise:

1. 1968 by Joe Haldemann, who clearly had a rubbish time in the 60s.

This novel was something of a surprise. Haldemann, who is better known for The Forever War, seemed at first to be writing a Vietnam novel, with all the grimness, madness and corrupted youth that goes with that. But just a little way into the book Spider, the GI protagonist of the book ends up being sectioned back home after a really, really bad day in the jungle and the book turns into a State of the Nation novel for the USA in what turned out to be a really, really bad year for the USA.

The grimness, madness and corruption of youth continues stateside for the rest of the novel as Spider finds himself dealing with the barbarities of the psychiatry industry of the late 60s (an interesting UK comparison might be Will Self’s Umbrella and Shark). The story deals with PTSD, homophobia, homelessness and the mad political happenings of the year that MLK and RFK were shot and the Nixon-Agnew White House was inaugurated.

Which is all pretty fun and interesting. The main problem with the novel is the prose, which is plodding, and its failure to make more of the ideas with which it is playing. There was a really great novel in the shadows behind this book, and I wished I was reading that instead.

Overall, I think I would tentatively recommend to those who like that sort of thing.

2. The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa, who writes well about board games and abortions.

This novel, by a Sino-French author about the Sino-Japanese war, was an interesting one. The chapters are narrated alternately by a young Chinese girl as she discovers love, sex, death and politics; and a  Japanese soldier as he the marches south towards Nanking discovering love, sex, death and politics. Eventually the two threads combine as the two characters meet in a public square and play a game of go.

The book is primarily about ‘growing up’ with an emphasis on loss of innocence. Both the plots contain stories of sexual awakening that lead to brutally unhappy conclusions, and both feature the characters learning about violence in ways that are linked to becoming and adult.

The book is very dense, at just over 200 pages it crams a lot of action and ideas into that narrow space. That is achieved by beautiful and extremely elegant prose, in which very short passages are often made to carry a huge amount of impact or information.

I would highly recommend.

3. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, who may or may not love Jesus and/or the Devil and/or neither.

This was an odd read and a super fun, if somewhat slapdashedly structured book. Master & Margarita tells the story of various members of Moscow’s literary and theatrical scene who run into the pranks and violence of the Devil and his entourage (including the unforgettable Behemoth a vodka drinking, chess playing, gigantic black cat) during their weekend jolly to Moscow.

The first half is an episodic mess as various characters fall foul of the pranks with often funny, sometimes horrifying results. While in the second half the titular characters are introduced and all those random happenings begin to pull together into a satisfying if slightly enigmatic end.

Occasionally cropping up within the novel is another novel about Pilate on the weekend of the crucifixion of Jesus and in which the events in Jerusalem have interesting parallels with happenings in the Moscow story.

I would highly recommend it. Both as an entertainment, full of weird – and occasionally quite dark – comedy; but also as a serious work of Literature.

4. The Two Noble Kinsmen by William Shakespeare, who was the original bromancer.

The plot is roughly this: two besties fall in love with the same lass, shenanigans ensue.

There is some great poetry in it, especially about male friendships, but overall the play is far from being the best of Shakespeare’s work. The end is rather poorly telegraphed for example, and the character’s are not terribly rounded or interesting, it may be that it plays better on the stage, but I was not super convinced by it.

Don’t think I would recommend especially.

5. All’s Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare, who seems to feel marrying a total arse makes for a happy ending, just because you fancy him.

A pretty solid and hugely underrated play with plenty of the slick wordplay and dialogue you get in things like the Merry Wives of Windsor and is at its very best in Much Ado About Nothing.

The sexual politics of the piece are a little concerning, the plot involves a woman who heals the King and in return has the King force the man she loves to marry her. He is so horrified by her low birth he goes off to war to avoid having sex with her saying he’ll never be her husband till she lays him. A couple of bed tricks later, he finds out that he accidentally had sex with her and grudgingly starts to act like a husband.

The plot works interestingly as a Rube-Goldberg machine, but is hard to take seriously as a human story. Still, a moderate recommend from me.

6. King Henry VIII by William Shakespeare, who Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Eurgh. So dull. So, so dull.

A few good speeches and no real plot get us from wife #1 to wife #2 (Fun note for trivia pedants: Henry VIII, despite the schoolroom rhyme never divorced anyone. The rhyme should go: Annulled, beheaded, died, annulled, beheaded, survived). At the end of the play Elizabeth I is born and the play ends.

Would not recommend.

7. The Memory of War and Children in Exile by James Fenton, who literally rode a North Vietnamese tank through Saigon.

A collection of poetry made up of poems from Fenton’s time in Vietnam and Cambodia, some from after his return to England. Some of the poems are very funny, others more complex and formal. All of them are pretty good and some are excellent.

Would recommend to poetical people.

8. King Harald’s Saga by Snorri Sturluson, who clearly fancies Norwegians and thinks the Danes smell weird.

King Harald’s Saga is taken from Heimskringla a huge history of Norway by the Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson. It tells the story of Harald Hardradr, who every English school child knows as a footnote to the story of 1066.

In fact King Harald lived an interesting life before Stamford Bridge, something of a trickster and prone to violence he travelled Europe and fought as head of the Byzantine Emperor’s Varangian guard before coming home to Norway to fight the Danes and invading England to fight the English.

The story climaxes with an interesting description of Stamford Bridge as it were the climax of the story and which contains the immortal line from Harold II who, when asked what he would give Harald in return for a peace settlement, responded with: ‘Seven feet of English soil.’

Overall I would recommend, especially to anyone interested in Medieval European history. So basically everyone.

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Where did all that Summer go?

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June in one of the years of Victoria’s reign. Now that we’ve Brexited I assume we can also start reinstating the Empire. Image from this guy’s Pinterest.

In November when I quit work and moved from my island home to Bristol, I had a pretty clear timeline for The Novel in my head, and a years worth what I thought was a years worth of savings in my bank.

Now, I am several months behind on the novel and looking at falling much, much further behind. And as for the savings… yeeesh.

This isn’t entirely a negative thing. A lot of the time lost on the novel has been to ‘reading weeks’ spent working on research, and on time given over to payed writing of the freelance variety. Some of these distractions have  even turned into regular gigs with Poker Tube and a few more articles – and now a longer term contract – writing for Front Vision. And then there was the move earlier this month from Bristol to Leamington and all the hassle that things like that entail.

For those who are interested, here are the highlights of what I have not been posting about over the last 2.5 months.

First, There Was June

  • The first of the pieces went up on Poker Tube (my full oeuvre there can be read here).
  • I also learnt the hard way not to read comments on Facebook for anything, especially articles (like this one) where you talk about something people love in highly-qualified but negative terms. The comments on PokerTube’s site were pretty civil, the ones on the FB page, less so.
  • I also had a trip back to the island home for a friend of the lady-friend’s wedding. It was lovely to see those few I did manage to see while I was there, and heartbreaking to not see all those I didn’t. On the whole though, I am still thrilled to be away from the place. Small island life is exactly as small islandy as you think it is.
  • I read a bit, wrote a bit, and time moved on…

Then After Came July

  • July brought with it some bad news: a parting of the ways between me and the lady-friend, and some good: new start in Leamington and getting moved and settled with huge amount of help from some top qual friends.
  • I also did some volunteering at Bristol Zoo before the move. It involved more yelling at kids who wanted to pull the lemur’s tails than actually cuddling the adorable – or wrestling the dangerous – animals. Several people dropped their phones in with the seals.
  • I then spent a couple of weeks in Leam on Jim‘s spare bed, while hunting up a flat and generally sorting the new life in Warwickshire.

And Now, August

  • With the kind help of loads of nice people at the Warwickshire end I have completed the move of all my stuff and said a farewell to the Ladyfriend and to Bristol.
  • I have begun tentatively to get back into the novel (aiming for a minimum of 30 minutes a day on it), and am juggling that with the other various writing commitments while also cautiously hunting for some sort of more regular employment.
  • I now have the pleasure of re-ordering my books on their shelves to look forward to, and now have access to the youth restoring springs of the Leamington Spa. Ponce de Leon, eat your heart out.

I think that covers most of it. Hopefully things should start getting back to business as usual now. See you mid-week for something about reading most likely.

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