Was a time I lived for a period in Bolton, a Lancashire ex-textile town. In my time there it was making the most of its ex-ness by becoming a hub of academia.
One consequence of this was its outstanding public library. Nor were Bolton’s credentials solely based on this remaking of itself: the library archives housed an extensive collection of letters from a Bolton literary society (before such corresponding societies were disbanded by Government order for suspected fostering of sedition in the long aftermath of the French Revolution). The recipient, and correspondent? Walt Whitman. The collection of letters and photographs is housed under the heading of the Bolton Whitman Fellowship, as they styled themselves.
That public library had more wonders in store, or should I say ‘stock’: some I bought up as I left the area, and the library, like most, sold off stock to make way for new.
And for the overall depletion of library services; to turn into what we have now – a rather sorry service. Anything of note now has to be requested from the central lending library, for a fee.
You have to know what you’re looking for, and how to look for it. All those fortuitous finds of books, materials, you had no idea existed…all that surprise and wonder, has gone.
One of those ‘treasures’ was a book, “Notes from an Odd Country’, by Geoffrey Grigson (Macmillan, 1970).
Grigson was… an awkward bugger; but by design, I think. I could tell you things, but… another time maybe.
He started off well: in the 1930s starting with his wife the most important poetry magazine of the decade, New Verse. The library archives also had originals of this magazine too.
New Verse was the main podium for the most energetic and lively writing of the period, W H Auden, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender. Wyndham Lewis, pre-Blast, was a close friend. Anyone who was anyone…..
The story behind ‘Notes…’. was that circa 1968 Grison was driving through France to meet his family in Venice… No, re-wind, that was Seamus Heaney, same time or near enough, similar route too:
The smells of ordinariness
Were new on the night drive through France:
Rain and hay and woods on the air
Made warm draughts in the open car.
A combine groaning its way late
Bled seeds across its work-light.
A forest fire smouldered out.
One by one small cafes shut
(‘Night Drive’, Door into the Dark, 1969).
And most of those small cafes have gone now, sold up about ten or more years ago.
No, the Grigson family were driving across France (enroute to Italy?). What they found was a small side river off the mighty Loire; this was the Loir (no e), and the small village of Troo. Cliffside dwellings in Troo appeared to be … cave houses? On closer inspection they were old and abandoned wine stores, carved out of the rock, and with new brick frontages: door, windows; the chimney was in the cliff top above.
G G was enchanted; they hired out every summer for years. The children attended the local school.
- It was here that Pierre de Ronsard took his daily walks;
- in this area that Rabelais first tasted delightful fruity Chinon wine (I’ve tried it, and it is!), and started out on the reckless career of Gargantua.
- around here that, newly released from long English arrest, that Charles d’Orleans had his chateau, his literary clique, and, it was rumoured, that Francois Villon got to know the dungeons, following his banishment from Paris.
- It was also near here that Zola based and wrote ‘La Terre’.
- Claudel lived and wrote nearby. “What do you think of Claudel in England?’ the woman asked Grigson, ‘ and without waiting for a reply she goes on and assures me that he is no less great than Shakespeare.’ Anyone who knows Claudel will know he was a Right wing bigot of a high order.
The book is illustrated with pencil drawings by Grigson.
So what is the book… about?
It consists of notes, expanded into meditations, observations, critiques. It is arranged into three sections: Spring, High Summer, The Fall. This is a device that helps record the locale of Tours, La Mans, Blois, Vendomes, the Beauce , the Loire and Loir, in all their variety and variousness.
It allows him to include his own translations of Ronsards’ poetry and memoirs of the region; of commentators on Ronsard and region etc.
Grigson records a visit and brief holiday by artist Ben Nicholson as he made his way to the opening of an exhibition of his work in Venice.
“The convention of the rectangular canvas, which is the formalisation of the visioned space around one’s two eyes, upsets Ben, as a limitation. This… is one reason why he has admired Sunday painters… who combine their marks on a piece of cardboard, a torn box lid,……… There is a very real point here which reconciles me, almost…’
Always that ‘almost’, the last word.
Grigson glories in the balmy climate, the profusion of natural colour, flora and fauna – he was an ardent botanist, ornithologist… he was one of those who needed to know all about everything he encountered.
This being the time the Paris Riots of 1968 echo and resonate in the background. Occasionally they intrude; Grigson was enough of an old armchair socialist to be open to what was going on around him: the injustices as well the pleasures.
He was also enough of an old journalist to know to record all responses, both Right (as he called them Gaullist) as well as Left, and middle, and the often frequent muddying of the two.
We read about the local character Maurice, wine growing: white wine (“few have the nerve for it now’ because it means leaving the grapes on the vine right until the last minute, just before the frosts hit.), and free thinker. Grigson uses him as a sounding board for many of his own explorations of the meaning of place. He records his responses even when he is distracted off-topic by something trivial. Tiredness, maybe. This brings out the multi-facettedness of the book, its glorying in variety.
“Swift: ‘I never saw, heard, nor read, that the clergy were beloved in any nation where Christianity was the religion of the country. Nothing can render them popular but some form of persecution.’
The resonance to Grigson of this passage must come from him being a clergyman’s son: Grigson senior was a wealthy Cornish (ex-Norfolk ) Anglican priest.
‘A pleasant noise in this old-fashioned and I think I must say still backward France: the clip-clop of hooves drawing a trap, which comes up at this moment from the other side of the river. I prefer horse-droppings on the road to smears of oil on parking places; a preference – they look nicer – not a sentiment.’
Other local sounds:
‘…I recall walking home and hearing with extra pleasure one of the special noises of Troo.
…this noise could be described as the slow hitting of a soft anvil.
A clear night, with three-quarters of a moon, early summer, and here is this soft anvilling again – which is, in fact, the noise of natterjack toads in unhurried conversation about their annually required sex.’
An incident with poet Roy Campbell circa 1944:
‘He fell out with me on account of something I had written about the poems of his friend Edith Sitwell…On the way from Broadcasting House to have a coffee, I encountered Roy in a ten-gallon hat stalking up the pavement. He raised a knocbkerry’ (walking stick) ‘, and threatened to crack it down on me… I dissuaded him, and he stalked on….’
The story went round and round. You know those office stories!
It was here that Jane Grigson first discovered the rich variety of local cuisines, and her second? career (gallery curator, wife, mother etc etc) as cookery writer began. In this connection:
“Last indulgence. We resolved to eat lark – petit des alouettes……… So how do they taste?…………extremely good, like roast pheasant in minature, plump ‘ (they are netted whilst fattening up for Winter in the wheat fields), ‘not at all like sparrows……..’