Archive for August, 2017

I wonder what she is doing at this hour
my Andean and sweet Rita
of needs and wild cherry trees
Now that this weariness chokes me, and blood dozes off,
like lazy brandy inside me.

I wonder what she is she doing with those hands
that in attitude of penitence
used to iron starchy whiteness,
in the afternoons.
Now that this rain is taking away my desire to go on.

I wonder what has become of her skirt with lace;
of her toils; of her walk;
of her scent of spring sugar cane from that place.

She must be at the door,
gazing at a fast moving cloud.
A wild bird on the tile roof will let out a call;
and shivering she will say at last, “Jesus, it’s cold!”

 

I remember this poem from years and years ago. It has always stayed with me. It is from The Black Heralds collection, I think. I don’t know who did the translation.

Earlier, I had written:

 Book Review: ‘The Evenings, by Gerard Reve

This is an early outsider novel, and a classic:
– ‘a cornerstone… of modern European literature…’ (Tim Parks)
– ‘The funniest, most exhilarating book about boredom ever written…’ (Herman Koch)

And that last comment captures my problem with the book.
Thr novel is set in 1946, presumably Amsterdam. There’s no TV, no record-player or records, there is, a radio, yes, that plays classical, a bit of jazz, some Latin American.
And everyone is bored out of their heads.

The chief charcter, 26 year old Frits Egters, entertains himself by needling everyone. This ‘enetrtainment’ takes over, to increasing degrees.
At first I thought I had a distinct impression of Billy Liar, by Keith Sillitoe, but, no.

And so I am struggling with it. Brcause… ‘I have seen the best minds of my generation…’
Exactly.
The date, see, is 1946.
The best minds of the previous generation were still numbed by years of Nazi occupation, the round-ups, transports. The best minds of that generation were shipped out to the German war effort. They returned home morally ruined, malnourished, spiritually dead.

OK, so, recently I was thinking about it again. And thought:

This book is not about boredom.

That is, boredom as the ubiquitous malaise we know it to be. The book describes conditions that are time-specific, culture-specific.

Think of it like this:
people had been living on a chemical diet of fear, adrenalin, horror for all the years of the Nazi Occupation. It had become their lives, creating its own neural pathways and specific synapses. The mind develops a world-sense around the nodes that provide the  information coming in.
Then it was gone.
The body, and concepts that the mind runs, its narratives, had to adjust. To what? What was left? Nothing was as before.
It must have been utterly exhausting, to the point of physically and mentally debilitating.

The Evenings was not about boredom.
It was about one person’s sense of War-fatigue, of dislocation, and trauma. Gerard Reve, the author, wrote of specifics, of a singular sense of these things, within the specific mind-set of Dutch culture, and its older sense of exclusiveness and strong cultural community.

And I’d mentioned the book’s kinship with John-Paul Sartre and his La Nausee.
In this way, nor was this book, and by extension Existentialism a universal condition.
It was a temporal, contingent, and place-specific physiological engagement with a suddenly changed world.
Sartre wove together his own grand narrative from writers who were exploring, or had explored, adjacent states of being, mind. Merleu-Ponty; controversially, Heidegger; Husserl; Simone de Beauvoir; they can all be counted as having contributed. Would they continue to recognise their work in his? And at which points, in the process that was the development of Existentialist thinking?
In this way Sartre attempted to create a universal mood from a specific, particular, set of circumstances.

It could be argued that this was Derrida’s modus also: his ‘little game’ as Foucault called it, of foregrounding (inconsequential?)  background detail. The destabilising he created – was that also a symptom of post-War reaction?

I suppose I am thinking here in terms of Post-Traumatic Distress.
If so, then forms of this state of being would also be present in Vietnam; Afghanistan; Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, Serbia; in Syria and Iraq. In China and Russia. In all war zones.
It  comes down, in the end, to whether it is politically acceptable to recognise, define, identify, this in one’s populace.

*

Ever since I became fully aware, I have felt to have lived under a cloud from World War 2 fall-out.
It is the psychic damage that has been hardest to overcome.
So much so, that it now seems it would be an act of monstrous dimensions to attempt to overcome all that. One would have be a dangerous person indeed not to feel the, hear, the terrible cries still, of people killed mercilessly in that War. Any war.
And they do still keep occurring.

There is a book I read some time back: On The Causes of War, by Hidemi Suganami, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1996.
Hidemi Suganami was Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the time of writing. He is now Professor of International Relations at Aberystwyth University.
For those who are not familiar with this post: Aberystwyth has a most prestigious International Relations department, of great reputation and  long standing.
His conclusion may seem banal in presentation:

That there is war, because war is still seen as an option.

It is the implications, though: we would rather kill huge numbers of people, let the beast in us out, and harm people for generations to come, than seek out other means of resolution.
And now we see the previously unthinkable: nuclear conflict actually on the cards.
It is definitely time to join CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament). I do not believe in unilateralism – but sometimes it is necessary to make a stand.

The perpetrators are as deeply affected as those they inflict their terror upon.

Trump and N Korea:
Yeh, that’s the way forward:
‘What brave new world….’

Some years  ago I spent a week at one of the Arvon Foundation Writing schools.
The one I attended is called Lumb Bank. It is in West Yorkshire up on the heights of the Pennine hills.

It is a most amazing place: think of high tumbling expanses of moorland in all directions, open to all weathers. Then imagine it fissured with deep, steep and narrow river valleys.
In a meeting of such river valleys, a natural bowl, is the little town of Hebden Bridge. Yes, it does have a bridge, one that bridges several rivers meeting there. Not many years ago it felt the force of the floods. The town centre was deep under water for weeks.

1
To get to Lumb Bank from Hebden Bridge, especially for first-timers, as I was then, I would heartily recommend the local bus. This is an excellent initiation.
It is little more than a people carrier – and for good reason.

This bus ascends the long step gradient up the moorside. It seems impossibly steep for the little motor, but the worse has yet to come. It is when we reach the village at the top the trouble really starts. First, let me say, this bus only runs in the summer time. It was late summer I was there, and the poor driver’s nerves must have been frayed by then.
Up to that point the road had been straight and decently tar-macadamed. When we reached the beginnings of the hill-top village of Hepstonstall the road surface reverted to road cobbles.
By bus you notice just how narrow the passage is between houses there. The tiny people carrier barely scrapes between the buildings – one jerk, and surely there must be some collision.

Heptonstall – a moor-top village of grey stones, hugging the earth, anchoring themselves there, against the huge sweeps of wind that blow-across, and a constantly changing sky. What a place.
https://heptonstall.org/loocal-history/
One of the small farms roundabout acquired the reputation as the den of coiners. The Cragg Coiners would snip edges off the silver coins, melt them down and then make their own coins. They were coated base-metal, but had the same weight of the silver coins.
It was a capital offence, of course.
In the Civil War the village and environs became the centre for Parliamentary parties to ride out and subdue Royalist areas.

E P Thompson in his monumental, The Making of the English Working Class, has a couple of entries for Heptonstall. It was a hand-loom weaving community, and as such fiercely independent. The hand-loom weavers were self-employed, and known for working odd hours. E P Thompson notes how some groups would regularly take Monday off, sometimes Tuesday as well, on the grounds of them being saint’s days. They then would work like mad the rest of the week, evenings and Saturdays, to catch up.
There was a break-out of typhus; the surgeon noted the terrible conditions of the village: there was one stream to cater for all, and that terribly fouled. The cottages had dirt floors; they would be strewn with rushes, but in the constant wet, would become so muddied as to make conditions worse.

On the other hand, unlike the factory weavers, who all this is written in contrast to, they did grow fresh vegetables, flowers, had relatively clean air, and could attend the many local festivals.

*

When the bus reaches the reasonably flat part of the village road atop the gradient, there is a sharp left turn. This is why, you realise, it is only a tiny bus, because anything longer and that top turn would be impossible.

But my stop was out of the village on the other side. Out there, the houses gave way to farms, and then there was a gateway. That was it: middle of nowhere. But what a nowhere.
The view from up there was panoramic. The moors undulated in their colours in all directions. Wonderful. Breathtaking.

My gateway led back down the side of the moorside, to, tucked away in trees, the Lumb Bank Centre Writing School.
The week’s tutor-leader was the generous and amiable Lawrence Sail, a man whose time I valued immensely. He was co-working with Sujata Bhatt in her first, and I think her last, turoring role. Every course has a mid-week guest, and we were joined by Jo Shapcott, a writer whose work I enjoy greatly.

2
Back in the village of Hepstonstall just off the right hand side of the one road back to the bottom town of Hebden Bridge… just down to the right, is another amazing sight. You enter into an open space in the middle of houses. It is all paved with gravestones; you walk on gravestones.  And there are the remains of a church. Roofless, with its pillars pointing up to the sky. Abutting this ruin is a new built church of St Thomas a’ Beckett.

Ted Hughes has a marvelous poem in Remains of Elmet, that captures the place well:
Hepstonstall Old Church

A great bird landed here

Its song drew men out of rock,
Living men out of bog and heather
………………………………………………..
Then the bird died.

Its giant bones
Blackened and became a mystery.
………………………………………………………….
There is, of course, next to the church,the usual small, cramped graveyard. So cramped, that they have had to use the adjoining pasture as extra grave space. Here, after all the cramped, crowded stone, are open fields again. One flat, grassy space is neatly rowed with small headstones.
Among them, this one:

MsPlath'sGrave

The times that headstone has been defaced and replaced.
Another poem by Ted Hughes, this one tucked away in Earth-Numb, the Beacon section, called:

The Stone

Has not yet been cut.
It is too heavy already

……………………………………..
It will transport its face, with sure strength,
To sit over mine, wherever I look
……………………………………………………..
It will have across its brow
her name.
…………………………………………………..

Coming away I met a local man. ‘The problem,’ he was telling me, ‘is keeping the grass down.’ One of the Church Committee.
‘We brought sheep in. Thought that the most sensible.’
Yes, the practical, no-nonsense side of me applauded that.
‘But people complained.’ he said.
Sheep droppings on graves. But sheep droppings, like rabbit, deer scat, are the most innocuous of all, surely.

By ‘people’, he meant, the others.
Hepstonstall, and Hebden Bridge by reputation, have more PhDs per square mile than anywhere else in England. It is the Ted Hughes-effect. The places made special by writers gather something of an aura that draws people.
How times have changed.
The cobbled road had indeed been macadamed, and the cobbles rediscovered when work was being done. The inhabitants petitioned to keep the cobble surface; the concrete lamp-posts were also replaced with ornate old gas-lamp posts that had been converted.

*

I sneaked out one midnight, crept back through the village, to the church, that field. I stood by her grave. It was strange to think of her down there, underneath. Most unknowable person.
Strange, note. Not disturbing, not tragic even; it was more a sadness, the sadness of those who would have had to stand by unable to help or do anything.

There was a pathway back through the fields, and the night bright enough to make my way, so I returned that way. It was the risk I relished; the unseeable cliff edges.
One further field seemed strewn with big boulders. I went closer; they were sleeping cows. I just stood there with them.
I’ve felt this before: the great vistas, the rocks and fields and hills; all insensate. I yearned all the time for something living, warm, ticking with life. Here they were, my fellow beings, in all that emptiness.

For some those empty places are where they meet their own edges, borders. For them it is where words come, coalesce.
For me, that place is in the melee of living beings.

Did her grave talk to me? If it did, it was in a language I could not hear. I feel something was passed on. Maybe. Something so deep, I can only feel its ripples.

PS
There is a pathway back to the town, down the steep moorside. It is under trees, slippy, but quicker, and a direct route to the bridges at the bottom. Part way down there is an old overgrown graveyard; it does not have the orderly rows of the new top one. Under old trees are leaning high stones, ivied, mossed, of old Methodist graves, each inscribed with Old Testament names. It is a small, discreet, and private place (‘but none, I think, do there embrace‘). You do not feel the thousands of feet having known that place, like they have claimed that field at the top. It has kept its quiet, its solemnity.

E P Thompson again notes how a local man, Dan Taylor, ex-collier, and new Methodist, built his own chapel, carrying the stone down on his back. He later went out evangelising, his religious enthusiasm mutating through to founding his own Baptist New Connection. He travelled, it is estimated, 25,000 miles in the next years, giving 20,000 sermons.
Most of that travelling would have been on foot.