Books I read this September

img_1451.jpgThis was my first month teaching in the secondary school system, and if I still managed to read eleven books, it’s only down to the fact that many of them are slim Penguin biographies of under a hundred pages. I’m looking forward to breaking into something substantial over October half term.

Accelerando, by Charles Stross

Nothing dates faster than the future, and this early work by one of my favourite writers already seems a touch dated. The opening chapters are cyberpunk to the point of self-parody, but each of the chapters time-jumps a decade or more, and halfway through the book most of the inner solar system is already being broken down for computational substrate, while an interstellar mission has discovered an alien wormhole network out in the Oort cloud. It’s a bit like watching The Expanse on fast forward. Exhausting at times–Stross does love to ping the ideas about–but never dull.

The Homeric Hymns, trans. Jules Cashford

Worth reading as the earliest source for Greek myths–the abduction of Prosperine, for example, which my girlfriend maintains is the cover for an awesome Goth romance, but as told here is more of a mother-daughter story. The longer ones–to Apollo, Demeter, Aphrodite and especially Hermes–are most interesting, since most of the others are short and unremarkable, and Cashford doesn’t do these many favours by centre-spacing them, in a bid to make them look poetic by the standard of Instagram. Hermes is far and away the highlight, since the hymn to him as a wildly precocious young trickster God is a total tonal leap apart from the rest of material. It’s funny, sarky, and full of life, and I may try my hand at writing my own slang version.

The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester

Another dated future, this one of the 1950s. The solar system’s colonised and a sizable proportion of the human race have developed telepathy, but computers are still specialised devices the size of rooms. This one’s a crime proceedural, rather than a mystery. Ben Reich, head of the Monarch corporation, plots the perfect murder, and then Lincoln Powell, the telepathic Chief of Police, has to catch him out. The Freudian twist is that Reich’s motives aren’t what he assumes. Would make an interesting companion to a Philip K. Dick novel.

George I: The Lucky King, by Tim Blanning

Blanning admits immediately that the first Hanoverian King isn’t the most interesting in the dynasty, but the advantage of these sub-100 page Penguin Monarchs is that you can learn a good deal about the lesser lights without having to swallow a doorstopper. The biography of Henry VIII I read in this series felt overstuffed–poor Catherine Howard was married and killed off in the course of a paragraph–but here we get an easy tour of the reign’s highlights: Handel’s water music, the South Sea Bubble, Walpole scheming, ructions with the Prince of Wales, and endless European wars handled with admirable clarity and lightness of touch. Blanning has a good eye for anecdotes, and never lets the Electorate of Hanover slip out of focus while he’s narrating the affairs of England. Overall, rather a lucky commission.

James II: The Last Catholic King, by David Wormsley

The cover of this one presents James II as a looming, bewigged panto villain, so it’s a surprise how handsome he is in his portraits, particularly in his younger days as Duke of York and Lord Admiral, with a strong chin, good posture, and none of his father’s wispy facial hair. Wormsley likes to focus on this period, the colourful Restoration days when Pepys, Evelyn and Dryden were writing, and we’re halfway through the book before James comes to the throne. The question Wormsley focusses on is how it all went so wrong so fast, and while this threatens to enmesh him in tangles of historiography, he pulls through and gives a vivid portrait of a tactless, stubborn and imperious monarch who kept blundering and blundering until he finally had to flee the country. Plus, I have a soft spot for any historian still willing to quote Macaulay with enjoyment.

Edward II: The Terrors of Kingship, by Christopher Given-Wilson

Another failed King, this one famously a) gay and b) executed by red-hot poker up the jacksie, though both these received facts are questioned in this book. His struggles with the barons are rather hard going at times, since there are a lot of Mortimers, Pembrokes and Gloucesters to keep track off. Given-Wilson does manage to give a character to Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster, and keeps us clued in to Robert the Bruce’s nation building and the dizzy throne-swapping in France. The life is briskly run through in four equal chapters, plus a welcome epilogue on legacy, which touches on a failed sainthood bid, Marlowe’s history play, and his adoption as a gay icon.

William I: England’s Conqueror by Marc Morris

William the Conqueror (or the Bastard, as he was known in his own times) is one of those Kings who exist as dates and battles rather than personalities. Aside from sketchy representations on his coinage and the Bayeux Tapestry, there isn’t even a portrait of him, so while Morris fills in the build-up and aftermath of the famous battle in Hastings well enough, the material can sometimes be a little dry. Two new facts leapt out at me: firstly, William was England’s first abolitionist, abolishing chattel slavery among the Anglo-Saxons, something that sits very oddly alongside his reputation as a brutal overlord. Secondly, it looks like the Domesday Book wasn’t a tax record after all, but a land register: a way to establish property ownership, alongside the principle that all land was held from the King.

Complete Poems, by Basil Bunting

I’d read through Briggflats a couple of times, and always put it aside as a poem needing more study and annotation that I could spare. So the sheer readability of this collection came as a surprise to me. Bunting’s other long poems, or sonatas as he calls them, are relatively accessible, filled with a pugnacious vitality, and very much of their eras. The 30s stuff, filled with meditations of castration and sterility, is influenced by Eliot’s The Waste Land without being slavishly imitative, and Bunting, never without as sense of humour, can be entertainingly brusque with Eliot’s elegaic postures. The short poems, or Odes, are a marvellous assortment. I was delighted by the pair of emigrant ballads smuggled in alongside the verse libre, and sniggered at the appendix of limericks.

Henry V: Playboy Prince to Warrior King, by Anne Curry

A neatly structured pocket biography, but I got to the end feeling like Shakespeare had covered all the major points. It was good to hear about some of the behind the scenes events–troubles with Lollard heresy, Henry IV’s probable syphilis and relations between King and parliament–but nothing here challenged the narrative shape and characterisation set by the history plays.

Pericles and Fabius Maximus, by Plutarch

Not the most obvious pairing in the Parallel Lives, Pericles being the politician’s politician, and F.M. the general’s general. I find the latter more sympathetic, in the stoic tradition of generalship that extends to Grant and Patton, fighting off Hannibal and public opinion simultaneously. With Pericles in the golden age of Athens, you can see why the rest of Greece hated them, and how much effort it took Pericles to keep the wheels on while he lived. Still, it was worth it to leave us the Parthenon.

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens

My first time reading through this Dickens novel, as part of the project of reading all the school set texts I should probably have read by this stage. George Bernard Shaw does right to call it his most compactly perfect novel; Our Mutual Friend is still my favourite, but that’s an enormous, baggy, novel full of tour-de-force chapters, while this is one complete, compelling tale with nothing superfluous in it.


Upon Chawton House: A Poem

What would you have done if you had invented one of the key components of the internet and promptly become very rich indeed? It would be hard to think of a better solution than that of Sandy Lerner, co-inventor of the router, who bought up a rundown manor house in Chawton, Hampshire, which had once belonged to Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen-Knight. After a decade of extensive restoration, Chawton House reopened as one of Britain’s newest research libraries, specialising in women’s literature.

Last year, I fulfilled a dream of mine from my MA days, and got to spend a month there as a visiting fellow, researching my PhD. From the Steinway grand in the living room to the shiny copper pans hanging over the kitchen table to the four-poster bed, I’d never lived like it before and never will since.

This must be what it was like to have an aristocratic patron, I thought to myself. The idea sprang into my head of a modern take on the country house poem, in the tradition of Ben Jonson and Andrew Marvell, that would thank the staff for my unforgettable month here. I daydreamed of being appointed Chawton House’s poet laureate and being given my own tiny office in the eaves of the house, where I would write poems to Sandy Lerner’s cats and subsist solely on sherry. Alas, it was not to be—but I did manage to see my poem printed in the library’s newsletter, The Female Spectator.

Now that Hampshire’s poet laureate has paid a visit and written a sequence of poems about her time there, I thought it high time I gave my poem a new airing.

Fruitful October’s been and gone
And drear November’s drawing on
At Chawton House, so much renowned
For wholesome air and fertile ground
As every fruit tree here evinces,
Weighed down with apples, pears and quinces.
Though roses droop and leaves may fall
Before the threat of frost and squall,
From every pamphlet, every tome
A harvest has been gathered home,
From every essay, poem and story:
And still the grounds are in their glory
Of gold and brown and yellow green
And mixtures hardly sung or seen.
To stroll amid the wilderness
And see the woods in autumn dress
Adds a fresh pleasure to the store:
Then back into the house once more!
For there are concerts to applaud
Upon the polished harpsichord,
And morning light that gilds and graces
The panelled rooms and fireplaces,
And portraits splendid in their frames
Of gay coquettes and haughty dames,
And Knights of centuries gone by
Who gaze with an approving eye.
Plush window seats, where I am certain
To hide behind th’embroidered curtain
And read for hours like Jane Eyre
Or even – dare I? – take the chair
Where Austen used to sit and write.
There is no end to my delight,
For there are shelves and stacks and hoards
Of Books en dishabille in boards,
Or paperbacks – pert springy nippers,
Or grave octavos in their slippers,
Or volumes – three or four together
All bound in fine Morocco leather,
Whilst slim selecteds – bold young turks –
Vie with august collected works
To entertain me with their art:
How sad that they and I must part!

Desk Angst

If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign? —Albert Einstein

Writer’s desks, along with their original manuscripts and signed copies of their novels, are now part of the cult of the author, and some that are appropriately old and famous can go for fabulous prices at auction, or – if the author is really, really famous – are preserved in museums of the author’s home or birthplace. They are all singularly lifeless, soulless lumps of wood.

Take Leo Tolstoy’s desk, preserved under glass at the Tolstoy museum, with everything precisely in order – a half-finished letter laid out square to the surface – a pair of polished candlesticks and new candles, three pots of ink arranged in a marble stand – everything immaculate and in its proper place. How dull. It could be the desk of a nineteenth century bank manager. Now, by contrast, look at the recreation of his desk in The Last Station, a film about the final days of Tolstoy’s life. It looks like a pigeon’s nest, more wild and untamed even than Christopher Plummer’s impressively tangled beard. Words spill out of notebooks and letters, spilling out of pigeonholes and drawers in a cascade of ink and paper. It’s a desk you can believe was used by the author of several doorstop novels of more than a million words, embracing every aspect of Russian life. It’s a beautifully ordered mind finding its expression in a glorious chaos.

Ever since, I’ve been worrying – is my desk untidy enough? Is it untidy in the right ways?

I wrote my MA thesis on a series of tiny, rickety plywood desks with barely room enough for a keyboard and monitor. The first thing I did when I had a PhD and a decent wodge of funding to do it with, was to spend far too much money on an impressively solid, leather topped corner desk that provides an impressive amount of workspace to sprawl into, as well as a footwell large enough to contain a printer/scanner, ten volumes of diaries stretching back to 2008, an electric heater and various plugs and adaptors.

Let’s take a quick census, a map of the terrain at this moment in time. I’m writing this longhand, even though I know I’ll have to type it up later, because writing longhand relaxes me. My desk is essentially an equilateral triangle, with the point rounded or truncated. Directly ahead of me is my laptop, sitting slightly lopsidedly on its powercord and showing me a screensaver of unusual words: it’s just come up with ‘connatural’ meaning ‘belonging naturally, or innate.’ Behind it is a selected volume of Coleridge’s Notebooks, lightly annotated; behind that is a desk lamp which I never use, but keep there because it’s the sort of old-fashioned brass lamp that should sit on desks of this sort.

Along the right hand edge of the desk marches a regiment of paperbacks that have overspilled my bookshelves and begun to annex windowsills and tabletops all over the flat. One day, I will rearrange my shelves so that all the impressive, writerly things are stacked here in easy reach – the OED, Roget’s Thesaurus, the Rhyming Dictionary, the Chicago Manual of Style. For the moment it’s the usual mix of Genre Fiction, Poetry, Ancient History and Teach Yourself German in 20 Easy Lessons. Stacked up on top of the books are a mixture of notebooks, DVDs, post-its, maps and programmes; underneath them a tape measure, an orphaned Christmas card, a lump of quartz from the mountainside above Delphi, an AA battery, a pair of bicycle clips, a labyrinth of computer cables and – the oasis in this desert – a mug of earl grey and lemon on a Doctor Who coaster!

The left hand side of the desk appears at first glance to be possessed by an indiscriminate mountain of paper, but which, under closer inspection, resolves itself into a copy of Christine Gerrard’s The Patriot Opposition to Walpole, open at page 72 – a bound copy of the Cardiff bus timetables – the latest copy of The Week – an A4 notepad filled with German prepositions – notes for a seminar I taught on Thomas Gray’s An Elegy Wrote in a Country Church-Yard – a postcard I bought in Florence and never sent – and a letter of complaint to Cardiff Council about the loud and intrusive ‘security announcement’ they insist on playing in the Central Library. On the far edge of my desk, a small heap of letters from my mother, my uncle Michael and my friend Suzannah, currently convalescing from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in Dresden, form the foothills to these mountains. Other notable geographical features are a pair of obsolete hearing aids (mine) in a black felt pouch, the Penguin selected essays of George Orwell and a fearfully leaky collapsible travel cup that once belonged to my grandfather.

All in all, it’s not a bad showing – but if I’m honest with myself, I know my desk could be much more untidy with only a little more effort.

Short, Sweet Stories

Controversially, my local library has now relegated short stories to a section by themselves. While it’s nice to have somewhere to go if you only want to read short stories, innumerable questions arise. Will it be a multi-generic mingling of Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein, with Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, James Joyce’s Dubliners and Dylan Thomas’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, or do the genre works go elsewhere? What about works that were serialised as short stories, but were collected as novels, such as Asimov’s Foundation and Sax Rohmer’s The Insidious Dr Fu Manchu, both of which, later in the series, eventually morphed into novels? Shelve them apart or together?

Most of all, there’s the worrying notion that this might ghettoise the short story, which is fast following poetry into a little-bought, little-read, uncommercial sideline. Mostly Joyce’s fault, I feel, for making the short story so damned literary, together with the boom in Creative Writing for flooding the market with hundreds of early literary writers working painstakingly up from the short story collection to the semi-autobiographical novel to Ulysses! Me, I wrote my first novel at 13 (a terrible fantasy knock-off) and when I write short stories, it’s generally a horror story for reading around the campfire during a hiking trip. It may be terribly pulpy, but it’s more fun than any writing group.

I’ve decided to do my small bit to revitalise the art form and hence, I’ve collected and recommended half-a-dozen writers whose short stories are fun, pacey, and not altogether lacking in literary merit. I’ve tried to steer clear of the obvious genre writers, but even so, here you’ll find vampires, murderers, and devils a plenty, together with ‘real world’ stories just as entertaining.

Jane Austen

Her short stories are the most overlooked works in Austen’s extraordinary oeuvre – many of those who have read her novels time and time again will never even have glanced at her Juvenilia – the unruly, mocking, anarchic works of her teenage years. The sly sense of humour that continually undercuts her writing style – and which is so often lost in the po-faced costume dramas – runs riot through these 26 (often very short) works, which are like nothing in the eighteenth century and very little in the nineteenth. The History of England… By a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant Historian anticipates 1066 and All That by more than a century; in Edgar and Emma we have Austen’s only murderess; in The Beautiful Cassandra an entire novel condensed down into a sentence or two per chapter. The invention and energy is such that by the time we reach the final item in the book, Catherine: or The Bower, which displays the mature Austen’s more sedate style, it’s almost a disappointment.

Stand Out: The innocuously titled ‘A Collection of Letters’; each one more hilarious than the last.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 

Most famous for his peerless consulting detective, A C-D’s second best-known creation is probably Professor Challenger, who led a dinosaur hunting expedition to a plateau in South America in the Victorian Jurassic Park. His other works are mostly forgotten. The one that least deserves to be is Brigadier Gerrard, a hilariously vain, dashing and none-too-bright French Hussar, on the frontline of Napoleon’s Army during all his various campaigns. The writing is so vivid and modern, that although it was a clear inspiration to George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series, it feels more like a modern rival. His two entries in the volume of Late Victorian Gothic Tales show he can tell a spine-chiller with the best of them: ‘Lot. 249’ is one of the earliest and best of the mummy stories, and ‘The Case of Lady Sannox’ is a tale of dreadful cruelty to rival Edgar Allan Poe.

Stand Out: It’s hard to choose a favourite from a writer whose work spanned detective, historical, horror and early science-fiction stories, adding something new to each. Of his isolated pieces, however, ‘The Captain of the “Pole-Star”‘ best rewards rediscovery.

Rudyard Kipling

‘Once upon a time, O best beloved…’

Those words were such an integral part of my childhood that even now they nearly bring me to tears. Where Conan-Doyle spans the genres, Kipling spans the years. The Just So Stories, The Jungle Book, Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies should be indispensable companions to any childhood. He often gets a bad press for his uncritical view of the British Empire, but he knew India backwards, and his works are full of colour and local knowledge.  ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ is a thrilling adventure story, but also a vivid tale of Imperial hubris, while ‘Lispeth’ is a tragic inditement of colonial attitudes. His horror stories, collected in Strange Tales, span continents and time-scales with ease. Despite the uneasy racism, ‘At the End of the Passage’ is a doppelgänger story to stand alongside The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Stand Out: How the Whale Became displays more than any poem Kipling ever wrote his absolute mastery of rhythm.

Dylan Thomas

Every previous writer in this list was also a poet, but for Dylan Thomas prose was obviously a second string. To be honest, that comes as a relief. Many of his tangled, intricately crafted poems can take hours of study to decode, but his short stories are a lot simpler and easy to get a handle on. The stories in his first collection, The Map of Love, came bundled with his poetry, and are a lot darker and more Gothic than the rest of his output, but still enjoyable. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog is where he really hits his stride, with a series of semi-autobiographical tales, alternating between Carmarthenshire and Swansea. All of them are filled with larger than life characters, lively turns of phrase and brilliant storytelling. Read the poems to get the sense of him as a great poet; read the short stories to get the sense of what he would be like down the pub.

Stand Out: The trip out to Rhossilli Beach in ‘Who Do You Wish Was With Us?’ captures the joy of getting outdoors together with the illusory sense of escape. It really makes you want to get on the road.

George MacKay Brown

Possibly even more bardic than Burns, G M Brown barely ever left his native Orkney, but his short stories bring every genre and every page of history to him. There are ghosts, Vikings, Faustian pacts, murders and revenges, all of them individually captured in spare, beautiful tales with no sense of indulgence to them – he can even write about the afterlife without making me want to wince. He carved out a role for himself in his community, as writer and poet, and all his work has the sense of something honed, polished, and read out many times before an ordinary audience before finally committed to the page, like something simultaneously modern and from a much older oral tradition. A true craftsman.

Stand Out: Not having a collection by me, I can’t remember titles, but everything in The Sun’s Net and Winter Tales.

Angela Carter

Insisting she wrote tales rather than short stories, Angela Carter connected her work to an older tradition of the short Gothic tale. It’s tempting to talk of her feminist perspective – she often retells the story from the woman’s point of view – but it makes her sound bowdlerised and politically correct, when she could hardly be more controversial. Her most famous work, The Bloody Chamber, retells classic fairytales as violent psycho-sexual fables – like Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes but even more bloodthirsty. Psychologically acute, twisting and drenched in detail, they’re an experience like no other.

Stand Out: The title story in The Bloody Chamber, which brings back to me all the creeping dread I first felt on hearing the tale of Bluebeard for the first time.

On the arrangement of books

A rainbow of books

Clearing out my childhood bedroom recently, I found throwing out all my old books to be a miserable experience. There’s something crushing about coming face-to-face with those hopes and ambitions of long ago and realising that there’s no day rainy enough that I’m going to read the Mahabharata, that research project on Dark Age Wales has long since fallen by the wayside, and that no-one, not even Andrew Motion, has ever written a halfway satisfactory sequel to Treasure Island. Still, now that I’ve moved them all to my new flat and have begun to find them homes on my shelves, I find the cliché is truer that many people realise: books really do furnish a room. Of course, you can bind them all identically in morocco leather and house them in oak cabinets; or you can buy individual cased hardbacks from the Folio Society to adorn your living room in style; but even my ragtag collection of poetry, science fiction, outdoor adventure and Russian Literature; ranging from svelte, selected modern paperbacks to tome-like turn-of-the-century collected works; even this can furnish a room. It provides an abstract pleasure for the eye as it slides along the row of spines, enjoying the change of colour and texture from jacket to jacket without thinking unduly of authors or subjects. A well-tuned bookcase can be a work of art, a kind of linear mosaic that provides visual pleasure independent of intellectual association. After having moved and reshelfed several times in the past few months, I can see fragments of the old patterns on my shelves, broken up where I unloaded a box in a different order, or found space to squeeze in an extra volume. It would be possible to agonise infinitely over the placement of everything, but I’ve decided to slot them in in any order and let them settle in for themselves.

A French friend once asked my advice on ordering her books, and I flippantly suggested colour-coding them by spine. What I didn’t realise is that French paperbacks are an almost uniform flat white, of a sort I only recall seeing here on the spine of a 1970’s Dickens reprint, so that idea was doomed from the start. English books may be more colourful, but they present their own problems. Do I shelf the matte black Penguin Classics together in one great uniform block, or leaven the effect by scattering them among the more vivid shelves? What do I do with something like Branch Lines: Edward Thomas and Contemporary Poetry, whose publishers gave it a dust jacket that was half green, half brown? Do I even own any indigo or violet books? At least the Faber and Faber paperbacks provide a basic spectrum from which to expand.

All this for the moment is academic; perhaps some very rainy day, after I’ve laid the Mahabharata aside, I may set to work on an aesthetic theory of bookshelves. In the meantime, it merely adds a new pleasure to that small empty space in the bottom right hand corner, where every night, at the stroke of midnight, the ghosts of all the books I have ever owned and am yet to acquire flicker past; red, purple, green and sober black, they dance briefly and then vanish into a haze of possibility.

Lament for Enobarbus

Patrick Stuart as Enobarbus

A question I often ask to break the ice at parties is “If some mad theatre director came up to you in the street one day and told you that you had the perfect face, that he knew he could cast you in any role in the whole of Shakespeare – black, white, male, female, anything – and you’d succeed brilliantly: what role would you ask for?”

(Yes, I go to a lot of these kind of parties. I study English Literature.)

I’ve had some interesting responses. One girl wanted to be Hecate in Macbeth, who gets cut out of the play in most versions for probably not being genuine Shakespeare; someone else wanted to be the bear in The Winter’s Tale, whose part consists of a single stage direction – though it is, to be fair, the most justly famous stage direction in all Literature.

Of course, as is the case with most of these questions, my answer has been carefully worked out beforehand. I universally opt for Enobarbus, from Antony and Cleopatra, which promotes many puzzled looks.

Enobarbus is the forgotten man of Shakespearean tragedy, his tear-jerking end subsumed into Antony’s bungled suicide (like Charles II, he takes an unconscionable time a-dying) and Cleopatra’s magnificent, stately death by snakebite. And yet, of all Shakespeare’s characters, he’s the one I’ve come closest to crying over. Of Shakespeare’s characters, he alone manages to combine both high poetry and solid earthiness, and does so brilliantly. He’s not above getting drunk when there’s a truce to be celebrated, or pugnaciously defending his fighting reputation to a rival, or mocking the tipsy gullibility of Lepidus. And yet to him fall some of the most beautiful passages of description in the whole play, no, the whole of Shakespeare, when he describes Cleopatra for the men of Rome.

Age shall not wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies.

He is perceptive enough to see that Anthony cannot possibly hold true in his marriage to Caesar’s sister, Octavia, and that by his infidelity the truce between Antony and Caesar is sure to be broken; he perceives that Antony should fight on land, rather than risking a naval battle at Actium, and that if he does fight at Actium, the last thing he should do is take Cleopatra along to spectate. But Antony, of course, does so anyway. Seeing his master’s fortunes turned around, and inevitable defeat facing the Egyptian lovers, Enobarbus who, like most soldiers, is a realist by training, makes the decision to defect to Caesar’s company. But in what is simultaneously his tragic flaw and his saving grace, he can’t live with himself afterwards. To turn from the beauty and romance of Egypt to the solemn and ordered ranks of Rome; from the impetuous trust of Antony to the suspicion and neglect of Caesar is too much for him. When Antony, in a magnanimous gesture, sends after him the treasure Enobarbus abandoned in his escape, he becomes so ashamed he resolves to ‘go seek / Some ditch wherein to die: the foul’st best fits / My latter part of life.’ His final speech runs thus:

O sovereign mistress of true melancholy,
The poisonous damp of night disponge upon me,
That life, a very rebel to my will,
May hang no longer on me: throw my heart
Against the flint and hardness of my fault:
Which, being dried with grief, will break to powder,
And finish all foul thoughts. O Antony,
Nobler than my revolt is infamous,
Forgive me in thine own particular;
But let the world rank me in register
A master-leaver and a fugitive:
O Antony! O Antony!

Calling upon his master, he sinks down and dies. A master-leaver and a fugitive he may think himself – yet what I like best about him is that the realist and the poet contend in him, and though the realist gets the upper hand for a time, the poet eventually wins. To die, as Cleopatra recognises, is far better than to be carried back to Rome by Caesar as an ignominious token of victory. Even by dying of shame, Enobarbus affirms adventure and romance over mean profit-seeking, and though his death cannot match the awful tableau of Antony and Cleopatra’s finale, one feels he too is entitled to the queen’s aching lament over her departed lover.

Oh, withered is the garland of the war.
The soldier’s pole is fall’n! Young boys and girls
Are level now with men. The odds is gone,
And there is nothing left remarkable
Beneath the visiting moon.

Hearts and Hand Grenades

cowleyRecently, I was reading Samuel Johnson’s splendid Life of Abraham Cowley, a minor poet of the English Civil War, wherein he takes to task the whole school of metaphysical poets of which Cowley was a part, a school which includes John Donne, Andrew Marvell and John Cleveland, for their use of far-fetched and disparate images. One passage of Cowley which he particularly censures against as ‘grossly absurd, and such as no figures or license can reconcile to the understanding’ runs

Woe to her stubborn heart, if once mine come
Into the self-same room,
‘Twill tear and blow up all within,
Like a grenado shot into a magazine.
Then shall Love keep the ashes, and torn parts
Of both our broken hearts,
Shall out of both one new one make;
From hers, the allay; from mine, the metal take.

American Idiot

Johnson isn’t wrong in finding these verses to be absolutely terrible poetry. Yet the poem’s central image, which he treated with such derision, has gone on to bedeck the cover of a best-selling album, and can now be found on posters, stencils, tattoos and accessories. It is in fact one of the most instantly recognisable images of the past decade.

In his famous essay on the metaphysical poets, T.S. Eliot presents the case for a strong relationship between metaphysical and modernist poetry, arguing that “the poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning. Hence we get something which looks very much like the conceit – we get, in fact, a method curiously similar to that of the ‘metaphysical poets’ “. I fancy the old elitist would have been horrified if he could have seen how far away from the difficult and exclusive world of modernist poetry and into popular culture the influence of the metaphysical poets would extend.

The City of Dreadful Night


Lo, thus, as prostrate, “In the dust I write
My heart’s deep languor and my soul’s sad tears.”
Yet why evoke the spectres of black night
To blot the sunshine of exultant years?
Why disinter dead faith from mouldering hidden?
Why break the seals of mute despair unbidden,
And wail life’s discords into careless ears?

So begins James Thomson’s The City of Dreadful Night, a work with justifiable pretence to the title of the most depressing poem ever written. Throughout its 21 separate sections it fleshes out an urban nightmare – a lifeless city of perpetual darkness illuminated only through the baleful glare of street lamps, along the streets of which lost souls wander aimlessly, each weighed down by their own tragedies. It is a place where the poet’s own alcoholism and depression, interlocked with the poverty and inequality of Victorian London, becomes solidified in bricks and mortar. No resolution or glimpse of a happy ending is offered, and at the close of the poems alternating sections of tragic narrative and Gothic description, Thomson leaves us only with ‘confirmation of the old despair.’ As far as I know, it is the only poem ever to advocate mass suicide:

They leave all hope behind who enter there:
One certitude while sane they cannot leave,
One anodyne for torture and despair;
The certitude of Death, which no reprieve
Can put off long; and which, divinely tender,
But waits the outstretched hand to promptly render
That draught whose slumber nothing can bereave.

Perversely, I love it. I must have read it twenty times over, and no matter how miserable, worthless and forlorn I feel at the time I pick up the book, by the time I put it down I always feel that perhaps my life really isn’t quite that unbearable after all. The world seems a brighter place in comparison with the gloom of the City, and after bearing with the unnameable sins and sorrows of the characters for a thousand lines or so, my heart leaps with catharsis. Not only that, but much of the poem’s violent atheist rhetoric is enjoyable and intensely quotable.

“The vilest thing must be less vile than Thou
From whom it had its being, God and Lord!
Creator of all woe and sin! abhorred,
Malignant and implacable! I vow

“That not for all Thy power furled and unfurled,
For all the temples to Thy glory built,
Would I assume the ignominious guilt
Of having made such men in such a world.”

“As if a being, God or Fiend, could reign,
At once so wicked, foolish and insane,
As to produce men when He might refrain!

A more pungent antidote to the mellifluous platitudes of Victorian religious verse cannot be imagined!

Its extremism offends perhaps as much as it entertains, but it is a helpful extremism, a place which marks the far end of the scale of disillusionment on which we all have to live. Somewhere between the rose-tinted glasses, and Thomson’s ‘bitter, old and wrinkled truth’, we have to strike a balance. The City of Dreadful Night is a warning not to slide too far to one end of the scale, and let your worldview become an unbearable trap. Even Thomson himself was happy for a good deal of his life, and other’s among his collected poems, such as ‘Sunday Up the River’ are joyous celebrations of bourgeois domesticity. Unsurprisingly, they don’t exact the same pull as the great gloomy Gothic edifice of his most famous work.

I have never believed in Thomson’s City to the extent that I have been prepared to throw myself off a bridge, but I have found the scale of disillusionment has tipping his way more than once. Here, for example, is a recording of Part IV of The City of Dreadful Night I made some years ago while suffering from a broken heart and an extremely bad cold:

City of Dreadful Night Part IV

The Thirty-Three Happy Moments

Of all the books on my shelves, one of the ones I’m fondest of is also one of the shabbiest. It’s a small, gunmetal grey volume about the size of an old tobacco tin, heavily creased up and down the spine. It’s called ‘The Knapsack’.

Even if it were not a proverbial sin to judge a book by its cover, the utilitarian appearance of my volume is easily excused by the fact it was designed as an anthology of prose and verse for the use of servicemen in World War Two. My secondhand copy advertises itself in the inside cover as belonging to an E. Riley of Hull; there’s no indication whether E. Riley ever served in the war, or carried it into action, but I like to think he did, and while away my time imagining the battles and foreign fields this shabby volume was borne through.

The anthology, as edited by Herbert Read, has an understandably martial and Christian theme to it in many of its sections, but it is very rarely less than entertaining. As the original vehicle for introducing me to the wild and Celtic wanderings of the Irish Saint Brandon, to the ancient ballad of Chevy Chase and the beautiful lyrics of Shelley, it has a place in my heart – but what really won me over are the half-dozen pages in the back reserved for ‘Notes and Additions’.

One of my favourite items is ‘The Thirty-Three Happy Moments‘ of Chin Sheng’tan. The story of its composition is a simple one. It was a rainy day in 17th century China, and the playwright Chin found himself shut indoors with a friend. To while away the monotony of their seclusion, Chin began to compose a list of the truly happy moments in his life. They are an entertainingly varied selection, ranging from the worthy and spiritual:

I am not a saint, and am therefore not without sin. In the night I did something wrong and I get up in the morning and feel extremely ill at ease about it. Suddenly I remember what is taught by Buddhism, that not to cover one’s sins is the same as repentance. So then I begin to tell my sin to the entire company around, whether they are strangers or my old friends. Ah, is this not happiness?

to the pleasures of the flesh:

To keep three or four spots of eczema in a private part of my body and now and then to scald or bathe it with hot water behind closed doors. Ah, is this not happiness?

And including both selfless actions:

I have nothing to do after a meal and try to go through the things in some old trunks. I see there are dozens or hundreds of IOUs from people who owe my family money. Some of them are dead and some still living, but in any case there is no hope of their returning the money. Behind people’s backs I put them together in a pile and make a bonfire of them, and I look up to the sky and see the last trace of smoke disappear. Ah, is this not happiness?

And the delights of schadenfreude:

To see someone’s kiteline broken. Ah, is this not happiness?

To say more would be to deluge my article in quotations, and spoil the pleasure of reading The Thirty-three Happy Moments through properly. Suffice to say, I found Chin Sheng’tan’s work both amusing and inspirational. I have always been guilty of finding happiness in the little things, in the sly moments of creeping contentment rather than in great acts and crowning achievements. Here was a work that celebrated precisely those moments of joy – often small and silly and insignificant, but not the less joyous for that. In my notebooks and facebook statuses, I began compiling my own small list:

To eat a piping hot bowl osoupf soup on a cold and drizzly day. Ah, is this not happiness?

A few nights ago, I got so drunk I cannot remember what took place after a certain point in the evening. I worry that I spoke or acted rashly, and may have given offence to someone. Days later, I meet someone who was there, who assures me that I offended no-one, and that I am always fun and pleasant when I’m drunk. Ah, is this not happiness?

Comfortably finishing a book in a single sitting. Ah, is this not happiness?

I am riding my bicycle on a chill winters night, a few days after the Christmas lights have been switched of. The headwind pushes against my chest like an ice cold current, but I am too caught up in my own speed to care. Ah, is this not happiness?

I have discovered a bee in my kitchen on a sunny day. While I am still hunting around for something in which to trap it, it flied casually out of the door into the garden of its own accord. Ah, is this not happiness?

To watch McLintock! with a really good whisky. Ah, is this not happiness?mclintock

Bathing in a stream on a hot summer’s day, I decide to risk my neck sliding down a series of waterfalls. I end up in a bruised but exhilerated heap at the bottom, and acquire a limp for the next several days – but this is a small price to pay for the experience and the anecdote. Ah, is this not happiness?

It is the first really hot day of the year. I have taken advantage of the informality of the occasion to wear shorts. As my friends sweat in their thick trousers, a cool breeze rustles around my knees. Ah, is this not happiness?

To walk across a playing field in the summertime, while the swifts flit in endless circles around you. Ah, is this not happiness?

To visit your favourite pub on a Friday night, and find it doesn’t close until two am. Ah, is this not happiness?

To go climbing in good company; to lose all the skin from your hands in the pursuit of a worthy sport; and to return home to liver and onions and mustard mashed potato. Ah, is this not happiness?