Category Archives: green and pleasant

Off a-mollocking

Pardon the long silence. I’ve got a post planned and another started, but today I want to ask a trivial but urgent question: why adapt Jamaica Inn? Specifically, why would you adapt Jamaica Inn for TV if you’re completely out of sympathy with the book, or (more charitably) believe your audience will be completely out of sympathy with it?

I’d never read any Daphne du Maurier (or wanted to), but I was a bit short of light reading when the BBC’s adaptation of Jamaica Inn loomed up in the schedules, so I read it over the weekend. It’s a good read, if not always a comfortable one. The first thing to say about it is that atmosphere is everything. From the first chapter the book sets up a very strong opposition between the determined but powerless virtue of the heroine Mary Yellan and the uncontrolled brutality of the huge, violent inn-keeper Joss Flynn; the sickening fear that Mary will be drawn into his power through no fault of her own, and will be broken by him, is set up even before the two have met. There’s a lot more in the book – the romantic fiction sub-plot revolving around the dominating and devil-may-care Jem (“I’ll … take you home to your aunt, but I’ll kiss you first, whether you like it or not”); the excursions into Mary Webb territory, with odd meditations on the pagan past and bursts of nature mysticism; the strange but apparently sympathetic figure of Francis Davey, albino intellectual vicar. But, like Davey’s paintings, it’s all coloured by a strange and compellingly doomy atmosphere, a sense of a virtuous and independent-minded heroine who is threatened with being destroyed and has no power to resist.

To say that somebody could be ‘destroyed’ is obviously figurative – and there is a persistent, unspecific sense that something very bad is likely to happen to Mary. But Du Maurier does something rather clever at this point: she has Joss threaten Mary quite specifically, both with physical violence and with rape, and then tell her that he won’t be carrying out the threat. The reasons he gives for staying his hand vary – at one point it’s because she knows to keep her mouth shut about what goes on at the inn, at another it’s because he likes her independent spirit; obviously, this gives Mary a deeply mixed message. He underlines the point by having Mary work in the bar – which comes to life once a week, in a hellish vision of (male) violence and dissolution – and then telling her that he was the only thing keeping her safe: “Because you’re my niece they’ve left you alone, my dear, but if you hadn’t had that honour – by God, there wouldn’t be much left of you now!” Joss has the delicacy of an abuser, working away to undermine his target’s independence and ensnare her in contradictions (he holds back because he respects her independence, but she’s only independent for as long as he holds back). He’s also a brute, in word and deed (“Now get out, and if you ever ask me a question again I’ll break every bone in your body”). He’s an extraordinary character, and not without a ghastly kind of pathos.

Joss’s violence threatens to destroy Mary not only as a romantic heroine but as an independent person (“I’ll break you until you eat out of my hand the same as your aunt yonder”). The cowed, neurotic figure of Aunt Patience is an object lesson for Mary – this is what she could be reduced to. Patience also provides Mary with a reason to stay at Jamaica Inn until such time as she can get her away – although it’s not clear, to Mary or to us, how she could ever manage this. The threat to Mary’s independence and self-respect is all-pervading; even Jem, whose male power is depicted as alluring rather than threatening, talks of sex in terms of destroying Mary’s individuality: “Do they make you different from other women, then, down on Helford river? Stay here with me tonight, Mary, and we can find out. You’d be like the rest by the time morning came, I’d take my oath on that.” Later in the book, when Mary narrowly escapes being raped and is bound and gagged by two different people, spending most of one crucial scene face down on a beach, the irruption of actual brutality doesn’t come as a surprise; it’s the breaking of a thundercloud which has been building up for two-thirds of the book.

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned smuggling – or the worse crimes of which Joss is also guilty, a darker secret lurking behind the relatively open secret of the wagons unloading at midnight. The smuggling is actually fairly incidental to the book: all that matters is that there’s something very bad going on at Jamaica Inn (something which everybody there can see but nobody must talk about), and behind that there’s something even worse (a dreadful secret, kept hidden behind a locked door). Joss is at the core of the book: first he’s set up as a monster of psychological abuse and physical brutality, then he’s depicted in his element, as the landlord of an inn which is only ever frequented by people equally grotesque. The smuggling is part manifestation of Joss’s monstrosity, part answer to the question “how does he make it pay?”.

It’s a very powerful book, but – it’s worth saying – it’s also a very odd book. Until the denouement opens the plot out a bit, only six named characters appear, Mary apart – and five of them are out-and-out grotesques. (The exception is Squire Bassat, the magistrate and sole local representative of law and order, who is at once distant, ineffectual and threatening: when he visits the inn in Joss’s absence, Mary finds herself lying to him, her desire to protect Aunt Patience pushing her further into complicity with Joss.) It’s a vivid study of brutality – psychological as well as physical – and of a certain kind of abjection, both of which are very strongly gendered: throughout the book Mary dreams of buying her own farm and working it alone, “like a man”. One way of understanding the book is perhaps to see it as a fantastic, almost fairy-tale meditation on the conditions for women’s independence in a male-built world – much more of a real possibility when Du Maurier was writing in 1935 than in the book’s early-nineteenth-century setting, but still far from being a problem that had been solved.

If you watched the first part of the BBC dramatisation last night, you won’t have seen very much of this at all. What you will have seen is this. (Italics = element not in the book.)

After her mother’s death, Mary Yellan leaves behind her childhood sweetheart Ned and travels to Jamaica Inn. At the coach’s final stop before crossing the moor, she leaves the coach and bumps into Jem Flynn, a handsome young horse thief. The coachman refuses to take her to Jamaica Inn, so she asks around until she find somebody who will. At Jamaica Inn, her aunt and uncle are not expecting her. Joss Merlyn, her aunt’s husband, is a relatively small and nondescript man with a powerful physical presence. “Is she tame or does she bite?” he asks rhetorically; Mary bites him. Her Aunt Patience is a faded beauty with a spirited and independent nature, although she admits to being frightened of Joss. She is actively involved in Joss’s smuggling operation and justifies it to Mary; Mary disapproves of smuggling because her father was killed by smugglers. Serving at the bar, Mary hears one of Joss’s customers, a man called Zeb, sing a dirty song under his breath while following her around the room; the man tries to rape her and is prevented by Joss. Later, Mary sees Joss murder a man called Abe, an associate who is suspected of informing on him; Joss is reluctant to kill the man, but does so on the instructions of a third man, who is hiding in the store cupboard. The following day, Joss, Patience and some associates make a trip to the coast (in daylight) to retrieve some merchandise which has been thrown overboard; Mary goes along and takes an active part in the salvage operation, hauling on a rope at the head of a group of men. Mary goes to the nearest town and looks for a constable, but is dismayed to find that the local constable is Zeb, the man who had tried to rape her. She finds herself in the local church, where she meets the Reverend Francis Davey, who has a pleasant manner and an unremarkable appearance; he lives with his sister Hannah (their housekeeper, Beth, is the girlfriend of William, the man who had arranged for the merchandise to be thrown overboard). The vicar is called away to speak to a parishioner whose husband Abe had not come home the previous night. On the way home Mary runs into Jem, who rescues her from a bog when she blunders into it…

Enough already. Really, it’s an adaptation in much the same sense that Fifty Shades is an adaptation of the Twilight books. The writer seems to have had a positive compulsion to change the book – altering everything from tiny details (Aunt Patience not having got Mary’s letter) to characters (spirited Patience, conscience-striken Joss, philanthropic Francis Davey). Entire scenes have been invented without regard to plausibility: it’s specifically stated in the book that smugglers don’t collect contraband mob-handed and in broad daylight; Mary, a Cornish native but a newcomer to Jamaica Inn, does have the sense not to wander into a bog but doesn’t know the way back to town. The adaptation even short-circuits a major plot point: the idea that Joss is taking orders from somebody else is floated a couple of times but never seems very believable; it is only confirmed that he had been taking orders when the identity of his boss is revealed, and (in the book) both revelations are equally shocking. (In the book, incidentally, Joss has sole responsibility for the murder; the victim is not a suspected informer but an unnamed man who wanted out of his partnership with Joss. Mary only has circumstantial evidence that the murder happened at all, and nobody else ever refers to it.)

The result is a dramatisation with too much plot, too many characters and too little atmosphere – and a disastrously misjudged reading of the character of Mary. In the book, Mary’s passivity is key to both her virtue and her weakness -attributes which in turn are central to her character: she stays behind the bar, she refuses to have anything to do with anything illegal, and when she does venture out of the inn she’s forever getting picked up by a man in a coach and ending up where he wants to take her. Mary striding through a landscape of thinly-drawn but vaguely believeable characters – instead of a gallery of brutal and mostly nameless grotesques – is bad enough, but the real problem with this adaptation is that it has Mary striding anywhere. The book is all about a helpless but virtuous woman who can only dream of being independent, and the men who – brutally and subtly, viciously and sympathetically – arrange her life around her so that she can never achieve that dream. Lose that and you’ve basically lost the book.

Update The second instalment was, if anything, even less faithful to the book: in the first quarter of an hour there was only one scene that came from the book at all (Mary confides in Francis Davey that bad things are happening at the inn), and even that was barely recognisable. Some of the set-piece scenes were there – Joss’s horrific account of wrecking, Mary’s meal with Jem, the trip to Launceston – but even here fidelity to the book was kept to a bare minimum. (“I thought you had a house,” said Mary to Jem as they sat outside his tent in the woods. You’re not the only one.) The revelation of the identity of the Big Bad, Joss’s unseen superior – a genuinely shocking moment in the book – was thrown away; a weirdly irrelevant sub-plot about Francis Davey running a soup-kitchen was bolted on, as well as a downright unbelievable sub-plot about Mary’s father having also been a smuggler. (Aunt Patience is Mary’s mother’s sister; Mary and her mother were from a completely different part of the county. The women in that family must just have had a thing for smugglers). Above all, the character of Mary rang false, over and over again – and in the same way. In the book, Mary didn’t respond to Joss’s confession with anger and defiance; she didn’t tell Jem to serve himself (in fact she cooked the meal herself, after sweeping up); she didn’t kiss Jem first; she didn’t agree to get a room with him; and she certainly didn’t dress in breeches for the trip to Launceston. (And when she was frocked up, it seems highly unlikely that she would have ridden astride.)

I suppose I can understand somebody reading Jamaica Inn and finding Mary a bit wet and domesticated, but at the end of the day it’s what’s on the page – and with good reason. You can’t replace Mary with an Independent Woman without losing any claim to historical accuracy, or – more importantly – without doing violence to the entire structure of the book.

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Who’s the fool now?

“There’s only one thing worse than a folk singer, and that’s a Stalinist folk singer.” – Ian Birchall

Hmm.

Several years ago I was enthusiastically involved in getting Red Pepper to publish a piece by Steve Higginson (of the estimable Soulpool), demolishing the myth of progressive, national-popular folk music.

When we look at the various collectors, mediators and transmitters of folk song, we are not talking about the sons and daughters of the downtrodden proletariat. We are dealing with a group of people who did what radical intellectuals have always done: tell us what is good for us … Folk music was invented, altered, or expunged and re-written based on the collector’s conception of what working people should have been singing. … Meanwhile, another kind of folk music – the music that the “folk” themselves listened to and identified with – was belittled and ignored.

It got a bigger reaction than anything else in the cultural pages that year. Mostly, it has to be said, not positive. Still, I liked it. Apart from anything else, it confirmed my gut feeling that awkward, scruffy music that’s directly inspiring and culturally assertive is more radical – as well as being more fun – than a tidy three chords with a political message. I’ll take the Clash (or the Mondays, or the Fugees) over Leon Rosselson, any day of the week. This isn’t to say that Leon Rosselson sings what working people should have been singing, any more than Roy Harper or James Blunt does: as Rob says in comments, his songs are all his own and don’t pretend to be anything else. But what I think radical singer-songwriters can often be accused of is singing what working people should have been thinking. This is where the post-Cecil Sharp tradition of well-meaning song-collecting connects up with the radical (or at least Communist) tradition of agit-song: the song has to say the right thing, which inevitably means limited scruffiness and high predictability. Sometimes, to say a song has a radical edge seems to mean that everything else about it has been polished smooth.

So I might be tempted to agree with Birchall, were it not that I’m now a folk singer myself (at least, I’m a regular at the local folk club). I don’t think traditional music is especially true and pure and proletarian; I do think it’s reached me by a different route from the music of Kylie or Arctic Monkeys, and a route that involves a lot less centralisation and a lot less commerce. I don’t think singing without amplification is a sanctified relic of an unspoilt past; I do think it’s more direct, more immediate and more involving than amplified music. (You can’t talk over it, apart from anything else.) And I don’t think folk is the Art-Form of the People; but I do think it’s an art-form made by people, and specifically people who I might see in the street or on the bus the following day. I think all of these are good things; even if Frank Sinatra was proved to be more of a working-class hero than Woody Guthrie, they’d still be good things.

Apart from that, when I talk about folk music I doubt that Birchall and I are talking about the same thing. Personally I’m thinking of my local folk club, which has an eclectic floor policy; the MC may at some time have turned away some aspiring performer as inappropriate, but if so I don’t know what they were planning to play. I’ve heard piano there and harmonium (performer’s own), as well as mandolin, banjo, pipes (both bag and bellow), double bass, didgeridoo and on one occasion a trumpet. People play from sheet music; sometimes people read poems.

We don’t get many message songs down there, but we do occasionally hit the broader problem of predictability – knowing where the song’s going, and how it’s going to get there, the moment it starts. To put it another way, it does sometimes get a bit Radio 2. I think of it like this:

Level Type Description
1 The Trier Turns up, has a bash, gets polite applause
2 The Regular Turns up week after week, can be relied on to put a bit of thought into it & do something listenable
3 The Real Thing Actually good enough to get paid for this stuff
4 The Pro Nice songs, nice performance. Very consistent, very professional.
5 The Star Jaw-droppingly brilliant. Everyone should be listening to this stuff. No, really.

The consistent, dependable Pros have their fans – they wouldn’t do it otherwise – but personally I think it’s a wrong turning; think KT Tunstall as opposed to King Creosote (although KT’s new album is supposed to be a bit of a return to form). In the absence of Stars I much prefer the edgier, more unpredictable Real Things and Regulars. Of whom there is, at least in this neck of the woods, a plentiful supply.

So, yes, some folkies – some singer-songwriters, to be more precise – get a bit samey, whether they’re carrying political baggage or not; but no, this isn’t true of all of them (or rather us). And yes, some inflated and problematic claims have been made for folk music, particularly regarding its class basis; but no, this doesn’t mean that folk music has no distinctive value. The point is not to set up Elvis against Pete Seeger or Guthrie against Sinatra, but to step away from the CD rack and look at the conditions in which folk music is played and heard. So get down that folk club. (Only not ours – at least, not all at once. I had a hell of a time finding somewhere to sit last week.)

Next: the radical case for Morris dancing.

And when I have destroyed you

This is the country where I grew up:

The half-sheet of neatly typed paper is still where it has been for the last 40 years, tucked under the perspex cover of a map table in an underground operations room beneath a nondescript suburb of York.”Thirty minutes after the above occurrence the DC is to check Display A to see if the burst designation has been underlined in Yellow Chinagraph pencil, indicating that the first and/or amended communication has been incorporated in a MIDDD BB message. If not, enquiries are to be initiated to rectify the omission.”

If there had been a failure in the yellow pencil department, that would probably have been because the observers who phoned in reports of nuclear bombs falling on the moors and dales of Yorkshire, and the operators who took the messages in the bunker, were all dead.

“This bunker was designed to contain a full complement of 60 people for up to a fortnight, but it couldn’t have withstood a direct blast or even one reasonably nearby,” said Kevin Booth, curator of the building, whose steel door will soon be thrown open to the curious for the first time. “It’s perhaps just as well it was never tested to destruction, because I’m not sure how well it would all have worked.”

It’s all there. There’s the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation, coupled with the (well-founded) suspicion that the government’s main priority in responding to this threat would be to ensure that its own bolt-holes were in working order. I was too young for the first Cold War (although I heard great things about the destruction of RSG 6), but in the 1980s Protect and Survive made radicals of us all – and War Plan UK made a lot of us into conspiracy theorists. Then there’s the atmosphere of insanely detailed bureaucracy and jobsworthery (enquiries are to be initiated, indeed) – and that’s coupled with the lingering suspicion that none of it, when push came to shove, would have actually worked.

It was a strange country, Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. I miss it, sometimes.

There’s more on the Holgate bunker here (visiting times) and here (pictures); this page has more about English Heritage’s bunker estate (and there’s a phrase I never expected to write).

Some things remain from that distant post-war landscape. There’s the pottering enthusiasm of bright-eyed antiquarians like Kevin Booth; small-town museums, bookshops and tourist attractions have been staffed by people like him for as long as I can remember, and it’s good to hear that a relic of the Cold War will receive the same kind of care. And there’s understatement – blessed British understatement.

“It’s perhaps just as well it was never tested to destruction, because I’m not sure how well it would all have worked.”

I do like that ‘perhaps’.

The shapes between us

Peter Campbell writes in the current LRB:

Inanimate things in museums – teacups from which no one drinks, pictures which will never again be bought and sold – can, as much as stuffed animals, make one think sadly of the time when they were alive. Modern curators know this and spend much time and money avoiding notions of dust, death and mummification. Even art museums do not cram everything in the reserve collection onto the walls. But in avoiding the confusion, heterogeneity and abundance of old-style museums like the Pitt Rivers in Oxford, some of what they shared with the street has gone: an ability to feed the imagination with unexplained, comical, sinister and melancholy juxtapositions, for example – the aspect of collecting the Surrealists exploited.

A well-designed and artistically curated set of exhibits, in other words, enables the viewer to experience the exhibition as a whole, rather than being constantly interrupted by lacrimae rerum for the lost use-value of each individual exhibit. However, in the exhibition that this form of curation creates – a single-minded, smoothly articulated conglomerate – more is lost than a melancholy evocation of the exhibits’ past life. This kind of exhibition turns the viewer into a passive spectator, receiving and absorbing an achieved whole rather than responding imaginatively to an assembly of disjointed parts.

This critique, it seems to me, is not that far from Adina‘s review of Walk the Line:

the unimaginative or condescending literalness of the movie is a good reminder of what I can’t stand about Hollywood style. It’s not hatred of emotion, or even melodrama. I loved Farewell My Concubine, which featured a damaged artist, unrequited love, drug addiction fueled by rejection, beautiful photography, and plenty of tragedy per foot of celluloid. The bits that the viewer needs to infer make all the difference.

Or, for that matter, Ellis’s argument here:

The first author opens up the thoughts of both his characters. Everything is controlled and explained. Meaning is processed for the reader. When the character speaks in German, she then helpfully provides an instant translation into English. The first author duly goes on to supply the reader with a sex scene.The second author seems about to supply a sex scene, then abruptly and unexpectedly denies that readerly expectation. Sketches displace sexual intercourse. Looking at sketches and making more sketches becomes more attractive than sex. What the woman thinks of this is withheld from the reader. We remain inside a single mind. There are no judgements made for us about the state of this mind. The reader has to process the writing and discover for herself where the meaning lies.

There is a difference in these two passages, I think, between writing (conventional, conformist, explanatory, offering the warmth of familiarity and shared values) and literature (incomplete, resonant, resisting familiarity and a single dimension of meaning).

(You’ll have to read the post to find out who the two writers are.)

The bits that the viewer needs to infer make all the difference. The meaning’s in the gaps – at least, that’s where you’re being treated as a thinking being, a participant in communication (which is always imperfect) and not a spectator of composed images.

Under the mirror

Not so much a Googlism, more a Google.co.uk-ism (thanks to Mr Bartlett for the inspiration).

What could be more British than…

the quintessential Village Inn
a sweet cup of tea
Heinz Baked Beans
the zebra-crossing
fair play
a young builder sharing a fish and chips supper with his girlfriend
Thousands of people camped out in the mild evenings drinking tea
a nice cup of tea
roast beef with all the trimmings followed by apple pie
fish and chips
a gastro pub, situated in the heart of London’s East End
a garden, to remember the 67 British victims of September 11th
cheese and chutney sandwiches
The Times or The Sun
a jolly old picnic in a park
the Royal Family
“Here’s a picture of my bum”
Newcastle
marching peacefully through London
war, spies, betrayal
a breakfast of bacon and eggs
the Vulcan
A fillet of haddock in crispy batter, served with chips and peas (mushy if you prefer)
a Curry
the red, white and blue rosette of the British Motor Corporation
fish and chips, donkey rides, Ovaltine and Bingo
a cup of sweet tea
the old “working class hero” routine
Stoic, restrained, humorous, lousy teeth
real ale
a pint of beer
tea and scones
Huge bosoms, pert bottoms, and lots of innuendo
the sight of a cricket bat in the boot of a Jag
“Bloody Hell”
communing with God in a garden
a story about a Scotland Yard inspector investigating the murder of a star soccer player
inventing a sport, and then losing at it to every other nation for centuries afterwards
a long wheelbase Jaguar
the Henry Moore Statues ‘Double Oval’ and ‘Oval with Points’
Lawn Bowling and Afternoon Tea
a Mini
the Big Garden Birdwatch
muscular Islam
a good old motorway
a car that lends itself to having the Union Jack painted on its roof
total lack of enthusiasm
the National dish of England, Chicken Madras
hanging painted wooden or ceramic ducks on the wall
the ultimate symbols of the monarchy, the Crown Jewels
Michael Caine
an Indian banquet
the traditional “cuppa”
“doughy and bland”
an Oxford Companion to JMW Turner
Ealing Studios
a symbol of Britannia carrying a shield that clearly shows the Union flag motif
to have your Mini painted in the red white and blue colours of the Union Flag
Roger Moore in a safari suit
to enjoy a cup of tea
a record of Rolf Harris’s “Two Little Boys”
Goodbye to Berlin, Women in Love, The Heart of the Matter or A Passage to India
British Airways, Rover cars and Moss Bros
blue jeans and a tan pork pie hat
tea

Rather a lot of food and drink in there, wouldn’t you say? Fish and chips, real ale, and of course a nice cup of tea – can’t beat it. (Bill Bryson said that one of the things that first struck him about the British was our ability to get “genuinely excited at the prospect of a hot drink”. Well, yes and no, Bill. We get genuinely excited at the prospect of a nice cup of tea.)

Being the artsy-bloody-fartsy type, I was also reminded of T.S. Eliot, who wrote this about ‘culture’ in 1948:

It includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people: Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth-century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar.

As Raymond Williams noted ten years later, “This pleasant miscellany is evidently narrower in kind than the general description which precedes it. The ‘characteristic activities and interests’ would also include steelmaking, touring in motor-cars, mixed farming, the Stock Exchange, coalmining and London Transport.” (What could be more British than coalmining?) “Any list would be incomplete, but Eliot’s categories are sport, food and a little art – a characteristic observation of English leisure.” It’s a good argument, but fifty years on the folksonomic zeitgeist of Google tends to agree with Eliot: food, sport and a little art, plus cars, protest, a total lack of enthusiasm and Newcastle. Nice to see protest coming up as part of the national character, mind you – better that than Henley.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Google’s view of English culture isn’t very different, although there’s less about cars and more about gardening. Oh, and buggery:

Gilbert and Sullivan
afternoon tea
fine fabrics and fibers [sic]
a fish and chip shop
consort music
Dr. Doolittle
to see THE QUEEN in all her royal gloriousness
an exhibition of original Flower Fairies watercolours
marching peacefully from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square
a country church with a tower
a laburnum in full flow
Sunday dinner with the vicar
A man dressed in medieval costume emblazoned with the cross of St.George
rain
Gardens and tea
Shakespeare
a lazy Sunday afternoon watching cricket on the village green
Steak and Kidney Pudding
drinking imported German lager and tucking into a plate of chicken and chips
beginning a meal with a chilled soup made with fresh strawberries
feeling too diffident to complain
Tea and scones overlooking Kensington Gardens
a fried breakfast
buggery and croquet
Curry houses
a Peter Noone song with a corny, contrived introduction
a May Day Bank Holiday Brass Band Concert
a pink rose
Terence Stamp
good old-fashioned boarding-school style buggery
poking fun at Americans

Poking fun at Americans? Wouldn’t dream of it. Purely by way of contrast with the previous two lists, here’s what Google thinks is typically American:

the gold rush
a Beer run
apple pie
baseball and apple pie
a can of Campbell’s soup
a marketplace
blue jeans
buying the best
standing up and saying “no, not in my name you don’t”
an African-music concert in an Irish/Italian neighborhood
migrating to a thinly-settled area to experiment with liberty
blatantly trying to get money out of a tragedy
blowing stuff up
the idea of a second chance, a fresh start, Act Two
a barbeque
doing our best to abide by the law
choice
an afternoon at a Braves game
the automobile
the dollar bill itself
the lawsuit
kids
Easy Rider
money
the eternal optimism that we can always improve our lot
the saying “you can’t stop progress.”
a trial by media
a composer grounded in Hollywood, but who has belatedly rediscovered his concert music identity
a tailgating party at a football game
equating second place with failure
Michael Moore
small-town citizens coming together to solve problems by consensus
a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air
a vote
an Oreo
baseball
Columbus Day
Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life
mud wrestling
standing up for the Constitution
reaping just rewards for your own labor
a history textbook that decides, halfway through, to be a detective novel instead
betting $1 million on the flop of a single card
corn growing on an Iowa farm
a hotly contested college football game between division rivals
the right to choose for oneself
the American Red Cross
Little League
watching commercials
pizza
baseball, hot dogs, and the Fourth of July
a fun-filled day at the park
suing the bastards
giving people a second chance
protesting and exercising our rights
raping the expressive and unique nature of a foreign culture for material gain
the socialist goals of social justice, equality of opportunity, economic security, and peace
Guns and money
fair play
pro-choice
baseball, hot dogs, and the Democratic Party
the flag
french-fries and hamburgers
democracy
pie

Phew. Tea, anyone?

What I tell you three times is true

Ellis Sharp, whose Marxist surrealist fiction deserves better than lazy tags like ‘Marxist surrealist’, has a fascinating post here about Robert Lowell’s poem “The Fens”. It’s a short poem, so I’ll include it here:

The Fens
(After Cobbett)

From Crowland to St. Edmund’s to Ipswich
The fens are level as a drawing board:
Great bowling greens divided by a ditch –
The grass as thick as grows on ground. The Lord
High Sheriff settles here, as on a sea,
When the parochial calm of sunset chills
The world to its four corners. And the hills
Are green with hops and harvest, and a bitch
Spuddles about a vineyard on a tree;

Here everything grows well. Here the fat land
Has no stone bigger than a ladybug,
No milkweed or wild onion can withstand
The sheriff’s men, and sunlight sweats the slug.
Here the rack-renting system has its say:
At nightfall sheep as fat as hogs shall lie
Heaped on the mast and corncobs of the sty
And they will rise and take the landlord’s hand;
The bailiff bears the Bell, the Bell, away.

From Robert Lowell’s second collection ‘Lord Weary’s Castle’ (1946)

There’s nothing much I can add to Ellis’s discussion of the poem’s language, its politics, its roots in Cobbett’s writing and his politics. But I can throw some light on that mysterious last line, which – with its onomatopoeic repetition of “the Bell” and that weird, mythic capitalisation – seems to evoke everything from the Bells of Aberdovey to Lewis Carroll’s Bellman. Ellis:

The landowners rule the Fens through their complete social control and their lackeys. The bailiff is the sheriff’s agent. To bear the bell means to take the prize. (The notes to the ‘Collected Poems’ say of this line: “See the anonymous ballad ‘The Baily Beareth the Bell Away’”, but what you see when you do isn’t explained. This is irritating since none of the ballad collections I’ve consulted contain it.)

In an online nursery rhyme collection, I’ve found a piece titled “The Bailiff Beareth”:

The bailiff beareth the bell away,
The lily, the rose, the rose I lay,
The silver is white, red is the gold,
The robes they lay in fold;
The bailiff beareth the bell away,
The lily, the rose, the rose I lay;
And through the glass window
Shines the sun.
How should I love and I so young?
The bailiff beareth the bell away,
The lily, the rose, the rose I lay.

And so it ends. I don’t know if it’s a fragment of a longer piece; I certainly don’t know what it’s ‘about’. It is an extraordinary piece of writing: a kind of verbal stained-glass window pieced together out of luminous, resonant images, and written almost entirely in the kind of poetically heightened language which has always seemed archaic but never actually been in common use (“pass us my robes, love, it’s time I was off to lay the lily and the rose”). Perhaps it’s about a girl being given in marriage and seeing herself as property being confiscated from her family home. Or perhaps that’s an over-intellectual reading, and it’s simply ‘about’ the lily and the rose, silver and gold, the window and the sun – and the sad alliterative fall of the bailiff bearing the bell away.

It’s beautiful, either way. And it’s another way in to what Lowell was trying to do with that poem, it seems to me: to write something that could carry both types of workload, functioning as a constellation of luminous images and at the same time as a critique of rural property relations. An exercise, as Ellis said, but an interesting one – and a reminder of how political good writing can be (and vice versa).

(Incidentally, I’ve never knowingly read a damn thing by Lowell before this poem. Thanks, Ellis.)

Centred on conservation

There’s a really fascinating review of a new biography of H.V. Morton in the last London Review of Books. Morton was a travel writer between the wars; his big thing was ‘undiscovered England’, which he wanted to open up to those people who could get there by car. A deeply class-bound project, of course: this was the golden age of middle-class motoring, after car ownership had spread outside the upper class but before it became a mass phenomenon. (I wonder if the cycling clubs had a Morton?)

Anyway, the biography – and the review – quotes from Morton’s diary, which shows just how class-bound his work was. Here’s a quote from 1941:

I often ask myself why I love England so much. There is so much I detest about her: our Labour leaders, the crude, uneducated, spoilt lower classes, the Jews. And yet how small a thing this is compared with the grand sweep of history which is England, the green fields, the quiet rivers, the dark woods and the chalk downs, a lovely country inhabited by a race that is true and good at heart, brave and resolute, and, as human beings go, honest.

(I do like that “as human beings go”. Cheers, H.V.!)

I could stop here, really, it’s such a perfect summary of a certain kind of reactionary patriotism. “The grand sweep of history” and the fields and the rivers, good. The people who actually live here, well, mostly bad, quite frankly, what’s a chap to do? Harrumph. But I don’t think this amounts to saying that patriotism is necessarily reactionary and elitist, even when it has blood-and-soil overtones like these. Martin Kettle, describing Anthony Sampson’s funeral, writes:

Later we stood again and sang the most English of songs – the real national anthem – summoning up our arrows of desire and our chariot of fire, pledging again an unceasing mental fight till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.

Jerusalem references are pretty cheap these days – national anthem? no thanks! – but I think those lines do capture something. Something about the importance of place, and how being on the Left doesn’t necessarily mean having “no home but the struggle” – attachment to place and attachment to the status quo aren’t synonymous. “Green and pleasant land” is a cliche, but it’s not meaningless – there is something genuinely fulfilling and restorative about wild and rural landscapes. The same goes for some city landscapes, where they’ve been allowed to go wild or get old. Nature is a resource, I’m suggesting – culturally and politically as well as in economic terms. And history is a resource – the history of human management of land, or the history written into buildings. There are many social relations which need to be changed. There are many buildings which need to be preserved, not to mention rivers and trees.

Which brings me (from the sublime to the ridiculous) to Tessa Jowell, who has recently suggested that some listed buildings could be pulled down after a “a perfect virtual moving image” has been recorded – one of those VR walkthrough things that architects use, presumably. (No, I am not making this up.) The story concludes with a quote from Peter Cook (not the genius), who endorsed the idea and added: “It is beyond what I would have ever thought of, and I am usually thought of as wild.”

Well, yes and no, Peter. One or two of us thought of you – in your role as the public face of the Archigram group – as the single person most responsible for ripping off, recuperating and publicising some architectural ideas put forward in the early 1960s by Constant Nieuwenhuis and the Situationist International. They were flawed ideas at best, predicated on an odd sort of tarmac-the-world techno-utopianism – the SI abandoned them quite rapidly, and Constant himself followed suit before very long. Archigram’s jazzed-up and watered-down variations on Situationist themes did little more than make a certain kind of ‘radical’ architectural brutalism look alternative (which it really wasn’t) and frivolous (which it certainly isn’t). (For more on this, and on divisions within Archigram, look here.) You could argue that, however ‘wild’ Cook may have looked back then, he was cutting with the grain all along. He certainly is now.

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