Posts Tagged ‘Philip Larkin’

Carol Ann Duffy: The Wound in Time analysed

April 24, 2020

There is an earlier version of this post here. The poem itself may be found here.

The title

It’s always worthwhile spending some time reflecting on the title of a poem: we too often merely give it a cursory glance and then dive headlong into the text, but we should remember the poet will have given it time and thought, just as they did the poem itself. Here, it’s the wound in time: note the definite article – it’s a special or specific wound she means, not one of many. And we can see from the first line of the poem that Time is capitalised, so that word is also emphasised. What is she saying about time? A wound is usually something temporary, which heals eventually; it’s something physical in the way we normally use the word, so we are in metaphor territory here. We will return to this.

Form

Look at the form of the poem. It has fourteen lines, which normally says sonnet. A sonnet is traditionally a love poem, but many of the poets of the Great War wrote sonnets, so Duffy may well be paying a tribute to them in the form of this poem. Hatred, warfare, killing are as powerful as love.

Structure

If we consider the poem as a sonnet, then we are immediately confronted with the fact that it doesn’t obey any of the traditional rules of either the Shakespearean or the Petrarchan sonnet; it does not fall neatly into the usual sections, and there is no discernible rhyme scheme. Later twentieth century poets, Duffy included, have experimented with the sonnet form like this, and rhyme often disappears. There are rhymes – hatching/ singing, war/ shore, and a half-rhyme – brave/ love – but these are not part of a structured scheme. Read the poem aloud: does the absence of rhyme make any difference? Would rhyme be distracting from the message of the sonnet? Is the rhythm noticeable, despite the absence of rhyme?

Can we find any meaningful divisions in the poem? For me, what stands out it that the first four lines (roughly) speak of it, the next four address you, and then move on to we, before finally coming back to you in the ending. To me, it’s almost like the poet’s gaze moving around. That analysis tends towards the Shakespearean model. Or maybe the shift is in the eighth line where the poet moves to we, after the caesura. This allows us to think about the Petrarchan model. But it’s probably best not to get too hung up on either; it’s Duffy’s poem we are considering.

Language

This is the most important aspect, perhaps: the actual words the poet is using to convey her message and her feelings. How does the language help? The first half line stops abruptly, at the caesura. A compete thought, but containing a question: what is it, in that first word, and repeated at the end of l.2? Something unspoken? Something shameful, that we are unable to say? Notice the alliteration of Time and tides, the sense of regularity and repetitiveness. And then there’s the allusion to the old saying, time heals all wounds – except this one. Why is this one an exception? Bitter (l.2) recalls Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est, and the psalms perhaps also recall the funeral anthems in Anthem for Doomed Youth. There’s also the more powerful suggestion that all the commemorative church services of thanksgiving at the time of the centenary are pointless, useless.

The war to end all wars (l.3) is the traditional way of thinking of the Great War, which of course led to an action replay only two decades later; the French have a similar phrase to describe it. Look at the position of Not at the start of the line, powerfully negating the idea. The position of a word in a line can often give it extra force.

Then we come to the powerful imagery of birth and death; putting death’s birthing alongside each other is very effective; the idea of the earth itself nursing ticking metal eggs – shells – about to hatch carnage is surely meant to be deliberately shocking. Think about how much meaning is crammed into very few words here, and recognise that this is something that poetry often does really well.

Next we shift to the soldiers themselves, whom the poet addresses as you, and emphasises their bravery through the alliterations brave belief boarded boats. They were singing: I find an echo of Owen’s powerful poem The Send-Off here. The next line is also meant to shock: The end of God? How could a deity allow such things? It was originally said a propos of the extermination camps of the Second World War that after Auschwitz there is no God; here Duffy boldly moves the idea forward in time a couple of decades. And the poisonous shrapneled air has the gas and the explosions jammed together. The reference to God also calls to mind for me the Sassoon poem Attack which ends O Jesus make it stop! There’s another powerful half line next: think how effective stopping halfway through at full line, at the caesura, actually is, forcing a pause for thought. And gargling is clearly meant to echo that famous line in Dulce et Decorum Est.

Now the poem calms down as the focus shifts to us. The silent town squares perhaps remind us of The Send-Off again, and the chilling awaiting their cenotaphs echoes for me the marvellous Philip Larkin poem MCMXIV, written on the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War.

Duffy is angry now, and bitter as she reminds us that there has been constant warfare ever since then, that all the horror of 1914-1918 has made no difference at all to the way we conduct our affairs. History as water? Ineffective? Disappearing as it sinks into the ground? But chastising – punishing – how? Why is the men’s sacrifice endless? And the final line so chilling and accusatory, drowning taking us back yet again to Dulce et Decorum Est, and the faces taking me back to one of the scariest poems of the Great War to me, Sassoon’s Glory of Women and its utterly shocking final line. And what about the pages of the sea? Think about how that image works.

Tone

Think tone of voice here; it’s important: imagine the poet reading her poem aloud to you. How would it come across? What words – try and be precise – would you use to describe that voice? I’m looking at anger, certainly, but bitterness comes over even more strongly to me. And why bitter? Because, as she points out (l.11) humanity seems to have learned nothing, changed nothing in a hundred years: we are still at it.

A female poet

Carol Ann Duffy is a woman. She was our Poet Laureate at the time she wrote this poem, so it’s specifically meant to commemorate the centenary of the Armistice, for the nation. It may not have been to everyone’s taste as a commemorative poem. Do you think a man would have treated the subject differently? How, and why? To me it’s significant that she brings in eggs (l.4) and birth (l.3): women bring life into being, men kill in wars. She doesn’t put it that starkly, but the thought is there (to me, anyway, and this is also important in interpreting a poem: whatever the writer’s intentions and meaning were at the time of writing, once a work is published, out there for anyone to read, it becomes capable of taking on meanings and shades of interpretation which the original writer may never have imagined or intended).

Your personal response

Although it’s Duffy’s poem, you are reading it and are allowed to have your own opinion, your own reaction and response. Indeed, this is most important, and you don’t have to like it just because it’s by a ‘famous’ poet. What is important it that you can articulate your response: you like or dislike it for these or those reasons. Does the subject matter move you? Do you like the way she uses language? Do you like the sounds, the poetical devices? When you explore your personal reaction to the poem, be sure to anchor it in examples from the text.

To finish: we have spent a long time taking this poem to pieces to try and understand it more deeply. Now stop and just read it aloud again, to bring it all back together as a piece.

If you have found this post (and the original one) helpful or interesting, I would appreciate it if you left a brief comment to say how and why…

Richard Holloway: Leaving Alexandria

August 19, 2019

5115JQXvznL._AC_UY218_QL90_  I very rarely read biographies or autobiographies, mainly because I’m busy leading my own life. However, I recently read an article in The Tablet (one of the more interesting weekly magazines at the moment) by Richard Holloway, and was prompted to get a copy of this book, which tells the story of his finding and losing faith, up to the time where he resigned as Bishop of Edinburgh.

I was gripped at the outset by his description of life in what I would describe as an Anglican junior seminary, because there were so many reminders of my own Catholic upbringing and schooling. The early part of his life and ministry can only be described as very High Church or Anglo-Catholic: he talks of ‘mass’, and goes to confession and participates in the evening service known as Compline…

The tone is not what one perhaps would expect of a one-time senior clergyman. The genuineness and honesty of a good man, and a real thinker shine through; he’s extremely well-read, as the literary references and notes show. I liked him for his liking of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Philip Larkin, both of whom speak to his religious condition at different times, and for being a solitary walker, too.

We read of his growing spiritual crises, with belief or lack of it in the Resurrection, and ultimately in God; for him, agnosticism is learning to live without an answer. In our unreligious times he makes a clear case for a place for religion in people’s lives, and certainly reminded me why, though largely rational myself, I cannot go with those who decry all religion as mere mumbo-jumbo and pixie dust. We are formed by our earliest experiences, and if they are shaped by religion, some need of spiritual consolation is, I have come to feel over the years, both inescapable and not something to be ashamed of. For Holloway, the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty: where you have certainty, you don’t need faith. This I found comforting!

Ultimately Holloway became ever more political and radical and questioning, until he reached a point where he felt he had lost his faith, and resigned his position. Having come to believe that religion certainly was a human invention, he wondered if perhaps God was, too. This is where he chimed in with where I have reached: out of our spiritual needs as humans, we make God after our own image. I can completely understand Holloway’s still being religious, and wanting religion to be there as a space for people to wonder and listen.

In many ways an unexpected pleasure of a read.

Poems for Valentine’s Day #6

February 12, 2019

Philip Larkin: An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd— 
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn, the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

This poem, one of Larkin’s finest, I think, was inspired by this tomb; in it, he reflects on the nature of love and the nature of how we perceive reality, as well as how time changes us.

The rhyme scheme is a complex one: ABBCAC, and it’s not always scrupulously observed: if a half-rhyme suits his meaning, he uses one. That, and the six-line stanzas, together with frequent use of enjambment, sometimes from one stanza to the next, create a slow and meditative feel and pace to the poem; you can experience this clearly if you try reading it aloud. So he definitely wants his readers in a reflective mood.

The first stanza describes the ancient tomb: blurred faces and vague habits. We cannot see them particularly clearly, and they appear strange to a modern visitor. (Incidentally, anyone wondering why the husband of a countess is not a count should think about what obscene English word it closely resembles and remember that vowel sounds have shifted in English pronunciation over the centuries…)

We follow the poet’s eye through the slow second stanza, noting, via alliteration, how plain he finds it all, until the sharp, tender shock – what an astonishingly apt example of oxymoron that is – of seeing his hand clasping her hand. His response to the statues, and ours, changes: they have been lying there affectionately holding hands for centuries… or have they?

They would not think to lie so long. To lie there, as statues, or to lie, as in, give a false impression of their affection for each other? The joined hands might just have been a sculptor’s detail thrown off, no reflection of any truth. We cannot know. Is this Larkin the cynic revealing his attitude here?

We are shifted into travel through time in the fourth stanza. Observe how, although the names of the couple are inscribed on the base of the tomb, we are never told them: the couple are always they, for their names can mean nothing to us now, hundreds of years later. I love the image of their supine stationary voyage through time; again the oxymoron can almost pass unnoticed; time flows and people begin to look at the image rather than know or care who the images represent. Alliteration of sibilants, supine stationary, soon succeeding, helps the effect.

Look at the way that carefully-wrought fifth stanza makes the centuries pass: an enjambment leads into it, and another one out of it; brief phrases and lengthy sentences alternate, making the stanza itself seem longer. The endless altered people is effective as we picture centuries of churchgoers making their way to the building, and the way they are altered by time and fashion. The sixth stanza continues the effect through alliteration: helpless, hollow, and the sibilants a couple of lines later: as we reach the present day, it’s the attitude that strikes us, the pose, the couple hand-in-hand and what we read into that in our own time: tenderness, closeness, lovers happily together. And it could well have been nothing like that, way back when.

A lapidary final stanza suggests the poet’s take on his experience, his reflections on love. Time – first word of the line, sentence, stanza: what the poem is all about. Alliteration emphasises: transfigured, untruth. What is the effect of the oxymoron – for I think it is one – of stone fidelity? For Larkin, our interpretation is not what they wanted, and yet it bears a message for us nevertheless: the power of love to transcend time. But he hedges his bets with that superb double almost in the previous line, ever the cynic.

It’s a lovely poem and one of my all-time favourites. And although the tomb exists in Arundel, for me, on a personal note, it always takes me back to the village of my birth, Easton-on-the-Hill in Northamptonshire (but now Cambridgeshire) where in the village church the very well-worn stone paving of the aisle leads to the tomb of a Norman knight and his wife to the right of the sanctuary, set into the wall and labelled in fading Norman French.

Carol Ann Duffy: The Wound in Time

October 22, 2018

There is a newer version of this post here.

I’d just finished the last of my current series of posts on various poems from the First World War which have spoken to me lately, when this timely article appeared on my laptop; I’ve linked to it for the new poem by Carol Ann Duffy which will obviously be copyrighted, so I don’t reproduce it here. I think it’s a marvellous response from our time to a century ago.

I’ve always felt an affinity with Duffy: I’ve always admired her poetry and taught it whenever I could at school – which was most years – and she and I are of an age. After I’d graduated I discovered that she and I had been students in the English Literature department at the University of Liverpool at exactly the same time; our paths had never crossed because she had read English & Philosophy and I’d read English & French…

The post of Poet Laureate had always seemed to me uniquely British and utterly redundant until she took up the post. She hasn’t produced fawning drivel for state occasions and self-important people as other laureates did: she did what in my mind a poet ought to do, which is react in a personal way to public events and commemorations so as to offer the people of the nation an opportunity to pause and think about the subject in a new way. This she also does with the centenary of the 1918 armistice which is fast approaching.

Her poem is a sonnet, as were many of the best-known poems from the war-poets, but it’s a twenty-first century sonnet: there are the fourteen lines and there is the rhythm of the sonnet but none of the traditional structure of the Shakespearean or Petrarchan sonnet: she offers us the concept and its potential for a certain kind of reflection and meaning, as she has done many times previously in similar poems.

The title brings together the idea of a wound as a lasting scar as well as a physical injury and links it with the passage of time, perhaps reminding us of the idea of time healing all wounds, except that she will go on to develop her idea that this has not happened.

Read the poem aloud in your head and savour the sonorous beauty of Duffy’s use of language and imagery: that lapidary opening half-line, for starters, and the linking of time and tide in that line. Death’s birthing-place is wonderfully compact, the linked images of birthing, nursing and hatching so much more effective as a threesome. Listen to the power of those alliterated bs as the men sail off to France or Flanders, and the end of God as so many men lost their faith during the slaughter.

The latter half of the poem is quieter, calmer as Duffy acknowledges the intention behind the men’s sacrifice – love you gave your world for – even thought that was not the actuality. And then come the lessons not learned, reinforced as she moves into the present tense: we learn nothing from your endless sacrifice: war continues unabated a century later; the futility of it all.

There are a couple of clever echoes of earlier poems, I think: to Owen’s famous Dulce et Decorum Est in Poetry gargling in its own blood, and to Philip Larkin’s fiftieth anniversary poem MCMXIV in the town squares silent, awaiting their cenotaphs.

I know that this is an instant reaction, but I think this is a very fine poem and a worthy commemoration of those times; I think Duffy balances the horrific waste with the good intentions and reminds us that it’s our – contemporary – responsibility that nothing has changed.

Eleanor Farjeon: Easter Monday

October 2, 2018

In the last letter that I had from France
You thanked me for the silver Easter egg
Which I had hidden in the box of apples
You liked to munch beyond all other fruit.
You found the egg the Monday before Easter,
And said, ‘I will praise Easter Monday now –
It was such a lovely morning’. Then you spoke
Of the coming battle and said, ‘This is the eve.
Good-bye. And may I have a letter soon.’

That Easter Monday was a day for praise,
It was such a lovely morning. In our garden
We sowed our earliest seeds, and in the orchard
The apple-bud was ripe. It was the eve.
There are three letters that you will not get.

The poet was a personal friend of Edward Thomas the poet and his wife Helen; the poem remembers him, killed on Easter Monday 1917.

This is a fourteen-line poem: is it a sonnet or not? It doesn’t follow the rules for Petrarchan or Shakespearean. Does that matter? It’s clearly a love poem, and a very moving one, too. It’s also a very personal one. The poem (sonnet?) falls into two parts, like a traditional Petrarchan sonnet: the last letter, and the consequence, but doesn’t divide into an octave and sestet. Look at the two meanings in that phrase last letter: most recent, and final; necessary, clever, and so easily overlooked, particularly as the words are almost at the start of the poem we are eagerly reading. The intimacy and love between the couple comes through in the gift she hid for him, and the little detail of his liking to munch apples – not just eat, but munch. How well she knows – knew him. Although her husband is dead she still addresses him as if her were with her, alive, as she shares, indirectly, the contents of that last letter with the reader. The weight of the words, ‘This is the eve. Goodbye.’ is ominous.

Then there is the shift in the second part of the poem, which would be the sestet in a traditional Petrarchan sonnet. From before to after.

Although the whole poem is written in the past tense, it is only as we move into the second section that we are fully aware of it, and it begins to have a sharper effect. That Easter Monday – the distancing demonstrative article separates them, whereas they were together before and she spoke to him as alive – was a day for praise. She talks of what she did that day, while they were apart, no doubt thinking of him as she saw the ripening apple-bud. She was joyfully alive, enjoying the spring: he was dead. There is the echo, with the change of tense now, from present to past: It wasthe eve, that is, both of Easter Monday, and the day he was killed. And in response to his final request, ‘And may I have a letter soon.’ comes: ‘There are three letters that you will not get.’ What is not said, what we are forced to notice for ourselves, is unbearably sad, and I think it is so sad because we are forced to make that simple connection ourselves, as she will have done, thinking of those letters she had written.

Women’s poetry of the Great War which I have read has a totally different quality from that of the men who were actually away at the war. That is a blindingly obvious difference; the men suffer away from the world they knew, at the front, seeing almost indescribable horrors whereas the women suffer quietly at home, in the world they have always been part of, usually in silence and often alone, sometimes knowing but often not knowing. The men’s poems often shout with anger, rage, fury; the women’s are understated, not in an apologetic way, but because there is nothing that can be said, once the terrible news is known. One cannot say whose lot was worse, but I am reminded of the chilling line in Philip Larkin’s MCMXIV ‘The thousands of marriages lasting a little while longer’…

August favourites #3: Philip Larkin

August 3, 2018

Church Going

One of the last century’s great English poets, whom I’ve long liked, Philip Larkin was not a religious man, and yet he wrote one of the most thoughtful and profound religious poems I know; perhaps it’s precisely because he was a non-believer. Even the title challenges: church going, as in going to church? or as in the church is going, disappearing? Both are possible, maybe intended. The structure: solid, eight-line stanzas and long sentences with frequent enjambment create a sense of thoughtfulness, reflection. Here is a man who is drawn to visit churches, not knowing why; compelled, attracted and inside, realising that such places hold a meaning even for unbelievers like himself, a way of marking birth, partnership and death, events unavoidable whether one has a faith or not. Equally, the age and timelessness of a church reflects on our own transience…

Unfortunately I can’t post the text as there are copyright restrictions, but you can reasonably easily track it down online…

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

 

Philip Larkin: MCMXIV

June 3, 2018

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;

And the countryside not caring
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s ,restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word–the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

This is one of my very favourite (if that’s a useful word) of all First World War poems, and I can imagine it being inspired by the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Great War, back in 1964. It is so good for many reasons, which I’ll come to as I write about the poem, but the Larkin’s great achievement lies in successfully capturing an era which has gone for ever, and the idea that the war irrevocably changed our nation’s consciousness…

In the first stanza he pictures the men queuing up to volunteer as if they were queuing up for a football or cricket match; there’s the touching detail of the hats and also the moustaches that were so fashionable in Edwardian times – hunt out any old family photo from the that era and you’ll notice it. The lightness of the idea of the August Bank Holiday lark is very touching, and accurate, as the traditional British holiday fell on the first rather than the last Monday of that month until relatively recently, and war was declared on August 4th, 1914.

Larkin carefully paints the picture of those days in the second stanza. The shops are shut (all businesses used to close on bank holidays until recently); they have the old-fashioned pull-out roller blinds to provide shade and keep the sun off the goods displayed in the windows, and shops would proudly display how long they had been ‘established’, perhaps as a mark of enduring quality. Farthings and sovereigns, two coins roughly the same size, one copper, the other gold: the vanished money of a vanished era. The children are dark-clothed – cheap colourful dyes and pigments were not yet invented. Very occasionally even now one may still see an ancient advertisement board in enamelled tin on the side of a building in long untouched areas of a town or city; a visit to Beamish museum would show you all the scenes Larkin describes so carefully and economically; back in the 1960s the details he mentions would, like Proust’s madeleine, have brought back quite vivid memories to many of his readers. Cocoa and twist (tobacco); pubs today are open when they choose, but strict licensing laws governing their opening hours were first introduced during the war to prevent key workers getting drunk during the working day when their work might be vital to the country’s war effort. As a student I remember my evening entertainment being quite strictly curtailed by those troublesome licensing hours…

After that, in the third stanza, we move out into the countryside not caring, unchanged for hundreds of years, it is suggested, the alliteration of all the s sounds evoking the wind gently blowing the crops ripening for harvest. The servant class that helped Edwardian England to function vanished almost completely with the war. Dust behind limousines because most roads were not yet metalled…

The title is interesting. Why Roman numerals, which I have discovered are now as impenetrable to younger generations as Sanskrit? I often used to ask my students this, and we ended up deciding that it was another device Larkin uses to take the poem into a distant and vanished past, which the Arabic numerals ‘1914’ would not do.

Consider also the way the poem is structured: four even stanzas of eight lines each, that we only gradually perceive to be actually a single, carefully structured and punctuated sentence… why? What is the effect of this? It means that the poem flows, but reads quite slowly, that pace creating a kind of dreamy feel to the images, again suggesting glimpses of a vanished past: so many different elements are working towards this single purpose. You need to read the poem aloud fully to appreciate this. The second and third stanzas both begin with and, contributing to the effect. The poem starts with the queues of men and the holiday atmosphere, moves on to the town itself in the next stanza, then to the countryside, and then onto the gradual shock – if I may put it like that – of the final stanza, which is very different.

The lapidary repetitions of never, always in that powerful and emphatic position at the start of the line, and the idea of innocence, in the opening line and again at the very end are so effective, but it’s the ideas and the way Larkin only hints at such shocking events that we must notice: the idea of things changing, vanishing, present becoming past without a word – you don’t know it’s happened until it’s too late – and I find the image of the men leaving the gardens tidy so utterly chilling: “I’ll just cut the lawn, and then be off to the war, my dear…” sort of thing, and the thousands of marriages | Lasting a little while longer – again, nobody knew, and the heartbreak and loss so lightly yet so effectively touched upon… in this, as in so many of his poems, Larkin demonstrates such mastery of the subtleties of our language.

This is an astonishingly powerful poem in my opinion, and one that could not have been written until a long while after the war. Larkin pays tribute to those early volunteers, as well reminding his contemporary readers that things can vanish almost before our eyes, as it were.

My travels: E for Easton-on-the-Hill

January 13, 2017

Easton-on-the-Hill has always seemed an odd name for the village where I was born, mainly because whenever we approached it, from Stamford, we went downhill into it… back in the day it was actually in Northamptonshire, but now is in East Northamptonshire (whatever that may be). County borders are quite complicated there, as Stamford is at the boundary of five counties. It’s one of the beautiful villages in the area because of the colour of the local stone, and also the famous Collyweston stone slate roofs: Collyweston is the next village along, only a couple of miles away and a scene of dread to my sister and I when we were very young, for it was the site of the ‘prick shop’, ie the local clinic where we had to go for our vaccinations…

I have happy memories of this village where I lived for five years; the family next door, the eccentric old lady two doors down, the little sweet shop a couple of doors in the other direction. There was also a small, fairly stagnant pond a little way beyond our house. There was a post office and a bakery further up the village, and a bus service to the town, which I got to use on Sundays when it was a treat for my dad and I to come back from church on the bus, and later, when I started school I had to go into town and back on the bus, though this was only for a term, for then we moved into Stamford itself. There’s a small monument to Polish paratroopers from the Second World War; my father spent some time stationed near there during the war, which is probably why this was my home village. It’s two miles from the town, a walk that I had to do every Friday while quite small, there and back as my mother went to the market; a bag of broken biscuits from Woolworths under the pram cover (my sister being in the pram) sustained me on the homeward leg.

I think I know the village better now than I did then, as it’s on a really pleasant circular walk from Stamford itself, a walk which does take you seriously uphill, and past the ancient and rather beautiful parish church – Anglican, of course, so as Catholics we never had anything to do with it when we lived there – largely twelfth century, I think, and quite modest in itself, timeless in the way it is surrounded by its graveyard, and the aisles within are very worn down by the feet of worshippers over the centuries. Quintessentially English. There’s a memorial in the church to a Norman knight, probably one of the Conqueror’s crew, with the inscription in Norman French. It’s a very quiet and peaceful place, and if I ever do the walk I always spend a few minutes in the church, in the Philip Larkin manner: ‘It pleases me to sit in silence here…’

I’ve always tended to romanticise village life; as long as you’re within a couple of miles of a town, it’s bearable, but further than that and I think the disadvantages begin to tell…

Ivo Andric: The Bridge over the Drina

October 8, 2015

51p5h3T72JL._AA160_I bought this book three and a half years ago; I began reading it in August and have only just finished it: this might give the impression that it wasn’t very good, perhaps a bit of a chore; not so.

Andric‘s style is cosy, warm, almost welcoming, rapidly drawing you into the tale of the bridge over the river at Visegrad – yes it actually exists – the time before, the decision of the Turks in the sixteenth century that it should be built, and their cruelty. I’ve never read a detailed description of an impalement before, and one is enough.

The slow passage of time, the mingling of the peoples in this corner of the Balkans, the slow effect of the centuries on the town and the bridge is almost hypnotic. And there is the complexity of the relations between the peoples with their different faiths, their violent politics, and the casual cruelty that seems a natural part of life. The stonework of the bridge endures whilst people come and go, are born and die, their memory fading away.

After three centuries, things speed up as the Turks retreat and the Austrians march in: we are in the 1880s, in relentless buildup to the Great War and our hindsight (and that of the author) adds an ominous feel to the unfolding of events and lives. And yet, in spite of the changes, tempestuous events, impending doom, the measured tone of the narrative carries us along like the flow of the river Drina, giving a certain sense of permanence which we see in the enduring of the bridge itself.

Andric weaves together stories of the town and its outlying villages with vignettes of individual, no doubt representative characters, and detailed and touching elements of local colour.

We feel a very clear sense of the end of an era as the war draws ever closer and sucks many of the town’s inhabitants into its madness, as the outsiders which are the armies move in, take over, mine the bridge for when it will be necessary to destroy it: Andric captures this sense of ending as cleverly as does Lampedusa in The Leopard, or Philip Larkin in MCMXIV. Calamity strikes, the bridge is blown, one of the characters whom we have been following for quite some time, reaches his end too.

I found the book very moving, in a low-key kind of way, if that makes any sense. Through fiction, I have learned something about the complexity of this region and these peoples, whose tragedy has been replayed in my lifetime. Andric drew me in, kept me interested, drew me back after a gap of over a month; it was worth it, it is a marvellous book.

On determinism

March 16, 2015

I have been thinking about the ways my upbringing, childhood and parents have shaped my world, and in particular, my tastes in reading. Jesuits have said ‘Give me the child until he is five, and I will give you the man’; I rather tend towards the line in Philip Larkin‘s This Be The Verse – if you know the poem, you know what I mean, and if you don’t, you need to look it up and think about it…

What set me to thinking about this particular topic is my increasing awareness that I don’t read very much that overlaps with what my friends and colleagues read, with what is popular or of the moment; I don’t feel that I’m being either perverse or snobbish in this, and it is nevertheless the case. I find relatively few people that I can discuss in detail what I’ve read with; I hope that this blog might spark some responses and dialogues, and sometimes it does.

So, beginning with the obvious (at least as it seems to me): I read a lot of literature from and history of Eastern Europe, and not exclusively from Poland. Given my antecedents, that’s not too surprising. I’m also very interested in religion and matters spiritual; having had a fairly strict and conventional Catholic childhood, that is probably not surprising either. I read a lot of travel writing, as anyone who’s skimmed this blog will be aware; again, given my father’s origins and his extensive (enforced) travels during the Second World War, the idea that there were lots of other unfamiliar, curious, and even strange lands all over the planet took root pretty early on. I was used to hearing a foreign language spoken from my earliest years when my father chatted with his fellow-exiles.

Yet my studies have been in English (mainly) and also French literature, which I can’t say I imbibed from my mother in the same way that I’ve acknowledged my father’s influence above. I have realised that it has been largely English literature which has moved me (sometimes I have strayed into American) and that I have never had any interest in exploring Scots or Welsh or Irish literature in the English language. That leads, of course, into the Englishness versus Britishness debate, and how one views oneself… Though I feel some kind of blood loyalty to Poland, it’s the language and literature of Shakespeare, Donne, Austen and others that have spoken so strongly to me. Although there is Joseph Conrad

And then there are the tastes I have acquired whose origins I cannot fathom. Where did I get my very early love of science fiction from – what made me read Dan Dare in the Eagle so avidly? And whence the (almost) obsession with Sherlock Holmes? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read each of the stories and novels; I know what happens in each of them, the solutions to the mysteries, and I still go back to them. And, why don’t I read the things that I don’t read – if you see what I mean. For a student and teacher of literature, large swathes of it remain literally a closed book to me – there’s a post about that somewhere in here, too.

Is it part of ageing, that one starts to wonder how one was shaped, influenced and became the person that one is, that one inevitably is, and that now, as I accept growing older, I realise that I cannot be anyone else?

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