Arts & Literature

Auden: aspects of our present Weltanschauung

Looking for something in Auden, I hit another passage, about human nature, art, tradition and originality (below), that I couldn’t put my finger on when I last needed it a few months ago. We’re edging towards the World Brain, but it can’t come fast enough:

It seems possible that in the near future, we shall have microscopic libraries of record, in which a photograph of every important book and document in the world will be stowed away and made easily available for the inspection of the student…. The general public has still to realize how much has been done in this field and how many competent and disinterested men and women are giving themselves to this task. The time is close at hand when any student, in any part of the world, will be able to sit with his projector in his own study at his or her convenience to examine any book, any document, in an exact replica. — H G Wells, ‘The Brain Organization of the Modern World’ (1937)

Auden. I’ve often referred to this passage and am very happy to make it ready to hand through pinning it here:

3) The loss of belief in a norm of human nature which will always require the same kind of man-fabricated world to be at home in. … until recently, men knew and cared little about cultures far removed from their own in time or space; by human nature, they meant the kind of behaviour exhibited in their own culture. Anthropology and archaeology have destroyed this provincial notion: we know that human nature is so plastic that it can exhibit varieties of behaviour which, in the animal kingdom, could only be exhibited by different species.

The artist, therefore, no longer has any assurance, when he makes something, that even the next generation will find it enjoyable or comprehensible.

He cannot help desiring an immediate success, with all the danger to his integrity which that implies.

Further, the fact that we now have at our disposal the arts of all ages and cultures, has completely changed the meaning of the word tradition. It no longer means a way of working handed down from one generation to the next; a sense of tradition now means a consciousness of the whole of the past as present, yet at the same time as a structured whole the parts of which are related in terms of before and after. Originality no longer means a slight modification in the style of one’s immediate predecessors; it means a capacity to find in any work of any date or place a clue to finding one’s authentic voice. The burden of choice and selection is put squarely upon the shoulders of each individual poet and it is a heavy one.

It’s from ‘The Poet and The City’, which I think appeared first in the Massachusetts Review in 1962 and was then included in The Dyer’s Hand (1963). Lots in this essay. ‘There are four aspects of our present Weltanschauung which have made an artistic vocation more difficult than it used to be.’ The others:

1) The loss of belief in the eternity of the physical universe. … Physics, geology and biology have now replaced this everlasting universe with a picture of nature as a process in which nothing is now what it was or what it will be.

We live now among ‘sketches and improvisations’.

2) The loss of belief in the significance and reality of sensory phenomena. … science has destroyed our faith in the naive observation of our senses: we cannot … ever know what the physical universe is really like; we can only hold whatever subjective notion is appropriate to the particular purpose we have in view. This destroys the traditional conception of art as mimesis …

4) The disappearance of the Public Realm as the sphere of revelatory personal deeds. To the Greeks the Private Realm was the sphere of life ruled by the necessity of sustaining life, and the Public Realm the sphere of freedom where a man could disclose himself to others. Today, the significance of the terms private and public has been reversed; public life is the necessary impersonal life, the place where a man fulfils his social function, and it is in his private life that he is free to be his personal self.


‘Sorley’: Gaelic for wanderer

Charles Hamilton Sorley, 1895–1915. He left just 37 complete poems. Adapted from The Oxford Companion to English Literature (1989): 

His posthumous collection, Marlborough and Other Poems (1916), was a popular and critical success in the 1920s, but he has since been neglected, though championed by Robert Graves amongst others. Graves said of Sorley that, with Owen and Rosenberg, he ‘was one of the three poets of importance killed during the War’. The best known of his poems include, ‘The Song of the Ungirt Runners’, ‘Barbury Camp’, and the last, bitter ‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead’ — found in the author’s kit sent home from France after his death.

Sorley’s father, describing his son’s life in a preface (1919) to Marlborough and Other Poems:

He was educated at Marlborough College, which he entered in September 1908 and left in December 1913, after obtaining a scholarship at University College, Oxford. Owing to the war he never went into residence at the University. After leaving school he spent a little more than six months in Germany, first at Schwerin in Mecklenburg and afterwards, for the summer session, at the University of Jena. He was on a walking tour on the banks of the Moselle when the European war broke out. He was put in prison at Trier on the 2nd August, but released the same night with orders to leave the country. After some adventures he reached home on the 6th, and at once applied for a commission in the army. He was gazetted Second Lieutenant in the Seventh (Service) Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment before the end of the month, Lieutenant in November, and Captain in the following August. He was sent to France with his battalion on 30th May 1915, and served for some months in the trenches round Ploegsteert. Shortly after he had entered upon his life there, a suggestion was made to him about printing a slim volume of verse. But he put the suggestion aside as premature. ‘Besides,’ he added, ‘this is no time for oliveyards and vineyards, more especially of the small-holdings type. For three years or the duration of the war, let be.’ Four months later his warfare was accomplished. His battalion was moved south to take part in the battle of Loos, and he fell on 13th October 1915, in an attack in which the “hair-pin” trench near Hulluch was captured by his company. ‘Being made perfect in a little while, he fulfilled long years.’

When I read his letters and papers, I am always taken aback by the voice that comes through — its unexpected modernity and warm intimacy:

… poetry up till now has been mainly by and for and about the Upper Classes … The voice of our poets and men of letters (ie, contemporary writers) is finely trained and sweet to hear: it teems with sharp saws and rich sentiment: it is a marvel of delicate technique: it pleases, it flatters, it charms, it soothes: it is a living lie. … all true poets (that is, poets who insist on truth) have been consciously or unconsciously in revolt. (From papers on Masefield and on Housman, read to the Marlborough College Literary Society, 3 November, 1912 and 15 May, 1913, respectively)

… the penalty of belonging to a public school is that one plays before the looking-glass all the time and has to think about the impression one is making. And as public schools are run on the worn-out fallacy that there can’t be progress without competition, games as well as everything else degenerate into a means of giving free play to the lower instincts of man. … One is positively encouraged to confuse strength of character with petty self-assertion, and conscientiousness with Phariseeism. (Letters: 25 February, and early April, 1914)

Do you know that Richard Jefferies, the greatest of English visionaries, felt exactly the same about the high parts of the downs as you? That you climbed great hills that should overlook the sea, but you could see no sea. Only the whole place is like a vast sea-shell where you can hear the echoes of the sea that has once filled it. Du Gott! One can really live up there! The earth even more than Christ is the ultimate ideal of what man should strive to be. (Letter: 14 November, 1914)

There is no such thing as a just war. What we are doing is casting out Satan by Satan. (Letter: March 1915)

Sorley is the Gaelic for wanderer. I have had a conventional education: Oxford would have corked it. But this has freed the spirit, glory be. Give me The Odyssey, and I return the New Testament to store. Physically as well as spiritually, give me the road. (Letter: 16 June, 1915)

… out in front at night in that no-man’s land and long graveyard there is a freedom and a spur. Rustling of the grasses and grave-tapping of distant workers: the tension and silence of encounter, when one struggles in the dark for moral victory over the enemy patrol: the wail of the exploded bomb and the animal cries of wounded men. The death and the horrible thankfulness when one sees that the next man is dead: ‘We won’t have to carry him in under fire, thank God; dragging will do’: hauling in of the great resistless body in the dark, the smashed head rattling: the relief, the relief that the thing has ceased to groan: that the bullet or bomb that made the man an animal has now made the animal a corpse. One is hardened now: purged of all false pity: perhaps more selfish than before. The spiritual and the animal get so much more sharply divided in hours of encounter, taking possession of the body by swift turns. (Letter: 26 August, 1915)

I can now understand the value of dogma, which is the General Commander-in-Chief of the mind. I am now beginning to think that free thinkers should give their minds into subjection, for we who have given our actions and volitions into subjection gain such marvellous rest thereby. Only of course it is the subjection of their powers of will and deed to a wrong master on the part of a great nation that has led Europe into war. Perhaps afterwards, I and my like will again become indiscriminate rebels. For the present we find high relief in making ourselves soldiers. … Ridley [a close friend at Marlborough and a Captain in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers] … recovered from his wound … Ridley with whom I brewed, ‘worked’ and shared a study, and quarrelled absolutely unceasingly for over three years. We have so thoroughly told each other all each other’s faults and oddities for so long a time that nothing now could part our friendship. (Letter to the Master of Marlborough College.
 One of three last letters, all dated 5 October, 1915.)

Eight days later, Sorley was killed, shot through the head by a sniper. He was 20.
 Herbert Ridley won an MC in 1917 and was killed in action at Ypres on 15 July that year, aged 23.

The Letters of Charles Sorley (CUP, 1919)

 Marlborough and Other Poems (fifth edition, CUP, 1922)

The Collected Letters of Charles Hamilton Sorley (Cecil Woolf, 1990)


‘the more I write, the more I shall have to write ... I shall never overtake myself’

I go silent on my blog without explanation. It may seem, in the short-term, like a blip, but in the long-term … the pattern becomes clear. — Tom Armitage, ‘Telling Stories’ (Reboot 8, Copenhagen, 2006) (pdf)

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months paring and pruning, trying to focus more closely on the things which really matter to me. I’ve got something to put down here soon about attention and curation, but before this new year runs away with me and everything, yet again, tilts Tristram Shandy–wards, I thought I might look back, sum up, take stock (a bit).

Here’s something I wrote for our annual school magazine about last year’s talks. (It goes over some of what I’ve written about here during 2009–2010 and I’ve given the links, in square brackets, where that’s the case.) It's very … potted.

ICT Talks 2009–10

This year, our talks continued to cross disciplines. We kicked off with Andy Huntington (RCA graduate, designer, musician) on interaction design [see 20.9.2009 entry]. In Digital Ground (MIT, 2004), Malcolm McCullough set out how interaction design ‘studies how people deal with technology — and how people deal with each other, through technology. As a consequence of pervasive computing, interaction design is poised to become one of the main liberal arts of the twenty-first century’. Andy, who has worked on interactive objects and experiences for clients from the BBC and the Science Museum to Nokia and the Bartlett School of Architecture, talked us through tapTap (‘The system is built up of individual knock boxes. Each box has its own memory and is completely self-contained. As you tap on the top of a box, the box waits for a few seconds and then taps back what it has heard. If you want more you add another box, and another, and another, tap, tap, tap’) and Beatbox (‘a physical programmable drum machine’). Later in the autumn we were delighted to welcome Usman Haque, architect and co-founder of Pachube (‘store, share & discover realtime sensor, energy and environment data from objects, devices & buildings around the world’):

Usman Haque

The domain of architecture has been transformed by developments in interaction research, wearable computing, mobile connectivity, people-centered design, contextual awareness, RFID systems and ubiquitous computing. These technologies alter our understanding of space and change the way we relate to each other. We no longer think of architecture as static and immutable; instead we see it as dynamic, responsive and conversant. Our projects explore some of this territory. — Haque Design + Research

Playing with tapTap and Beatbox, thinking how objects are now interacting with us through the internet, reflecting on how we can use Pachube … Ubiquitous computing has well and truly arrived and, as McCullough foresaw, educators need to address interaction design as a matter of urgency.

Also in the autumn, Adrian Hon came to talk about his games company, Six to Start [see 30.9.2009 entry]. He began by looking at the role of story-telling in human society, the reception of the first European novels, the ways in which our strong identification with literary heroes and heroines has been elicited and the striking role now played in our lives by online text. The main part of his talk focused on We Tell Stories — a project developed for Penguin: ‘six stories, written by six authors, told in six different ways — ways that could only happen on the web … released over six weeks’. Adrian, who left a career in neuroscience to co-found Six to Start with his brother, sets great store by narrative: ‘Writers are important. When a game’s graphics grow old, and the game mechanics become dated, all that’s left to remember is the story. As designers and writers of games, we all need to set a higher bar for ourselves’. His ambition for games is, indeed, remarkable: ‘Historians will look back hundreds of years from now, and they will say that the explosion of narrative and game forms that we have now was a momentous time that transformed the way that people think and see the world. … It’s hard to imagine a world without books; without Lord of the Rings, or Catch 22, or Pride and Prejudice, or Great Expectations. Equally, it’s already hard to imagine a world without games. Just imagine where we’ll be in a few decades time. We have the opportunity to make those new types of games and stories that will changes people’s lives in the future, and there are so many possibilities.’

Professor Chris Frith, FRS, talked about how our brain generates emotions and thoughts and he was followed soon afterwards by Professor James Paul Gee, the distinguished American scholar, on games and learning. In his book, Making up the Mind [see 22.9.2009 entry], Frith argues that, ‘on the basis of its belief about the world, my brain can predict the pattern of activity that should be detected by my eyes, ears and other senses … So what happens if there is an error in this prediction? These errors are very important because my brain can use them to update its belief about the world and create a better belief … Once this update has occurred, my brain has a new belief about the world and it can repeat the process. It makes another prediction about the patterns of activity that should be detected by my senses. Each time my brain goes round this loop the prediction error will get smaller. Once the error is sufficiently small, my brain “knows” what is out there. And this all happens so rapidly that I have no awareness of this complex process. … my brain never rests from this endless round of prediction and updating’. In Gee’s thought, the world of a complex game mirrors the functioning of the mind: ‘We run videogames in our heads’ [see 30.10.2009 entry]. At the heart of his critical understanding of games is the idea of situated meanings and their role in learning. Games are about problem-solving. Today’s problems are now all complex ones — complexity and complex systems interacting. Today, we must be able to work way beyond standard skills, learning how to be part of a cross-functional team — a very high order skill common to play in many games.

Another theme this year has been how we are living in a time when information is becoming more accessible. We welcomed Timo Hannay, publishing director of Web Publishing at Nature Publishing, to talk about open science and in March we had the opportunity to hear Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia [see 22.3.2010 entry]. Timo spoke about the nature of early scientific publishing and the rise of the expensive (and therefore relatively inaccessible) specialist journal. He explained projects he has helped to develop at Nature, including Connotea, a social bookmarking service for scientists, Nature Network (a social network for scientists) and Nature Precedings (‘a platform for sharing new and preliminary findings with colleagues on a global scale’). Jimmy, arriving straight from Heathrow, spoke to a packed hall on the origins, vision and role of Wikipedia. One thing to emerge from this very well-received talk: about 80% of the students present had edited Wikipedia. Next day at a Guardian conference for heads of media, the same question from Jimmy revealed that only about 30% of that audience had edited the online encyclopaedia.

Another highlight of the year was the chance to hear Stewart Brand and Brian Eno talk about the Long Now and Brand’s new book, Whole Earth Discipline.

Stewart Brand & Brian Eno
The idea of the active intellectual is very important, Brand said, and we’re very pleased that St Paul’s is the first school in the UK to join the Long Now and engage with its commitment to long-term thinking and sustainable living. This takes us neatly back to Pachube and the way we interact with technology. The future requires that the young grow up learning about the history of technology, of man’s long journey of inventiveness in manipulating nature and of the possibilities, for good and ill, that lie in this relationship we have with our world.


The electric garden of our minds

Last month, on my way back down the Euston Road after seeing the window displays at the Wellcome Trust, I had time to go to the Gagosian Gallery for Crash — Homage to J G Ballard. The experience was of overload, but I got the chance to pop back again last Thursday. Two visits certainly paid off.

… only a commercial gallery of this pulling power could manage the loans to flesh out Ballard’s text so grandiloquently; no museum could have responded so quickly, or quirkily, to the novelist’s death last year. The idea of a visual tribute to a writer is so marvellous and generous that one wishes it was as standard as a memorial service or an obituary. — Jackie Wullschlager, FT

As some reviewers have suggested, there are works on show here that seem … a little beside the point. All the same, some of these are striking:

Works with an, at-best, tangential connection to Ballard stand out, foremost being Paul McCarthy’s “Mechanical Pig”, an astonishingly life-like plastic sow cruelly wired up to machinery, twitching and heaving in a tortured coma. This freakshow attraction goes beyond sensationalism to bring us face to face with our mechanised use of livestock, and is a great example of contemporary art’s relationship with impact advertising. I was mesmerised by its laboured breaths, each one threatening to be its last. — Ballardian

I liked … the Eduardo Paolozzi:

Gagosian: Crash — Homage to Ballard

Three decades before Andy Warhol immortalized the Campbell’s Soup can, Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005) was crowding childhood scrapbooks with images of American popular culture he found in old magazines, newspapers, and comic strips. … As the novelist J. G. Ballard noted in his introduction to General Dynamic F.U.N., “Here the familiar materials of our everyday lives, the jostling iconographies of mass advertising and consumer goods, are manipulated to reveal their true identities.”  Nothing is as it seems and irony abounds.  Lady Godiva rides a motorcycle; Christ’s image is profaned as a paint-by-number; flesh turns green and lettuce grows blue.  Paolozzi reconfigured unrelated images to form a tangle of references and connections, leading viewers in as many directions as there are ideas, images, and products in our modern world. — Saratoga Today

The artist’s friend and sometime collaborator, J.G. Ballard, described General Dynamic F.U.N as a ‘unique guidebook to the electric garden of our minds’. … For Paolozzi, the modern age, exposed as ephemera, is a necessarily fragmented collision of visual stimulus and influence, and his work is a ‘health warning for an uncreative and thriftless society’. — Southbank Centre

The Warhol, Green Disaster (Green Disaster Twice), 1963 (reflected: Richard Prince — Elvis, 2007):

Gagosian: Crash — Homage to Ballard

The Jane and Louise Wilson DVD projections:

Gagosian: Crash — Homage to Ballard

Peter Campbell, writing in the LRB (about the exhibition’s catalogue):

On the page facing Allen Jones’s Archway (a sculpture in the Heathrow Hilton, Ballard’s favourite London building), you read that ‘sitting in its atrium one becomes, briefly, a more advanced kind of human being. Within this remarkable building one could never fall in love, or need to.’ Even when the overlap between a work and anything Ballard wrote is accidental, or vague, there is common ground in his attention to the look of things. He saw them as a painter might. His language was precise and often technical: his vocabulary when cars are involved is that of a maintenance manual; his sex scenes look like an atlas of anatomy.

‘I’ve always wanted really to be a painter,’ he said in 1975. ‘My interest in painting has been far more catholic than my interest in fiction … I’ve said somewhere else that all my fiction consists of paintings. I think I always was a frustrated painter.’ He not only envied visual artists, he believed in their power. ‘I didn’t see exhibitions of Francis Bacon, Max Ernst, Magritte and Dalí as displays of painting,’ he wrote in 2003. ‘I saw them as among the most radical statements of the human imagination ever made, on a par with radical discoveries in neuroscience or nuclear physics.’ … In the catalogue Will Self writes of Ballard’s ability to see the nature of what has grown up around us: ‘Bleak man-made landscapes, technological, social and environmental developments and their psychological effects – these are aspects of the dystopian society we all live in now. Ballard may have started out as a science fiction writer, but his texts now read as social fact.’ …

Ballard’s sense of something wrong with the world our appetites and ingenuity have created makes ordinary things – suburbs, roads and high-rises – look different, as they might in the lurid glow of an approaching storm. It is a gift to art that has been appreciated.

The Independent has a nice gallery piece where Charlotte Cripps talks to some of the artists involved. Loris Gréaud:

J G Ballard was not in the future but in the ultra-present.


Colin Banks

In the same graveyard, beside the Grigsons, lies Colin Banks, son-in-law to Geoffrey Grigson.

Colin Banks

The gravestone is the work of Incisive Letterwork:

Colin Banks bought our dual text slate ‘Inceptis Gravibus’ at our exhibition The Ground Beneath our Feet in 2000. He had apparently had his eye on it since the Spirit of the Letter show at the Crafts Council in 1989.

We first met his wife Caroline when we went to fix the slate on their garden wall in Blackheath, memorably for us, in the pouring rain. We were really honoured to see it there as we had long been admirers of Colin’s typographic work.

After Colin died Caroline contacted us to discuss the possibility of making his headstone. He is buried in the churchyard at Broad Town in Wiltshire next to their daughter Frances whose greenslate headstone had been carved at the Kindersley studio. Caroline wanted a companion stone but not a facsimile. This meant taking into account the proportion of the stone, tall and narrow, and the overall feeling and spirit of the place and Frances’s memorial. When we delivered the stone to the church rain was again bucketing down.

In 2006 Caroline asked us to carve a stone for her mother, Geoffrey Grigson’s first wife Frances, who is buried in the churchyard at Pelynt in Cornwall. Caroline’s grandfather is buried close by and his memorial was carved by Eric Gill. She suggested that we use the same stone, Delabole slate, and the same shaped top to imply the family relationship. Many years previously Colin himself had made a preliminary drawing for this stone. Caroline felt she would like something of its flavour to be expressed here and provided a copy of his original drawing for us to look at. We used his lettering style but made it bolder for carving purposes. The layout was started from scratch. After trying to make the stone look like Gill’s and not succeeding because of the wording, it almost inevitably grew into a tall and narrow memorial. We simplified the top and used a carved line to echo the moulding on the Gill stone. In the end the relationship was there and the stone has a contemporary look rather than being a copy of something from the earlier part of the twentieth century. On seeing the stone in place Caroline wrote to say that Colin would have approved. — Brenda Berman and Annet Stirling: Threads of lettering 

The Independent’s obituary placed Colin Banks in that disciplined tradition of designers, ‘a craftsman schooled in hot metal type’, opposed to ‘quick-fix tactics’, ‘greatly influenced by the traditions of the Arts and Crafts movement, whose principle typographers were stonemasons’: ‘His death does not so much bring down a curtain on an evocative era of well-crafted British graphics but serves to remind us of the continuing relevance of typographic standards and social compassion in design today’.

It was in a printing class at Maidstone that he met his future business partner, John Miles. "We took up typography," recalls Miles, "because we thought we'd make the world a better place. There was a huge amount of idealism in the early 1950s and Colin was very idealistic indeed." … Banks made many trips to India, working with local agencies on schemes for rural sanitation, cooking, schooling and low-cost artificial limb manufacture, always ready for the next challenge, always eager to show how design can be a force for good. He also lectured widely in Eastern Bloc countries before access was easy.’

Three years ago, my neighbour, formerly the printer at Libanus Press, moved to Cornwall and asked me if I’d like to buy a large book (folio) he no longer had room for, London’s Handwriting. The book was the work of Colin Banks (I knew very little about him then), honouring the work of Edward Johnston, and subtitled, ‘The development of Edward Johnston’s Underground Railway Block-Letter’. I still haven’t really digested this monument of a book, very beautiful in itself and the result of such evident attention, passionate knowledge and close observation. I love the simple dignity of Wikipedia’s current opening to Johnston’s entry: ‘Edward Johnston, CBE (11 February 1872 – 26 November 1944) was a British craftsman’ … Johnston would surely have admired the craftsmanship of London’s Handwriting.

The book bears an epigraph from Firmin Didot, ‘the punch-cutter in 1783 of the first true ‘modern’ face Roman type’:

For we must not confine ourselves to perfecting the art in the sphere of luxury … but rather we ought always make it serve the public good.

Colin Banks must have invested so much in London’s Handwriting. For one thing, his love for his subject is so clear: ‘The wider importance of Edward Johnston’s work is based on his single-handed rediscovery of the medieval techniques involved in writing with a broad-nibbed reed pen. … His book Writing & Illuminating, & Lettering (1906) became the vade-mecum for all future letterers and typographers.’

He touched many future designers by a laying-on of hands from generation to generation: we are all his children. This unbroken human chain was all the more important as his philosophy of his work was not collected together and published until 1986, forty-two years after his death. This philosophy is exerting considerable pull on the current revival and interest in crafts and deserves a separate study.

We lingered in the churchyard that afternoon, talking and thinking about what these people have come to mean to us, and about this place.

Towards the Broad Town White Horse


The particular and the peculiar

Geoffrey Grigson

I find I’m seeking out older guide books about the areas of England I particularly like. In the good ones there’s a wealth of knowledge and an intensity of observation that’s very rewarding to work with — and of course they’ve become an object of cultural interest in their own right. So I’m pleased that Geoffrey Grigson’s The Shell Country Alphabet is back in print after 43 years. (That and The Englishman’s Flora are two books of his I’m glad to have to hand.)

I found this on the web (linked to from Wikipedia’s entry on Geoffrey Grigson):

His worldview is clearly evident in the enthusiasms he championed: brightly burning poets of the countryside such as John Clare; visionary artists from Samuel Palmer to his contemporaries and friends, Ben Nicholson, Paul Nash, John Piper, Wyndham Lewis. Grigson revelled in finding the extra-ordinary in the seeming ordinariness of a rural life that twentieth century short term thinking was beginning to eradicate. Flora, fauna and rural lore were presented in inspirational compendia and essay collections such as the Shell Country Book, The Englishman's Flora, Freedom of the Parish and the Shell Country Alphabet. For the Festival of Britain in 1951 he edited the series of About Britain guides, penning the text of the volumes on Wessex and the West Country. Grigson also wrote books to lead children into an appreciation of the countryside, poetry and the visual arts; later he became an 'anthologist's anthologist', with a seemingly endless train of collections of epigrams and epitaphs, nonsense verse, 'unrespectable' verse. He revealed much light to be found in apparently dark and (at that time) neglected and disdained periods of literary history, the Romantics, the Victorians. He revived interest in forgotten poets such as William Diaper.

image

You can get a flavour of the Country Alphabet book from the large page spreads Penguin’s put online. Penguin’s done an attractive job with the presentation of this book (published under their imprint, Particular Books) and has this to say about it:

In the 1960s Geoffrey Grigson travelled around England writing the story of the secret landscape that is all around us, if only we take the time to look and see. The result is a book that will take you on an imaginative journey, revealing hidden stories, unexpected places and strange phenomena. From green men, ice-scratches, cross-legged knights and weathercocks to rainbows, clouds and stars; from place-names and poets to mazes, dene-holes and sham ruins, via avenues, dewponds and village greens, The Shell Country Alphabet will help you discover the world that remains, just off the motorway.

I like what Toby Barnard says about Grigson: ‘Geoffrey Grigson resurrected the minor, the provincial and the parochial ... [he was] an erudite and unrivalled topographer … ardent in promoting informed awareness of the distinctiveness of place’. That’s well put: ardent in promoting informed awareness of the distinctiveness of place.

I’ve been out a couple of times recently to Broad Town, where Grigson and his third wife, Jane, lived and are buried. The farmhouse that was theirs, where they both worked and wrote and where, it’s said, Edward Thomas once learned to make hay ropes, is close to Christ Church, the church that serves Broad Town. Locked when we went, the church itself seems undistinguished, but the churchyard is a spacious, sunny and quiet spot that looks out towards the Broad Town White Horse. The Country Alphabet tells me this was cut in 1863.

Last month I read Joe Moran’s excellent On Roads. Reviewing this, Craig Brown wrote:

Joe Moran is a young academic (and if his lecturing is half as good as his writing, I’d advise any young student to make a bee-line for the cultural history department at Liverpool University). Unlike most academics he is excited by the particular and the peculiar, and is obviously happy to spend time ferreting out odd information that more po-faced academics would dismiss as merely anecdotal. … Reading On Roads, I felt as though I was being introduced to a place I thought I knew well, and seeing it for the first time. Moran has the poet’s ability to find the remarkable in the commonplace.

And before On Roads, I was reading Roger Deakin’s Notes From Walnut Tree Farm. The things he sees, feels, hears, touches and then writes about — and that stick in my mind! (Too much to choose from … ‘There are 243 beams in this house, proportions natural, set by the size of the trees and their girth. … Trees are the measure of things. … The first measures of length must surely have been cut on sticks. … Trees have given proportions to things too. … The standard width of a timber-framed house or barn, between sixteen and twenty-one feet, is the distance a single beam from an oak will normally span.’ ‘People ask how a writer connects with the land. The answer is through work. … And when we work on the land, what is our connection with it? Tools, and especially hand tools. Much can be learnt about the land from the seat of a tractor, the older and more exposed the better, but to observe the detail, you must work with hand tools.’)

I was fortunate to be taught Biology at school by a fine field biologist, Arnold Darlington. I was a poor student and am still learning to have my eyes wide open, but he set me off on a course I’m still on, observing and naming as best I can. There’s a thread here that connects all these writers and it’s why I really liked this article in the NYT, Reviving the Lost Art of Naming the World:

We are, all of us, abandoning taxonomy, the ordering and naming of life … losing the ability to order and name and therefore losing a connection to and a place in the living world. No wonder so few of us can really see what is out there. … we barely seem to notice. We are so disconnected from the living world that we can live in the midst of a mass extinction, of the rapid invasion everywhere of new and noxious species, entirely unaware that anything is happening. Happily, changing all this turns out to be easy. Just find an organism, any organism … and get a sense of it, its shape, color, size, feel, smell, sound. … Then find a name for it. Learn science’s name, one of countless folk names, or make up your own. To do so is to change everything, including yourself. Because once you start noticing organisms, once you have a name for particular beasts, birds and flowers, you can’t help seeing life and the order in it, just where it has always been, all around you.

Once you start noticing … once you have a name for (the) particular … you can’t help seeing life … just where it has always been, all around you.


Super-Cannes: 'actors in our own self-referential drama'

John Preston, reviewing Super-Cannes in the London Evening Standard, quoted by Stephen Moss in the Guardian:

Ballard loves to go that bit further out than anyone else, to nose around the outer limits of human behaviour and to rub up against the inconceivable. What ought to be daft becomes instead extremely disquieting. His is a world in which anything has become possible. In this twisted scheme of things, it comes to seem quite logical that the one upright citizen in Eden-Olympia [Ballard's suburban madhouse] should be a mass murderer. Morality has disappeared, so has sanity, and all that's left is a kind of institutionalised madness. Reading Ballard is like viewing the world through a completely new set of lenses.

I've quoted Ballard himself before. Here he is on tourism and travel:

Travel is the last fantasy the 20th Century left us, the delusion that going somewhere helps you reinvent yourself. There's nowhere to go.

On Cronenberg's A History of Violence:

The title, A History of Violence, is the key to the film, and should be read not as a tale or story of violence, but as it might appear in a social worker's case notes: "This family has a history of violence." The family, of course, is the human family, a primate species with an unbelievable appetite for cruelty and violence. If its behaviour in the 20th century is any guide, the human race inhabits a huge sink estate ravaged by unending feuds and civil wars, a no-go area abandoned by the authorities, though no one can remember who they are, or even if they exist. …

On Blair:

Perhaps only damaged actors can lead modern societies down the crooked paths that they prefer.

Having come to Ballard very late, I've recently finished Super-Cannes — and it's not yet left me alone. Tim Adams' Observer review catches some its darkness and power:

… Eden-Olympia, Europe's ultra-sophisticated answer to Silicon Valley in the hills above the French Riviera. The business park is the world's first intelligent city, one horribly logical conclusion of a corporatised continent in which 'freedom was the right to paid work, while leisure was the mark of the shiftless and untalented'; dreams here come equipped with airbags, and the only sounds are the whispers of sprinklers on lawns and the effortless combustion of computer-navigated German sports saloons.

The city is home to techno-chic supernationals - Ciba-Geigy and Siemens, Mitsui and Monsanto - and to the Euro-elite of chief executives who control their strategies, a post-leisure class which derives its excitement from the imposition of systematic efficiencies. There is no need here for law or religion; Eden-Olympia polices itself; decisions are corporate not ethical, and sex is something one watches on customised adult channels.

Ballard carefully constructs this serpentless paradise in perfectly engineered sentences. His images come together with the satisfying hiss of Japanese micro-hydraulics. 'There was a vast car park concealed behind a screen of cypresses, vehicles nose to tail like a week's unsold output at a Renault plant,' he writes. 'Somewhere in the office buildings the owners of these cars were staring at their screens, designing a new cathedral or cineplex, or watching the world's spot prices. The sense of focused brain power was bracing, but subtly unsettling.' …

Ballard unravels the secrets of his post-industrial elysium with panache, leading us into a society which is both an exaggerated parable for our times and a chill piece of futurology. Along the way there are some signature themes: Ballard's books always feel as though they are shot on security cameras and spotlit by police flash photography; their violence is both sterile and graphic. The worlds he describes are frequently immunised against human emotion. And in Eden-Olympia that deficiency has become a potentially fatal threat.

Much more there. (Adams is good on Ballard's satire: 'His satire, however extreme, is always convincing because its governing ideas inhabit every detail. He sees a strain of totalitarianism running through particular dehumanised philosophies of engineering and design and management; sees the potential for dictatorship in the absence of democracy engendered by the colossal power of corporations.')

Just now, I found a long piece (essay and interview) by Jason Cowley:

The twin engines driving so much of British contemporary fiction have long been a kind of enfeebled realism-with its class and social anxieties-and nostalgia. But Ballard operated outside this loop. The drowned worlds, scorched cities and overgrown jungles of his early fiction; his focus on the media landscape of global celebrity and stylised catastrophe; his exploration of the connections between sex, eroticism and death; his fetishism of motorways, highrises and car crashes-almost alone among contemporary British writers, Ballard wrote about the 20th century in its own idiom. As a result his work is exaggerated, pumped-up, often preposterous; a prose surrealist mining a strange, blurry, psychopathological landscape. It is hard to believe in his fictional world precisely because it is so invented, so radically imagined. Like the paintings of Dali, Max Ernst and de' Chirico which he so admires, Ballard transports you into a fabulous realm, at once real and hysterically unreal.

You can read a Ballard novel without believing a word of what is written. Yet something lingers disturbingly in your imagination, something to do with his understanding of the inherent instability of the contemporary condition-as if we are all actors in our own self-referential drama, as if we are all trapped within a set of immense inverted commas.

So, I'm just starting out on Ballard, after some initial flirtation, and from Super-Cannes so many scenes and ideas and conversations stick in the mind. One I made a note of early on was the scene in the car-park — an 'impromptu piece of garage theatre':

Two Eden-Olympia limousines were making their way down the circular ramp. The chauffeurs stopped their vehicles on the third level, slipped from their driving seats and opened the rear doors, giving their passengers a ringside view of the ugly tableau being staged in an empty parking space.

Or there's this, from much later in the book:

Eden-Olympia's great defect is that there's no need for personal morality. Thousands of people live and work here without making a single decision about right and wrong. The moral order is engineered into their lives along with the speed limits and the security systems. … Places like Eden-Olympia are fertile ground for any Messiah with a grudge. The Adolf Hitlers and Pol Pots of the future won't walk out of the desert. They'll emerge from shopping malls and corporate business parks.

Penrose's deranged vision of 'a carefully metered measure of psychopathy', the answer to the 'suburbanisation of the soul' that 'has overrun our planet like the plague', is explored by Penrose and Sinclair in chapter 29, 'The Therapy Programme'. This is Penrose:

A  controlled psychopathy is a way of resocialising people and tribalising them into mutually supportive groups. … Violence is spectacular and exciting, but sex has always been the main hunting ground of psychopathy. A perverse sexual act can liberate the visionary self in even the dullest soul. The consumer society hungers for the deviant and unexpected. What else can drive the bizarre shifts in the entertainment landscape that will keep us "buying"? Psychopathy is the only engine powerful enough to light our imaginations, to drive the arts, sciences and industries of the world.

Towards the end of the novel, and despite himself, Sinclair remembers 'the brutal hazings at the RAF flight school, and how they had energised us all': 'At Eden-Olympia, psychopathy was being rehabilitated, returned like a socialised criminal to everyday life'.

Ballard, interviewed in 2004:

My real fear is that boredom and inertia may lead people to follow a deranged leader with far fewer moral scruples than Richard Gould [in Millennium People], that we will put on jackboots and black uniforms and the aspect of the killer simply to relieve the boredom. A vicious and genuinely mindless neo-fascism, a skilfully aestheticised racism, might be the first consequence of globalisation, when Classic Coke® and California merlot are the only drinks on the menu. At times I look around the executive housing estates of the Thames Valley and feel that it is already here, quietly waiting its day, and largely unknown to itself. … I suspect that (as I pointed out in Super-Cannes) the human race will inevitably move like a sleepwalker towards that vast resource it has hesitated to tap - its own psychopathy. This adventure playground of the soul is waiting for us with its gates wide open, and admission is free. In short, an elective psychopathy will come to our aid (as it has done many times in the past) - Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, all those willed nightmares that make up much of human history. As Wilder Penrose points out in Super-Cannes, the future will be a huge Darwinian struggle between competing psychopathies. Along with our passivity, we're entering a profoundly masochistic phase - everyone is a victim these days, of parents, doctors, pharmaceutical companies, even love itself. And how much we enjoy it. Our happiest moments are spent trying to think up new varieties of victimhood ...

Elsewhere, Jason Cowley writes of the character, Paul Sinclair, through whose eyes Super-Cannes is told:

In his quest to uncover the truth … he becomes a kind of detective of the self: the more he discovers about Eden-Olympia, the more he discovers about his own potential for deviance and violence, and the more alienated he feels.

Reading Ballard is a peculiarly enriching experience. Every sentence is absolutely characteristic. His novels, at their best, resemble surrealist tableaux, representations of tortured interiority, and Super-Cannes is one of his best.

 
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W H Auden

This month sees the centenary of Auden's birth (21 February). Here's the conclusion to a piece by James Fenton in today's Guardian:

That he was a great public poet, despite his misgivings about the role, has always been acknowledged. But he was also a great lyrical poet, his achievement in love poetry being without equal in the century.

He worked through every poetic form he could find, rejecting only a few he found too trivial. He tried counting syllables. He tried counting the number of words in the line. He invented (as far as English was concerned) a discursive style that could accommodate the language of prose and the concern of science. He wrote many song lyrics. He always bounced off poetic influences, and he felt wretched when he couldn't find the next influence. In 1968, for instance, he was listening to the Beatles (he liked "She's Leaving Home", or was it "Eleanor Rigby"?) in search of something to be influenced by. 

He appears to have felt (he says something to this effect), on completing a poem, that he would never be able to write another. And that must have been a nightmare to him, since he was always moving on to the next task, suffering failure sometimes, and aware of a widespread rejection of his later work, knowing himself often attacked, and unwilling to speak up in his own defence. He had a private, even secret, generosity to match the public generosity, the copiousness of his achievement. An enviable gift, then, although not always an enviable life - unless we say that in some cases the gift is indeed the life, and that the suffering is all part of the gift.

The W H Auden Society has a listing of events scheduled to mark the centenary (here) and links from its main page to Wikipedia: 

A highly accurate, thoroughly revised version of the Wikipedia.org entry on Auden was posted in 2007. This site strongly recommends that online researchers make reference to this specific archived version of the page rather than to current versions, which may be less accurate or may be subject to vandalism.

(The non-archived Wikipedia Auden page is here!) 

Back in October last year, the Independent reported on the failure to prepare properly for this anniversary. It's great, then, to see that Melvyn Bragg is remembering the writer on The South Bank Show (11 now 18 February, ITV, 11.10pm): 

It's been suggested that the centenary of the birth of W.H. Auden is in danger of passing without notice but not as far as the South Bank Show is concerned. Melvyn Bragg visits Hadrian's Wall, the northern boundary of the land betweenSwaledale and Northumberland, which Auden wrote of as his "great good place." He will examine the paradox of the Auden who fled to America in 1939 saying "No God willing I never want to see England again" and the ‘English Auden' who was never able to sever himself from his roots. Auden's words continue to reverberate around us from the Stop the Clocks sequence in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral, and the way his September 1st 1939 became the mourning song of New York after the terrorist attacks in 2001. 

Contributors include: Alan Bennett, Shirley Williams and Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, with Auden's verse read by John Woodvine.

And I'm delighted to find that the Stephen Spender Memorial Trust and the British Library are holding 'An evening of poetry with James Fenton, John Fuller, Grey Gowrie, Richard Howard, Andrew Motion, Sean O'Brien and Peter Porter' to celebrate the centenary: 

Wednesday 21 February 2007 marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Wystan Hugh Auden, one of the most significant — and prolific — poets and writers of the twentieth century. The Stephen Spender Memorial Trust and the British Library celebrate Auden's centenary with an evening of poetry readings that reflect the enormous breadth and wonderful technical variety of Auden's published output, including poems from the 1930s that chart 'a low dishonest decade', and his later work published while resident in the United States. 

Natasha Spender writes:
This tribute to Auden on the anniversary of his birth is offered by younger poets whom he encouraged and who became his lifelong friends: Andrew Motion, the present Poet Laureate, who as an Oxford undergraduate knew him; the American Richard Howard, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize by him; Grey Gowrie, who knew him through Auden's niece, Anita; and Peter Porter, John Fuller and James Fenton, who saw him on his annual London visits for Poetry International. Only Sean O'Brien, 20 when Auden died in 1973, did not know him.
 

He used to stay with us or his brother John, and to all the children — Anita and Rita Auden, Matthew and Lizzie Spender — he was a beloved bachelor uncle who invented games and shared their passions for Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, introducing a benevolent bossiness into our liberal households.

There are other events going on (see the Auden Society page), but it's not at all what should have been done for Auden. Essentially, this looks like a rescue job by friends and (close) admirers.

 
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Frank Kermode

John Sutherland interviews Frank Kermode in today's Guardian:

Looking back over the field he has dominated for half a century, Kermode's words are unminced. Universities, he says, "are being driven by madmen". And education in general "is being run by lunatics". The recent A-level and GCSE statistics, I point out, would indicate that at one level, at least, his subject is increasingly popular. "Well," he replies, "I don't know what they call 'English' now. I can understand the attractiveness of it. But I don't hold the view that reading English is a soft option, or at least it shouldn't be. It should be a severe option, restricted to those people who are qualified to do it." … Is he suggesting that English should be re-engineered to be more in line with currently unpopular "hard" subjects - like physics? "Yes. I discovered just today, for example, that it's no longer compulsory at GCSE to take a foreign language. This seems to me to be a monstrous decision." I remind him of a staff meeting at UCL where, gloomily, he acquiesced to the administration's instruction that O-level Latin be dropped as a requisite for incoming students. "We had no choice. Latin has been getting abolished now for two generations."

In one of his recent LRB pieces he recollects a period in the 1950s when studying English literature was not just regarded as important, but as the most valuable intellectual and moral activity a civilised man or woman could pursue. What went wrong? Does he feel any personal responsibility? "I don't suppose I could claim either credit or blame for the collapse of my subject. It's partly the extinction - no, that's too strong a word - the fading of the influence of figures such as FR Leavis [the Cambridge critic]. The notion that the study of English had powerful ethical implications, powerful social implications, has gone. We just don't have it any more.

"Looking back at the study of English in universities over the years the first thing that occurs to me is how very important the subject once seemed. In America the New Criticism - a school led by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren - argued that the close study of poetry was a supremely valuable thing. This was a view that was then accepted generally. And the leading academic literary critics were, in those days, very famous people. Think, for example, of Northrop Frye. Frye's is now a name that you never hear mentioned but which was then everywhere. CS Lewis, who is now famous for fairy stories, was then famous for being a scholar. Tolkien too was famous for being a scholar, not for elves and so on. There is no prestige associated any longer with being a good critic. There are people writing now who seem to me likely to be as good as those critics I've been mentioning but they won't be as famous nor as influential. There's some very good scholarship in the subject still going on. There's also an immense amount of rubbish. …

"[Theory] attracted quite a lot of opprobrium. I never thought it should be taught to undergraduates. In those days teaching graduates what was then essentially French theory was exciting, as long as you were in control of what you were doing. I'm reminded of what Wayne C Booth (another of those once-famous critics) said: 'The really difficult thing is to understand why one has to work so hard to understand something that you do every day without the slightest difficulty' - reading a book, that is.

"I don't at all think that the time we spent on Theory was wasted. One of the great benefits of seriously reading English is you're forced to read a lot of other things. You may not have a very deep acquaintance with Hegel but you need to know something about Hegel. Or Hobbes, or Aristotle, or Roland Barthes. We're all smatterers in a way, I suppose. But a certain amount of civilisation depends on intelligent smattering".

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On Music

Armando Iannuci, speaking at the Royal Philharmonic Society awards last Tuesday, as reported in yesterday's Observer:

We need to wake up to the fact that people are now asking basic questions. Why are we musical? Why did people write symphonies? Why do we have the string quartet? They seem child-like, these questions, but they're there to provide us with the opportunity to enthuse and explain and demonstrate the answers we first stumbled upon in our musical journey and which encouraged us to make that journey in the first place. …

I think we should at all times keep trying to ask and to answer the most basic of questions about music, about the arts. What are they there for?

For me they're not there for any other reason than to remind us that, no matter where we are, whether we're learned, in prison, poor, successful, alone or average, our material circumstances are not all that we have, that we can see beyond ourselves, that we're human and are therefore dignified. That's my answer. I'm sure each of you has a different one. I just wish we all had more opportunities to express them.