Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Billy Strayhorn 1915 - 1967

Billy Strayhorn, one of the greatest jazz composers, was born one hundred years ago today.

Here's a heartbreaking tune by him from the album that his mentor and collaborator Duke Ellington made as a tribute soon after his death, And His Mother Called Him Bill, 'Blood Count'.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Some thoughts on T. H. White, author of 'The Sword in the Stone' and 'The Once and Future King'

I recently came across the following article/essay in among some of my old papers. It's dated 1981 (when I was 24), but I can't remember much about the circumstances in which I wrote it. I think I had some hope that it would be published in one way or another, a hope that turned out to be vain. I've not reread any of the books discussed in it since then (except The Sword in the Stone and The Goshawk), so I can't temper any of its judgements with the wisdom of age (even had I acquired any wisdom in the 34 years since I wrote it). I've resisted the temptation to rewrite it (apart from making a small number of insignificant cuts), despite a few cringeworthy passages.


During the early 1940s, when he was living in Ireland, White made some notes for what seems to have been a projected autobiography. In the course of describing his childhood, most of which was spent in India where he was born in 1906, he wrote:

My father made me a wooden castle big enough to get into, and he fixed real pistol barrels beneath its battlements to fire a salute on my birthday, and made me sit in front the first night - that deep Indian night - and I, believing I was to be shot, cried.

This may be more a dramatic symbol or an adult's intensified remembrance of a child's feelings ('that deep Indian night') then the literal truth, but it is as powerful an image of the overpowering, uncomprehending misery of childhood as I have come across. Terence Hanbury White was the only child of a disastrous marriage, and it showed. Throughout his life he found difficulty in establishing and maintaining relationships with people - 'these dreadful humans' as he called them in an admittedly not entirely serious letter of 1949 - and was subject to bouts of melancholy.

It is too easy to concoct pseudo-psychoanalytical explanations of an author's work from biographical fragments such as these, and anyway White's writings are good enough to be considered on their own merits without voyeuristic scouring for traumas and complexes. But any examination of his work, however brief and disjointed, must take these facts into account. They cause us to notice, for example, a recurrent theme in White's novels, that of the corruption of childhood. In The Sword in the Stone the young Wart enjoys a state of Edenic innocence and wonder, but the rest of The Once and Future King sequence delineates his decline, as King Arthur, into bitter experience and disillusionment. Merlin too, who is old and wise, sees his hopes for humanity come to nothing. Perhaps this is how White saw himself - half Arthur, half Merlyn: half victim, half frustrated sage, trying to do the right thing but always ending in the same predicament as the frightened boy in front of the sham castle.

Farewell Victoria, first published in 1933, uses the same theme set in a social and political framework. Its central character, Mundy, grows up as a stable-boy in a large country house in mid-Victorian England. As a child he is, like Wart, happy because he has plenty of interesting things to do, but as the novel progresses into the twentieth century the old semi-feudal way of life in which Mundy found security and a sense of purpose, like the Round Table, decays. White laments the passing of a society in which everyone knew their place and were not so troubled by doubts or taunted by unrealistic ambitions, and where it was still possible for people to be close to the natural world, and as such the book is a powerful conservative tract.

But Farewell Victoria is also a more personal ironic farewell to the happy childhood that White never had. It is almost as though he felt compelled to create and then destroy Wart's and Mundy's happy childhoods as an act of combined wish-fulfilment and revenge - I shall touch on this love-hate aspect of his character and writing again later. The nostalgia for a period of which he had no first-hand knowledge can be seen in his wishful creation of a time when he could have had a comfortable place among men - White, like Mundy, felt stranded and abandoned in post-First World War England. Farewell Victoria is both a dignified elegy and a raving Merlyn's curse on humanity.

Like the first few chapters of Farewell Victoria, Mistress Masham's Repose (1947) is set in a large country house (called Malplaquet). Ostensibly a children's book, it is a savage attack on inhumanity and despotism. It is a kind of sequel to the first book of Gulliver's Travels (the Lilliput story); one of the titles originally considered for it was As Yahoos Like It, a bad pun but a good description of the book's purpose. Maria, the book's heroine, is an orphan, and her guardians are both semi-human fiends - Miss Brown and Mr Hater, the local vicar. Her childhood is one of only surreptitious pleasures - derived mostly from solitude and nature - because her guardians go to extraordinarily ingenious lengths to spite her and make her miserable, a wielding of power that they evidently enjoy. One of her few friends is 'the Professor', a Merlyn-like figure, a repository of mild gentlemanliness and scholarship. One day she finds, hiding in Malplaquet's grounds, a colony of escaped Lilliputians and befriends them. All goes well at first, but soon, despite the Professor's warnings, she begins to lord it over the little people, and unthinkingly behaves to them as her guardians behave to her. 

From White's other writings - especially The Book of Merlyn - it is clear that he intended a political allegory on the theme 'power corrupts'. When placed in a position of power people often, either accidentally like Maria or White's father with the toy castle, or deliberately like Maria's guardians, abuse their power, and Mistress Masham's Repose is in effect a plea for tolerance rather than belligerence. White felt cut off from humanity because of its Yahooish behaviour, and this book is  brave attempt to come to terms with and counteract this sense of apartness. With its rumbustious and rather juvenile humour, which, like that of The Sword in the Stone, is not to everybody's taste but very much to mine, it deserves to be better known.

Mistress Masham's Repose, because it is a book for children, has a happy ending in which the well-ordered life of the country house (which White treats as a vague symbol of the decency of the past) is restored, with all its reassuring hierarchies of beadles and gardeners and underfootmen. But Maria and her friends can only be happy in secrecy, because they have to prevent knowledge of the Lilliputians leaking to the outside world otherwise their idyll will be destroyed. It is probably absurd to suggest that White ended the book like this because he felt that his own happiness could be achieved only clandestinely, but it does provide a slick way of introducing another aspect of White which needs to be mentioned. It is dangerously tempting to dirty-raincoat one's way through a writer's life looking for titillation, but it helps to understand White if one knows that he was a homosexual flagellant. Obviously this was likely to create a desire for secrecy (but to do justice to White it must be said that he made no attempt to hide his sexuality from his friends), and perhaps this was one of the reasons why he felt himself to be out of tune with the rest of the world. 

He reserved his deepest affection for his animals (perhaps the lowest point in his life was when his beloved dog Brownie died in 1944), and even in his books close personal relationships are rare - Mundy is deserted by his wife, Arthur is betrayed by Guenever, and so on. The knowledge that he would never be able to find full or open fulfilment of his desires seems to have lead to a curious odi et amo paradox in his character. In nearly all his relationships - with people and animals - he combined tenderness with savagery, as though he did not dare to commit himself fully, and was thus obliged to destroy the love object in frustration. This is how the relationship with Gos in the marvellous The Goshawk appears to me. There is also the extremely horrible passage in The Queen of Air and Darkness where Queen Morgause's children capture a beautiful unicorn, and despite their wonder at it - and even because of their wonder it - decide to kill it. They do so, and amateurishly cut it up into pieces, covering themselves in gore and making a disgusting mess, and are horrified at what they have done. In a letter in 1942 White wrote 'I only kill the things I love very much' - much of his work is an attempt to prevent himself chopping up unicorns.

The Once and Future King (which deserves a full analysis - this is not it) is, like Mistress Masham's Repose, an attempt to dissuade humanity from chopping itself up in a Yahooish frenzy of blind fury. This is especially true of the last volume of the sequence, The Book of Merlyn. (It is necessary here to leave sexual for textual problems. The Book of Merlyn was written in 1941, but not published until after White's death (in 1964) in the 70s. When it became clear to White that it would not be published in his lifetime he took the ant and the geese episodes and transplanted them into The Sword in the Stone, where they are out of place, and discarded an episode to make room for them.)

The Book of Merlyn is a pacifist tract, and especially in the ant episode is as virulent an indictment of corrupt power as anything by Orwell. In fact, there are some remarkable parallels between this and Animal Farm, which was written just a couple of years later. They are both allegories using animals, and both are stern warnings about what happens when power or might gets out of control. White even has Orwell's skill at guying propaganda - 'Everything not forbidden is compulsory' is every bit as good a parody totalitarian slogan as 'All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.' The Newspeak of Nineteen Eighty-Four is also prefigured - in the ant colony 'done' and 'not-done' mean the same as 'good' and 'ungood'. It must be said, however, that despite plenty of excellent details The Book of Merlyn is not on the whole a success. It is too heavy-handedly didactic, makes one of the themes that run through the sequence too explicit at the expense of the others, and its fantastic passages are out of keeping with the overall realism of the preceding volumes, (except The Sword in the Stone, of course, which is about childhood and thus easily incorporates fantasy). Nevertheless, The Once and Future King should certainly be more widely recognised as being one of the best books of this century: I wish I had come across people other than clap-ridden hippies Tolkien about it.

I am indebted to Sylvia Townsend Warner's biography T. H. White for the dates, quotations from letters, etc, in this essay.


My first thought on rereading this many years after writing it was relief that it's not utter rubbish. But its faults are unmistakable. I particularly wince at the way it tries to hint that I have a vast store of erudite knowledge at my fingertips on subjects I knew and know next to nothing about (such as psychoanalysis). It makes quite simple points at laborious length; I suppose I thought I was being original and profound. As I've said, I've not reread most of White's books for decades, so I'm not sure if I'd still think them so worthy of discussion, but my closing statement (implying that I was almost unique in appreciating The Once and Future King) is and was obvious bunkum; I can only plead that pre-interweb it was very much harder to know about other readers' tastes.

I must have thought my Tolkein pun very clever and amusing as I end with it. It might have been almost forgivable had it been buried away somewhere in the middle of a paragraph, but to conclude with it shows a failure to come up with a proper conclusion, and a juvenile lack of judgement. And this after I've had the nerve to criticise White for just considering a bad pun as a title for one of his books!

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Barbara Pym and historical relativism

Corinthian helmet - British Museum
Barbara Pym is a novelist I can happily read and reread. I've recently been reading a biography of her*, and in a chapter devoted to her undergraduate days (in Oxford) there's an extract from her diary of 1932 or 33:

Henry [her boyfriend] wrote in German on some of my Milton notes 'Kommst Du - Ja?' and a few other things. I went and he was extremely nice - but Jockie [a mutual friend] came in and caught us reading Samson Agonistes in bed with nothing on. Really rather funny. Jockie forgave me as I was penitent and was very sweet.**

In 2015 the meaning of this is unequivocal. Barbara and Henry were naked, almost certainly after having made love. But is this what she intended to convey, or what a reader of her diary in the 30s would have understood it to mean? I'm not sure.

The key phrase is 'with nothing on'. Does Pym mean this literally, or, as I suspect might be the case, does she mean with outer garment removed but underwear decently intact? Would she and Henry have been in bed naked (reading Milton or otherwise engaged) if there were any possibility of someone else walking in? It seems doubtful. Furthermore, this was the 30s when sexual mores were very different, and Pym was a 'well-brought up', rather idealistic (and even innocent) churchgoing young woman of 19 or 20. She loved Henry and refers to their relationship as an 'affair', yet I'm not completely convinced that an affair necessarily meant the same thing in the 30s as it does in the 21st century.

I'm not naive enough to think that no one had fully physical affairs before sexual intercourse began in 1963; of course they did. So did Pym. But was she writing about having one in her diary in the early 30s? I can't be sure, and perhaps I am being naive, but I rather think she wasn't, though I'm willing to be persuaded otherwise.

I bring this up not out of any prurient interest in Pym's sex life, but because it strikes me that if we can't be sure how to interpret something written a mere eight decades ago, how can we possibly understand the more distant past? Our implicit cultural assumptions, and those of our forebears, are buried so deeply that we can never disentangle them. (This is a horribly mixed metaphor: deep things are not necessarily tangled. Perhaps I should say that we can never unearth and brush the soil off them in order to examine them fully.) When Pym wrote 'with nothing on' did she leave unsaid 'except our underwear' because that was too obvious to need saying? The past is a foreign country not only because they do things differently there, but because they talk about it in a different language, and often one which (as in this case) is all the more confusing and misleading because it gives every appearance of being the same language. If I say I'm meeting someone for a drink, I don't feel the need to add that it will very likely be an alcoholic drink in a pub because I assume that my audience understands that, but will someone in a few hundred years time (or for that matter someone from a different but current culture) make the same assumption?

Two more examples of a similar possible misinterpretation or misunderstanding, one serious, one almost comically trivial:

In the current issue of Ancient Warfare magazine (which I see because my son reads it) there's a discussion about whether or not warriors in the ancient world (and specifically the ancient Greeks) suffered from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Supporters of the universalist school of thought claim that they did. The ancients were at some deep level, so the argument goes, not so very different from us, and we know that people today, when faced with the horrors of war, suffer from PTSD, ergo the ancients did too.

Gorgias of Leontini, probably writing during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE), described those who had witnessed war:

And some people before now, on seeing frightful things, have also lost their presence of mind at the present moment; fear so extinguishes and expels thought. And many have fallen into groundless distress and terrible illness and incurable madness; so deeply does sight engrave on the mind images of actions they have seen.

Universalists claim that this is a description of the symptoms of PTSD. On the face of it, this seems extremely plausible. However, is it possible that we're making too many unwarranted cultural assumptions, as we perhaps do if we take Pym's 'nothing on' to mean 'completely naked'? This is what historical relativists believe.

Writing in the magazine, Dr Jason Crowley concludes that to diagnose the ancients as suffering from PTSD is 'to ignore the vast social, religious and tactical differences that separate the modern from the ancient world. The Greeks, then, were not just like us. They were not susceptible to PTSD, nor is that susceptibility universal. Instead, PTSD is a historically and culturally specific condition unknown in Antiquity.'

If you want a solution to this conundrum - universalism or relativism? - I'm afraid you'll have to seek for it elsewhere, somewhere far more erudite than this blog.

A few years ago I taught Macbeth to a GCSE class. I explained that it was important to remember that the Macbeths are childless (though they have had a child or children). Lady Macbeth must still be of child-bearing age, as Macbeth evidently hopes that they will have a son who will one day inherit the Scottish throne. In a subsequent essay, one student wrote that the Macbeths have consciously chosen to delay having children while they pursue their ambitions. This student's cultural assumptions - that it's the norm for couples to use contraception to plan their families, and that careers, both men and women's, take precedence - were so deeply embedded that I found it very hard to convince him that life hasn't always been like that. He simply couldn't grasp that life in north London in the 21st century was fundamentally different from life in medieval Scotland (or Jacobean England). At some level, however hard we try, we can never fully comprehend that earlier generations saw the world in ways that would seem quite alien to us.

It's not at all the same sort of mistake, but I can't resist concluding with one of my favourite spellcheck-generated errors in an essay written by one of my students. They wanted to say 'Lady Macbeth uses emotional blackmail to persuade Macbeth to kill King Duncan.' But it emerged as 'Lady Macbeth uses an emotional black male to persuade Macbeth to kill King Duncan.'

*  A Lot to Ask, by Hazel Holt, 1990.
** p. 49

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Celts at the British Museum

The Gundestrup Cauldron, usually in the National Museum in Copenhagen, currently on display in the Celts exhibition at the British Museum
Last Sunday I visited the Celts exhibition at the British Museum. I'm not even going to attempt to say anything original or penetrating about it, but see it if you can. It contains a prodigious number of show-stopping artefacts, such as the Gundestrup Cauldron (above); it's made of silver, dates from about 150 BCE - 50 BCE, and is much bigger and even more impressive than the photo suggests.

I can't say that I liked the dreadful new-agey music that's piped throughout the exhibition. I felt that at any moment I was about to be accosted by someone offering me a massage or to realign my chakras. And although it wasn't really all that crowded for a Sunday afternoon, you still had to queue to see many of the display cases; everyone else has got just as much right to see the exhibits as I have, but nevertheless I'm afraid to say that my not very latent inner misanthropist was roused. You have to acquire a degree of cunning, guile and ruthlessness in these circumstances. Faint heart never won a fair view of the exhibits. You have to hover until you see a space about to open up, then dive in, passive-aggressive elbows going full tilt.

One of my favourite display cases contains a number of broken torcs (the picture above is a stock photo from the British Museum's archives, and doesn't necessarily show the same torcs, nor does it show their arrangement in the exhibition, but it gives some idea of what the display looks like). If I remember correctly (they're not illustrated in the catalogue) they're from the Snettisham (Norfolk) hoard, and date from about 350 - 50 BCE. They were probably broken deliberately and ritually to signify their withdrawal from the everyday world and to make them suitable for the gods or ancestors, and buried as offerings. Or they belonged to a metalworker, who intended to melt them down and make them into new objects. I like the fact that we don't know, that the truth could be mystical or purely practical.

As beautiful and awe-inspiring as the many intact, or largely intact object are, I find these fragments far more poignant and moving. I feel more affinity with the people who made and damaged these torcs than I do with the smiths of the Cauldron, for example. The misshapen and snapped metal speaks of human frailty, of people like you and me going about their daily business, trying to make sense of a puzzling and sometimes hostile world.