Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Cantos again

Revisiting The Cantos, having discovered the version I had read doesn't have all of them. Enjoying them a lot more the second time round.

And i find this, lost in the back:

M'amour, m'amour
what do I love and
where are you?
That I lost my center
fighting the world
The Dreams clash
and are shattered-
and that I tried to make a paradiso

I have tried to write Paradise
Do not move
Let the wind speak
that is paradise
Let the Gods forgive what I
have made
Let those I love try to forgive
what I have made.

that I lost my centre/fighting the world seems an apt epitaph for Pound's career. But what published writer wouldn't ask let the gods forgive what I/have made/Let those I love try to forgive/what I have made. No matter how good it seems at the time, it is never good enough in retrospect..

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Battle Abbey and Baker Street (Folks go on pilgrimage and sometimes get lost)

My parents never owned a car. When I was little my gran did, so once, when she visited, I talked her into taking me to see a local battle field. We got suitably lost in green Midland lanes. I had a Lady Bird book with garish pictures of archers in leather jerkins straining their long bows against a very blue sky, and pictures of mounted knights, lances levelled, plumes fluttering, all the usual romanticised medieval nonsense that attracted young boys.

We arrived at the field. It was empty except for a tractor. No thundering cavalry, no sky darkening shower of arrows.
Just a field and a parked tractor.

I’ve done a lot of travelling since then to see historical sites and objects. I’ve often wondered if the experience you have is due to the place itself or to what you take with you. Would you know if it were the wrong field? The wrong couch? Would you know if the Book of Kells was the real object or the facsimile if they didn’t tell you?

This trip home we managed to get to Battle Abbey. It’s one of my favourite places on the planet, partly because the curators have left the battle field as a field. You walk around it. There are stations, each with a board, a picture, and some information that gives a version of the battle which is as good as any version. There’s no twit dressed as William the bastard to annoy you. You can stand where the Norman’s must have jostled and mustered before setting off up the slope towards the waiting English. Unless you’re spectacularly unimaginative you can see the dark line of the English army stretched along the ridge waiting for them. The imagination is given space.

The question remains though: does my reaction to this place depend on the fact that I have read the accounts of the battle. I’ve read the historians’ discussions of the accounts. I’ve written about Battle and about the battle. My maternal grandfather’s family comes from here and some of his family worked as gardeners in the abbey. My great uncle Ivor claimed to be the last person to be born inside the abbey walls.
Or it is that the place resonates with what happened here. The history of a country changed. Would you know if they’d put the abbey on the wrong ridge?

As a counterpoint, we went to the Sherlock Holmes Museum in Baker street. This is at the other end of “how to deal with the past”..It’s the shonky end: the “you have to go all the way through the souvenir shop to buy your ticket and then walk back out past all the tat just to get to the museum’ end.

There was no historical character called Sherlock Holmes, and 221 Baker street may have been a lodging house in the 19th century but neither Holmes nor Conan Doyle lived there. SO what you get is something like a film set, or a reconstruction of a 19th century lodging house. But this is not the fireplace where Holmes sat working his way though a two pipe problem, and this is not the sitting room of Dr Watson, just a room filled with things that are named in the stories.

I like some of the Holmes stories. I also think Jeremy Brett did for the film version what Suchet did for Poirot. I can watch him even when the story is silly or so familiar I know what the next character is going to say.

But 221 Baker street is dead and cold: a set of rooms in a draughty house unredeemed by the waxworks in the top storey or the man dressed as no Sherlock Holmes you've ever imagined or seen saying"Hello, my name is Sherlock Holmes. This is my bedroom. Please feel free to take a photograph if you have a camera." The fictional Holmes would have despised the redundancy of that last clause.

Perhaps there is a difference.

9.34 pm

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Exeter book. (Folks go on pilgrimage)

At a rough reckoning, a version of what we describe as Old English was spoken in England for at least five centuries. For at least four of those, some of the English were literate.

From that four hundred years only four manuscript “books’ of Old English poetry have survived, one of which is known as the “Exeter Book” ; the micel englisc boc given to the cathedral library by Leofric, the first Bishop of Exeter, who died in 1072.

The book’s survival is an accident and it’s not reassuring to dwell on how small its chances must have been. It has been damaged (the poem the ruin is ruined by fire) and traditionally it has been claimed that the book has been used as a chopping board and a beer mat. From the twelfth century onwards, until the book was studied in the early modern period, it is unlikely that anyone could have known what it contained, since the reading of Old English was a lost skill.

So the fact that you can see the thing in the Exeter Cathedral library meant a visit was compulsory. Last time I was there the Library was shut. This time we were luckier: two days after we saw it, the library was closing for twelve months.

We were welcomed by a volunteer assistant who clearly enjoyed the opportunity we provided for her enthusiasm and the librarian who, though trying to work while we prattled, gave up his time to our questions.

Until it moves to its new home, this irreplaceable national treasure is kept locked in a thing that looks remarkably like a portable spit roast, kept company by a unique document from the Domesday survey.

Think medieval manuscript and one tends to think of illumination and elaborate art. The Exeter book is unadorned apart from the large letter that signals each new poem. This is simply a large book, with large lettering, ideally suited to be read while placed on a lectern. A functional book.

But affecting as an object. You’d have to be unimaginative to fail to wonder about the hand that wrote it out. (Krapp and Dobie argued that the “poetical parts’ of the MS are the work of one scribe.)

Cold hands in winter, carefully copying by candle light, watching the letters marching evenly to fill each page. Sore eyes, a sore back and the damp smell of scratchy woollen clothes. Writing as a form of devotion or meditation, an act in the service of a God who to judge by some of the riddles, had a ribald sense of humour. I used to envy Pete his archaeology, his ability to touch things that had been owned and used by people; words seemed evasive. But here was something tangible.

And I hoped the man who wrote it wasn’t in a monastery where there were vows of silence; I could imagine him hurrying to some communal space eager to pass on the latest riddle he’d copied out: and his satisfaction of knowing that when the book was used, it was his hands that had made it possible.

Most old English poems survive in only one version. And the “Exeter Book” contains most of the poems a student of Old English Poetry or anyone browsing a book of translations is most likely to encounter other than Beowulf . No Exeter Book and no “Elegies”: no Seafarer, Wanderer, Wife’s lament, no Deor, Widsith, fewer riddles and the disappearance of my favourite Old English poem: Wulf and Eadwacer.

So here’s to him, the nameless scribe who copied the anonymous poems. Literature is the work of people: not theoretical abstractions.

And my thanks to librarian and his assistant for making us welcome, not only for allowing us to see the book but for sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm with two strangers.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

blurb wars revisited:Annie Freud

Nice to return home and find the world still providing free humour. This is from the back of Annie Freud's new book, a PBS choice no less:
"Freud has invented almost a new kind of writing; neither "found" nor "made" in the conventional sense, these poems are profoundly moving, and startling in their boldy unfashionable lack of irony."

Apart from the usual cliches: "profoundly moving", that 'almost' is a work of twisted genius.
Either she has invented a new kind of writing, or if it's not a new kind of writing and therefore she hasn't invented anything.

If it's "almost a new kind of writing" then it isn't new and there is no invention to celebrate.

The blurb burbles to a finish with this sentence:
"In the end, this is a book about reality and its representations, and the truth and lies we tell ourselves."

Homework; think of all the books you've ever read to which that statement could be applied. Then ask yourself what exactly it means.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The staffordshire hoard

And so, briefly in Birmingham, and the opportunity to see pieces from the Staffordshire Hoard. There’s a beautiful set of pictures on Flikr but what they don’t prepare you for is the size of some of the items

Now cleaned and on display, these pieces are about the size of your thumb nail, yet adorned with intricate patterns and shaped to hold minute pieces of fitted garnet.

History is usually the story of the sword wielders, not the sword makers, but these pieces were made by consummate craftsmen, working without the benefit of magnifying glasses or strong artificial lighting, on a scale that is so small as to be breath taking. A small toast to those nameless masters of the intricate.