As the old year of 2016 is now dying, here are some of my favourite pieces of writing about death.
This came to mind because of the very recent death of Richard Adams. The death scene which ends Watership Down – well, there must be a German word which describes knowing something is sentimental, yet still being moved by it. Disneyschmerz perhaps? The nature-loving agnostic imagines an afterlife with as false a comfort as angels escorting the departed to heaven yet a rabbit soul eternally scampering through the beech woods has great charm. By now the reader has come to like and respect Hazel and enjoy the rabbit’s eye view of the English countryside, in whose pockets between roads, housing and farms the rabbits make their lives.
One chilly, blustery morning in March, I cannot tell exactly how many springs later, Hazel was dozing and waking in his burrow. He had spent a good deal of time there lately, for he felt the cold and could not seem to smell or run so well as in days gone by. He had been dreaming in a confused way — something about rain and elder bloom ~ when he woke to realize that there was a rabbit lying quietly beside him — no doubt some young buck who had come to ask his advice. The sentry in the run outside should not really have let him in without asking first. Never mind, thought Hazel. He raised his head and said, “Do you want to talk to me?”
“Yes, that’s what I’ve come for,” replied the other. “You know me, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course,” said Hazel, hoping he would be able to remember his name in a moment. Then he saw that in the darkness of the burrow the stranger’s ears were shining with a faint silver light. “Yes, my lord,” he said, “Yes, I know you.”
“You’ve been feeling tired,” said the stranger, “but I can do something about that. I’ve come to ask whether you’d care to join my Owsla. We shall be glad to have you and you’ll enjoy it. If you’re ready, we might go along now.”
They went out past the young sentry, who paid the visitor no attention. The sun was shining and in spite of the cold there were a few bucks and does at silflay, keeping out of the wind as they nibbled the shoots of spring grass. It seemed to Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try to get used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses.
“You needn’t worry about them,” said his companion. “They’ll be all right — and thousands like them. If you’ll come along, I’ll show you what I mean.”
He reached the top of the bank in a single, powerful leap. Hazel followed; and together they slipped away, running easily down through the wood, where the first primroses were beginning to bloom.
Shakespeare was much obsessed with deaths – 74 of them in his plays. Someone did a play which featured them all.
These death scenes though are mostly violent sword stabbings, with the occasional strangulation and poisoning so I’ll quote the death of Falstaff reported in Henry V.
ACT II SCENE III London. Before a tavern.
Enter PISTOL, Hostess, NYM, BARDOLPH, and BOY
HOSTESS Prithee, honey-sweet husband, let me bring thee to Staines.
PISTOL No; for my manly heart doth yearn.
BARDOLPH Be blithe: Nym, rouse thy vaunting veins:
BOY Bristle thy courage up; for Falstaff he is dead,
And we must yearn therefore.
BARDOLPH Would I were with him, wheresome’er he is, either in heaven or in hell!
HOSTESS Nay, sure, he’s not in hell: he’s in Arthur’s bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom. A’ made a finer end and went away an it had been any christom child; a’ parted even just between twelve and one, even at the turning o’ the tide: for after I saw him fumble with the sheets and play withflowers and smile upon his fingers’ ends, I knew there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as a pen, and a’ babbled of green fields. ‘How now, sir John!’ quoth I ‘what, man! be o’ good cheer.’ So a’ cried out ‘God, God, God!’ three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him a’ should not think of God; I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So a’ bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and upward, and all was as cold as any stone.
The Hostess would have been accustomed to tend the dying at a time when the women of the household did the nursing.
The Death of the Mrs Proudie from The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope
Trollope wrote 6 volumes about Cathedral politics in Barsetshire. One day in his club he overheard two men complaining that he was reintroducing the same old characters, including Mrs Proudie and how tired they were of it. So he told the men that he would kill her off that day.
Mrs Proudie of much reforming Evangelical energy has dominated her husband the bishop to carry out her will to the point of utterly humiliating him so they are now bitterly estranged.
Mrs. Proudie’s own maid, Mrs. Draper by name, came to him and said that she had knocked twice at Mrs. Proudie’s door and would knock again. Two minutes after that she returned, running into the room with her arms extended, and exclaiming, “Oh, heavens, sir; mistress is dead!” Mr. Thumble, hardly knowing what he was about, followed the woman into the bedroom, and there he found himself standing awestruck before the corpse of her who had so lately been the presiding spirit of the palace.
The body was still resting on its legs, leaning against the end of the side of the bed, while one of the arms was close clasped round the bed-post. The mouth was rigidly closed, but the eyes were open as though staring at him. Nevertheless there could be no doubt from the first glance that the woman was dead. ..
The bishop when he had heard the tidings of his wife’s death walked back to his seat over the fire, ….. But there was no sound; not a word, nor a moan, nor a sob. It was as though he also were dead, but that a slight irregular movement of his fingers on the top of his bald head, told her [Mrs Draper] that his mind and body were still active. ..
She had in some ways, and at certain periods of his life, been very good to him. …..She had never been idle. She had never been fond of pleasure. She had neglected no acknowledged duty. He did not doubt that she was now on her way to heaven. He took his hands down from his head, and clasping them together, said a little prayer. It may be doubted whether he quite knew for what he was praying. The idea of praying for her soul, now that she was dead, would have scandalized him. He certainly was not praying for his own soul. I think he was praying that God might save him from being glad that his wife was dead.
(As a strict Protestant, Bishop Proudie would not pray for a soul whose destiny is decided at death.)
A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir
After a long agony of being treated for cancer, Simone de Beauvoir’s mother finally dies. Her sister, Poupette, is at the death bed. De Beauvoir was an atheist, her mother a devout Catholic.
Maman had almost lost consciousness. Suddenly she cried, “I can’t breathe!” her mouth opened, her eyes stared wide, huge in that wasted, ravaged face: with a spasm she entered into coma..
Poupette rang me up: I did not answer. The operator went on ringing for half an hour before I woke. Meanwhile Poupette went back to Maman; already she was no longer there – her heart was beating and she breathed, sitting there with glassy eyes that saw nothing. And then it was over. “The doctors said she would go out like a candle: it wasn’t like that, it wasn’t like that at all,” said my sister, sobbing.
But, Madame,” replied the nurse, “I assure you it was a very easy death.”
“Maman” though religious did not ask for a priest – de Beauvoir concludes:-
“She knew what she ought to have said to God – “Heal me. But Thy will be done: I acquiesce in death.” She did not acquiesce. In this moment of truth she did not choose to utter insincere words…
Maman loved loved life as I love it and in the face of death she had the same feeling of rebellion that I have. During her last days I received many letters with remarks on my most recent book: “If you had not lost your faith death would not terrify you so,” wrote the devout, with rancorous commiseration. Well-intentioned readers urged, “Disappearing is not of the least importance: your works will remain.” And inwardly I told them all that they were wrong. Religion could do no more for my mother than the hope of posthumous success could for me. Whether you think of it as heavenly or as earthly, if you love life immortality is no consolation for death.
A devout Christian, C S Lewis did take consolation in his wife’s immortality though the whole of A Grief Observed is about the despair and misery at his loss of faith he undergoes after her painful death (cancer again). He longs for her undeath but at the end thinks she has been transfigured into something resembling pure intelligence, away from her torturing body:-
How wicked it would be, if we could, to call the dead back! She said not to me but to the chaplain, “I am at peace with God.” She smiled, but not at me. Poi si torno all’ eterna fontana.
The last words in Italian being Dante’s view of his beloved Beatrice in a blissful afterlife.
Lewis’s view of death is harsher in Till We Have Faces, a surprisingly feminist work. Orual the heroine is about to enter into single combat with an enemy which will decide the fate of their city. Her father, the king and a cruel brute, has been lying helpless with a stroke. She is in the royal Bedchamber, searching out armour.
And it was when we were most busied that the Fox’s voice from behind said, “It’s finished.” We turned and looked. The thing on the bead which had been half-alive for so long was dead; had died (if he understood it) seeing a girl ransacking his armoury.
“Peace be upon him,” said Bardia. “We’ll be done here very shortly. Then the women can come to wash the body.” And we turned again at once to settle the matter of the hauberks.
And so the thing I had thought of for so many years at last slipped by in a huddle of business which was, at that moment, of more consequence. An hour later, when I looked back, it astonished me. Yet I have often noticed since how much less stir nearly everyone’s death makes than you expect. Men better loved and more worthy loving than my father go down making only a small eddy.
How the world shrugs off our death is brutally stated by A E Housman’s in Is My Team Ploughing:-
So to all, a long and healthy life, and then a quick and easy death, causing the least amount of nuisance and hassle.
Prescient piece by Niall Ferguson who back in May was taking Trump’s chances of winning the election seriously
He describes Trump not as a Fascist – he doesn’t go in for the marching in uniforms and military conquest – but as an anti-immigration populist.
Ferguson describes populism as containing five ingredients (1) rise in immigration which in the USA declined markedly from the late nineteenth century to the 1930s; (2) rising inequality; (3) perception of corruption in the political establishment; (4) a big financial crisis; (5) a demagogue.
The demagogue makes a macho appeal to the most embittered parts of the electorate. Trump is to be compared, not to Mussolini, but Denis Kearney, leader of the Workingmen’s Party of California in the 1870s during another time of financial crisis. The Party’s slogan – “The Chinese Must Go”. Success for the anti-Chinese campaign came with the 1882 Exclusion Act.
The anti-immigration sentiment swept the western world, taking the form of vicious anti-semitism in Germany and France, and the UK too. (The 1905 Aliens Act in the UK was passed to control Jewish immigration, and anti-Irishism was fairly virulent as well).
Ferguson did not dismiss Trump’s chances of winning when many pundits were scoffing at the idea, and he found the thought frankly terrifying.
Review of The New Philistines: How Identity Politics Disfigures the Arts by Sohrab Ahmari
The Philistines identified by Matthew Arnold had a narrow and reductive view of the arts as only good if they upheld a particular morality. The 1890s and the aesthetic movement upturned them, the aesthetes were despised by the Social Realists in the 30s, who were taken on by the liberal creatives bursting out in the sixties, the New Leftists returned, along with the feminists, with shock and political art and now the identitarians have moved in. The identitarians are Ahmari’s New Philistines, who judge, and sometimes make, art via their ideology, caring about the political point rather than craft or beauty. His contention that they dominate the culture is reinforced by how his frequent use of “beauty” and “truth” now seem antiquated as critical terms.
Ahmari has a reverential attitude towards high art, so Part I of his readable polemic, Intruders in the Temple, tells of how he was affronted by a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Globe. Emma Rice was the director and it included a sound-and-light show, a gay male Helena and the love juices were date rape drugs. I share his pain as I too have ground my teeth at a goose-stepping Coriolanus, say (Coriolanus is not a Fascist, and it made no sense). Directors making stupid political points are as annoying as hectoring comedians.
However for every modish production of a Shakespeare play with a Hoxton-hipster Hermia there’s a straightforward, well-acted piece in robes and furred gowns. In the RSC production of King Lear I saw the other night Anthony Sher was a mound of pelt. Although the director had rehearsed it during Brexit, and thought there were parallels with bad decision-making and a union falling apart he did not present Cordelia as Angela Merkel nor Goneril as Theresa May and left us to draw the modern parallels about power and powerlessness and the times being disturbed.
It shows a particular cultural strength that the educated Shakespearean audience sees interpretations as variations on a theme, because the plays are so well known, as Athenian play goers liked to see what a playwright would do with the myth of Orestes or Dionysus.
I can’t get too holy about Shakespeare. He has his longueurs and a lot of his humour is lost with his language so the actors have to force out laughs with cod-fingering. Cuts can be enhancements. There are plenty of excellent productions including those broadcast at local cinemas by the RSC and the terrific Wars of the Roses series on the BBC a while back.
Ahmari does make a good thrust about shallow gimmickry in theatre productions:-
The bhangra and Bollywood numbers, and actors of south Asian heritage in two leading parts, suggested an Indian sensibility. Now a Midsummer with a well-developed south-Asian concept – juxtaposing or blending say, the rich mythology of the subcontinent with English folklore – might have worked well. Such a concept would have required a sincere, rigorous encounter with these sources. Yet identitarian art is rarely capable of such engagement. The texture and weight of genuine difference elude art of this kind, with its ironic posturing and tendency towards the flattening pastiche. Identitarian art rarely manages to raise marginalise and ‘subaltern’ voices. Doing so successfully requires really listening to such voices in all their rich complexity – whereas identiarian art usually searches for subaltern props with which to bash the ‘dominant’ culture. Opposing the ‘oppressive’ mainstream is more important than examining the peripheral as it really is.
Actually I do wonder that Emma Rice wasn’t castigated for cultural appropriation by Indians, or someone purporting to speak for Indians. These fashions change so fast. Emma Rice however will not be around to do brash shows based on Shakespearean texts. She has had her marching orders because her use of neon lighting is against the spirit of The Globe. The Guardian thinks that is a bad idea, and The Spectator a good. So it goes in culture-land.
Ahmari finds a parallel with other ideological arts e.g Socialist realism but “Say what you will about the Soviet critics, at least they were erudite. Not so with today’s identitarian critics, who care little for art history and aesthetics. What they are blessed with is lots of opinions about everything – all of which invariably revolve around race, gender and class, power and privilege.”
I’ve seen just such criticism of the gooey headed Corbynistas from dialectic trained old Trots about the Corbys’ lack of hard analysis. Unlike Victorian evangelists and Marxists, the identitarians have no authoritative scripture to use as a measure for their particular world view – Foucault comes closest, but Ahmari does not find his identitarians actually quoting so much as osmosing, which he lays out in the second part of his polemic, The Illiberal Imagination. This follows discussions at Artforum. I found it a useful primer for such terms as “queer”, “performative”, “visibility” and “legibility” (something lots of people want to see and enjoy).
Liberal societies have increased “visibility” in the form of social and political rights, and liberal-minded writers were part of this process eg the authors of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Oliver Twist. And as far as visibility is concerned the marginalised have moved more towards the centre. The RSC’s King Lear had a lot of black actors without making any identitarian big deal about it and that would not have happened a generation ago. And those who fulminate against political corrrectness, would once have grumbled about a black Edmund and Cordelia.
Ahmari has fun with the appalling jargon his Artforumites use and its view of art as “a place where we can treat the self as historical and social material”. This particular idea has permeated through to artists whose work he goes to see in the third chapter. Some have talent but, “their curiosity is limited by politics; identitarian politics takes away their freedom to explore great big questions in an uninhibited way; without pre-determined answers and concepts. Foucault, hardline feminism and queer theory wrap their art like a straitjacket. If their English grammar sounds broken, it is because their creative grammar is, too, and the source of the brokenness is the same.”
His tour of identitarian art – videos and installations – and dance – political twerking – is amusingly terrible. My own experience of such things – neon tubes of slogans repeating banalities and amateurish looking videos saying things that are neither new nor true – has sent me along the road to the museum of handsome and interesting artefacts. The audience for this work is the highly educated white liberals that it castigates, the ones who take city breaks in grand European cities who have preserved their past.
Of course fashions change. “The Great Wall of Vagina”, plaster-casting 500 women’s sexual organs that Ahmari evokes may be deemed to be transphobic in a year or two, and Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, which used a vagina theme in ceramics, is beautiful as well as polemical. Ideological art does not mean ugliness of course- as demonstrated by the great mass of Christian and Islamic art. So the ugliness may come from lack of craft as anything else. That may be the fault of the art schools, as well as the zeitgeist. Also, while the subsidised galleries and the grant receiving artists may be at work on such things the commercial artists will be turning out posters and cards of quite a different complexion for the mass market. Modern culture is definitely not all of a piece, nor stagnant.
Ahmari’s last chapter is about the effects of this ideological art on our society. “Ideas that being with elite, avant-garde institutions invariably trickle down to popular culture, then go on to impact our daily lives.” and he instances criticisms of eg Downton Abbey (which deserves it – the servant class was not treated with anything like that consideration but caste superiority has to be prettied up for the modern audience). Downton Abbey may be castigated by someone in the Guardian but it will be made as long as it makes money and Julian Fellows is ready to turn out scripts.
He thinks identitarian politics is responsible for the rise of white-rage politics of Trump and UKIP.
Is it any wonder, then, that Americans and Europeans are increasingly embracing nationalist parties and illiberal movements?..
Having been told for decades that the promise of universal rights is a lie, that group identity is all that there is to public life, that the Western canon is the preserve of Privileged Dead White Men, and that identitarian warfare is permanent, many in the West have taken up their own form of identity politics. .. When culture only rewards the assertion of group identity (black, female, queer etc.), the silent majority will want its slice of the identitarian pie. They can do identity politics, too; it’s called white nationalism. ..
Surely identitarianism is a muted annoyance compared to eg mass migration, demographic changes, a globalised economy and the sense of the world is becoming a more dangerous place. But the cause and effect of culture and politics is a large subject. In crude terms, far more read The Sun and the Daily Mail than get annoyed by The Guardian.
“To repair our politics, we could do worse than to start by expecting better from our arts and culture.”- is Ahmari’s final call, and that really is the chicken-and-the-egg. I would expect a generational shift for talent and brains will break out of a strait-jacket and they’re at work somewhere on a hub near you. Our society does have teeth and a stomach and it’s a wonder what it can digest.
After reading Ahmari I re-read Robert Hughes’ Culture of Complaint, which has a similar theme, and is richer and funnier from someone wholly engaged with the art world. It was published in 1992 and how little has moved on from then. What Hughes calls political correctness, we now call identity politics but they are essentially the same thing, constant language policing, a favourite target for conservative satirists.
Satire loves to fasten on manners and modes, which is what PC [political correctness] talk is, political etiquette, not politics itself. When the waters of PC recede – as they presently will, leaving the predictable scum of dead words on the social beach – it will be, in part, because young people get turned off by all the carping about verbal proprieties on campus. The radical impulses of youth are generous, romantic and instinctive and are easily chilled by an atmosphere of prim, obsessive correction. The real problem with PC isn’t ‘post-Marxism”, but post-Puritanism.
Generous, romantic and instinctive I’d like to believe but what is reported from the universities is an equal impulse for correction, censoriousness and righteousness. And against the post-Puritanism is the post-Restoration of the alt right and Milo Yiannopoulos.
So though not as apocalyptic as Ahmari, I do share some of his concerns. It is a chronic condition for liberalism to be in danger as it is an unnatural state for a tribal species and it has plenty of enemies, whether the new Red Guards of identitarianism,, the Islamic Fascists and their idiot enablers, the Guardian Cultural Sensitives, the Lock-em-Up Tabloids, and a whiff of blasphemy laws from the government.
“It’s a free country,” we would say self-righteously at my primary school during disagreements. That sentence had a long political and cultural history behind it. Do they still say it now?
Via Howies Corner we have been informed of the split in Socialist Unity. John Wight has been ousted and the forces of the trade union left have taken over in the person of Comrade Andy Newman.
To follow the lead up to these events check out the comments section at the site. Nationalism vs socialist trade unionism was the root cause.
Note one disgraceful comment:-
John Wight has had his ‘jumping the shark’ moment and has increasingly descended into delusions of grandeur and with it all the hallmarks of a sociopath. Heaping abuse and smearing those who dare disagree with his increasingly bizarre statements as cowards or racists is beyond the pale.
He does have a home at Shiraz Socialist and they are welcome to him.
We totally deny this calumny. We at Shiraz join in the denunciations of John Wight. The personnel at Shiraz Socialist have been on Wight’s banning list for years. Indeed I can date my Kronstadt moment with Wight. It was 30th March 2012, the day after George Galloway won the Blackburn/West Bradford by-election. While Wight was exulting and gloating I said Gallows had run a terrible sectarian campaign, calling his opponent “a bad Muslim”.
That got me deleted, then exiled to Siberia.
Others writers and commenters at this blog would have had similar experiences. Please share if you do .
And your spell in the Gulag of being made an unperson by Wight is now at an end. Comrade Newman has lifted the banning order.
The latest wheeze of the Yessers has been to crowdfund billboards pointing out the iniquities of the BBC and offering an alternative news service.
There’s disagreement about whether this will turn the Noes to Yes. Kirsty Strickland, a Yes supporter, suggested in Commonspace ihat it might be counter-productive.
Room for disagreement on this issue you might think. But not for Wings over Scotland who tweeted a picture of Strickland at the BBC suggesting she might be a Unionist traitor. Wings has powers to usher up swarms of cybernats and they eventually chased Kirsty off Twitter. She protested that she had six weeks unpaid work as a community reporter at the BBC and has written plenty that’s critical of the organisation.
Loki, the Scottish rapper, took up her cause. Loki is of that part of the Yes movement that thinks an independent Scotland will be able to do something for the poor in the hard parts of Glasgow, He has come from a harsh background himself and is a clever eloquent guy who finds his way of expressing himself falls foul of the radical side of the Yes movement that has picked up the proper language codes. He himself has had run-ins with Wings.
He designed a Bingo Wings Over Scotland calendar which gives an amusing potted history of the affair and a portrait of the repulsive Wings who has done so much to make the nationalist movement in Scotland vile.
Rings Over Scotland
As for the billboards, they’re an opening for creativity:-
Guest post from an old contributor to this site
Well, this has been a sickening episode.
Let’s be clear first. I am a Labour Party member. I voted for Jeremy Corbyn last year and I have done so again this year.
I awoke this morning to an alert about this article, by one Tony Greenstein. It requests that people block and defriend one Natasha Allmark. It compares her to World War 2 era Nazi informants. Her crime? Threatening to call the Labour Party Compliance Unit on a group of professed Corbyn supporters with whom she had been arguing on Facebook.
“Nazi Informant”. Let that sink in for a bit. Consider the implications.
Natasha is an expectant mother and a student, and a supporter of the Liberal Democrats. She has children already. In the course of that discussion people publicly discussed calling social workers to her house. The behavior of those attacking her was akin to a shoal of piranhas. She was in distress, and not infrequently in tears.
In the course of one such row she told her interlocutors that if they did not desist then she would contact Compliance. She never did so. It was a defensive reaction from a distressed woman under attack. This is why Tony Greenstein compares her to informants who betrayed Jewish people to the Nazis. That’s it. He also uses her picture in the article, without her permission. Just so reader can be sure of exactly who he is accusing.
She is now afraid for her family. And I think as a left we have questions to ask of ourselves here? Do we want a political sphere where self appointed Torquemadas go around using public platforms to shriek accusations of betrayal at ordinary citizens? Do we want squads of online police telling people what is or is not an acceptable political view, and publicly flogging them if they dissent? I know what sort of “left” that sounds like, and it’s one that died in Europe in 1990.
It is beyond shameful that a veteran left wing activist would think it is OK to do this to anyone, let alone a heavily pregnant woman who he does not know. If I thought that were the real nature of the left in this country, I would want no part of it. It is sickening behavior.
So yes, unblock and friend Natasha Allmark. It is an act of basic solidarity, and we owe it to her to show her that this is not how the left does business.
We stand with you Natasha.
I’d like to be magisterial and say The Railways: Nation, Network and People by Simon Bradley is the definitive work, or as comprehensive a book as you can find on the history of Britain’s railways. I’d like even more to be the happy pedant, pointing out lacunae in the description of how Britain adopted the standard gaurge against Brunel’s broad gauge. But I know almost nothing of railways, though I love travelling by train, so have to come to this book as the general reader of a well-written, entertaining piece of social history that cites novelists and poets as well as engineers. Simon Bradley quotes the book-making Victorians – Dickens, Trollope and Surtees as well as films like Brief Encounter, The Railway Children and the opening scene of a Hard Day’s Night, where the Beatles dodge their screaming fans “behind poster hoardings and into telephone boxes and photo booths” in the cluttered concourse of the 1960s.
Bradley’s book tells a big story – the technical development of the railways and their social impact, and embroiders it with fascinating details eg the contents of the luncheon baskets and the placing of toilets, the slight ring underfoot on the Southern Railway’s preferred concrete over timber platforms. He devotes a whole chapter to signals, which doesn’t stoke my boiler, however, his writing flows and he never loses sight of the human beings – in this case, the solitary signal-man on duty in his box. He explains the sensible height of British platforms (set at 915mm i.e. 3 feet) with a step or two to the train compared to the steep climb on the Continent. He gives the reason why Cambridge station is such a trek from the town centre because the dons feared loss of control of undergraduates and pulled strings to ensure that the station was built well over a mile away from the town.
Former platform on National Cycle Network 1
The railways created their own kingdom “a physically separate domain, in thousands of route-miles fenced off from the rest of the country and ruled by their own mysterious rhythms and laws.”
Cyclist on National Cycle Network 1
Simon Bradley was a young train-spotter – not just of the locomotives but of those working on them. “Driver and ganger alike belonged nonetheless to the world of proper work, visible and practical and comprehensible – a world away from the office-bound lives of most of our own fathers.” He conveys the excitement of the Victorians as this great force entered into their lives, as transforming as computers and the internet in ours. The landscape was altered with embankments and tunnels and viaducts.
Detail of former railway bridge, now carrying cyclists and pedestrians
He points out that bridges were a relatively rare sight before the railways came. Oldest bridges were almost all bespoke structures. Only when canals arrived were bridges multiplied to standard engineers’ design. Now their striding arches are one of the splendours of the British landscape. (For cantilevered iron, the Forth Bridge beats the preening Eiffel Tower any day of the week, and how much finer the Glenfinnan Viaduct is than pompous static showoffery like the Arc de Triomphe.)
Viaduct on the National Cycle Network 1
“Part of the fascination of the railways is their permeation with memories and traces of obsolete working routes, and the human lives and destinies they shaped. The physical record is often patchy, because different aspects of the system have changed and developed at wildly varying speeds. The modernised freight network envisaged by Dr Beeching is already utterly lost; the diffuse small-scale system which he knocked for six is more remote still. Yet the bridges, tunnels and earthworks that carry the twenty-first century traveller are still predominantly those the Victorians witnessed take shape.”
Bradley moves beyond the Victorians and their share-owned competing railway companies through to British Rail and to today’s mess of ownership – state subsidy of dividends to share-holders:-
“The old British Rail system was subsidised between 1 billion and 1.5 billion. Subsidies since this time have reached as high as 6.3 billion….Much of this money comes nowhere near the operating side of the railway, but is sucked straight out again in dividends, administrative and legal costs ,inflated salaried and bonuses. Nor is the system cheap for its users. [Grossly expensive, and Byzantinely complex in fact.] All of these features are intrinsic, not accidental, parts of the business model under which the railways were privatised – a process that,… was meant to address the supposed scandal of a public opened system which required high subsidies in order to operate. It has proved an extremely expensive way of saving money.”
Though Bradley does follow to the modern age via the marshalling yards and the change to diesel, it is the Victorians and Edwardians who dominate from when the technology was innovative and exciting.
The new words such as stoke, shunt, siding, running out of steam, on the right lines. Time, once set by the “guildhall and town hall and church steeple” was set by the “power of capital”. The landowners were challenged and there would be battles between the surveyors and navvies and estate workers where theodolites would be smashed. (In Middlemarch there’s just such a scene – not quoted by Bradley.)
As the railways developed they were felt at the time to be as unstoppable and transforming as our own digital revolution. So in Trollope’s Rachel Ray set in Devon, which was late to be connected, the timid matron Mrs Ray says of her journey to Exeter:- ‘“I thought the train never would have got to the Baslehurst station. It stopped at all the little stations, and really I think I could have walked as fast.” A dozen years had not as yet gone by since the velocity of these trains had been so terrible to Mrs. Ray that she had hardly dared to get into one of them!’ ‘ There are obvious comparisons with the elderly of today who once wondered at the young’s sci-fi interweb thing now complaining of the speed of their Skype.
The railways have been with us for long enough to have created their own archaeology. I live across the road from the busy Edinburgh to Glasgow line, which I walk or cycle under every day. My commute goes past an embankment which was once a line and is now the National Cycle Network 1 cycleway. On the route are ghosts of platforms and you are riding unaware over a viaduct which is visible from the street a hundred feet below. There was a railway yard, now a place for billboards (advertising was a huge feature of Victorian stations). Another part of it is scrubland which the Council is planning to turn into a further cycleway, restoring a bridge or two.
Once a railway line, now scrubland, future cycleway
The living railway, Glasgow to Edinburgh line
When I see the great nineteenth railway structures – the viaducts, the Forth Bridge, the grander railway stations, I feel that we are lesser beings living in the half ruin of a mightier civilisation. We don’t build such grandeur any more but conserve with our heritage industries, our endless touristing.
Bradley’s last chapter is about the volunteers running old lines. He describes a “steam-hauled express arrives from a visitant from the another world, a sort of industrial unicorn or dragon.” Crowds gather to view this icon of another age, as beautiful and obsolete as a full-rigged man of war.
“Made vivid again, here is something that transcends Nature, an amazing work of man; what H.G Wells, writing in 1901, proposed as the best symbol for the century that had just passed, ‘a steam engine running upon a railway.”
The Flying Scotsman
This time of year when we think of time passing.
Enter CHRONOS, with a scythe in his hand, and a great globe on his back, which he sets down at his entrance
Weary, weary of my weight,
Let me, let me drop my freight,
And leave the world behind.
I could not bear
The load of human-kind.
From Dryden’s The Secular Masque
Written for the seventeenth century rolling over to the eighteenth. It has the New Year resolution flavour about it at the end:-
All, all of a piece throughout;
Thy chase had a beast in view;
Thy wars brought nothing about;
Thy lovers were all untrue.
‘Tis well an old age is out,
And time to begin a new.
The Three Ages of Man by Titian in the National Gallery of Scotland
A poem which fits the weather as well as the time of year and one of my favourites by Thomas Hardy, who wrote beautifully about time passing and opportunities missed:-
They sing their dearest songs—
He, she, all of them—yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!
And brightest things that are theirs. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.
Time, time, time
See what’s become of me
While I looked around for my possibilities
I was so hard to please
But look around Leaves are brown
And the sky is a hazy shade of winter..
Look around, leaves are brown,
There’s a patch of snow on the ground
(Simon & Garfunkel – they were young things when that came out)
Who knows where the time goes? Sandy Denny, who died far too young.
And from he who was born middle-aged:-
Chard Whitlow by ”T S Eliot”
As we get older we do not get any younger.
Seasons return, and today I am fifty-five,
And this time last year I was fifty-four,
And this time next year I shall be sixty-two.
And I cannot say I should like (to speak for myself)
To see my time over again— if you can call it time:
Fidgeting uneasily under a draughty stair,
Or counting sleepless nights in the crowded Tube.
From The Hobbit – one of the riddles
This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.
And a picture from the 1976 Soviet edition of The Hobbit.
Have a good time while we mark time passing.
Christmas is the season for potted histories of the festival. Bolted on to the pagan solistice, celebrated for twelve feasting days in the middle ages, half stamped out by the Puritans under Cromwell, which caused pro Christmas riots. Christmas was fading from the scene under the Georges and then revived by the Victorians. Prince Albert brought the Germanic Christmas with him, the emphasis being on a family celebration. Charles Dickens turned it into the season of “hospitality, merriment, and open-heartedness” via A Christmas Carol and the country Christmas among snow in The Pickwick Papers. The commercialising civilisation of the Victorians invented crackers and Christmas cards and left us with the mish-mash of goodwill and purchasing, feasting and family we enjoy today.
The 12 days of Christmas have been extended to 30 or so of less concentrated celebrations with pantomimes, Nativity plays, concerts, work dos and Christmas jerseys. I took part in all of these this December and thoroughly enjoyed them.
The awful family Christmas, bleakly comical or merely bleak – the antithesis of Slade’s cheeriness in Merry Christmas Everybody – has become a tradition in its own right (a very recent example of the genre is Tom Wrigglesworth’s A Christmas Not Special).
It turns up in literature a good deal, Christmas being a time when characters get together and do their worst.
As well as exalting the ideal Christmas, Dickens could show an unhappy one at the Gargeries with the bully Mrs Gargery, and her victims, her husband Joe and her orphaned brother Pip.
We were to have a superb dinner, consisting of a leg of pickled pork and greens, and a pair of roast stuffed fowls. A handsome mince-pie had been made yesterday morning … and the pudding was already on the boil.
It is a ceremonious occasion. Guests come through the front door – locked for the rest of the year– and sit in the parlour – in wraps for the rest of the year.
Pip is kept very much in his place as an orphaned dependent, nagged and lectured by the rest. He is also sick with anxiety because he has stolen food for Magwitch the convict:-
Among this good company I should have felt myself, even if I hadn’t robbed the pantry, in a false position. Not because I was squeezed in at an acute angle of the tablecloth, with the table in my chest, and the Pumblechookian elbow in my eye, nor because I was not allowed to speak (I didn’t want to speak), nor because I was regaled with the scaly tips of the drumsticks of the fowls, and with those obscure corners of pork of which the pig, when living, had had the least reason to be vain…..
Joe, his ally, does his best:-
he always aided and comforted me when he could, in some way of his own, and he always did so at dinner-time by giving me gravy, if there were any. There being plenty of gravy to-day, Joe spooned into my plate, at this point, about half a pint.
Pip’s misery is interrupted by soldiers who visit the house when searching for Magwitch, and this chance of a hunt enlivens the company:-
As I watched them while they all stood clustering about the forge, enjoying themselves so much, I thought what terrible good sauce for a dinner my fugitive friend on the marshes was. They had not enjoyed themselves a quarter so much, before the entertainment was brightened with the excitement he furnished.
It is one of the most powerful scenes in the English novel, that Christmas dinner at the Dedaluses. Present:- Mr and Mrs Dedalus, Dante the aunt, young Stephen Dedalus, Uncle Charles and Mr Casey. Mr Dedalus carves, of course (always the man’s job).
the warm heavy smell of turkey and ham and celery rose from the plates and dishes and the great fire was banked high and red in the grate and the green ivy and red holly made you feel so happy and when dinner was ended the big plum pudding would be carried in, studded with peeled almonds and sprigs of holly, with bluish fire running around it and a little green flag flying from the top.
The green flag is for Irish nationalism. Tension starts rising between the devoted followers of Parnell and the devout Catholic Dante:-
Mrs Dedalus laid down her knife and fork, saying:
—For pity sake and for pity sake let us have no political discussion on this day of all days in the year.
(As the host carves, the hostess tries to keep the peace).
He heaped up the food on Stephen’s plate and served uncle Charles and Mr Casey to large pieces of turkey and splashes of sauce. Mrs Dedalus was eating little and Dante sat with her hands in her lap. She was red in the face. Mr Dedalus rooted with the carvers at the end of the dish and said:
—There’s a tasty bit here we call the pope’s nose. If any lady or gentleman…
He held a piece of fowl up on the prong of the carving fork. Nobody spoke.
It ends with Dante angrily leaving the table and the two Parnellites, Mr Casey and Mr Dedalus, weeping over the disgraced Parnell.
An atheist, Elizabeth Taylor had no time for Christmas at all, regarding it as something Christianity forced on the rest of society.
Richard, the young businessman, trapped with his wife and mother-in-law wishes despondently Christmas might be over. On Christmas Day he walks through the dull village “Lighted trees in the little houses, holly wreaths on front doors already looked old stuff. Christmas was petering out.”
He has a glum time while his wife has a childish enjoyment for Christmas including a stocking by her bed. Meanwhile their friends are depressed in London. Patrick waits in for his capricious boyfriend, “it should be possible.. to ignore the dismal Christmas scene outside, groups of people homing fast, back to Mother and Father, until they were all cooped up in their families, leaving the streets deserted. . . the deadly silence of the day.”
The boyfriend turns up, with a present of a tie that his uncle had given him, and he has his own memory of deadly family Christmases .. “It was a true sacrifice to this spirit his mother tried to foster when he, year after year, offered his cracker to his cousin. Taking one end, she would turn her head away and screw up her eyes, ready to give a little cry of alarm at the bang. Playing her part too he guessed. Wearily, but wearing his fixed, Christmas grin, he would read out the motto, put the paper hat on his head.”
1976 Ending Up by Kingsley Amis
It was adapted for television in 1989 and the Christmas scene starts at 31:00. (H/t JD)
The five main characters would in an allegory be called Malevolent; Boring; Affected; Put-upon; and Drunk. They live together in a cold cottage. Their accumulated years are strangling their bowels and hearts and brains. The grand-children and great-grand-children of Affected have turned up for a much begrudged duty visit. They sing carols and then:-
.. they had the presents. Those from the guests to the hosts were chiefly a disguised dole: tins or pots of more or less luxurious food, bottles of hard liquor, wide-spectrum gift tokens. Hosts showered guests with diversely unwearable articles of clothing: to Keith from Adela, a striped necktie useful for garrotting underbred rivals in his trade; to Tracey from George, a liberation-front lesbian’s plastic apron…
Christmas dinner was something of a success; it passed off, at any rate, without bloodshed.
Then there are parlour games which bring out the vicious hostility or bewildered stupidity of Malevolent and the rest. This grinding celebration is seen mostly from the point of view of the young relations who experience it as “boredom – a poor word, for the consuming, majestic sensation that engulfed him, comparable in intensity to a once-in-a-lifetime musical experience”. The young are full of repulsion and fear of the sight of “age, and then the only end of age.”
2001 Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is structured around whether the mother Enid will manage to gather her grown up children to enact the rituals of Christmas. I haven’t got the book to hand, but here’s a summing up:-
The fetish she makes of Christmas has uncomfortably recognisable comedy and pathos. (Her seasonal round-robins – laboriously written out on hundreds of cards, doing their best to spin the family’s numerous disasters into sunny good news and looking forward to a “heavenly” family celebration – are a classic example of the transparent denial so common in these missives.) When she finally wheedles her reluctant brood into attending, the event is hobbled by the accelerating decline of her husband and the cross-currents of resentment and misunderstanding between the family members. Mistletoe and wine this is not.
Any other examples of the bleak Christmas in literature?
Is that you all organised then? Have a nice Christmas!
Orwell originally wanted to be a poet and did keep writing verse.
A Dressed Man is a neat, sharp piece.
His Memories of the Blitz is new to me. As the editor of his poems, Dione Venables says of his poetry in general, “It has its moments.” The Blitz has not figured much in poetry though it is prevalent in films and novels. I can recall some lines of Louis MacNeice’s:-
As sometimes in the blackout and the raids
One joke composed an island in the night.
World War I, a war fought by most able-bodied men, not just professional soldiers, produced many poets. But as for the civilian experience of the World War II, many writers – like C S Lewis (Home Guard) and T S Eliot (fire watcher) took part without turning their experience into verse.
Memories of the Blitz
Not for pursuit of knowledge
Only the chances of war,
Led me to study the music,
Of the male and female snore
That night in the public shelter
With seats no pillow could soften,
Where I fled, driven out of my bed,
By bombs too near and too often.
And oh, the drone of the planes,
And the answering boom of the gun,
And the cups of tea in the dawn,
When the flames out-did the sun.
That was a long time ago,
Three years ago, or nearly,
And more has perished than gas-masks,
I could not tell you clearly,
What there can be to regret,
In a time of casual slaughter,
When the windows were empty of glass,
And pavements running with water.
But the guns have changed their tune,
And the sandbags are three years older,
Snow has kissed the flesh,
From the bones of the German soldier.
The blimp has a patch on its nose,
The railings have gone to the smelter,
Only the ghost and the cat,
Sleep in the Anderson shelter.
For the song that the sirens sang,
Is sunk to a twice-told story,
And the house where the chartered accountant,
Perished in headland glory,
Is only a clump of willow-herb,
Where I share my sorrow
With the deserted bath-tub
And the bigamous sparrow.
That has some very good lines, especially:-
In a time of casual slaughter,
When the windows were empty of glass,
And pavements running with water.
With the abstract “casual slaughter” against the particularities of the blown out windows and the broken water mains.
Also these relics of an urban war with a high civilian death count:-
The blimp has a patch on its nose,
The railings have gone to the smelter,
Only the ghost and the cat,
Sleep in the Anderson shelter.
Which is evocative, like those grey concrete pillboxes you still find on the coast, sunk into sand. Three years ago “a long time ago” for Orwell who of course did not have much time left himself.
The other day a boy of eleven told me the that his class had been to see an Anderson shelter in someone’s garden. It was very damp and mossy, he said.
George Orwell in the Home Guard