Walter de la Mare – Another Ramble

February 14, 2012

A problem with London in winter is that the low sun leaves many streets unlit for much of the day. You get strange lozenged corridors of light, passing through the interstices of  buildings, or sudden golden and blinding boulevards appearing for half an hour, then as suddenly losing their magic. Some London squares net quantities of the sun for longer, and the current Crossrail work, with its impromptu demolished areas of brick dust and rubble, has opened up some unusual angles of visibility and light in novel places. Nevertheless, on a day such as today, with the sky a glorious, ringing blue, and the sun’s clear light transmitted without impediment of warmth through the cold and crystal air, the only thing to be done is to get out of London and into the countryside.

I’ve always liked England’s winter landscape: black, green, damp and stark, even in its darkness strangely lucent. I thought I’d take some poetry with me and first of all grabbed Hardy, but he wouldn’t fit in my inner pocket, so I subb’d in Walter de la Mare, some of whose short stories I’d read at the beginning of last year and liked a lot. I’d flicked through his Collected Poems before and enjoyed what I’d read, but as I had a train journey ahead of me I thought I’d go from the beginning and work my way through.

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Leave the Capitol! Exit this Roman shell!

April 28, 2011

The view south-eastish from the Capitoline Hill, from which the auspices of the flight of birds in the skies were taken by the augur from the Auguraculum.  It also held, *gazes down quickly at a book held beneath table level*, a Temple of Juno famous for its sacred geese, who had raised the alarm when the Gauls tried to attack the citadel one night in 390 BC and were thence looked after at State expense, carried each year on litters with purple and gold cushions in a ceremony at which dogs were crucified as a terrible reminder of the guard dogs who  had failed to bark.

So, birds basically. On the Capitoline Hill. Look, I can’t help it if it’s boring, I just wanted to use that Fall line.

Anyone drunk Fernet? It’s utterly revolting and rather more-ish. Here’s the wikipedia list of ingredients:

Fernet is made from a number of herbs and spices which vary according to the brand, but usually include myrrh, rhubarb, chamomile, cardamom, aloe, and especially saffron, with a base of grape distilled spirits, and coloured with caramel colouring. Ingredients rumored to be in fernet include codeine, mushrooms, fermented beets, coca leaf, gentian, rhubarb, wormwood, zedoary, cinchona, bay leaves, absinthe, orange peel, calumba, echinacea, quinine, ginseng, St. John’s wort, sage, and peppermint oil.

The effect of taking it down in one was once memorably described by Kingsley Amis as being like ‘throwing a cricket ball into an empty bath’.

The way it works is this: you take a sip and think ‘that’s disgusting, it’s just like black mouthwash’. Then you put it down, vowing never to drink any more. Then you think, after a suitable interval, ‘There was something else there, I wonder what it was’. Whereupon you take another sip. ‘No,’ you say to yourself, not mouthwash, what’s that bitter taste?’

Sip.

‘Coffee?’

Pause.

Sip.

‘Or, wait, is that … marjoram?’

Pause.

Sip.

‘Surely that can’t be…’

Sip.

Sip.

Sip.

‘My tongue’s gone numb! That’ll be the wormwood! Pour me another!’ (crawl to kitchen singing Twa Recruiting Sergeants)

Because I was reading Wallace Stevens while drinking Fernet, and my mind couldn’t stagger too far from the immediate set of stimuli, it occurred to me that the way the flavours both mingle and rub abrasively up against each other was a little like the sonic effects of Wallace Stevens’ poetry. There’s little of the Fernet’s murkiness of course, the precision of the way the sounds explore each other is part of the appeal:

Insinuations of desire,

Puissant speech, alike in each,

Cried quittance

To the wickless halls.

The Ordinary Women

The way ‘insinuations’ and ‘speech’ each fight over/seduce/tug at the word ‘puissant’, so that a sort of exploration of the mouth, an articulation of unusual sound flavours akin to reading the perfumed auspices of the Fernet, occurs in the mind of the reader. The way also ‘quittance’ and ‘wickless’ have clearly been chosen for each other, their comparative obscurity, not least so close together, making them look like choices of sound more than whatever sense, which in turn paradoxically leads the reader to a greater secondary emphasis on meaning than might otherwise be the case…

So my mind ran drunkenly on.

Sip.

I searched for some more or less satisfactory formula: The way in which his poetry revels and toys with the specific sounds of words tests the meaning of those words… maybe. ‘Tests’ isn’t quite right, ‘weighs’ or ‘proves’ maybe. I read Sunday Morning several times. It’s more lyrical than many of his poems, and I felt that at least part of the mystery was described  in lines given the woman of the piece:

She says, ‘I am content when wakened  birds,

Before they fly, test the reality

Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;’

Fields are words, poetry the sweet questioning of their reality. The lines continue:

‘But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields

Return no more, where, then, is paradise?’

Several more or less trite paradises are sketched before a half-answer given:

There is not any haunt of prophesy,

Nor any old chimera of the grave,

Neither the golden underground, nor isle

Melodious, where spirits gat them home,

Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm

Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured

As April’s green endures; or will endure

Like her remembrance of awakened birds,

Or her desire for June and evening, tipped

By the consummation of the swallow’s wings.

By following the analogy of poetry’s sweet questionings above not too hard, these lines contain I think at least some sort of sense of the importance of poetry. Very often the paradise of a poem is found just after the poem has been finished, in its remembrance. Of course the lines in themselves contain a greater sense of the power of poetry than any half-assed drunken analogy drawing.

But birds, you see, birds again… and you thought I was just rambling.

Pass the Fernet.

Barp.


Is that a chisel in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?

October 17, 2009

I’m definitely going to this. I’ve long been a fan of Gaudier-Brzeska, initially coming to him through Pound and Wyndham Lewis. Likewise Epstein.

But most of all I’m looking forward to seeing Eric Gill’s designs and sculptures. There’s an article on him here. Whenever I walk past Broadcasting House, with Gill’s sculpture of Prospero and Ariel (see the photo accompanying the article) I’m reminded of the story, related by Simon Loxley in his Type: The Secret History of Letters:

The governors of the BBC, viewing the work from behind the tarpaulin, were startled by what they considered the extravagant dimensions of Ariel’s penis, and Gill was ordered to make a reduction.

I hadn’t realised, until I read the book, that Gill had been a pupil of Edward Johnston, the man who designed the London Underground typeface. Perhaps I should have done, the famous Gill Sans typeface closely resembles Johnston’s iconic creation.

Hey, it’s not all sans serif round here though – we are nothing if not bookish after all. David Kindersley was an apprentice to Eric Gill (to continue the genealogy) and in 1959, infuriated by the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation’s decision to go for a mixed case sans serif face for the signs on Britain’s expanding road system, produced his own MoT typeface.

[won’t let me link to the example of his road sign, sadly – you can see it on the link below]

The one on the right will be the familiar one, as it is the one that the Ministry of Transport eventually went with. There’s an article on the kerfuffle here, part of an excellent general history of road signs.

No, come back, seriously, I’m a wow at parties.

I would question the statement in that piece that it was Kindersley’s evidence that was found to be suspect though. According to Loxley it was the Ministry that had cited the (apparently non-existant) German evidence, and the dubious Californian evidence (the dodgy dossier of the late ’50s – Suez had nothing on it).  Kindersley’s typeface was more legible on smaller signs, and to my eye anyway, much more attractive. Difficult to see from the picture above, but it had been carefully designed for maximum utility –

Few of the letters are consistent with each other in the places where you would expect them to be. The top crossbar on the F ends with an upper serif and a slightly flared lower edge, whereas the corresponding section of the E has a double serif; on the E it is flared. the crossbar of the T is slightly flared, but has no serifs. The angled strokes of the Y are fatter, then taper, whereas the strokes of the V are of consistent width. The top of angle of the N has a small serif; those of the M have none. The bottom of the vertical stroke of the R has one small serif on the left edge, nothing on the right, whereas on the P there is a small serif on the left edge and a large on the on the right.
Kindersley had designed the alphabet this way to create maximum distinctiveness between the characters; he wanted there to be no confusion between them when view from a distance.

Few of the letters are consistent with each other in the places where you would expect them to be. The top crossbar on the F ends with an upper serif and a slightly flared lower edge, whereas the corresponding section of the E has a double serif; on the E it is flared. the crossbar of the T is slightly flared, but has no serifs. The angled strokes of the Y are fatter, then taper, whereas the strokes of the V are of consistent width. The top of angle of the N has a small serif; those of the M have none. The bottom of the vertical stroke of the R has one small serif on the left edge, nothing on the right, whereas on the P there is a small serif on the left edge and a large on the on the right.

Kindersley had designed the alphabet this way to create maximum distinctiveness between the characters; he wanted there to be no confusion between them when view from a distance.

It has a strongly British feel to it, weighty like old money, idiosyncratic and effective both in appearance and design, and would have reduced the size of the vast hoardings of directions that punctuate our roads. I wish they’d taken it up.

Kindersley married a very young wife late in his life, who survives him and carries on his work at the Cardozo-Kindersley workshop. They designed and executed the distinctive main gates at the British Library. Which, I think, brings us safely back to books, thankfully cocooned again from the world of fast cars and big willies.


Dear Person Who Found His or Her Way Here Using the Search Terms ‘Guicciardini’ and ‘Cheese’

October 7, 2009

I assume you were looking for a suitable cheese to have with a wine from the Guicciardini-Strozzi estate. If so, might I suggest a table pecorino? (NB: Not the hard, grating version, pecorino romano, which in its packaged supermarket form is disgusting.)

If, however, you were looking for mentions of cheese in the works of Lodovico Guicciardini, as I initially thought, then might I direct you to page 37 of the English translation (1593) of his Descrittione di […] Paese Bassi?

England

Thence come Cloathes and carsayes [kerseys] of all sorts, and of them great aboundance, both fine and course [sic], Frises, fine wooll, excellent Saffron, but no great quantitie, Tinne, Lead, Sheep skins, Cony skins, and divers sorts of fine furres, lether, Beere, Cheese and other victuals, and Malmesie (malmsey) brought out of Candia into England.

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Take the ayre? Recreation? Greatly delighted? What the suck?

March 3, 2008

A while ago I was reading a translation of Lodovico Guicciardini’s account of his travels in the Low Countries, Descrittione di Lodovico Guicciardini patritio fiorentino di tutti i Paesi Bassi altrimenti detti Germania inferiore (1567)—published in English in 1597 as The Description of the Low Countreys. It’s an informal and appealing work, of pleasantly varied interest, but does contain this remarkable entry on the Isle of Schellinck (incidentally I have silently altered the use of the ‘long s’. It’s pretty funny in, say, early editions of Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici – ‘Di∫dain to ∫uck Divinity from the Flowers of Nature’ for instance – but all too confusing without a suitably tailored font and ligatures.)

This is an Ilande in which are some villages abounding with excellent good pastures, greate plentie of Cattell and excellent good fish, especialle Dog-fish, the taking wherof is verie strange and ridiculous, for you shall understand that the Ilande men disguise themselves like Beasts, and in that attire go to the Seaside at such times as they knowe that these fishes will come forth of the sea to take the ayre for their recreation upon the shore, then these diguised men fall and dauncing and leaping with the which sport the fishes being greatly delighted are by the means drawne far from the Sea, while in the meane time nets are pitched betweene the Sea and them, which being done, the dauncers throwe off there digsuised apparell and discovere themselves, wherewith the fishes being astonished, flee towards the Sea and are taken in the nets.

I find it difficult to adequately explain this passage, although three alternatives seem available –

1) He didn’t actually go to Schellinck, and despite sort of implying that he has seen this curious custom, was having his leg pulled (or he totally misunderstood what the person was saying – possible in an area with so many dialects. It is a pretty total misunderstanding though)

2) Something of the sort actually took place and, as it is clearly described as a custom, also worked.

3) He was on drugs.

Anyone who can enlighten me will, on application, be bought a pint.


Champagne Charlie

February 13, 2008

Evelyn Waugh’s travel writing as selected in When the Going was Good is exceptionally enjoyable. Rather than generally review its considerable merits however I wanted to look briefly at a single incident when he was on a Mediterranean cruise. In Athens after a late night out, Waugh visits a friend –

I told him that I had had a late night, drinking after the ball with some charming Norwegians, and felt a little shaken. He then made me this drink, which I commend to anyone in need of a wholesome and easily accessibly pick-me-up. he took a large tablet of beet sugar (an equivalent quantity of ordinary lump sugar does equally well) and soaked it in Angostura Bitters and then rolled it in Cayenne pepper. This he put into a large glass which he filled up with champagne. The excellences of this drink defy description. The sugar and Angostura enrich the wine and take away that slight acidity which renders even the best champagne slightly repugnant in the early morning. Each bubble as it rises to the surface carries with it a red grain of pepper, so that as one drinks one’s appetite is at once stimulated and gratified, heat and cold, fire and liquid, contending on one’s palate and alternating in the mastery of one’s sensations. I sipped this almost unendurably desirable drink and played with the artificial birds and musical boxes until Alastair was ready to come out.

When I read this I was very struck; Read the rest of this entry »