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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“Odds and ends of messages coming out of nowhere”

February 27, 2011

This turned the conversation to visualising. ‘How’, he asked, ‘do you visualise “knight-at-arms, alone and palely loitering”? Is he mounted or on foot? And do you feel yourself Keats – five foot nothing? How do you see Wordsworth’s daffodils? Is it possible to translate the experiences of one sense into those of another? Surely not, for words cannot convey the essence of a sense.’

Tea with Walter de la Mare by Russell Brain

Reading this quote today brought to mind Rudyard Kipling’s astonishing short story Wireless. Kipling arranges a setting in which a tubercular pharmacist, without any knowledge of Keats, is inspired to intense poetric reverie by an accumulation of circumstantial detail – the freezing weather, the pharmceutical surroundings, tuberculosis, an infatuation with a woman called Fanny – and writes an almost exact copy of The Eve of St Agnes [actually exact fragments of Keats more generally, the starting point is The Eve of St Agnes] (You can see why Borges loved Kipling – it’s a little like Pierre Menard). All this while an early experiment in wireless communication is being prepared in an adjoining room.

The narrator attempts to comfort himself with reason:

Like causes must beget like effects

But the effort to explain away what he’s seeing causes his soul briefly to bifurcate:

Still, the other half of my soul refused to be comforted. It was cowering in some minute and inadequate corner – at an immense distance.

Certainly the supernatural is not excluded, but it is not simply a ghost story, it is a technological ghost story, the experiment with wireless communication is clearly not incidental. (I’ve written before about Kipling’s reconfiguring of the supernatural for the machine age)

The engagement with the detail of new technology is a distinctive part of late Kipling. The impossibility of translation of experiences, of encoded replication, that Walter de la Mare suggests, is challenged by the processes of mechanical representation (the repeating obsession with a fragment of film in Mrs Bathhurst – something developed memorably in The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares.) Challenged, not destroyed. To put it in the terms of the original quotation – the essence of a sense can convey words, specifically the same words; it can be replicated exactly.

Tom McCarthy is an obvious contemporary writer interested in these ideas. His C seemed to me to be heavily influenced by Kipling generally, and Wireless specifically. (An odd book C, the first third is among the best things I’ve read in recent years, but it only intermittently fires after that). The dancing silent children at the beginning is evocative of They, as is the wild motorcar ride. (Kipling, I believe, was one of the first writers to feature a motorcar in his writing). More generally, both explore the indeterminate boundaries between man and invented mechanism (see .007 amongst others). And of course, the conditions required for the exact replication of experience is one of the main obsessions of that wonderful book, Remainder.

There is another, perhaps somewhat incompatible interpretation: that Kipling’s story emphasises by the supernaturally unusual nature of the incident the uniqueness of all experience, and the manifestation if that emotional uniqueness in all works of art: it is the cohering of specific encoded detail into a picture of generally comprehensible meaning and significance. In a sense it supports de la Mare’s teatime musings.

It’s natural to cap this loose set of thoughts with a quotation from Walter Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which has application to the move in intellectual perception from non-translatable experience, to the age of the replication of experience:

During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence. The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstance as well.

(btw I can exclusively reveal that the knight-at-arms, alone and palely loitering was wheeling a pushbike  – I replicated it more or less exactly earlier this week)

(oh, and Walter de la Mare comes across as a bit of a silly old bore in these tea-time chats, expert in the non-falsifiable –

‘I believe telepathy is almost continuous: if you and I were not in telepathic communication now, we couldn’t carry on our conversation’

o rly.

Although they do occasion the sentence ‘He kept Moses in a Viennese cake-box’, the provenance of which I’ll leave you to speculate upon until I do something more general on him. All I will say for the moment is that his short story Lispet, Lispett and Vaine is a stone-cold masterpiece.)

(And, sorry about this, there’s an addition to the list of literary drinks in Wireless:

I refilled the stove, and, after reckless expenditure of Mr. Cashell’s coal, drove some warmth into the shop. I explored many of the glass-knobbed drawers that lined the walls, tasted some disconcerting drugs, and, by the aid of a few cardamoms, ground ginger, chloric-ether, and dilute alcohol, manufactured a new and wildish drink…

Anyone? Sounds rather pleasant. To be taken warm, with one of the asthma cigarettes that the chemist smokes. Don’t think it would have me writing Keats tho. Not if past form is anything to go by.)


2010: Year in Review

January 2, 2011

You are joking aren’t you?

In the words of Loudon Wainwright III: ‘Who in the world needs a review? Once was enough for me thank you’

(The only thing that I guess I might mention was that there was an amazing Ronald Searle exhibition in which the first item was drawing made in the Changi POW camp in Singapore, of a fellow inmate dying of cholera, which seemed to capture in its faint outline of skeleton and eye the very last ember of life in a man, the ultimate moment before death, the final point of humanity, so that just as death is the backdrop of satire this seemed to underlie all the splendid and proliferating grotesques and caricatures of his subsequent work. Pissed all over the Renaissance drawings exhibition anyway. Useful blogpost here.)

Still, lookit:

LETTERS FROM BISHOPSBOURNE: THREE WRITERS IN AN ENGLISH VILLAGE
by Christopher Scoble

Yes,and one of those writers is Jocelyn Brooke! The other two are Richard Hooker and Joseph Conrad (eh? Oh, he wroteThe Rover there. Hmm.)

I should probably read that, shouldn’t I? Hmm.

Did I tell you I went down to Elham, the place where Brooke spent his holidays as a child? Don’t answer that, I know I didn’t. I half wrote a long piece about it which covered Memory and Loss and THIS COUNTRY which is sitting gathering dust in my drafts.

Maybe I should do a Doctor Who style trailer of what’s coming up in the next series on The Idiot and the Dog (which I’m thinking of renaming The Idiot and the Dog and the Fucking Albatross Around My Neck by the way).

*exciting nuclear war strings with endlessly perorating drums*

WALTER DE LA MARE!

PUNCH AND JUDY!

HALF MAN HALF BISCUIT!

JENNIFER EGAN vs WELLS TOWER!

YOUR FUTURE OUR CLUTTER!

and… JOCELYN BROOKE! (that’s like the daleks bit – you know it’s coming you just don’t know when)

(obv when they do the tv trailers it usually means they’ve filmed at least some of it whereas when I write these words it means buggery fuck other than a platonic representation of the gossamer strands of mere noumenal conjecture that have haphazardly caught on the severed upturned and empty claw of my mind which strands are represented as the phenomenological fibs known as Fine Words, and as we all know fine words butter no parsnips).

It’s just I’m listening to this Rasputina album on spotify at the moment and I’m absolutely sure it’s very good but* it’s making it incredibly hard to concentrate. (*It’s got a song called Afternoon of the Faun on so perhaps I should have guessed, but it’s cunningly put near the end).

Don’t see why those without spotify shouldn’t have to put up with it –

See? idk is that any good? (This is where my critical faculties are at currently.)

I just want to listen to Waka Flocka Flame:

Maybe I should just rename it The Fucking Albatross.