thehuzzingsea

'So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.' ― George Orwell

Category: Books

Henry David Thoreau – a consideration

Walden Pond

My article in The Irish Times.

For someone who worshipped trees, the writer Henry David Thoreau certainly made good use of them: his journal, increasingly thought to be his most important work, ran to two million words, collated across 24 years in 14 volumes. There’s also a sweet irony in that Thoreau came from a family that accrued its wealth through pencil manufacturing, for Henry was often accused of “swinging the lead” in the worst possible sense when it came to his own life.

Last year was the bicentennial of Thoreau’s birth, resulting in a number of new titles on one of the giants of the American literary canon. There is a new biography Henry David Thoreau – A Life by Laura Dassow Walls (University of Chicago Press), while more targeted takes on the author of Walden come in the forms of The Boatman – Henry David Thoreau’s River Years by Robert M Thorson (Harvard University Press) and Thoreau and the Language of Trees by Richard Higgins (University of California Press).

Up to now, any consideration of Thoreau’s life has usually been poured through a mystical sieve. Anyone with a passing familiarity of Thoreau will think of a hermetic, ascetic environmental philosopher who penned Walden, that great work on nature and the self and its related ideas of regrounding, renewal and rebirth. This is a decent transcription of the most important loop of the writer’s life. But there’s much more to Thoreau, and what we already know is not always read in the proper light either – something that Dassow Walls strives to put right in her excellent biography.

Living at Walden Pond gave rise to the notion of Thoreau leading a hermetic life. But this supposition can be debunked by the fact that the only time he lived alone was the two years he spent at this now world-famous landmark (Thoreau’s was a short life, dying aged 44 of TB). The charge of seclusion from society can be thrown out, too, as Dassow Walls describes Thoreau’s large social circle of fellow pioneers, some closer to him than others: (erstwhile mentor) Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman, Margaret Fuller and John Brown, the sheep herder-surveyor who tried to form an army to counter pro-slavery insurgents who were forcibly taking control of the government of Kansas. The book also outlines Thoreau’s many trips to Boston, New York City, Canada and other places; how he would give regular lectures; speak publicly against slavery; spend time with Native American families; protest against unjust taxes (Thoreau thought a man’s duty is to break any law that’s immoral). He also, earlier in life, set up a school with his brother John based on progressive ideals, while being a skilled handyman meant Thoreau was constantly helping friends and family around his hometown of Concord. If “reclusiveness” shares such richness to society, then perhaps we should all utilise our great genius for staying at home.

 

Thoreau encountered plenty of Irish people during his lifetime. There were the famous encounters in Walden (which we shall not spoil for new readers by mentioning here) and due to the railroad expansion through Concord he met many families who arrived in town seeking work. His friends and family fretted over the Irish invasion of workers, but Thoreau soon rebuked them, saying: “The sturdy Irish arms that do the work are of more worth than oak or maple. Methinks I could look with equanimity upon a long street of Irish cabins and pigs and children revelling in the genial Concord dirt, and I should find my Walden wood and Fair Haven in their tanned and happy faces.”

Thoreau also happened to be at Cape Cod when, in nearby Cohasset, the famine ship St John, sailing from Galway, had foundered in heavy seas and high winds, breaking on the rocks just south of Boston in 1849. Only 23 of the 120 onboard were rescued and later Thoreau would use these unforgettable scenes to open his book Cape Cod after his visit to the disaster site. As he came to know the three generations of the Riordan family who settled in his home town, Thoreau wondered if they were living his ideals better than he was – dirt poor, yes, but living independent lives on the land, with little regard for “Yankee markers of success”.

Ever railing against injustice, Henry also intervened after hearing that Kerryman Mick Flannery won a spading contest at a county fair, only to see his boss claim the prize money. Thoreau drafted a petition collecting money to make up for the theft, while he also went door-to-door to raise the 50 dollars needed to bring Flannery’s family from Ireland, lending much of the money himself.

Thoreau – A Life is a brilliant, big-hearted, definitive and sympathetic biography that carries the original nature boy through a time of considerable flux in American life. It helpfully carries the reader to a different shore, too, for a refreshed view of this otherworldly, and yet truly American, writer and visionary. The writing always keeps a lightness of touch, yet is constantly weighted with scholarly research. Mirroring Thoreau’s eternal symbol of Walden Pond, Dassow Walls presents the reader with the strange, beautiful ripples of Thoreau’s personality that makes his life so fascinating, while at the same time she plumbs the documents of his journals, books, and letters to dredge up new ideas on his thinking and motivations. She is a confessed Thoreauvian, and this rewarding book is a testament to her, and its sometimes-maligned subject.

An idea Richard Higgins is keen to emphasise in his book is Thoreau’s – and our – relationship with trees. Readers of Walden are already aware that Thoreau held an unwavering faith in nature, and found solace in trying to comprehend his place within it. Thoreau realised that we sit within nature’s embrace, not the other way around; as though nature were mere window dressing to our everyday lives. He studied the fragility of nature, but was also aware of its force, and how it could consign humanity to the dustbin of extinction if need be. Thoreau watched the natural world as a realm of time, and as Higgins points out in this engaging book, he trusted his instincts: “we will sooner overtake the dawn by remaining here, where we are, than by chasing the sun across the western hills,” Thoreau observed.

 

From reading this book it is easy to imagine that Thoreau loved trees more than humans – to begin with, he believed trees did their duty more than his fellow citizens. “Thank God they (humans) cannot cut down the clouds,” he once wrote despairingly. This symbiotic love of his sylvan surroundings goes some way in explaining why some commentators now write him off as a crank; they view his abiding affection for nature as unhealthy, misanthropic. But his love of trees allows us to see his environmental prescience: he was writing of trees as purifiers of air and fountains of water long before terms like carbon sinks, or the word ecology even, were understood or defined. (Incidentally, Thoreau used the term “nature’s economy” in his writing.)

Writing on trees requires a special talent to make the subject come alive: Thoreau achieved this with aplomb, but Higgins’ prose sometimes fails to deliver. In compensation the book contains a number of impressive photographs of Henry’s “local world”, taken either by Higgins or from the historic plates of Herbert Wendell Gleason. It is a book to savour lightly and slowly, just as the subject himself might have prescribed.

Thoreau’s river years are covered in The Boatman, which is an admirable book, if less enjoyable compared with the others due to the narrowness of the subject and its academic anchor of style. Nevertheless, Robert M Thorson keeps his approach breezy enough to carry the reader downstream, and if the central current is a thin one, the author still manages to give a clear direction of Thoreau’s life and his links to the local waterways of Concord River Valley.

Inspiration for the title came from Thoreau’s file map of the Concord River – it runs seven feet in length – which he drafted a few years before his death in 1862. Emerson described Thoreau’s passion for the waterways in a letter: “Henry T Occupies himself with the history of the river, measures it, weighs it, and strains it through a colander of all eternity.” The Boatman leaves Thoreau’s woody persona on the shore without regret, and instead gets the reader’s feet wet with forensically detailed adventures in “Henry T” country.

Thoreau went to Walden Pond to live life on his own terms, and he wrote Walden in order to show the rest of us that it could be done. These books add worthy voices to the intention. Finding the opportunity to read the many titles on Thoreau is something to ponder all the same. In Dassow Walls’ selected bibliography there are 16 pages of writing linked to the writer-philosopher. How to find the time? We may need our own Walden after all.

 

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All aboard the Red Line – the Moscow Metro


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Kropotkinskaya Station A.Savin (Wikimedia Commons · WikiPhotoSpace)


It’s easy to understand why the Moscow Metro is one of the jewels in the crown of Russian and Soviet architecture. Let’s look at some numbers to begin with: the network runs 320km and comprises 200 stations that are used by more than 2.4 billion passengers each year. Plans are under way to add 80km this year, which should tie in nicely with the centenary celebrations of the October Revolution.The spellbinding beauty of many of the metro stations is what truly boggles the mind though; their elegance captures even the most cultured eye and lingers in the imagination. These cathedrals of the underworld, ‘people’s palaces’ as they became known, were built with such regal ambitions and resources that the Moscow Metro remains unsurpassed by any other public transport system in the world. Muscovite pride in their metro is tangible too, for even today you will find no graffiti or vandalism in any of the stations. They remain pristine.
The history of the Moscow Metro is both fascinating and somewhat abstruse to outsiders, like many elements emanating from Russian or Soviet Union life. How did a public transport system develop such a distinct identity? A useful understanding of its diversity and radical heritage can be found in an impressive coffee table book Hidden Urbanism: Architecture and Design of the Moscow Metro 1935–2015 by DOM publishers, which is edited by Soviet architecture experts Philipp Meuser and Anna Martovitskaya. The publication is graced with impressive contemporary photographs by Alexander Popov and provides a rich source of archival material in terms of designs, plans and maps. In true socialist fashion, there is also a section devoted to the workers who maintain the metro. Hidden Urbanism’s writing has a straight-no-chaser quality to it, and is selective in its history of the metro, with little in the way of any contentious issues such as the forced labour used in much of its building. A good companion volume worth investing in is Landscapes of Communism by Owen Hatherley, which takes in much of the same landscape, but with the English writer’s sharp judgment and muscular prose.

The Moscow Metro project began in 1935 under Joseph Stalin’s imperative for a public symbol befitting the benefits and progressiveness of the socialist system. Stations soon took on characteristics of religiosity and propaganda though, paying homage to the cult of the leader with bombastic icons. At Komsomolyskaya Station (1952), for example, a mosaic panel depicting Vladimir Lenin finds pride of place, while the interior is based on the triumph of the Soviet people in the Great Patriotic War. The station surroundings are palatial all the same: with marble arches, chandelier lighting, and richly coloured stuccoed walls.

The Moscow Metro first opened with 13 stations (11.2km network) with many foreign engineers involved in its development. Stations were built on islands, their style being utilitarian to begin with. This philosophy evolved into more artistically expressive designs as time moved on: from neo-classical to avant-garde and art deco aesthetics – we can see the dramatic difference between Kropotkinskaya Station in 1935, to 1944’s Elektrozavodskaya Station, for example.

It is remarkable how the history of the Soviet Union can be tracked through the metro stations: partisans and great generals are paid tribute with statues or testaments on walls; at Avtozavodskaya Station a quote reads ‘All this is the fruit of Stalin’s wisdom’. Under Stalin’s reign there was willing sacralisation of stations, yet a marked shift can be seen in the metro building of the Nikita Khrushchev era. In 1955 the Central Committee of the Communist Party issued the snappy-sounding resolution ‘No.1871 On Elimination of Superfluity in Design Work and Construction’. No longer would the USSR pour vast resources into public transport; instead money was to be funnelled towards mass housing developments and the incipient space race. Khrushchev brought the first surface-metro station, the first elevated-metro line, and the first station made from prefabricated reinforced concrete – from this point on there was the significant disavowing of Stalinist grandeur to the functionalism of the so-called centipede stations.

Elektrozavodskaya Station

The likes of Taganskaya Station (1950) provides a looking glass on the upheaval running through Soviet society at that time: originally the station was fitted with a grandiose panel entitled ‘The People’s Gratitude to their Commander and Leader’, with Stalin placed centre stage, being lauded by citizens. By the end of the fifties however, Stalin was gone, (in every sense) and in 1966 the panel was dismantled completely to create a passageway. Soon after, the station was fitted with decorative designs of cosmonauts, as attempts were made in every aspect of public life to show a willing reinvention of Soviet society and a softening of the regime.

The 1970s of Leonid Brezhnev saw Moscow Metro mixing modernism and a return to some form of monumentalism – see Pushkinskaya Station, Proletarskaya Station, or ‘The Tree of Friendship of Soviet Nations’ mural at Borovitskaya Station, for example. But from the 1980s on, through the break up of the USSR, there was a significant decline in both design and investment in comparison to what went before in the metro’s great tradition. A new programme of expansion was put in place five years ago by the city’s Mayor though, which has created new stations and added yet another tentacle to the great living organism that is the Moscow Metro. A modern perspective has taken hold to reflect to the outside world a Russian society in rude health – glass pavilions, bright colour schemes or achromatic single-vaults define the new age. The buildings may not carry the weighty social statements of those built in the pre-eminent years of 1930s-1950s, but then what does nowadays?

  • Hidden Urbanism: Architecture and Design of the Moscow Metro 1935–2015 by DOM publishers, Berlin, is out now

The Bittersweet Science


“Why did I fix fights?” the boxing manager Charles Farrell asks, as he lands the first glove in his essay in The Bittersweet Science. “Because it was the smart thing to do.” This rhetoric is the crooked arrow shooting right to the heart of darkness that is boxing, as fifteen very different writers, from differing perspectives, measure the sport’s pulse in this up-and-down collection. “Sport” is a strange label for boxing to begin with, as you don’t “play” when it comes to this discipline; it’s called “The Hurt Business” for legitimate reasons. And anyone that follows or is involved in boxing knows that something somwehere is being fixed, in all likelihood; and even if we don’t know, the suspicion lurks in the back of our minds, usually encapsulated in the image of some cartoonish Machiavellian manager or cartel.

It is nigh on impossible to raise the subject of boxing writers without one person chiming in with the familiarity of a ringside bell – A. J. Liebling, whose final fight piece for the New Yorker appeared more than fifty years ago, is still considered the doyen of pugilistic prose. Liebling’s The Sweet Science (1949) remains the bible for anyone with an interest in boxing.

This new collection gives a literal and spiritual twist to Liebling’s title (coined by the English journalist Pierce Egan), and while it never reaches the levels of élan laid out by Liebling, the book has plenty of moments that sing: from Rafael Garcia offering a different slant debunking certain language and ideas attached to boxing – Ernest Hemingway’s ‘moral’ and Norman Mailer’s ‘religion’ – which have long fed into the romanticism of the sport; to Sarah Deming writing about the female boxer Claressa Shields’s path from poverty in Flint, Michigan, to successive Olympic gold medals in London and Rio, while at the same time taking a swipe at Joyce Carol Oates’s book of mediations, On Boxing (1987) (”Oates uses fighters for her own peculiar project: in her case, one of establishing a position for herself alongside such serious, masculine names as Mailer and Hemingway.”).

Carlo Rotella, on the American boxer Bernard Hopkins, meanwhile, writes the stand-out piece in the book on how the former inmate of Graterford Prison managed to beat the system of the fight game by coming out the other side with his health and wealth intact; ”your intelligence come up” is George Foreman’s likeable phrase for how veteran fighters can evolve. Elsewhere, Robert Anasi’s essay is a close second as he looks back on his debut bout with its heady mixture of fear and fulfilment.As the editors Carlo Rotella and Michael Ezra say in the introduction, we may come to understand the workings behind the violent whirlwind of boxing, but we will never truly get to the bottom of it. There lies the fathomless, irreducible appeal of the fight business.

  • Article first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement 

‘Let’s Fulfil the Plan of Great Projects’

Some books have arrived by courier that look most intriguing:

Communist Posters – edited by Mary Ginsberg (Reaktion Books)

The Melnikov House – Pavel Kuznetsov (DOM Publishers)

Spying on Moscow – Denis Esakov (photos) Karina Diemer (text) (DOM Publishers)




Out of step in France 


No Way Out: The Irish in Wartime France 1939-1945 by Isadore Ryan 
Mercier Press £19.99 pp351


The cover of Isadore Ryan’s book suggests a pacy, historical thriller might lie within. It looks like a film poster, with “No Way Out” emblazoned across a monochrome photograph of a cobbled street looking towards the Eiffel Tower. Nazi insignia flags draped along a wall give an atmospheric effect. Instead of a Thomas Keneally-style tale, however, readers get the product of some exhaustive research by Ryan into the lives of Irish people living in France during the Second World War.
One of the most interesting revelations is that Ireland’s diplomatic representative in Paris, Gerald O’Kelly de Gallagh, sold booze from his wine business to Hermann Göring. There were far worse crimes and misdemeanours carried out in occupied France, and O’Kelly did claim, after France was liberated, that he never sold “the good stuff” to the Nazis.
By contrast, Killarney-born Janie McCarthy was awarded the Croix de Guerre for her work with resistance networks in sending reports to London during the occupation. When not dodging the Germans, McCarthy taught English in Paris. Dubliner Robert Vernon played a valuable role as a radio operator for a resistance network in the south of France. On the other side of the conflict, Michael Farmer and Dennis Corr are the only known Irish residents in France who ended up in court after the liberation. Corr, from Dundalk, and his French wife were said to have shown collaborationist tendencies while living in Biarritz. He was eventually found guilty of damaging national defence, sentenced to six months’ imprisonment and fined 3,000 francs.

Farmer sounds like a character from an F Scott Fitzgerald novel. A handsome fellow, originally from Cork, he was left $9m by an elderly American lady who had “wished to adopt him as a son”. There followed some deluded dabbling in the film industry, a tempestuous marriage to Hollywood star Gloria Swanson, and alleged consorting with the Nazis. After the war Farmer convinced French authorities that he had done nothing more than partake in debauched drinking sessions with the local gestapo and charges against him were dropped.

Ryan highlights the role the Catholic church played in occupied France, especially St Joseph’s on the Avenue Hoche run by Irish Passionists, and a convent on Rue Murillo. Irish people were guaranteed food and a bed for the night, while St Joseph’s played a crucial part in getting downed airmen out of the country.

Among those stranded in France was the disinherited Irish nationalist Lord Ashbourne, who ended up housebound and surrounded by his favourite Irish paraphernalia, such as a Celtic cross and a flag of the Red Hand of Ulster. He died in 1942, and was laid out in a kilt with a “Sinn Fein ring on the collar of his shirt”. It was Ashbourne’s mentally ill sister Violet Gibson who tried to assassinate Mussolini in Rome in 1926, but her bullet merely grazed Il Duce’s nose.
This is a worthy book, properly indexed and with an impressive bibliography, but too much of the writing lacks flair. It can tend to feel like a long list of tiny factual details. Of course the writer can work only with what’s in the archives, and Ryan admits that among the Irish residents in France “examples of fully committed members of the armed resistance are hard to come by”. Meanwhile, the two collaborators’ contributions to the German war effort “can confidently be estimated at virtually nil”. Disheartening words to find at the beginning of a book on a specialist subject.

This does not diminish the stories collected here which are linked together — Farmer, aside — by penury, making them all the more moving. That Ireland had little heft, diplomatically or financially, to alleviate its citizens’ circumstances was to be expected. While revelations about Irish diplomats spending time on the golf course or at the racetrack cleave to the stereotype of the work ethic of the ambassadorial classes, it is disturbing to learn about Irish passports being issued so casually and liberally.
At one point it was mooted that 200 Jewish families in an internment camp at Vittel be granted Irish entry visas, and that a ship be chartered to bring Jewish children to Palestine. Both ideas came to nothing; not helped, as Ryan says, by “the cautious approach of Irish officialdom”. Ultimately the Irish in wartime France is a footnote in history, but it reminds us of where Ireland feared to tread in 1939-1945.

  •  Article first appeared in The Sunday Times

Made for a sunny summer Sunday 


The Russian Soul: Selections from a Writer’s Diary by Fyodor Dostoevsky/Rosamund Bartlett

(Notting Hill Editions)

Henry David Thoreau – A Life by Laura Dassow Walls 

(University of Chicago Press)

The Boatman – Henry David Thoreau’s River Years by Robert M. Thorson 

(Harvard University Press)

Thoreau and the Language of Trees by Richard Higgins 

(University of California Press)

Two hundred years since the birth of Henry David Thoreau. Fyodor Dostoevsky isn’t far behind him; the bicentennial of his birth is in 2021. I’m looking forward to starting these, and hope to review them soon enough. Chapeau to the publishers!

Ian Nairn and serendipity 

There must be something to it surely: in the week when I had my essay on the inspirational, non-clubbable writer and broadcaster published in The Irish Times, I had a peruse of a second-hand bookshop only to find, side by side, original copies of Nairn’s London and Nairn’s Paris. 

For the princely sum of £4 (in the inside cover of Paris is another marking for 20p).

I’ve added pictures below, comparing them with my facsimile of London, well thumbed as you can see and with some ale markings, and the new edition of Paris, published with typical elan by Notting Hill Editions. Just look at Nairn’s face on those covers – the child-like, goofy grin is nothing but endearing; he’s like a portly John Turturro.

http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/pre-troubles-derry-through-ian-nairn-s-eyes-1.3060627?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

I shall run Nairn’s BBC travelogues again this weekend (with some Guinness West Indies Porter, which I’m sure he would slap his lips in satisfaction with) as a small gesture to his ghost, if indeed he was tapping my shoulder to go into that bookshop. ‘Look here mate…’, I hear him saying. 

The Nairn films are infinitely watchable in spite of their low-budget, dated (happily, in this instance), and cobbled together feel. He has a strange, melancholic relationship with the camera; I find him as compelling to watch on screen as, say, Richard Burton or Marlon Brando. At times I imagine he might start riffing towards a Shakespearean soliloquy as he shuffles around Halifax.

Anyway, I shall finish with this, because I have just uncapped another porter: despite his documented drift into darkness in his personal life and an unhealthy relationship with the booze, Nairn makes me laugh hard, and often, in his writing. (Whatever people think about him looking through a glass darkly, my instinct is that he lived his life the way he wanted to, and if that meant living until 53 or 83 years of age, I imagine Nairn would have thought, ‘well, so bloody what’.)
Here he is describing a pub, one of his true passions, The King’s Arms on the Fulham Road:


Below is how they advertise the pub on its website today. Nairn, how prescient you were…

…once again I hear his ghost: ‘And nooooowwww look at it! It makes me burn!’

Fads will come and go. 

Ian Nairn will remain. Raise a glass, chin chin.

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