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: Literature

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!

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Books which set the standards for journalism

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The Fields family, Alabama 1936 (Photograph: Walker Evans)

 

Nothing dates so decidedly as journalism. This is probably one of the most solipsistic statements to begin any article, but it’s true: so much spilt ink is soon swept out from the attic of memory; very little journalism is read twice. I refer to traditional journalism in this case, as new media listicles and click-bait copy are rarely read through at all, despite the increasing volume foisted upon our mental space.

Reportage remains a style of journalism which can lift itself above the frivolous freeway of traffic-generating content that obsesses modern media. In such form, the strange hinterlands of a good story can be transformed from journalism into literature. The continuing success of The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The Paris Review proves that there is still a place for long-form writing even in our increasingly time-starved lives. The United States seems to cherish its indepth journalistic tradition somewhat more than we do in Europe. This noble lineage was brought into mind reading the posthumously-published Cotton Tenants by James Agee. The 30,000-word book – punctuated with remarkable photographs by Walker Evans – originally was an article for Fortune magazine from 1936, documenting the lives of three families struggling through desperate times in Alabama. Fortune chose not to run it at the time of its writing for reasons that are still unknown. The book portrays a world that essentially doesn’t exist any more, a snapshot of impoverished cotton farmers, and I could not put it down until I had finished it.

Agee is best-known for his book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (written later, it’s a much broader canvas for his work in Cotton Tenants; one is meant to be sung, one is meant to be preached, said the author) and as a screenwriter of two classic films The Night of the Hunter and The African Queen. Despite this, Agee always felt a sense of dread of squandering his talent, which he carried with him to his early death from a fatal second heart attack at the age of 45 in 1955. He died in the back of a New York City cab on his way to a doctor’s appointment.

Cotton Tenants is a small book but it packs a heavy punch with its clinical details of the families’ subsistence, where the weight of living is crushing them slowly, grinding them into the very ground they furrow. The three families are inescapably locked into capitalism’s cruel cycle; their only release will be death, the finality of their laborious existence is their only escape from the abject misery of poverty.

This brutal archaic agriculture system is no longer part of American life, yet it remains heartbreaking to read their stories all the same. The book is compelling, largely thanks to Agee’s machine-gun fire prose, as he rattles out descriptions of the families’ lives: diet, clothes, education and so on. The fact he never lays it on thick is part of the book’s appeal; then again, he doesn’t have to. The suffering is there in black and white, and in the photographs too, even if they do have a compassionate dignity to them. That being said, a page never slips by Agee where he’s not lifting the prosaic day-to-day into poetry: the families’ disenfranchisement always finds an unsettling death dance under his pen. The writer Adam Haslett describes Agee’s prose style perfectly as “Jesus strained through Marx”. For example: “A civilization which for any reason puts a human life at a disadvantage; or a civilization which can exist only by putting human life at a disadvantage, is worthy neither of the name nor of continuance.”

Some may ask why we should read a piece of journalism that’s 80 years old and recounts an age that’s long since disappeared. One reason is because the likes of Agee’s work sets the bar as to what journalistic inquiry should be. Another reason is that dehumanization can take different forms and remains with us today, be it in sweat shops in Bangladesh, tourist hustlers in Thailand, or the absurd debt trap culture forced upon ordinary working people in western society. In the modern age, progress is always pitched in positive terms under the yoke of capitalism. However you will be hard pressed to find many positives from such a consensus in David Bandurski’s valuable account of rural resistance to economic regeneration in China.

China’s seemingly unrelenting growth figures – which are readily cast in doubt by economists – has resulted in voracious demand for land and natural resources, meaning much of the ground rural villagers stand on is as valuable as diamond jewels. Hence the book’s title, Dragons in Diamond Village, from Bandurski who is an American journalist and film-maker. Being a fluent Mandarin speaker and having extensive experience of Chinese culture allows Bandurski to take us into the heart of the matter, and in meticulous detail he tells the human stories involved in the battle against corruption, cronyism and intimidation perpetrated by a faceless ruling class.

China had 320 cities when it put in place its economic reforms in 1978; as of this year the country has 660 cities, many of which have ruthlessly swallowed up urban villages, which traditionally were farmed and developed by rural communities. The Chinese state now wants even more of this land, at any cost, to continue the drive for economic growth, and (similar to the cotton tenants of 1930s Alabama) many poor people are at the mercy of the political establishment. There is no private land ownership in China; it belongs to the state. “State-held” land can be developed for commercial reasons, while “collectively held” land is controlled by village communities, and rural Chinese people consider this land their birth right. The latter is what the developers want to take hold of, by any means.

The villagers are organising and fighting back though, and Dragons in Diamond Village paints a painful, but brave, picture of their struggles against an unchecked ideology of communism on one hand, and capitalism on the other. (To give an idea of China’s development and monocratic political makeup, between 2011-2013 the country consumed more concrete than the United States consumed in the entire 20th century; as Bandurski notes, rural China is being paved out of existence. According to Forbes magazine more than 90 per cent of the richest people in the country are members of the ruling Communist Party). Bandurski makes a good fist of simplifying a complex land system and tradition, and densely details the plight of many individuals, while holding a light to the hypocrisy of the Chinese Communist Party. It is a just account of social struggle well worth reading.

Someone who had little time for any Communist party was George Orwell, a master of long-form reportage with such timeless non-fiction as Homage to Catalonia, Down and Out in Paris and London, and The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell’s account of the working class in north England has often (depressingly) been used to give him an intellectual kicking post factum, especially due to a particular sentence he included in the book: “. . . the lower classes smell”. A simple statement of truth never got in the way of a revisionist ideologue’s opinion when it comes to a minor critic bashing a major reputation.

Thankfully the English academic John Sutherland resides nowhere near this cul-de-sac of cranks, but instead uses this sentence of Orwell’s as a jumping off point to write a biography of one of his literary heroes, warts and all considered. Having lost his sense of smell recently, Sutherland decided to re-read Orwell’s oeuvre and was struck by the importance the author placed on odour throughout his writing, be it shag tobacco, or furtive rolls in the summer grass with a lady friend (Sutherland does seem disconcertingly fixated on Orwell’s “rutting” throughout the book).

Having read three biographies on Orwell before, I wondered what more could be excavated from the bones of Eric Blair and his alter ego George with Orwell’s Nose. Sutherland’s book is an excellent read though. Written with a breezy and freewheeling style, he skilfully manages to encapsulate the life of one of the 20th century’s most important writers in about a third of the word count of other books. The prose is infused with wry humour and apt judgment on George’s endeavours. If you’ve yet to read an Orwell biography, it is a fine starting point. If you can’t resist all things Orwell, like me, then pinch your nose and dive in on this admirable portrait of a deeply flawed man with faultless prose.

Orwell’s Nose by John Sutherland (Reaktion Books)

Dragons in Diamond Village by David Bandurski (Melville House)

Cotton Tenants by James Agee & Walker Evans (The Baffler)

* Article first appeared in The Irish Times

Street life: visionary who changed how we think about cities

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Jane Jacobs (photo: The Center for the Living City)

This year cannot be allowed to pass by without reference to its being the centenary of Jane Jacobs, the renowned American thinker and writer on cities and urban spaces. Jacobs was an activist who emboldened many to challenge the established order when it came to public planning, someone who said of the metropolis: “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”

We should hold on to her ideas: Jacobs was a common-sense champion of how places should be allowed to grow and shape themselves around us, not the other way around.

Down the years her work has been a source of elucidation for many people who have cared for the environment surrounding them, but who perhaps have been unsure about how to mobilise their thoughts against the abstraction of civil bureaucracy, something which often seeks to depersonalise – disengage us from – our living space.

Understandably a raft of books have appeared to coincide with the centenary of her birth. Becoming Jane Jacobs by Peter L Laurence (University of Pennsylvania Press), Jane Jacobs: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (Melville House Books) and Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs, the biography by Robert Kanigel (Knopf) look like notable additions to the canon.

However, it is a masterwork from her own pen for which Jacobs will be best remembered. The Death and Life of Great American Cities was first published in 1961 – a reprint is available from Vintage – after an article by Jacobs three years earlier in Fortune magazine was noticed by the Rockefeller Foundation, which offered her funding to write about cities.

A postage-stamp synopsis of the book is that Jacobs felt cities to be organic, that they evolve and develop over time depending on how the people living in the space use it; cities would not be formed with some painting-by-colours methodology of planning.

The streets are what make the city, wrote Jacobs, which was contra-modernism and its fashionable Corbusien ideas at the time of neat grids and high-rise towers lifting people off the streets. These ideas would have resulted in a place where people are looking inwards at courtyards, rather than outwards to what Jacobs called the ballet of the daily workings of the street.

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody,” said Jacobs, in her ardent opposition to one-size fits all planning. She wanted diversity, density and engagement and maintained that cities were safer with “eyes on the street”.

Jacobs was an autodidact and an outsider, just like that other great poet of place Ian Nairn. She was not some sleek metropolitan and The Death and Life of Great American Cities rocked the establishment and rattled architecture’s gilded cage.

Quite an achievement for someone born in the unfashionable coal-mining town of Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1916, and who had no college education or formal training.

It is also worth bearing in mind the general attitudes to a strong-willed woman in that era; all these facts probably added to the shock felt by Jacobs’s temerity; the New Yorker critic Lewis Mumford dismissed her reflections as naive while reviewing the book under the headline Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies, for example).

Born Butzner to a doctor father and school teacher mother, it seemed young Jane was something of a firebrand from early on: playing pranks at school, showing little concern for authority by secretly reading books during lessons and holding imaginary conversations with Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin (depending on who was lodging in her imagination at the time).

She chose an unpaid internship at the Scranton Tribune instead of going to college, before moving to join her sister in New York in 1934. She worked various jobs, all the while immersing herself in the big city, before her first writing opportunity came. It was an unglamorous one in a metal trades paper, but it got her started, leading to a series of commissions from Vogue magazine.

Supposedly her pieces about the city were earning Jacobs $40 a time, while she was on $12 a week working as a secretary. While hosting a party in her apartment in April 1944, she met her husband, Robert Jacobs, an architect, and they married in May. Jacobs said later in life that she only wrote books due to his encouragement.

The Jacobs made their home above a sweet shop in 555 Hudson Street, in Greenwich Village, which these days can attract as many fans of architecture as any modernist masterpiece. Here she watched the dance of the street at dawn and dusk and evolved her ideas on urban planning even further by taking a position at the Architectural Forum.

The esteem bestowed on Jacobs after the publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities saw her become involved in the protests against New York City planning chief Robert Moses’s proposals to build the Lower Manhattan expressway. This was to run through the heart of Greenwich Village and the very streets where Bob Dylan would scuff his shoes and polish his verse.

The tussle between Jacobs and Moses has already been well documented (there’s even an opera based on it) so there is no need to go into it here. But the victory and Jacobs’s organisation of like-minded citizens who fought to preserve the Village was the embodiment of citizen empowerment. It showed everyone else that planning was too important to be left to the planners.

The long-running dispute has become the stuff of legend, partly because “ordinary mom” Jacobs took the fight both on to the street and into the corridors of powers. She took on Moses, one of the most powerful figures in the US at the time, and won.

Many on the left saw her as an inspiration of how an organised community can take on capitalism and come out victorious. Of course, Moses’s haughty attitude to the public played a significant role in the project’s defeat as well: at a proposal hearing on the plans, he was quoted as saying: “There is nobody against this – nobody, nobody, nobody but a bunch of . . . a bunch of mothers!”

As time went on, and the proposed motorway’s momentum faded, one imagines Moses probably affixed another word to the merry band of “mothers”.

In the end those who fought to save Greenwich Village were triumphant, although the Jacobs moved on. They went to Canada in 1968 after their two sons said they would rather go to jail than be conscripted to fight in Vietnam.

Unsurprisingly, Jane Jacobs soon became involved in similar campaigns in Toronto. She remained there until her death in 2006, aged 89.

The historian Robert Caro, who has written a tome on Moses, said she was not the first person to stress the importance of neighbourhood, which is correct, but he went on to add: “But no one had ever said it so brilliantly before. She gave voice to something that needed a voice.”

What Jacobs would make of what we call “gentrification” today is hard to say. She believed in cities growing by themselves, so would her theories apply to the tech generation that has taken over San Francisco, squeezing out the diversity and freakbeat fabric that made the city one of the most distinctive in the world? Or to Paris, which is now mostly an urban centre for the wealthy, ringfenced by poverty and the rest of the population?

Organic developments can also embody undesired change and urban cleansing; it would have been nice to have heard her views on such places.

Ultimately, Jacobs helped change the way we think about cities, whether you believe her ideas stand or fall. She gave us another prism through which to consider how we plan our urban space: when we do intervene, it shouldn’t be just about making things new, it should be about making things better.

One hundred years on from her birth, we now have the necessary perspective to realise how perceptive she was. Those “eyes on the street” she talked about included her own, always framed by those striking owlish glasses. We were lucky to have them.

* Article first appeared in The Irish Times

Mansion among the people

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Mansion House Dublin (all photos courtesy of Dublin City Council)

Pomp and ceremony does little for me usually, but if I’m ever trudging through the Dublin streets on a crisp cold or ragged wet night then I always find warmth passing the Mansion House on Dawson Street which, until the Luas line developments, was always the prettiest street in the city.

Set back from the road, with two-storeys of seven bay windows, the elegant illuminated facade of the Mansion House has a curative quality to lift any cursing part of your soul, even as you walk into the teeth of a howling gale. It looks best at Christmas time, when snow is falling: its understated tree stood out front, while the shadows loll in the iridescence of the stemmed lanterns running along the lower face of the house, distinguished by its Georgian porch (by Simon Vierpyl) and Victorian wrought iron portico (by Daniel Freeman). The building takes on a magical quality in these moments: like some lustrous smile peering out at you from the depths of winter’s darkness. It always makes me think of the ghosts that may be fleeting ethereally through Dawson Street; past St Ann’s Church, built in 1719 , and the Mansion House, its older neighbour by nine years.

It’s a little more than 300 years since Mansion House came into the ownership of Dublin Corporation, having been purchased on 18 May 1715 from the property developer Joshua Dawson for the princely sum of £3,500 sterling, a yearly rent of forty shillings to Dawson, and the rather bizarre condition of a loaf of double-refined sugar weighing six pounds to be handed over each Christmas (unsurprisingly this was never paid, nor sought out).

Dawson was originally from Dawson’s Bridge, Co Derry but moved to Dublin to further his career, where he became a high-ranking civil servant based in Dublin Castle and MP for Wicklow borough (apparently while living in the city he kept his evenings full too by managing a network of spies working to undermine Catholic priests; well before they started doing it for themselves).

In Dublin Dawson built the Mansion House as his private residence in the Queen Anne style. It was quite an unusual move in a quintessentially Georgian city. But such was the Tory from Derry’s love for the ruling monarch he went ahead with a design type that artist Osbert Lancaster said ‘would be more rational and more just to call Wren… few monarchs have displayed less interest in architecture than that monarch’.

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Stain glass window

Dawson bought a tract of land to the east of St Stephen’s Green in 1705 and drained the marshy ground and laid out a straight road running parallel to Grafton Street, unabashedly naming it after himself; Duke Street and Anne Street soon followed as part of his urban plan. After the development flurry Dawson was called back to take over the family estate in his home county, and he promptly offered the house to Dublin City Assembly on the proviso he would build an extra room that could be used for civic receptions – the now famous Oak room. It’s fitting the man originally from the county of oaks would depart on such a note.

When the First Citizen of the city duly took residence in the house he was given an annuity of £500 sterling each year for entertainment purposes, along with 10,000 oysters from the civic oyster beds. It’s a pity the Mayor could not get hold of Thackeray in order to lubricate his quill with claret-soused kindness and salt his tongue with Dublin Bay’s finest. The great English writer was not impressed by the Mansion House when his eyes fell upon it. In his essay ‘A Summer Day in Dublin’ from ‘The Irish Sketch Book’ (published in1843) he noted:

I had just passed his lordship’s mansion in Dawson Street, – a queer old dirty brick-house, with dumpy urns at each extremity, and looking as if a storey of it had been cut off – a rassée-house. Close at hand, and peering over a paling, is a statue of our blessed sovereign George II. How absurd these pompous images look, of defunct majesties, for whom no breathing soul cares a halfpenny!” 

He certainly was right on the second point. From reading his travelogues, the ‘Vanity Fair’ scribbler could be dyspeptic at the best of times, and the Queen Anne style had fallen thumpingly out of fashion by that stage of the 19thcentury – Victorian buildings were vogue – and nothing fell harder from Thackery’s pen than that which was not in fashion.

Many original features of the Mansion House remain, the two main staircases for example; quite a feat for a house now in the foothills of its fourth century (it’s worth noting the city of London did not build a mansion house until thirty years after Dublin). Naturally there has been changes to the likes of the Supper Room, the Oak Room, the Lord Mayor’s Garden, and the surrounding area of the house. For indepth details of changes made (and the many mooted) throughout its history it is worth consulting the impressive ‘The Mansion House Dublin – 300 years of history and hospitality’ by Dublin City Council for a rich account and meticulous itinerary of this Dublin landmark. Some of the more significant additions or alterations to the house have played a part in Ireland’s storied past. The Round Room stands out for one. It was built beside the Mansion House, on part of the former bowling green, in just six weeks for the visit of King George VI in 1821 (the roof atop the Round Room was a temporary one, such was the builder’s haste; a permanent one was put in place three years later).

This same room would go on to hold the meeting of the first Dáil on 21 January 1919, which is so memorably captured in Tom Ryan’s painting which now hangs above the entrance to the Dáil chamber. What goes around comes around in the Round Room it seems, which John Croker Wilson described as: ‘the circular court of a Moorish palace open to the sky: the battlements were a gallery walled with ladies, music and a company of halberdiers in Spanish dresses of light blue silk, as a guard of honour to the king.’

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Drawing Room

The Round Room was also scene to many a Lord Mayor’s Ball down the years, and the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1861 had ‘The Irish Times’ praising the House Steward Mr McCleaverty whose arrangements were ‘so perfect that although there were over 100 persons present, no inconvenience resulted to the guests’. Things must have become somewhat boisterous however, and maybe even out of hand (although these details were sadly not reported) as the same newspaper carried a number of advertisements looking for valuable property lost at the ball. One offered a reward ‘if found by a poor person’. If such a poor beggar had chanced upon an expensive bracelet or a purse stuffed with coins, I can’t imagine they would have handed them in. Not for all the oysters in Dublin Bay.

  • The Mansion House Dublin – 300 years of history and hospitality is published by Dublin City Council, Dublin City Library and Archive
  • Article first appeared in Architecture Ireland http://architectureireland.ie/

Pen-and-inkery – the magical drawings of Osbert Lancaster

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Osbert Lancaster did not have to look far for caricature. Sporting a walrus moustache, and always dressed in true dapper dandy style with tweeds or pinstripes, he possessed all the natural self-awareness he and other members of the ‘Brideshead Revisted’ brigade brought to any luncheon.

A rambunctious figure, Lancaster could have easily bounded out of a PG Wodehouse novel – in many photographs he looks like Larry Olivier with a few extra potatoes.

But beneath this surface of seeming superciliousness lay depths of talent and discernment. Lancaster was a designer, cartoonist, writer on architecture and travel, and a humorist. He enjoyed nothing more than poking fun at the very establishment he belonged to – and fortunately his work is in print again thanks to Pimpernel Press, which has published a beautiful three-volume slipcase edition of his books: ‘Osbert Lancaster’s Cartoons, Columns and Curlicues’.

The books are made up of Lancaster’s architectural drawings published across the period of the Second World War, tracing the line between the pre-war ideas of preservation, and the post-1945 movement towards renewal and reinvention. In the introduction to the first of these books, ‘Pillar to Post’, Lancaster threw his jocular saddle over a po-faced subject: ‘All the architecture in this book is completely imaginary, and no reference is intended to any actual building living or dead.’

The drawings that follow are satirical, funny, and extremely accurate – so much so that his descriptions were added to the design lexicon: ‘Banker’s Georgian’, ‘Pont Street Dutch’, ‘Pseudish’, ‘Stockbroker’s Tudor’ are all used today. Looking at his drawing ‘Twentieth Century Functional’, it’s fair to say he flagged part of the embryonic modernist movement: a cubist house, and a touch of the ‘Mad Men’ lifestyle thrown in as the hip couple sunbathe on a rooftop, waiting for cocktail o’clock no doubt.

The other volumes, ‘Home Sweet Homes’ and ‘Drayneflete Revealed’, cast an irreverent eye towards matters of domesticity, and presaged some of the conflicts found within the good intentions of the New Town planners (‘The Drayneflete of Tomorrow’ perfectly encapsulates the new city ideology of grids, boulevards, airports and high rises). Lancaster coined more new terms for suburban living in these volumes – ‘By-Pass Variegated’, ‘Aldwych Farcical’ – and always made sure to include the one thing that seems almost sacrilegious to architectural design and drawing: people.

Lancaster’s visions contained such a sharp satirical edge that his long-time friend John Betjeman noted: ‘My only fear… is that some town councils may get hold of (these books) and take it literally.’ His drawings poked some sacred political cows as well. At a time when many people on the left were apologising for or turning a blind eye to Stalin’s Soviet Union, while condemning the actions of Hitler and the Third Reich, Lancaster made two drawings side-by-side in ‘Pillar to Post’. Titled ‘Third Empire’ and ‘Marxist Non-Aryan’, it showed identical structures and designs, bar the easily adjusted window-dressing of Stalinist and Nazism military insignia.

modernhouse

 

Osbert Lancaster was born in Notting Hill, London in 1908, and after leaving Oxford with a fourth-class degree and failing his exams to enter the legal world, he found himself somewhat adrift. Art school did not work out for him either, so he started out as a freelance illustrator, designing posters for London Transport and other companies. Betjeman was working on the ‘Architectural Review’ by the 1930s, and soon got his old pal involved. This led to a job with the ‘Daily Express’, when it was still a newspaper of note, and it was here that Lancaster pioneered the pocket cartoon that we are all familiar with now (a single panel, single column drawing). He became part of the Fleet Street furniture during this golden age of newspaper journalism, contributing an estimated 10,000 cartoons over a period of forty years. “He was a bastard”, Lancaster later recalled of Express proprietor Lord Beaverbrook, “but by God he knew his journalism.”

The books on architecture are what Lancaster should be best remembered for though – they are humorous first and foremost, but they also helped disseminate knowledge of architectural styles to many people. The drawings and designs allowed people have the confidence to critique new fads, while at the same time they gave welcome voice to the conservation calls in the urban planning debate. It could be argued that ‘Drayneflete Revealed’ was a much greater force on the issue of urban renewal compared to a 5,000-word polemic, for the simple reason that more people would read it, and, just as importantly, turn the pages joyfully to watch the argument played out.

‘The object of this book,’ Lancaster wrote of ‘Pillar to Post’, ‘is to induce an attitude to architecture less reverent and of greater awareness.’ The books are of their time, of course, but their legacy is part of the strong heritage culture that we rightly fight for today.

When Osbert Lancaster died in 1986, ‘The Times’ observed that ‘with his poached-egg eyes, martial moustaches, tweedily dandified clothes and bufferish-pose as the last of the great clubmen, he seemed to have stepped out of the magically preposterous world of his own drawings.’

Not a bad epitaph for a boy with a fourth-class degree.

 

‘Osbert Lancaster’s Cartoons, Columns and Curlicues’ (2015), Pimpernel Press, £40

  • Article originally appeared in The Irish Times

 

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Czesław Miłosz

 

‘Death is endowed with the supreme authority of Law and universal necessity, while man is reduced to nothing, to a bundle of perceptions or even less, to an interchangeable statistical unit. But poetry by its very essence has always been on the side of LIFE.’

Vladimir Nabokov, in a letter to his wife Vera

 

‘You came into my life, not as one who comes to visit, but as one comes into a kingdom where all the rivers have been waiting for your reflection, all the roads for your steps.’

 ‘Putting a factory on stage will tell you nothing about capitalism.’

Soldiers’ Pay by William Faulkner

Faulkner’s Underwood Universal Portable typewriter in his office at Rowan Oak, which is now maintained by the University of Mississippi

 

Last week I went back to the beginning with one of my favourite writers, William Faulkner, by reading ‘Soldiers’ Pay’, his first novel. It’s very enjoyable, even if one clearly sees some of the natural flaws that can appear in a first book (too much reference to the weather, for instance; an unwieldy narrative at times). But any criticism is to be readily expected of an early work by a great writer, and especially from a reader who has gone through Faulkner’s major works beforehand.

Published in 1926, ‘Soldiers’ Pay’ is the story of a wounded veteran’s homecoming following the First World War; it traces the lives of three soldiers and the impact of their return upon their families. In the book we can see Faulkner slowly, but steadily, finding his inimitable storytelling voice that he perfected in the ‘The Sound and the Fury’, ‘Light in August’, and ‘Absalom, Absalom’.

 

The major theme I enjoyed most in the book was the characters’ struggles to find meaning in their lives, trying to give their lives a meaning, in the wake of the Great War. The First World War’s shadow looms large over the men, women and children, and they try to find light in a world that seems to be slowly dying.

 

The novel is noteworthy too in that the central character, Mahon, is a shell of his former self, has the least to say, and yet is the figurehead that the other characters cling on to in order to find some form of redemption. Faulkner’s biographer, Frederick R. Karl, makes the point that Faulkner uses Mahon as an exalted Christ-like figure, sacrificed to the gods of war. Despite being a hapless body smashed by the First World War, Mahon’s being determines the world that now surrounds them. The themes of silence, emotion and sacredness are all here and of course would become recurring motifs through many of Faulkner’s later works.

 

William Faulkner

Faulkner’s representation of women in ‘Soldiers’ Pay’ is conflicted and probably drew upon personal experience. There is the strong, worldly, maternal figure of Margaret Power and then there is Cecily Saunders, a spoiled, shallow, sexual tease who seems to have no ideas or purpose in life. One of my favourite moments in the novel is from Margaret Power. After having her way with one of the soldiers, Joe Gilligan, she spurns his declarations of feelings, leaving him with a bruised ego. Margaret asks him why he’s so upset; is it because I’ve done to you Joe, what a man would do to a woman?

 

It seems that when Faulkner sat down to write ‘Soldiers’ Pay’, there was little sense that he would become America’s leading novelist of the 20th century. Hemingway often complained that Tolstoy had a unique advantage in his writing to everyone else, because he had been a soldier and had experienced life and death at their most heightened senses. One wonders if the modern novelist now feels the same about Hemingway and Faulkner, who both had the momentous events of the World Wars to hang any story upon. (It is pointed that both men started out with the intention of becoming poets, as well as soldiers; that most romantic and tragic of all figures in the world of letters.)

Faulkner wanted to be a writer because he wanted the leisurely lifestyle it afforded his friend Sherwood Anderson, but also because he realised it was ‘fun’ when he got down to it. Writing probably was fun for dear old Bill, but then genius can make creation come easily. The rest of us must struggle and plough a lonely furrow. All the same, it’s worth listing some of the advice Faulkner gave on writing, and I’ve also included an interesting video of the writer’s time at the University of Virginia.

 

I think the writer, as I’ve said before, is completely amoral. He takes whatever he needs, wherever he needs, and he does that openly and honestly because he himself hopes that what he does will be good enough so that after him people will take from him, and they are welcome to take from him, as he feels that he would be welcome by the best of his predecessors to take what they had done.

I think the story compels its own style to a great extent, that the writer don’t need to bother too much about style. If he’s bothering about style, then he’s going to write precious emptiness–not necessarily nonsense…it’ll be quite beautiful and quite pleasing to the ear, but there won’t be much content in it.

The only rule I have is to quit while it’s still hot. Never write yourself out. Always quit when it’s going good. Then it’s easier to take it up again. If you exhaust yourself, then you’ll get into a dead spell and you’ll have trouble with it.

 

 

Ian Nairn in Derry

Ian Nairn

 

When the renowned architecture writer and broadcaster Ian Nairn visited Derry more than fifty years ago, the title of his essay was both concise and reflective of his ever-present pragmatism. ‘Proud Derry’ was the summation of his feature on the North’s second city, written in December 1961 for ‘The Listener’ magazine; a series then collected and updated several years later in a volume called ‘Britain’s Changing Towns’.

Much of Nairn’s work has long been out of print but thankfully this anthology is available again in a beautiful copy published by Notting Hill Editions. Something resembling a Nairn revival is afoot as well, with a book on the irrepressible writer recently released by Gillian Darley and David McKie (Words In Place), while BBC4 ran a programme on his life on 20 February.

Nairn’s ruminations on Derry are wonderful to read. He must have felt comfortable there: Nairn did not suffer fools and was always direct in his manner and writing. When he visited a place, he not only studied the bricks and mortar surrounding him, but he concerned himself with the heartbeat of somewhere too, visiting the local shops and pubs and getting to know local people. How else could he have come up with this nugget about an economically choked Derry, which nevertheless was continuing to breathe with some degree of dignity: ‘If there were only rags to wear (here), they would be worn with a swagger’.

Nairn wasn’t being blithely flippant in writing this. He understood the turbulent history and tough topography of Derry – a border location suffering from the effects of partition; a divided community; a port town hit hard by the shipyard closure in 1924; and a place long forgotten by London, despite its strong Plantation links and the original idea of Derry being a ‘little-London-in-Ulster’. In his essay, Nairn gives the powerbrokers an angry blast of his horn: ‘if the experts at the Treasury were forced to live in Derryfor six months to experience the exact result of their abstract fiddlings with the Bank Rate, it might be a very good thing’. A similar charge could easily be made today, as London-centric politicians and financial analysts trumpet a UK-wide recovery, which in reality seems to have stalled outside Watford.

Despite his acknowledgement of Derry’s many problems in 1961 – high unemployment, lack of investment, its remote location, and a frosty relationship with its privileged cousin Belfast (what has changed, you may ask?) – the place entersNairn’s imagination, describing it as ‘one of the most unexpected and paradoxical of our cities. For every hundred Englishmen who know York and Chester, how many know Derry?’

It is significant that Nairn places a pre-Troubles Derry firmly within the UK (our city) yet never reverts to the Anglicised title ofLondonderry. Instead, his recognition of Derry’s English character is more nuanced: he sees it in buildings such as St Columba’s Church, with its ‘cockney’ details which ‘hammers home the London connexion’. Other buildings and places he notes with appreciation include Bishop’s Gate (‘compact, tough design’), the ‘suavely done’ Walker’s Column (which was permanently damaged by an IRA bomb in 1972) and the residential St Columb’s Wells, marked out for how a city can work for people first and foremost; keeping social patterns intact, or as Nairn wanted, ‘the crazy human touch’.

Nairn’s London

Nairn coined the term ‘subtopia’ when he made his first splash in the 1950s with the ‘Architectural Review’ in a special issue titled ‘Outrage’, in which he railed against the ‘steamrolling of plane into one mediocre pattern’. Pugnacious from the outset, he started writing for the Observer, Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times, with his searing prose shaking the town-planning establishment with articles such as ‘Stop The Architects Now’. It is little wonder that he is not widely read by architects and that this book is his first to be in print since the 1980s. Along with his vivacious, and frequently funny writing, his outsider status is also probably the core of Nairn’s appeal: no architectural training, no public school, no Oxbridge. He looked at and recorded this art form (and profession) with new and uninhibited eyes. Nairn wanted preservation on the one hand yes, but engaging modern architecture too, while reputations meant little to him, as he travelled from place to place by train or in his tiny convertible Morris Minor.

Getting back to his essay on Derry, Great James Street also suitably impressed him, as did Clarendon Street (‘elegant and stately as anything in Dublin’) with their buildings decorated with distinctive doorcase and fanlight.  However, he reserved his highest praise for Derry’s Court House, ‘Derry’s best Georgian building’, he writes, marking out the white sandstone brought locally from Dungiven to build it in 1817.

Nairn was an enthusiastic imbiber and, although the habit was eventually his undoing – he died of cirrhosis of the liver aged only 53 – he was a solid believer in the role the pub had to play in society; just as important to the local fabric as the corner shop, the local bank branch or the butchers.  A pub is a place ‘to shake off loneliness without being in anyone’s company’ was his melancholically, typically poetic judgment. Sadly his thirst was not sated in Derry, with Nairn bemoaning the lack of pub decoration compared to Belfast (particular appreciation is given to the Crown Bar) and the problem is little rectified today, had he the opportunity to visit, with few pubs giving little sense of history. In fact, a few of them feel like they’ve been cobbled together over the course of a weekend. Another great void in the city is the long-departed Café Nobile on the Strand Road, a place that surprises Nairn with its ‘high-backed dark wooden benches and marble-topped tables’.

Nairn wrote about the lack of many new buildings to look at in Derry in 1961, however he does give reference to Altnagelvin Hospital (designed by Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardall, creators of the original Gatwick Airport Terminal). He recommends that the building is best seen coming from Belfast, with his usual tuneful phrasing: ‘the eastern front, square-on in the morning sun fixes you with its complicated skip of balconies as a good jazz rhythm would…’

Summing up, Nairn captured the strong soul of Derry and how its practical problems forged much of what is likeable about the place: it is a town displaying something approaching good grace in the face of strong adversity. It’s worth quoting him in full here: ‘a less proud place would have had its spirit broken under its crippling topographical disadvantage. Derry needs help, and its pride is not the false variety that would scorn assistance.’

Nairn returned to Derry in 1967 to find that little had changed although he does refer to the developments in ‘Irishtown’ (the Bogside as its better known) and the large rebuilding operation, taking place at the time.

The final thought of his essay proved he was no great reader of the political wind blowing round the buildings he was weighing up: ‘the tension has lessened: the six and twenty-six counties may have begun a slow growing-together.’ Nairn seemed blissfully unaware how the system of gerrymandering was rotting the heart of the city at the time. In his defence, considering how quickly the Troubles erupted, he was not the only observer caught on the back foot and any foundations of fraternity Nairnhad in ‘67 would depressingly crumble over the coming years. But if he was alive and returned to Derry today, one would hope that he could see some of the invisible scaffolding helping the Maiden City get up off its knees, in order to stand tall once more.

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