The Squalid Rag

The notion of the palimpsest has a sort of fame, outside its technical sense, as a minor tool in the armoury of criticism and theory. At its most basic it’s a writing surface that can be cleansed for reuse. Intrinsic in its theoretical meaning is reference to the imperfect scouring of parchment in the early Medieval period for reinscription. Although the method they used erased previous texts by the light of their own time, it left them capable of retrieval by later more sophisticated chemical processes in the more powerful light of the 19th Century, so that future ages found multiple texts all present on a single parchment, waiting to be revealed, nothing lost.

Thomas De Quincey was the first to use the palimpsest as analogy, so bringing it into the world of theory:

What else than a natural and mighty palimpsest is the human brain? Such a palimpsest is my brain; such a palimpsest O reader! is yours. Everlasting layers of ideas, images, feelings, have a fallen upon your brain softly as light. Each succession has seemed to bury all that went before. And yet in reality not one has been extinguished.

I have a bit of an unexamined prejudice against the palimpsest in modern criticism. I don’t think I’ve seen it add anything to the areas it’s deployed, and seems to me to be one of those tropes that satisfies some sort of rhetorical urge rather than always illuminating its subject.

This isn’t the case with De Quincey’s use of it though. He was one of the first significant explorers of the subconscious, also a word for which he has the earliest citations:

1834   T. De Quincey Cæsars in Blackwood’s Edinb. Mag. June 972 (note)    The Emperor Hadrian had already taken a solitary step in the improvement of human nature; and not..without some sub-conscious influence received directly or indirectly from Christianity.

1848   T. De Quincey Wks. A. Pope in N. Brit. Rev. Aug. 326   How much grander and more faithful to that great theme [sc. Christianity] were the subconscious perceptions of his heart than the explicit commentaries of his understanding.

The first describes a motive influence of which you’re not aware, operating via a connection not open to your perception. The second describes a conflict, the subconscious not only works against the explicit statement, but is also said to contain a truth not apparent in the main commentary. There is some slight suggestion of that in the first example, but the second is far stronger. The subconscious describes layers of influence and memory that are imperceptible to the subject but can be seen in an analysis of the external behaviour. The palimpsest is a metaphorical description of the process by which it works.

The palimpsest appears in conclusion to the first part of Suspiria de Profundis. De Quincey uses the analogy to explain how the childhood loss of his elder sister formed “the ally and natural coefficient” and morbid content of his earliest experiments with opium at Oxford.

It characterised the awful and sublime psychic landscape into which he fell.

De Quincey goes on to describe how his mother nearly drowned, and as she did so saw, in the conventional phrase, her life flash before her.

In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, every act, every design of her past life, lived again, arraying themselves not as succession, but as parts of a coexistence.

It is this lucid coexistence of the past that the palimpsest is used to imply. I would be interested to know the recorded history of the concept of the ‘Life Review’ as De Quincey seems to introduce it as something new, though supported by ‘other parties in the same circumstances’.

The analogy of the palimpsest, then, although morbid with connotations of death and resurrection, is one of retrieval and remembrance. But on the periphery of motifs of inscription there are other darker types, of overwriting without first cleansing, of madness, grief and incoherence, and instead of discovery and retrieval, blindness and loss.

The spirit of De Quincey partly animates the London sections of The Hill of Dreams by Arthur Machen. Lucian has learned the secrets of mystical Avallaunius in a Roman amphitheatre on the Hill of Dreams in Wales. He moves to London enabled, as Machen was, by a small inheritance, and starts furiously to write in an attempt to convey the intense revelation of Romance that is inside him.

He was astonished that morning at his own fortune and facility ; he succeeded in covering a page of rule paper wholly to his satisfaction, and the sentences, when he read them out, appeared to suggest a weird elusive chanting, exquisite but almost perceptible, like the echo of plainsong reverberated from the vault of a monastic church.

Lucian becomes desolate, beset by isolation and grotesque fancies. With the aid of a mysterious drug he descends deeper and deeper into fantasies and mysteries, all the time writing pages and pages of his revelation, before being totally consumed by his own inner fire. He is found dead by his landlady:

‘Come in Joe,’ she said. ‘It’s jut as I thought it would be: “Death by misadventure” ;’ and she held up a little empty bottle of dark blue glass that was standing on a desk. ‘He would take it, and I always knew he would take a drop too much one of these days.’

‘What’s all those papers that he’s got there?’

‘Didn’t I tell you? It was crool to see him. He’d got it into ‘is ‘ead he could write a book ; he’s been at it for the last six months. Look ‘ere.’

She spread the neat pile of a manuscript broadcast over the desk, and took a sheet at haphazard. It was all covered with illegible hopeless scribblings ; only here and there it was possible to recognise a word.

‘Why, nobody could read it, if they wanted to.’

‘It’s all like that. He thought it was beautiful. I used to ‘ear him jabbering to himself about it, dreadful nonsense he used to talk.’

‘Nobody could read it, if they wanted to.’ It is the terror of writers. A fear that the things you desire to express are in their expression incoherent to the outside world. That only those who have shared the inner experience that produced this expression will be able to understand it. In its most extreme form it denies the possibility of ever communicating truly that which you wish to communicate.

Is it possible to apprehend anything of Lucian’s burning mystical intent from his writing, other than the formal way it conveys intense passion? Can it be said to contain any of that which he experienced in his fevered opiate reveries?

Rabelais is present throughout The Hill of Dreams as a mystical figure different from the usual connotations of Rabelaisian. He introduces Pantagruel in a typical gnostic fashion, contrasting the grotesque exterior with the divine interior, inaccessible other than through mysticism:

Just such another thing was Socrates. For to have eyed his outside, and esteemed of him by his exterior appearance, you would not have given the peel of an onion for him, so deformed he was in body, and ridiculous in his gesture. He had a sharp pointed nose, with the look of a bull, and countenance of a fool: he was in his carriage simple, boorish in his apparel, in fortune poor, unhappy in his wives, unfit for all offices in the commonwealth, always laughing, tippling, and merrily carousing to everyone, with continual gibes and jeers, the better by those means to conceal  his divine knowledge. Now, opening this box you would have found within it a heavenly and inestimable drug, a more than human understanding, an admirable virtue, matchless learning, invincible courage, unimitable sobriety, certain contentment of mind, perfect assurance, and an incredible misregard of all that for which men commonly do so much watch, run, sail, fight, travel, toil and turmoil themselves.

This isn’t the same as ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover,’ (which would not be very gnostic) but that you can judge the internal worth of something to the extent that it appears repellent, disgusting, or characterised by impoverishment or, in extreme versions of gnosticism which see all flesh as evil, depravity.

Rabelais also uses the example of a bone with its marrow, and gaudily decorated medicine boxes. You can also find it commonly represented by the walnut, with its wrinkled outside shell, and treasure inside. It’s connected with the logic by which mystical sects would flay the flesh, or indulge in the most extreme sin, to convey incorruptible and divine grace, to belie this fallen, corporal world, and to oppose what is apparent and thus capable of misrepresentation with that which is internal, divine and true. It is against the seeming, the smiling, or the coherent, plausible argument. It’s also linked with the mystical and strange theories of satire and laughter.

But what can be understood or communicated where the writing is illegible? What marrow is there? What kernel? Lucian himself has experienced revelation:

To Lucian, entranced in the garden of Avallaunius, it seemed very strange that he had once been so ignorant of all the exquisite meanings of life. Now, beneath the violet sky, looking through the brilliant trellis of vines, he saw the picture; before, he had gazed in sad astonishment at the squalid rag which was wrapped about it.

Of the transcendent experiences and revelations that we experience along with Lucian his written testimony leaves only the squalid rag and none of the glory. There is no treasure inside.

Rabelais features glancingly in Gabriel Josipovici’s incantatory möbius strip of grief Everything Passes.

Rabelais, he says, is the first writer of the age of print. Just as Luther was the last writer of the manuscript age. Of course, he says, without print Luther would have remained a simple heretical monk. Print, he says, scooping up the froth in his cup, made Luther the power he became, but essentially he was a preacher, not a writer. He knew his audience and wrote for it. Rabelais, though, he says, sucking his spoon, understood what this new miracle of print meant for the writer. It meant you had gained the world and lost your audience. You no longer knew who was reading you or why. You know longer knew who you were writing for or even why you were writing. Rabelais, he says, raged at this and laughed at it and relished it, all at the same time.

Here again is the disconnect between intention and apprehension, this time a disconnect introduced by mechanical reproduction, which Walter Benjamin described in terms of aura. Taking this approach would suggest Lucian’s document is all aura, it is in effect a sacred item.*

I don’t want to go down that path here. This (this thing that I am writing) is not about print, or about its digital form (which re-introduces notions of decay and illegibility in a different way). It is about the dream note written down in the night that is incomprehensible in the morning:

I had woken up in the night, he says, filled with such dread I hope never to feel like that again. But when I awoke in the morning all that had passed. Instead I was filled with a kind of euphoria, a sense of wellbeing and excitement such as I had never felt. It seemed to fill every part of my body, from the tips of my toes to the top of my head. I couldn’t wait to sit down at the desk. It felt as though at least I would be able to say it all. Say everything. Everything. Such joy.

— I was at my desk, he says to Georg. Bent over the sheets of white paper. A neat stack of them. Such whiteness. Such paper. [Lol doge] I was writing fast, without pause, setting down on the white paper what he had been waiting all those years to come out. Everything would be said. I knew that. Everything. I couldn’t write fast enough. All in the right order. It was coming out in the right order. I knew it was the right order. I just knew. It flowed out of me. I couldn’t stop.

— I don’t know how long I remained, bent over the page, he says. But it was a long time. A long time. I wondered if I would be able to hold out. If my fingers would be able to stand it. But of course they did. I did. Till it was done.

— I stopped, he says. I closed my eyes. I was exhausted. Triumphant but exhausted. As if I had finally done what I had been put in the world to do.

— I bent my shoulders, he says to George, who nods and strokes his moustache. I bent my shoulders and let my arms hang down. I stayed like that for a long time. A long long time. And then I opened my eyes and began to look over what I had written.

— The page was black, he says. It was black with marks. Thick with them. Nothing was legible. And the page underneath was white. With traces of writing from where I had pressed on the page above. And the traces gradually disappeared as I turned one page after the other, until there was nothing but whiteness. Pure whiteness. Page after page.

— I hadn’t turned the page, he says. Not once. All the time I was writing. I hadn’t turned the page.

As with Lucian, everything is revealed but remains concealed. Everything is retained, but that retention has made it illegible, a madness. It is a deranged version of De Quincey’s coexistence. There is no record of the internal revelation, the experience and euphoria of creation, other than these black, inarticulate wounds, and the fading impressions on the white sheets beneath. Everything is present, everything is lost.

Everything passes. The good and the bad. The joy and the sorrow. Everything passes.

In the book this dreamlike episode is at the centre of a depiction of failed love. When you lose someone with whom you have been intimate, they are totally present in you – the smell of their hair (’That smell, her smell’), the feel of them next to you in bed, their smile, are vivid in all your senses. That vivid presence continually reinforces the actual physical absence. The grief is inarticulate and painful, and uselessly iterative on the same page without ever turning on from it. After the euphoria, there is only loss and total isolation.

During World War II, in a freezing hotel in Canada as documented in his novel Self-Condemned, a blind Wyndham Lewis continues to write his stamina-defeating novels and criticism:

… he would write thousands of pages in longhand, with painstaking care and infinite courage, on a hard board resting on his lap, which had a wire stretched across it to keep the lines straight. He would carry on until his pen dropped off the right edge of the page, then move the wire down the width of three fingers and begin the next line. He wrote about thirty tiny, widely-spaced words on each page, so they would not run together; and his late manuscripts resemble the holograph of Finnegans Wake: a few wavering words scratched across a large sheet. If the pen ran out of ink, Lewis would not know it and would continue to engrave invisible words on the blank page – until someone realized what was happening. He would drop the pages on the floor in a deep pile, which would be arranged, typed and read back to him by Froanna and Agnes.

The Enemy – Jeffrey Meyers

Unlike the first two examples, there isn’t any apparent mystical intensity or euphoria. It’s a methodical process. Mole-like. And you assume the result is a gradual fading of the ink over the haphazardly discarded pages, so that the person reading back to him – his wife or assistant – eventually has to say ‘I’m sorry, I can’t make out any more’, like the process of becoming blind itself.

He must start all over, picking up the mental and imaginative thread from where he left off, undertaking the maieutic process of bringing out something that’s locked in darkness inside – had found expression and light, but never appeared in the material world – and painstakingly inscribe it once again.

Unlike the palimpsest, with its images of retrieval from the abyss and resurrection from the dead (which brings its own horror of course) these are motifs of loss. Lost sight, lost mind, lost love. Loss, but not because of erasure or oblivion, which might bring a sort of peace. It has been inscribed, it was available, but it is gone, and no chemical process or science, or hypothesised future process, can retrieve it. Lewis is instructive – there is no sight at all.

Each succession has seemed to bury all that went before. And yet in reality not one has been extinguished

That is De Quincey’s view of the palimpsest. But these are extinguishings. The very act of continuing to create extinguishes that which has gone before. There is a sense that ‘it might as well have never been’. There is no guessing at meaning. The only thing that bears any testimony is the original experience as lived, as felt, and that, at least in the first two examples, expires with the expression of it. The only thing to do, if possible, is go back, and start – painfully, inadequately, mole-like – again, inscribing black marks on the clean white page.

Lewis describes the pristine state of his blindness towards the end of Self-Condemned:

René’s brain was silent too. All that entered it resembling a thought was a painful feeling that he was alone, that he had been removed from life and shut into a white solitude. The white interne was a mechanism. He could not understand the nurses. They had not learned how to speak. Wherever he looked he saw a round spot of light, but soft, as if it belonged wherever it happened to appear. The interne was watching him. He came over, and fixed white spectacles upon his nose. The eyeholes were circles of white muslin … Now that the visual turbulence had been cut off, and sight reduced to a white circle, an all-over muting of the consciousness ensued. Even such stimulus as white-coasted interne removed, the mind began to dream of white rivers which led nowhere, which developed laterally, until they ended in a limitless white expanse. The constant sense of loneliness ended, in the white silence, as a necessary ingredient of the white silence, which was all that was desired — the negation of the visual; and an aural blank which had more quality than white, was not such a negation, and was as soothing as a caress. But at last consciousness ebbed quietly away, and René lay in a dreamless sleep, alone in this place dedicated to silence, totally removed from life.

The blank page is death, inscribing is life, a surging, euphoric experience of insight, but the end point is a blackened and incoherent page or a gradual fading out of words back to whiteness. These alternative motifs of inscription describe a world where subconscious is not chemically limpid, as in de Quincey’s description. In fact it is without the subconscious altogether, and the notions of submerged levels, perspective or chiaroscuro. Everything is surface. It is a scorched, botched and unilluminated repository of inarticulate pain, loss and desire. Blank sheets of ignorance and isolation are waiting to be scratched or scarred by new experiences, rendered incommunicable as soon as they are communicated, with madness and delusion masquerading as reason and insight, over and over again, until we die. And death itself, rather than a Life Review, is a squall of black noise or bleached annihilation.

The notion of the subconscious usefully captures the different gradations of experience and memory. It accommodates the complexities of thought and experience in a way that allows for their articulation and exploration. The crude nightmares of inscription described here brutalise us, and damage those capabilities. The subconscious is removed from being part of us and becomes once again the playground of malignant gods and malicious demons.


Seeing Nigel Farage – yes, i’m sorry – perking his knavery in my face yet again the other day reminded me who he reminds me of. I was pretty certain that he conformed to a type you used to get depicted very well in mid 20thC writing and was sure he existed accurately in The Slaves of Solitude. But it’s been a while since I’ve read it, and I spent a fruitless ten minutes trying to find my copy before giving up and going to a Kingsley Amis poem I felt touched on it, which it does to a degree:

Yesterday you posed as a winking parson
Or a gull from the north, cloaking your belly-laughter
With a false voice that mourned for what you’d done;

To-morrow, in what shrines gaily excreting,
Will you, our champion even if defeated,
Bring down a solemn edifice with one swing.

and at the end

Uneasy, because we see behind your glories
Our own nasty defeats, nastier victories.

Speak for yourself, Kingsley. Doesn’t quite hit the mark anyway, because it’s really about something else – how a serial lover achieves his conquests (and again, KA shd know).

But the type I was looking for is partly articulated in it – the ‘chancer bore’. Can be a travelling salesman, a local solicitor, an obscurely invalided ex army type, whatever, they are expert in a specious bullying manner and suburban or market town seduction.

The last Cavafy post about artistic truth and charlatanism reminded me to check The Slaves of Solitude tho.

Finally located my copy, and yes, of *course* Hamilton did him, nailed him forever. Mr Thwaites, that president in hell at Mrs Payne’s boarding house in wartime Thames Lockdon.

He resounded, nasally and indefatigably, with a steady health and virility .. the lifelong trampler through the emotions of others .. He had money of his own and he had lived, resounded through boarding-houses and private hotels all his life. Such places, with the timid old women they contained, were hunting-grounds for his temperament – wonderfully suited and stimulating to his peculiar brand of loquacity and malevolence. He was as unfamiliar with toil as he was exercise.

Mr. Thwaites getting to hear of this, innuendo at the table was at once begun, astutely detached mention being made of “our German friends in the town” and certain people who “seemed to like them”, thus, according to Mr. Thwaites, encouraging the ineptitude of the authorities, who, instead of locking up, hanging, or shooting them, caused them to multiply and flourish. For although Mr. Thwaites in his heart profoundly respected the German people for their political wisdom, he was not the sort of person who could refrain from participation in any sort of popular chase when one appeared on his doorstep. A supreme and overpowering master of eating his cake and having it too, he was often led into such contradictions.

It’s impossible to go on, because the whole book is practically an essay in this sort of nasty, malicious, shitstirring bore, extending into actual evil.

But my point is, why are we (ykwim) so excitable about someone who we know socially, historically, in our blood, dogs in the street etc, as a self-evident type of fraud? From the mustard trousers, the liar’s-gentry cover coat, to the drawling, indifferent bray and evasive face with its mannered pantomime of duplicitous sincerity. He is KNOWN. Pretty much any pub with regulars has had a of version of him – not as bad, maybe, many comparatively harmless because contained. The sort of person you’re quietly warned to avoid talking to. The sort of person who has his way in a town before being forced to move on. And the people in the pubs and in the shops, and at the race course and the football knew him best of all, with his sham swag and seducer’s manner. So when did we become such a credulous fluttering-handed, feeble-minded bunch of marks? How does this cut-rent demagogue have his way in the papers and television? It’s not so much that such a figure exists to harness the discontent of people for their own self-serving ends, but that it has taken this *form*.

I would have said we were good at spotting this sort of flummery, in life, in entertainment. Only Fools and Horses (Boycey ffs), Fawlty Towers, even stuff like Rentaghost or Never the Twain to pick two random pieces. I know these don’t contain Farage, but they spot and skewer different types of pompous fraudulence.

I genuinely don’t get it.

Best I can do is something along the lines of “spivs were strong in social memory during and directly after the war, thatcher’s period legitimised the moneyed chancer.” Not v strong. Maybe there’s something in the fact that this is a known character, that there’s something performative about his presence. But he’s a been a very successful politician for pure entertainment.

Honorable mention by the way to Half Man Half Biscuit, those great modern day collectors of english types, in their song Bogus Official*

Courteous, friendly, jolly and fat
With a smile that says “Look, I know it’s under the mat,
“I don’t give a fuck about your missing cat.”
B.O.G.U.S. official (“Nice dress”)

First Step

The question of the utility of literature and of art generally is never quite scotched. If someone asks me about the value of literature, or more bluntly says that they don’t see the point, there are are all sorts of thoughts and statements that come crowding in, an abundance of personal, emotional and intellectual objections, but no knock-out blow. That’s partly because any decent answer feels like it needs to encompass some sort of reasonably worked theory about the Importance (capital I) of Art (capital A), and that is very contended ground – abundant with theory and argument, but also messy, incoherent and sometimes contradictory.

And it doesn’t help that I don’t think there’s good connexion between ‘weak argument’ approaches and ‘strong argument’ approaches. In fact, arguments that say things like ‘art is one of the hallmarks of a civilised society,’ beg the question. While I agree it’s true, it quickly becomes so complicated by counter-statement (‘art has been a hallmark of barbaric and uncivilised society’, ‘some art is supportive of totalitarian society’, ‘I can conceive of a civilised society that provided housing, education, transport and health equally to all that did not have art’ &c&c) that it ends up contributing through its very weakness to the opposing team.

And sometimes you just want to exclaim ‘O, reason not the need’.

I originally wrote here “In fact, I think that makes it a good question” – but that’s ponderous nonsense, and I don’t think it does in fact. It is a question tainted by its production from the lenten-spirited motherfuckers who utter it and I dislike the direction of covert hostility from which it often seems to come. But for someone who finds what is contained in artistic creation more interesting than the question of first principles, and who therefore takes the question of its importance or not as absurdly irrelevant, it is sometimes a good question to ask.

I think if it could be fully reasoned, that if there were a cogent, knock-back answer, we probably wouldn’t be talking about Art. It does not prove itself in reductive, materialist spaces, though it must exist in them.

But every now and again you come across an expression of why art or literature or whatever is important that you find potent and compelling, and it’s worth recording.

So I was sitting on the tube earlier this week and read Constantine Cavafy’s poem collected as The First Step.

A young poet is complaining to Theocritus that he’s been writing for two years and has only completed one idyll, and that he’s only standing on the first step of the very tall ladder of poetry. Theocritus responds:

…”Words like that
are improper, blasphemous.
Just to be on the first step
should make you happy and proud.
To have reached this point is no small achievement:
what you’ve done already is a wonderful thing.
Even this first step
is a long way above the ordinary world.
To stand on this step you must be in your own right
a member of the city of ideas.
And it’s a hard unusual thing
to be enrolled as a citizen of that city.
Its councils are full of Legislators
no charlatan can fool.”

Its councils are full of Legislators / no charlatan can fool. ‘When I read this I felt an involuntary internal exclamation of forceful assent. ‘Yes!’ Yes, and at the moment, in these times*, especially yes. There is something serious about the point of deciding to materialise that mixture of idea and feeling into the creation of something that doesn’t at that moment exist. Something like ‘How will I execute this idea to do it justice?’ or ‘How will I understand the nature of what I want to do so that its external representation does justice to its internal meaning?’

It is not that Art contains truthes, though I suppose it may, but the more solid coin is that it is the outcome of a process that is… not truth exactly, but through which it is impossible to pass falsely, as a charlatan – it’s a good word.

In a time when public statements are so vexed by mendacity and which jemmy the intention/apprehension divide to such an extent that we are incapable of auditing them socially (and do not seem to have the tools to do so), the existence of that process, that first step, that essential seriousness, is important to state; that done well, it is impossible to speak meaningfully of deceit, and where there is deceit it will only result in failure.

This is about creation rather than appreciation, and the poem is about the meaning of being an artist and poet, rather than of reading a poem, art as practice rather than art as object. (Though its weight and force is gained from the subject matter of the practice of poetry). And there’s thorny, conceptually rocky spaces between aesthetics and artistic intent. In some respects, this only refers to an artist like Evmenis in the poem, who is able to say when they have failed and when they have succeeded.

And yes, this is inherently mystical (tho art is too, probably, I think) and unlikely to win you any pub arguments. But when I read the poem, the cogent force and fullness of feeling was greater than any pedantic uncertainty produced by the question of utility. And you know, it’s a good thing to have up your sleeve, so if someone does come at you with this bullshit, you can pause between sips of your beer and say, “Well, the thing about art is, as Cavafy said, ‘Its councils are full of Legislators no charlatan can fool,'” look momentarily wise, and then go back to reading your paper (who am i fooling – checking twitter) and ignore any attempts to brook the question further.

Anyway, good poem I think is what I’m saying.

*’in these times’ – a rather complacent and self-centred phrase and refers current US and UK society and politics of course. After all the need for Legislators no charlatan can fool has been felt in societies throughout time.

(And as always when I put words down these days I feel like putting the coda – that is a way of putting it, not very satisfactory. or ‘there are other arguments on other days.’ But what are you going to do.)

A Private View

I wrote this blog entry after a period of the usual sort of struggle – not really just a matter of writing or thinking, but more generally of lack of direction and general uncertainty. I think it’s an ok piece. Jocelyn Brooke deserves some decent criticism, and there isn’t that much around. It’s 50 years since he died, which I’d hoped to commemorate with something new, but I didn’t get round to it. Reblogging this from its old home is partly a small attempt to fulfil something along those lines, but also to kickstart more regular posting here, on Brooke and others.

Nothing seems worth talking about, writing a mere exercise in style. Experiments that might justify such an exercise seem egregious, and to obscure the matter in hand. Attempts at elegance come across as both callow and conservative, at worst pompous – like a child pretending to be an adult. Plain speaking seems uninteresting, and dangerously revealing of a moribund and fruitless intellect.

Clearly, a subject is needed.

Jocelyn Brooke is worth writing about for many reasons, but has hardly been written about at all. The ground is still fresh and I can tell myself that what I am writing is not an exercise in redundant self-gratification. We can pretend. It is, after all, a start.

More, I wrote elsewhere in faintish praise of his poetry, in my usual style of civil leering, which I suppose might just be all right in respect of his poetry, but is not representative of the man and his works, particularly where there is so little material praising him as he deserves.

And Brooke’s writing poses the problems facetiously sketched at the beginning of this piece with a tenfold intensity. His work occupies a landscape that intimidates expression but he charts it with a facility that is magical.

A Private View, published in 1954, is an unambitious looking book. A selection of four unconnected character portraits – perhaps works the author thought particularly good, worth preserving, but of a length difficult to be collected in any other way.

The title might give the impression that the reader is getting a privileged insight into the author’s normally inaccessible mental and spiritual estate, which to a certain extent is the case. For me the title also conveys reticence, a sense of things, certain memoirs for instance, of interest only to a limited audience, one’s family maybe, perhaps only for oneself; Private in the sense of being secluded, rather than providing any special level of disclosure.

‘Gerald Brockhurst’ is the centrepiece; it follows the intermittent acquaintance of the Brooke narrator with Brockhurst over a number of years, from initial affection and friendship to the loss of these. In this respect it bears some resemblance to The Passing of a Hero (published a year before). In fact, the declining and imperfect nature of personal acquaintance is a theme of Brooke’s, even in the vignettes.

Brockhurst is representative of a Brooke type – impressively vulgar and athletic early on, the demands of age overcome them, a coarsening of the youthful manner. There is drink, and more than a hint of incompetently realised homosexuality, but mainly there is a sense, as Brooke puts it at the end of ‘Gerald Brockhurst’, of ‘Time’s revenges and all the ruined years.’

This tendency of Brooke to revisit character types can result in them feeling almost allegorical…

I hesitate for several reasons – the nature of Brooke’s characters is in one way simple and in another way very complicated. Simple because they are well-drawn characters who display characteristics that interest Brooke and who have a certain tragi-comic potential, complicated because, well, this is from the preface to The Goose Cathedral –

The present volume, like its two predecessors, is neither entirely fictitious nor entirely autobiographical; by way of apology for this hybrid breed, I can only say that, as a method of composition, I happen to find it useful. To force my material into novel form would involve a Procrustean distortion of theme which, for me at least, would make the book pointless, and not worth the bother of writing. On the other hand ‘ straight’ autobiography is ruled out for more obvious reasons – the law of libel being one.

This applies to most of what he wrote. Although Brooke had an interest in characters whose behaviour was to some extent unconventional or disreputable, ‘the law of libel’ is surely only partly responsible for this method of composition he chose. Self-deprecating and intensely shy (his description of Denton Welch as “Hypersensitive, diffident, ‘difficult’” feels autobiographical) he was temperamentally unsuited to the sort of personal revelation that autobiography entails – its sordid succession of incoherent events.

He continues –

I have tried to solve these problems by presenting a blend of fact and fiction; but here a new difficulty arises, for certain personages and episodes exist on the border-line between truth and phantasy, and are consequently liable to confusion.

The ‘confusion’ is presumably that to do with the possibility of mistaken identification, but as readers of Brooke’s remarkable Image of a Drawn Sword will know, the border-line between truth and phantasy is his natural home, and the confusion and uncertainty that his method creates is one of the ways in which his landscape is apprehended by the reader. The Brooke-narrator himself often finds it hard to place acquaintances he encounters in circumstances different to that in which he has known them before.

Every now and then the void beneath the pleasant surface can be seen –

‘I don’t know why you’ve been keeping him under a bushel for so long,’ he complained. ‘I think he’s very nice: I do so like that sort of athlete – so restful, don’t you think? And it’s odd and pleasing that his name should be Gerald.’

‘Why odd- or pleasing?’ I enquired with bewilderment.

‘Oh, haven’t you noticed? In novels, people like that are always called Gerald. There’s one in E.M. Forster, and another in Lawrence – you know, the man in Women in Love – and I once read a novel by Gilbert Frankau, when I was at school, called Gerald Cranston’s Lady; the hero was just the same type, terrifically hearty and military, with a moustache.’

‘You ought to write a little monograph on the subject,’ I suggested.

‘Yes, I did think of it – or we might start some very queer, esoteric sort of society, and make Gerald Brockhurst the president.’
Thereafter, for some considerable time, Eric and I ‘collected’ Geralds.

The enumeration of specific fictional parallels, the insistence on the relation of the presumably appropriated name and more or less factual character produces a strange, vertiginous sensation; a retrospective consideration of the synthetic nature of the hitherto solidly drawn Gerald, a dissolution of the conventional relations between fiction and autobiography and reality, so that the collected generations of ‘Gerald’ appear as Brooke wrote elsewhere not real people at all, but mere fleshless phantoms, images of ‘reality’ reflected in the distorting mirror of my own imagination.

This is, after all, the epistemological nature of the sort of fictional work where there is a strong element of autobiography and character portrait. But for Brooke it is not merely an epistemological consequence of the mode, but a string that he plays on, which gives his writing a sweet evanescence:

Some truths seem almost Falsehoods and some Falsehoods almost Truths; Wherein Falsehood and Truth seem almost aequilibriously stated, and but a few grains of distinction to bear down the balance … Besides, many things are known, as some are seen, that is by Parallaxis, or at some distance from their true and proper beings, the superficial regard of things having a different aspect from their true and central Natures.

This epigraph to A Mine of Serpents, taken from Sir Thomas Browne’s Christian Morals, applies not just to the concoction of character, but more generally to his writing. Apodictic expressions of sentiment and experience are impossible. Everything is contingent. To state a thing with certainty is to lie. Brooke’s oeuvre embodies this principle; he was in some ways a descendant of the fin-de-siecle aesthete, who rejected cumbersome Victorian and masculine proclamations of moral truth and took the beauty instead. In him this is realised through a mode that makes conventional patterns of fictional and autobiographical interpretative certainty elusive. Objects and events in his writing exist in relation to each other rather than triangulate from a fixed point in reality.

‘Alison Vyse’, the first piece in the collection, is delightful. A good deal of the humour is achieved, as is usually the case in Brooke’s childhood scenes, through a sort of Lilliputian effect, where childish concerns are given adult articulation – thus the delicious first line of the book:

At the age of six I was, like most normally constituted children, a polymorphous pervert.

Once again the effect is one of parallaxis, recollection being a synthesis of the recollector and the recollected, and not a simple descriptive process. Nor is it one way; Brooke’s acute sympathy for childhood and its perceptions allows the experiences of youth to enlighten maturer concerns. In ‘Alison Vyse’ there is a description of a scene which reads like a gloss on his adult work. Retreating to a secluded part of the garden his home at Sandgate that he called ‘the Bushes’ –

I would occupy myself with what I was wont to call, with deliberate indefiniteness, a ‘place’.

These ‘places’ (for there were a series of them) represented I can only suppose, an attempt to impose upon the inchoate waste land of the Bushes a local habitation and a name. …

..the Bushes, unlike the rest of the garden, seemed to possess no particular meaning or purpose, they existed, so to speak, in vacuou, a mere no-man’s-land between the flower-beds above and the shingle-floored terrace … below.

The building of these ‘places’ kept me happily occupied for some weeks; but in due course, as was to be expected, my secret was discovered by the grown-ups who, plainly mystified by these curious and apparently pointless constructions, proceeded (like visitors to an exhibition of abstract pictures) to advance a number of ingenious theories as to what, exactly, they were ‘meant to be’.

‘Why, there’s a road – and there’s a garage’ (pointing to one of the toy motors) ‘and surely that’s a house’. … Like some pioneer of Cubism, I would listen, with a supercilious disdain, to their fatuous comments: outwardly calm, but inwardly enraged by such attempts to translate my essays in Significant Form into the humdrum terms of mere academic realism.

and later

‘A place can’t just be a place,’ Alison asserted, with a cold reasonableness which horrified me. I realised that what she said was, in fact, perfectly logical and accurate; yet I knew, also, without being able to express it, that my ‘places’ were unique and self-sufficient – they were not garages or forts or anything else; they were just Places, meaningless to others, perhaps, but to myself immensely and perennially significant.

It need hardly be added that this description of the childhood psyche is also a description of the adult’s conception of the world. No matter how wryly indulgent of childhood the tone, here again is the ‘inchoate waste land’, the vacuum in which his work is suspended.

Brooke’s almost habitual ironic, understated humour does not just provide a good deal of the charm of his writing, but is yet another device for avoiding sincere expression (an English characteristic as well, of course). It is not always easy to tell with certainty what Brooke or his narrator’s attitude to a person or occurrence is. Humour is yet another example of understanding by parallaxis. No matter how down-to-earth the tone, the reader is but loosely anchored upon a psychic littoral, a place of uncertainty where bald statements of untempered fact are inadequate and misleading.

Once more, in ‘Alison Vyse’, one of those trivial-seeming voids appears momentarily, from behind the placid surface, when the child Jocelyn uses ‘a very bad word’ at Alison.

‘All right, then,’ I interjected, ‘if I’m a devil you’re a ____, so there.’
The moment I had uttered the awful, the unforgivable word, I regretted it.

On being questioned by his mother, Brooke admits the crime but not the word. An interrogation ensues.

Which word had I used? Did it begin with a D? Did it begin – surely it couldn’t have begun – with a B? Throughout that evening the dreadful inquisition proceeded; finally, by dint of excluding every letter of the alphabet in turn, the appalling syllables were extracted from me.

Which word indeed? At this distance, with the vastly increased acceptance of swearing on all levels of society and culture, it’s difficult to judge what it might have been. In the the other portraits ‘Bastard’ is written and ‘Fuck’ implied – so that the blank here seems an expression of childish innocence. None of the guesses I can make quite fit, to the extent that, given the nature of Brooke’s approach, I began to wonder whether that blank represents just that, a blank, an unsayable, like the 100th name of God. Again, a realisation of the uncertain relation of his writing to concrete events is brought into focus.

‘Kurt Schlegel’ is different from the other three pieces in A Private View. A note at the beginning of the book tells the reader one reason for this, that it was first ‘conceived and delivered’ as a broadcast talk for the BBC. Schlegel is a gloomy Palestinian Jew who Brooke meets while in the army (and who appears briefly in A Mine of Serpents). He’s rather facetiously drawn, and the tendency to make him finish his sentences with ‘isn’t it’, no matter how accurate, has the effect of making him seem like a fatuous comedy portrayal of a Welshman. As the piece develops weightier themes than Brooke usually deals with emerge. Racial tradition and the burden of historical suffering are contemplated, the narrator’s relationship with the subject is less ambiguous than normal, and the humorous tone is by and large, though not entirely, absent. Without these deflective mechanisms, and with the greater expression of sincerity, the void, which is normally only implied or fleetingly inferred, becomes material:

Kurt said no more. We sat, smoking, for a few minutes more, the twilight deepening around us. The footballers had gone, and the whole landscape – the cliff-top, the town behind us, the little bay between the cliffs – was folded in a profound silence. I had an odd sense, sitting here in the dusk above the sea, of being, not only on the extreme verge of land, but on some remote margin of life itself. The ordinary preoccupations of our existence – food and sleep and work – seemed curiously thinned-out and immaterial. We had only to take a step or two, and we could walk over the cliff-side on to the jagged rocks two or three hundred feet below; and it seemed to me that it would require only some slight movement of the mind to precipitate me into some spiritual néant beyond the verges of my consciousness.

In scenes that are I think partly related to this image of being on the remote margin of life, both Basil Medlicott in A Mine of Serpents and Gerald Brockhurst swim off into the sea, and Brooke gets the sensation that they are going to carry on swimming with no return; in the case of Brockhurst –

I remembered his look of blank, unutterable misery as he spoke of his misfortunes; and the thought struck me, with a desolating horror, that he might, in a moment of sudden despair, cease to struggle with the strong, downward pull of the waves…

I wonder, in fact, whether it is too fanciful to associate the sea and outdoor bathing generally (a recurring theme) with the néant Brooke identifies above, with soldiering the cure; and to associate the inland country to which he went on his childhood holidays with youth and beauty, the things that Brooke, not without wry self-deprecation, valued most. He implies something of the sort in The Military Orchid;

At the time Sandgate lacked romance, being merely the place where we lived (…); during the autumn and winter, the village became for me a Land of Lost Content, the symbol of a happiness which would only be renewed again in the spring. (With most children, this state of affairs is reversed: it is the seaside which enshrines the memory of summer-happiness, not, as for me, the country.) Later, in adolescence, Sandgate too would become part of the legend of the past, the private myth; but in childhood, it was the village in the Elham Valley which, alone possessed the quality of romance.

To return to the point about Brooke’s persistently ironic tone, when he is not being humorous, there is a crepuscular gloom of the sort that suffuses his Image of a Drawn Sword so hauntingly, a materialisation of darkness. We leave Kurt

..slumped upon the fallen tombstone in the fading twilight: the figure of an outcast, rootless and without hope, bearing about with him always, like a hidden tumour, his heritage of persecution and disaster.

‘Miss Wimpole’ is the final portrait and is a return to the scenes of childhood that opened the book. It is light-hearted and amusing, on occasion in fact very funny – particularly in a recital of the Jabberwocky, and the description of a dinner table conflagration. Miss Wimpole is an actress of sorts (although what sort exactly is never made clear to the child Brooke). We go back, in a manner of speaking, to the stage, where we started with ‘Alison Vyse’ – an example of the delicate threads that hold his apparently loosely arranged works together. In an altogether lighter fashion the portrait once again follows the arc of so many of Brooke’s character portraits, initial affection, on this occasion on the part of his family, specifically his father, turning into uneasy tolerance, into a slightly embarrassed and quiet ‘dropping’ of the relationship.

If there is, to get back to where I tailed off, something esoterically allegorical about his characters, with the many variations on similar types (and the variations on similar sounding names that I can never quite believe could belong to anyone), then there is something almost totemistic about his objects – the orchids, the fireworks, the childhood places. I’m reminded of what Brooke said about Denton Welch –

…it was the little things – not only dolls’ houses and chinoiserie, but things seen on a country walk, a ruined church, a flower, a young man bathing – which served him best as defences against his growing weakness and his prescience of an early death.

The latter morbid elements are specific to Welch but if they are substituted for a more general sense of futilitarian angst, an awareness of the inchoate (to use Brooke’s word) void I have attempted to identify, then I hope some sense of the faint mystical quality that delicately scents his work is conveyed. These objects are to a certain extent sacred, and guard against the coarseness that Brooke so often describes developing in his masculine acquaintances; they preserve the childhood qualities of perception.

Beauty is not less deep
If it should die at last,
The greatest prize men keep
Is glory that is past
Denton Welch, Journals (ed. Jocelyn Brooke)

I have focused on elements that make Brooke look rather different than he is. I should add therefore that there is no strain of contradiction in his writing – he is not paradoxical, or conceptually modernistic. Everything is done with the lightest of touches, with the easy and straightforward grace that he admired physically in young men. The unpretentious biographical voice and the easy swing of recollection is yet so subtle that it can adapt itself without apparent effort to both the mundane and the philosophical.

These beautiful, elusive, funny but melancholy books are a delight. It is sad but in a way entirely appropriate to his quiet genius that they go so easily out of print. Anthony Powell wrote that Brooke liked corresponding – the sort of relationship ‘that did not make him feel hemmed in,’ and guesses an ‘unwillingness to cope with face-to-face cordialities of a kind that might at the same time be agreeable in letters’. Brooke’s writings are so personable, that I like to think they provide that intimacy that perhaps he never found with sufficient ease in life.

(Oh, and I meant to say earlier – If this intimacy-but-at-a-distance is a characteristic of Brooke, it is also a characteristic of the English and it’s worth noting, if we’re going to play that fruitless bagatelle called ‘The English Proust’ (and Brooke deserves that title much more than any other writer I can think of) the adjective is not merely a qualifier but a positive inidication of unique characteristics.)

It should be obvious from what I have said that a biography of Brooke would be of special interest – a chance to see just how he arranged his experiences into their published form. I am told that a biography has in fact just recently been written and I hope it finds some sort of publication [it has been published, as part of a trio of Bishopsbourne writer biographies]

A lovely addition to his obituary in The Times, written by ‘a friend’, sums him up what it is like to read him very well.

Jocelyn Brooke’s field may not have been wide nor his output large, but everything to which he set his hand showed a delicacy of feeling and perception – for language, for landscape, for his own beloved East Kent, and for the acute experiences of childhood – which have given extreme pleasure to his readers.

Behind the work was a gentle, sensitive man, of a nature saved from sweetness by a fine sense of irony, who will be sadly missed.

He died, aged 57, in the late autumn of 1966, at his home in Bishopsbourne, Kent.

There is an excellent JB website, cleanly and intelligently designed, with an all-too-rare cheerful and relaxed looking photo.


* and I once read a novel by Gilbert Frankau – Gilbert Frankau – Popular romantic novelist (who in 1933 wrote an article called ‘As a Jew I am Not Against Hitler’ apparently. Later retracted, presumably when he discovered the feeling was not reciprocal.)

* Which word indeed? – ‘Bitch’ seems likeliest, although Brooke seems to imply not, ‘B’ apparently already having been accounted for. (edit – on reflection I think ‘whore’ is in fact the likeliest candidate – the point stands though – the word is unknowable)

* Objects and events in his writing exist in relation to each other rather than triangulate from a fixed point in reality – Nabokov wrote somewhere or other that the word ‘reality’ (or was it ‘real’) is the only word in the English language that should appear in inverted commas. I’m not sure this is at all the case. In fact I think the opposite, and anyone who smugly pipes up, ‘Ah, but what do you mean by real?’ will get the treatment an Glaswegian chap I once knew used to dole out to people who had crossed him: they would get his pint over their head, which he would follow by drinking their pint in one gulp, all the while fixing them with a wildly angry eye, before storming off.

Death is a very little thing

Enough life and money has been spent on this sterile quest. The pole has already been discovered. What is the use of another expedition?

Winston Churchill, then 1st Lord of the Admiralty, 23rd January, 1914

Dear Mr Winston Churchill,

Do please look favourably … I am trying to do good and serious work … Death is a very little thing, and Knowledge very great … And really Regent Street holds out more dangers on a busy day, than the 5 million square miles that constitute the Antarctic continent.

Ernest Shackleton, 27th February, 1914

Continue reading


as Hegel had it, and as Brecht had up on the wall of his Danish retreat (der Dänische Zufluchsstäte) and later in his New York home. it’s a pleasingly astringent thing to say to yourself whenever you find your thoughts becoming too fanciful or high-flown.

i’ve been really enjoying the poems in the Faber Book of 20th Century German Poems, edited and with a really good introduction by Michael Hofmann, and have been coming back to the Brecht poems in particular. This one’s been stuck in my head for the last couple of days:
(although I don’t speak a word of german i do like pretending i can pronounce the words, so original first, then translation.)


Ein Ruder liegt auf dem Dach. Ein mittlerer Wind
Wird das Stroh nicht wegtragen.
Im Hof für die Schaukel der Kinder sind
Pfähle eingeschlagen.
Die Post kommt zweimal hin
Wo die Briefe wilkimmen wären.
Den Sund herunter kommen die Fähren.
Das Haus hat vier Türen, daraus zu fliehn.


(A Place of Refuge

An oar lies on the roof. A moderate wind
Will not carry away the thatch.
In the yard posts are set for
The children’s swing.
The mail comes twice a day
Where letters would be welcome.
Down the Sound come the ferries. 
The house has four doors to escape by.

trans. John Willet)

Why do I like it? There’s a ghostly sense of uncertainty and unease about the now of the poem. The absences are alarming. It’s tense and watchful. The first line has a strange and unstable image – the oar on the roof feels like the consequence of an atmospheric upheaval, but the wind is only moderate. In fact the second line claims stability – this instability is in fact solidity. The yard posts are ‘set for / The children’s swing’ but there is no swing there. Has it been removed? a reminder of loss of innocence, of flight maybe? Or is it yet to come? If a swing has been there before, it can be set between those two posts again, when there are children once more. In its absence it holds in potential both possibilities, swinging neither this way nor that. Will there be a future here, where there was a past? Both future and past flow away from this isolated point in time.

‘Down the Sound come the ferries’ – this is something that happens daily, continuously, reliably. Solid, habitual present tense. ‘Down the Sound’ feels like a rather jangling translation. The original German has a lovely balance  and flow: ‘Den Sund – herunter kommen – die Fahren’ – with the lingering, almost longing sound of ‘Fahren’ before the blank practicality of ‘Das Haus hat vier Türen’, again balancing something continuous and reliable – the ferries – against spatial and temporal uncertainty: any one of those four walls, any direction, might need to be the  method of a sudden exit, at any time. The refuge is necessarily porous. And after all, what else might those reliable ferries bring?

It all constitutes the refuge as an ambiguous notion – a place of safety, but also a place to which you run out of fear or danger.

I’m uncertain about ‘the mail comes twice a day / where letters would be welcome.’ It’s an unnerving image  – communication without anything to be communicated, administrative continuity but without any ability to bring things that you actually want. And what are the letters that are wished for? Letters from loved ones who have not left Germany perhaps? Or letters to relieve solitude and fear, bringing a sense of the outside world?

It’s a very guarded poem – it won’t put its money on any particular outcome. But, like the other Brecht poems I’ve read, it’s also wide open, like a raw nerve or an open eye – it’s not a self-indulgent poem (he does not seem like a self-indulgent poet).

Expanded existentially, it could be argued that it becomes about a permanent state of uncertainty and futures being held in abeyance in the face of that uncertainty, though I think Brecht would reject the existential reading (not KONKRET enough) and just say in times of war and state violence this is who you are, refuges are where you live, this is what the world becomes.