JUDY KRAVIS

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Thursday, 13 December 2018

A fault on the landline means taking out a number of books from the shelves to get at the sockets behind. These are motley garden and nature, pond and botanical books. Among them, Good Neighbours, written by Walter Rose in the 1940s, with drawings by John Hookham.  I bought it in 1974, previous owner DH Pasmore signed in discreet pencil on the flyleaf.

Good Neighbours is a portrait of Haddenham, a village in Buckinghamshire, reaching back to the author's boyhood in the late 19th century in a village in post-enclosure England. All the needs of life were met here: food, shelter, tools, clothes, shoes. Once a week to the market town, a couple of hours in pony and cart, and some seasonal outwork in the flat plains between Haddenham and London, known as Going Uppards.

A contained, intimate, community has its own dialect, which shows up bright as a misprint in Walter Rose's modest writing. Witchert. Yolm. Stulch. Todge. Dillen. Slabbin. Greaves. Wimble, Sneds. Frim. Sidcut.

And habits that need reviving, like Chapter V, Gnawing It Out, which was a form of barter involving milk, potatoes or a joint of pork or mutton as part of wages, which could take as long as fourteen years to settle, ending with a toss of a sovereign between two men.

And another form of barter called Chop.
It was once explained to me that the chop system secured double advantages, a profit on the sale and on whatever was taken in exchange; and further, that when making the chop you had only to assure yourself that it was for something of greater value, and you might pleasantly dream of beginning with a donkey, changing it for a pony, and end up as the proud possessor of a blood horse!
That sounds very like selling a piece of old rope on eBay and through multiple exchanges ending up with a fine house overlooking a golf course. There's an edge to dreaming now. In fact, dreaming isn't any longer the right word now we're parted from potatoes, mangold wurzel and the cottager's pig.
The lore and cult of the pig formed a bond between the villagers, as strong as if it had been inherited. All understood it naturally, save, maybe, the Parson. He, poor man, fresh from college, could not be expected to know more than which was the head and which the tail... To call on a neighbour without asking 'How's the pig a-doing' was a plain breach of courtesy, not to be lightly excused. The walk round the garden on a Sunday, or of an evening, the detailed examination of the growing cabbages, the savoys, the sprouts, the beans and peas, would have seemed incomplete without a long and interested pause at the sty, and a learned discussion on the merits of the particular pig.
PG Wodehouse and Flann O'Brien, with different levels of mockery and affection, have seen fit to foreground the pig.
The joys of routing thus ended, nothing remained but surrender to the blisses of eating and sleeping. To grow fast, and grow fat, made exertion less and less desirable. What need for effort with life so bountifully full?
As well as future food the pig was wish fulfilment.
To sleep the sleep of the just was better—with eyes slightly open—emitting melodious snores—and so to wile away the sultry hours of summer; to stretch the long body act ease on the soft straw in the cool shade of the shed, head only at the doorway to sniff the fragrant air from the cottage garden and valley beyond. This was the life of the pig.

Monday, 10 December 2018

These dark evenings, Brahms' A German Requiem underlies Henry Green's Doting, his last book and an artifice so sustained (almost entirely by dialogue) that it needs some rolling Brahms to ground it.

These people—Middletons Payntons Addinsell and Belaine—are in and out of each other's pockets. They talk therefore they are history, they are fiction. It takes a few pages to figure who they are and how they know each other, and then you're away, they're away, on their multiple intrigues, their skirmishes in restaurants, in flats, in rooms, their weave, their fugue. They telephone a little, Arthur, Annabel, Diana, Charles and Claire, along with Peter, a son despatched to school or salmon fishing in Scotland, plus various convenient servants.

The last sentence of the book is: The next day they all went on very much the same.

The book is the part of the fish that shows above water in uneasy times. Are all times uneasy? Is there a void when you take away Brahms? Why doting, after living, loving, party going and blindness? What does doting mean?

This is how we make our exit. Henry Green wrote nothing else for the remaining twenty-two years of his life, or nothing that has remained.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

The looping impetus of Henry Green's writing (his self-portrait Pack My Bag) reaches you slowly and you get to feel for this awkward aesthete with a conscience, with a forelock and a downward tall stance, who wrote novels the way a composer might work on a single tune for life  (Berlioz was like that). Always caution, reluctance, persistence. Apology almost. Deference. He wrote longhand, at night. I have mostly read him at night. He is a burrowing kind of writer, seeking out himself and his reader. Prose is a long intimacy between strangers, he said.

In his novels there's always something large missing, like the definite and indefinite articles, or narrative without conversation. His memoir can afford to be poignant. This was just before World War Two. He might die. And in case he does, here is what he feels like setting down of his life: this is what comes to mind. Semi-patrician family life in Gloucestershire, private schools, Oxford. These men in the 1930s and 40s (Henry Green, Evelyn Waugh, Cyril Connolly, Anthony Powell) they were basking, you might think, in their privilege, armed with irony and self-consciousness. Of all those Henry Green is the one I would like to have known.

He didn't die in World War Two, he wrote a clutch more novels, all with one word titles; and then wrote nothing for twenty-two years. He did not write a self-portrait before his actual death. I guess he didn't feel like it by then. His novels and their titles would have to speak for him. Living. Loving. Doting. BackNothing. Concluding.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Roald Dahl Boy and Henry Green Pack My Bag are coeval, more or less, memoirs of schooldays and just after. Roald Dahl stops after his schooldays. Henry Green, writing on the eve of World War Two in case he didn't survive, goes up to his falling in love. I haven't read much Roald Dahl, and none at the right age, whereas Henry Green came in on a tide of books predating my life that I read when I was in my twenties and thirties.

Roald Dahl was an entertainer, a tall boy with sisters in the 1920s. Norwegian. Henry Green, the pen-name of Henry Yorke, son of prosperous business people from the midlands. Roald Dahl's family were in business, too. Whatever that meant. Whatever the product, the material. They were established. Dahl and Yorke, Est., somewhere around the beginning of the twentieth century, good houses with good views, and good education. And this was the education from which they emerged. Roald Dahl's education was run through with beatings. Cruelty as formative. So what does he do? He writes warm/cruel tales for children. His letters home when he was at school were signed Boy.

Henry Green, formed in the soft valleys of Gloucestershire, writes cloudy novels of situations whose drama derives from weather, uncertainty and class difference. Pack My Bag is a self-portrait more than a memoir, an evocation rather than a tale, a sketch for a novel or the remains of a dream. He did come back from World War Two, he lived another thirty years, wrote nothing for the last twenty-two years of his life.

Henry Green's novels sit in a soft place akin to his home valley in Gloucestershire. Because their drama is that of gathering, eavesdropping, assembling and not quite getting there, though there are marriages and betrayals, there's a mist if not a fog and by the last page you feel that the writer, along with the characters, has only ever paused. The sentence is the thing that continues.