Tuesday 31 May 2022

Virginia Woolf in Whitechapel: writing about dogs

 J.R. Ackerley's Tulip led me to Virginia Woolf's Flush, A Biography, which I can nearly imagine her taking up on a whim after the ardours of The Waves. Elizabeth Barrett's dog Flush, who drank from a purple dish and slept on a sofa at Miss Barrett's feet, kept Virginia Woolf in her own territory, if a hundred years earlier. Flush lived in Wimpole Street, and, as we learn, 'as long as Wimpole Street remains, civilisation is secure'. However, Flush is not secure if he is not on a chain when Miss Barrett goes shopping. And one day, on an errand in Vere Street, she forgot. 

In the 1840s, Mr Taylor and his society of thieves made a living from Wimpole Street dogs and other valuables. Flush was a pedigree spaniel, with all the right points on top of his head and around his paws. If the Barretts did not pay six guineas, this pedigree head and these pedigree paws would arrive in Wimpole street in a bloody package the very next day.

The description of Flush's days in Whitechapel occupies about one fifth of this short book. He is in a chill, damp, low, dark room, with broken chairs and a tumbled mattress.

Great boots and draggled skirts kept stumbling in and out. Flies buzzed on scraps of old meat that were decaying on the floor. Children crawled out from dark corners and pinched his ears. He whined, and heavy hand beat him over the head. He cowered down on the few inches of damp brick against the wall. Now he could see that the floor was crowded with animals of different kinds. Dogs tore and worried a festering bone that they had got between them. Their ribs stood out from their coats — they were half famished, dirty, diseased, uncombed, brushed; yet all of them, Flush could see, were dogs of the highest breeding, chained dogs, footmen's dogs, like himself.

Rebecca West wrote that this was not one of VW's best books, and it isn't. But here is Virginia Woolf, who walked London, who went to live in Bloomsbury from Hyde Park Gate, which was a déclassé move in the 1920s, writing from her walks in still less salubrious parts of London in a still less salubrious era nearly a hundred years earlier. I wonder what she read for her picture of teeming people living above cattle and pigs. Mayhew's London, perhaps. 

Flush ends his days in Italy. The worst he suffers is mange, and a lion cut to relieve his itching in the heat. 

Six months after the publication of Flush she and Leonard take a trip to Ireland, 'this downtrodden land'. Galway, for example, had two great bookshops and is 'otherwise wild, poor, sordid'. Wherever they go they tend to meet people who accept them as 'their sort', some indeed who encourage the Woolfs to come and live in Ireland.

No, it wouldn't do living in Ireland, in spite of the rocks & the desolate bays. It would lower the pulse of the heart;: & all one's mind wd. run out in talk.
We (P & I) have lately become citizens of Ireland, after very long sojourns and quite a bit of talk, as well as swathes of private silence in the oasis we have created. 'This downtrodden land' is today the 4th richest by GDP in the OECD, richer than America, technically. As unequal as ever, but in new ways. Still talking roundly. 

VW is much taken with Mrs Ida Fitzgerald of the Glenbeigh Hotel. 
However I can give no notion of the flowing, yet formed sentences, the richness & ease of the language; the lay out, dexterity & adroitness of the arrangement ... Talk is to her an intoxicant, but there is ... something heartless about the I(rish); quite cold indifferent sarcastic, for all their melody, their fluency, their adorable ease and forthcomingness. She was very much on the spot, accurate, managing, shrewd, hard headed, analytic. Why aren't these people the greatest novelists in the world?
'Everything is the proper stuff of fiction' said Virginia Woolf. Flush, a pedigree spaniel, as much as Mrs Ida Fitzgerald of the Glenbeigh Hotel. 

Thursday 26 May 2022

My father and myself, My dog Tulip, J.R. Ackerley,

J.R. Ackerley, as he appears in My father and myself, is a polite and questing son, investigating the complicated lives of his father, known as the Banana King. It took him half a lifetime to piece together his father's exploits, his relationships, his children, his early life with louche semi-aristocrats. J.R. Ackerley devotes many pages to his own awkward and unsatisfied love life, (even the phrase, 'love life'  has an optimism his life didn't match). He was a homosexual who didn't like the word, who never found his Ideal Friend, his formulation for the boy (beautiful, working-class) he sought through hundreds in his life (1896 - 1968), at least not until he stopped sifting through boys and acquired a pedigree Alsatian bitch he called Queenie in life, and Tulip in the extraordinary book he wrote about her.

Where he might appear circumspect and even prudish in his trawl through his father's life and his own, when it came to Tulip, he said it all. The politeness of his writing style, echoing his social style, allowed him to investigate this Ideal Friend, to provide for her happiness in any way he could, most particularly her sex life. He wanted her to mate, with the right dog, to know (as he hadn't, we suppose) the joy of sex, and procreation, which he certainly didn't. He follows each coming into heat, twice a year, evokes the opening of the vagina, the heating of the vulva. 

In the event, canine relations were already denatured in the 1950s and 1960s, as now, pedigree did not easily mate with pedigree. Quite how complex it is you may not want to know, but Joe Ackerley spells it out. A mongrel made it through to Tulip/Queenie who had a litter of eight puppies, not the triumph of pedigree and cherishing he had imagined, but he gave them every care, at the expense of his bourgeois flat in Putney. 

I am not at all a dog person. But I was riveted. Here was fulfilment. Not to be denied. Tulip draws from Joe a lyricism that nothing in his own life could match. I read both books in a few days, labouring under a cold following a party last weekend in a chilly May breeze, dozing now and then in the new room, the dozing room. 

The opening sentence of My father and myself, 'I was born in 1896 and my parents were married 1919' sets the frame for Joe's investigations into his family, conducted with a graciousness neither apologetic nor judgemental, nor even exactly sad. It is a gift to tell a history how you have found it, with the language you have learned to use for other purposes, ( J. R. Ackerley was for many years literary editor of The Listener).

Whatever sadness and desolation follows on from his quest to know the history of his father, and his family, Queenie/Tulip redresses all. Not many can do as much.

Wednesday 18 May 2022

Dime-Store Alchemy

A relief to read Dime-Store Alchemy by Charles Simic. Each page a box. Bottomless. Yet you move on. There are other boxes, other pages to be composed. Other objects waiting to come together. Joseph Cornell compiled his boxes over years, the compositions reducing as he reduced, less and less taking on more and more space. A box, a page, a resting place, Hôtel Beau-Séjour, Hôtel des Etrangers, Hotel du Nord. "You have no secrets from your insomnia," says the sign at the entrance to the hotel at the end of the world.

Charles Simic has a feeling for Joseph Cornell's boxes, and writes as a friend would. He was walking the streets of New York, he says, at around the same time Joseph Cornell did. They could have passed each other. Certain artists, certain writers, inspire this kind of affectionate co-identity. If you like what someone makes or writes, you feel you know them intimately, even, for the time of looking, or the time of reading, you have become that person. Each page of this book is either in direct reference to Joseph Cornell or in the spirit of his serendipity, his assemblages.

New Yorkers assemble their own New York. Londoners their own London. All of us assemble, and disassemble, the pages of our past. I have always had a liking for glass jars, the larger ones became repositories for the small treasures of my youth; they are still intact in the attic. The artist Robin Winters had a collection of hatboxes; and a collection of glass jars. Artists and writers feel a need to contain things, and for those things, in many cases, to take a long time to come together. 

The intimacy and charm of a Joseph Cornell box and a Charles Simic page is that you engage with their choices and supplement them with your own. He suggests that perhaps the ideal way to observe the boxes is to place them on the floor and lie down beside them.

It is not surprising that child faces stare out of the boxes and that they have the dreamy look of children at play. Theirs in the happy solitude of a time without clocks when children are masters of their world. Cornell's boxes are reliquaries of days when imagination reigned. They are inviting us, of course, to start our childhood reveries all over again.

His final boxes, Charles Simic remarks, are nearly empty, as final boxes should be. 

Emptiness, this divine condition, this school of metaphysics. 
A small white ball 
In a bare, whitewashed room 
With a QUIET sign.

Did Cornell know what he was doing? Yes, but mostly no.  Says Charles Simic. 

Friday 13 May 2022

Reading in hospital: E.M.Forster and Virginia Woolf

In Room 19 at the Bon Secours hospital, known as the Bons, with a large magnolia outside the window—one of the oldest trees in Cork, said the woman who came to disinfect the room—over a hundred years old, it's fablous isn't it, fablous—I have two books, The Collected Short Stories of E.M. Forster and The Haunted House, stories by Virginia Woolf. 

I started E.M. Forster in the Medical Assessment Unit, amid bleepers out of sync with each other, cubicle to cubicle, interruptions and diagnoses in the offing. I couldn't read, but needed to be turning the pages. Next day, I read them again, sitting by the window, young magnolia leaves run through with weather I couldn't see, with the road I couldn't see either, only people's feet as they walked by, and a fly on the outside I'd let in if I could, for a bit of life, but the window doesn't open. No flies in the horsepiddle, please.

But I can have fauns and sirens, other kingdoms, hollow trees, the other side of the hedge. I can ride a celestial omnibus driven by Sir Thomas Browne for the journey before dawn, Dante for the journey after sunset. A young boy who believes in dreams and signposts To Heaven  until he's whacked back into nursery tea and common sense. Fellow-traveller is Mr Bons, of this hospital, perhaps, who was found dead next day in the vicinity of the Bermondsey gas-works.

E.M. Forster wants his systems and dichotomies, his frustration, his Table of Precedency. Underlying all that he wants a Sicilian diver naked on a rock, crossing himself before diving into the blue waters of Capri to rescue a precious notebook on the Deist Controversy.

Few things have been more beautiful than my notebook on the Deist Controversy as it fell downward through the waters of the Mediterranean. It dived, like a piece of black slate, but opened soon, disclosing leaves of pale green, which quivered into blue. Now it had vanished, now it was a book again, but bigger than the book of all knowledge.

All this makes me want Virginia Woolf who wants a quiet chair and a mark on the wall. From there she contemplates 'those real standard things'. 'What an airless, shallow, bald, prominent world it becomes! A world not to be lived in. As we face each other in omnibuses. Nothing is proved. Nothing is known.' The real standard things, she offers, are men. 

Men, perhaps, should you be a woman: the masculine point of view which governs our lives, which sets the standard, which established Whitaker's Table of Precedency, which has become, I suppose, since the war, half a phantom to many men and women, which soon, one may hope, will be laughed into the dustbin, where the phantoms go, the mahogany sideboards and the Landseer prints, Gods and Devils, Hell, and so forth, leaving us all with an intoxicating sense of illegitimate freedom — if freedom exists ...

Near the beginning of 'The Mark on the Wall', freedom exists, exults. 

Why, if one wants to compare life to anything, one must liken it to being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour —landing at the other end without a single hairpin in one's hair! Shot out at the feet of God entirely naked! Tumbling head over heels, in the asphodel meadows like brown paper parcels pitched down a shoot in the post office! With one's hair flying back like the tail of a race-horse.

E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf were contemporaries. I find myself in hospital with one each of their books. I read Virgnia Woolf often, she is . E.M. Forster very rarely, and then usually 'The Celestial Omnibus'. I get on a bus at sunrise or sunset, talk to Dante and Sir Thomas Browne. I have a return ticket after all. Virginia Woolf is there when I get back.

The tree outside the window taps very gently on the pane ... I want to think quietly, calmly, spaciously, never to be interpreted, never to have to rise from my chair, to slip easily from one thing another, without any sense of hostility, or obstacle. I want to sink deeper and deeper, away from the surface, with is hard separate facts. To steady myself, let me catch hold of the first idea that passes ...

Signed: Virginia Woolf, and me.

Friday 6 May 2022

The woman in the dunes, Kobo Abe

Up at the pond, reading Woman in the dunes by Kobo Abe, and, a while before I've finished, the book comes back already in the series of stances, defences you need in the face of moving sand. You have to read according to the philosophy of sand and holes. An entomologist, Niki Jumpei, finds himself trapped in a house with a woman, unnamed, who spends all night shovelling sand, to protect her house and the village. The rope ladder he descended when he first arrived, looking for somewhere to stay for the night, is removed. He's a prisoner who must shovel sand at the bottom of a shifting dune.

Up at the pond I sing the song of the sands. A leaf with new life propels itself along the bottom of the pond. A caddis fly larva wrapped in a hawthorn leaf moves through the pond forest. 

I'm turning Japanese I really think so.

A story set in sand is a philosophy, like Camus or Kafka, you can read it anywhere and in any order. The ground, the walls, shift constantly. Find a sand dune up at the pond. Spit out sand. Bathe your sand fever. Take a short dip. Check the tadpoles. Plan your escape. Fail again. Fail better. Dance an internal tango of the sand dune and the pond.

Around page 183 a piece of paper fell out of my new-last-week copy, published by Penguin Modern Classics, with a message:

Life itself is the Supreme Guru; be attentive to its lesson and obedient to its commands. Monday JUNE 1st.

Is there someone who goes around bookshops inserting short texts into random volumes? Now there's an idea. From Woman in the dunes I could select my texts. Less supreme guru, more sand. More down to earth eternity. For example:

The beauty of sand, in other words, belonged to death. It was the beauty of death that ran through the magnificence of its ruins and its great power of destruction.


Sand not only flows, but this very flow is the sand. 

You yourself become sand. You see with the eyes of the sand. Once you're dead you don't have to worry about dying any more. 
I saw the film of Woman in the dunes when I was twenty, the grain of the film the sand of its subject, the erotics of sand, the dampness at the heart of the desert, on the edge of town. A one way ticket to the blues. Escape is the same as staying put, once you've found fresh water deep in the sand. When the rope ladder is let down again, he doesn't escape.

Only the man who obstinately hangs on to a round-trip ticket can hum with real sorrow a song of the one-way ticket.