Monday 31 October 2022


On the first page of Barbara Comyns' Who was changed and Who was dead the river floods and ducks sail in through the drawing room windows of Willoweed House, setting the scene for radical disorder, in the family and in the village. Flood followed by pestilence and at the last a certain calm cut through with irony. 

Barbara Comyns' creatures are soaked in a kind of schoolgirl wickedness. The back flap of the book tells us that Barbara and her siblings were brought up by governesses and allowed to run wild. Ebin Willoweed, a former journalist, his children, Emma, Hattie and Dennis, his mother, Grandmother Willoweed, plus Old Ives the gardener, and a couple of maids, Eunice and Norah, make up the household, whose disarray marks it off from the rest of the village. 

There are two deaths by the end of chapter three, one in the flood, the other the doctor's wife who has an unstoppable nosebleed. In chapter four, the baker, Horace Emblyn, already distressed by an ulcer and the infidelities of his wife, decides to experiment with rye bread, and makes a small loaf to go out with all the bread orders in the village. People seem to like it; they order more and the baker employs a new man, Old Toby, who had been disfigured by quicklime in his youth. 

The miller is the first to go. He drowns himself. Then the baker's wife, then the village butcher, who slices open his throat into a wound that looks like a smile; as well as the Willoweed grandson, Dennis, who fades out in great detail about halfway through the novel. 

There was ergot in the rye flour. Ergot is one of the bases for lysergic acid. It thrives in a cold winter followed by a wet spring. The village is burning from within. Some are changed and some are dead.

The miller, the baker and the rye flour are but the backdrop to the dreadful Grandmother Willoweed who likes eating and hitting out and stamping her feet. She does not like to walk on land she does not own. 

The book gives us a middle-class shakedown in large gardens, by a river, with early motor cars and superstition. If you die giving birth you have a black baby. Ebin Willoweed's wife Jenny died giving birth to Hattie, who is black, and named for the doctor who delivered her, Dr Hatt. As the shakedown settles she's have a pony, and a dog, and go to a regular school, where they christen her AP, (African Princess). Everything turns out well for the ones who are changed, not dead; and maybe also for those who are dead. 

Grandmother Willoweed has had enough of being a caricature. Willoweed life will go on without her. Ebin, the father, does not go to London with Hattie in order to get away from his mother. He grows a big red beard, buys a boat and is known as Old Captain Willoweed. Emma marries a young doctor and becomes civilised, exemplary, alien. She produces a son who is wheeled round Kensington Gardens, heir to the Willoweed lands and money, according to the dictates of her grandmother. 

Savagery in the English countryside among the relatively well-born, drawn with a caustic humour, is a genre in itself in the early twentieth century. Barbara Comyns, Stella Gibbons (Cold Comfort Farm), Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Nancy Mitford, all of them born around the same time, have in common a sense of social and family structure and a need to tear at it from within, to slice it through and chop it about, make fun of it while demonstrating its invulnerability. 

Monday 24 October 2022

Ivy Compton-Burnett, pronounced Cumpton Burnitt,

Ivy Compton-Burnett, pronounced Cumpton-Burnitt, was a contemporary of Virginia Woolf, one of twelve children to a homeopath by two different wives. None of the twelve children had issue. As if each generation were a set of library books kept within family walls. 

Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels are almost entirely dialogue. Such as you might get in a large family, divided down the middle by two senior wives in the early years of the twentieth century. The youngest, in The Mighty and their Fall, are about twelve, plus a girl aged 14, then a pair of older siblings aged about twenty, their father, Ninian, his mother Selina, daughter Lavinia, a nebulous Uncle Hugo, absent Uncle Ransom, plus Cook, and Ainger. This was the era of servants, and doors at which to listen to the flow of dialogue. This was the era of names like Hengist and Egbert. And Lavinia. Ninian. Selina, his mother.

Did Ivy C-B contribute to the dialogue in her own family, or are her novels projections of the way large families might work if people talked directly out of their inner lives? The truth coming out in dribs and drabs and almost immediately degrading nearly everyone in the house. Are these the conversations, the turns of reflection that Ivy knew from experience or is she filling in silences? She claims her life was uninteresting. So she writes to set it humming. She brings out in unlikely but compelling dialogue the process of a family. This is fiction, but wouldn't you like to have been in on the conversation?

"Well, that is her offer," said Selina." So you may have what is left."

"It has its own quality," said Lavinia. "She has little to give, and so offered little. She does not evade the truth."

"It seems a shadow of a letter, Father. It somehow has no substance."

"It means what it does, as you have said."

Everyone talks the same way in her books, age four or fourteen or fifty or eighty, the way people talk when you imagine them, when you project them into your own experience, out of your age-old reality into something with multiple manoeuvres and a last page. 

Tuesday 18 October 2022

Rivka Galchen's father

In the New Yorker I read Rivka Galchen's personal history of her father, her happy childhood.  How do you get over a happy childhood? she asks. Most of us are stopped in our tracks by this. A happy childhood is a tough act to follow, she says. In her Wikipedia photo she does not look like a woman with a happy childhood. Then again I don't know if I'd recognise a happy childhood if I bumped into one. Her piece about her father was onward and urgent. Her mother was perhaps a dishrag. Happy childhood deals with less than you think.

On tv I saw Ralph Fiennes' Four Quartets. I read them anew in his performance. In the New York Review of Books I read about Piet Mondriaan, and Gilgamesh, and Josephine Baker, Louise Brooks, the dances of Pam Tanovitz. By my stove at the start of the evening, I read Fergal Gaynor's cubist portrait of Hippolytus, his dismemberment and reinstatement. A shake-up of the inheritance, every way you look. At my computer I read Counting Backwards from 100, my insomnia exercise made into a small book, a ramification of number memory and loose association.

We are into the rainy season. Mushrooms are good this year. The pond has started to flow after five months. 

Sunday 9 October 2022


I have two copies of Katherine Mansfield's The Garden Party, one a British wartime edition, thin paper but clear printing, from 1942, the other a Knopf edition from 1923, the year after the stories were first published. The Knopf edition has wonderful endpapers, close relatives of the Omega workshop of Bloomsbury, as well as thick furry paper that tells you, before you've read a word, that you will be comfortable here. 

I re-read the Knopf edition, and I was comfortable, so much so that I came to the end of each story as you might come to the end of a nap. I have read Katherine Mansfield many times, and always found myself pleased with each story and then the next, till there were no more to read, and the leap to a book by someone else inconceivable for a while. 

Virginia Woolf, who knew KM quite well, envied a little her rise to fame, and distrusted her.

Ah, I have found a fine way of putting her in her place. The more she is praised the more I am convinced she is bad. After all, there's some truth in this. She touches the spot too universally for that spot to be of bluest blood.

This diary entry is from March 1922. Am I a Snob? was an essay she wrote in 1932. Yes, you might say. In another diary entry, from September 1921, we find VW dabbling in KM's stories and then needing to rinse her mind. In Dryden? she wonders. Still, if she were not so clever she could not be so disagreeable, she goes on.

There's an easy seduction to the stories of Katherine Mansfield. Her canvas is broad. VW stays in her own social stratum. The death of a cottager in KM's story The Garden Party is not equal to the death of the shell-shocked soldier in Mrs Dalloway. The soldier is also a poet. 

I will not read Dryden to rinse my mind after reading Katherine Mansfield. I might read Nietzsche.

Sunday 2 October 2022

NO PLACE WORSE THAN HOME: Katherine Mansfield Kirsty Gunn George Balanchine & Mozart

For many years after I moved to Ireland, people would ask was I going home in the holidays, and I said, this is home, here, where I live now. Where I grew up may be a backdrop, a scrim across my psyche, but it isn't home. Maldon, Essex, England, the World,  has not evolved into writing material. Not as such. Not as prose. Poetry makes do with less.

Katherine Mansfield writes stories from London and Paris, about her childhood in Wellington, New Zealand, which she left in 1903. Kirsty Gunn, who grew up in the same part of Wellington, fifty or more years later, now living in London and Scotland, spends a winter back in Wellington. Rereads Katherine Mansfield. Writes some new stories herself. Lives in the old neighbourhood. Walks the walk. With her two daughters. Opens the front door and sees the lamp within.

How can we talk about exile when we wanted to leave in the first place? Home is where you no longer are. Maybe there's no place worse than home, as Bruce from Glasgow said, in Brittany. 


While I was reading My Katherine Mansfield Project, by Kirsty Gunn, I read in the New Yorker about George Balanchine going back to Russia in 1962, after fleeing the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1924. On his return, with the ballet company he'd formed in New York, he was dispirited and depressed. He said, that's not Russia. That's a completely different country, which happens to speak Russian.

There was no more place to be exiled from. Exile was no longer a state of being; it was a flight—a flight into the pure glass-and-mirrored realm of the imagination, its own kind of home. 

Kirsty Gunn doesn't find her former self in Thorndon, Wellington, New Zealand, she finds Katherine Mansfield, who has been fixed forever in her stories. George Balanchine is fixed in the repertoire he created for his New York City Ballet, an angelic world of abstraction and relief. I read, Kirsty Gunn, Katherine Mansfield, or Jennifer Homans writing about Balanchine going back to Russia, and know once more that home is not where I grew up, it's not the place where, as Robert Frost said, they have to take you in. It's Mozart, for me, at the end of the day. That's home. Among these books and that music. With the view of the meadow and the trees. A place that I've made, dug and planted and let live, as far as possible.