Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Cuthbert, Dibble, Grubb

Names, particularly names listed aloud, can produce a powerful litany. Poets make good use of such lists: 

   William Dewy, Tranter Reuben, Farmer Ledlow late at plough,
            Robert’s kin, and John’s, and Ned’s,
   And the Squire, and Lady Susan, lie in Mellstock churchyard  now!

Thus Thomas Hardy recalling ‘Friends Beyond’, but he was by no means the first. The 16th century Scots poet William Dunbar, in his ‘Lament for the Makaris’, lists the famous poets of the past whom Death has claimed:

   He has done petously devour
   The noble Chaucer, of makaris flour   [makaris: poets
   The Monk of Bury, and Gower, all three -
      Timor Mortis conturbat me.

There are few more poignant passages in Shakespeare’s History plays than the roll call of the dead on both sides after the Battle of Agincourt:

Charles Delabreth, High Constable of France,
Jacques of Chatillon, Admiral of France,
The Master of the cross-bows, Lord Rambures,
Great Master of France, the brave Sir Guichard Dolphin.
John Duke of Alanson, Anthony Duke of Brabant,
The brother to the Duke of Burgundy,
And Edward Duke of Bar: of lusty Earls,
Grandpré and Roussi, Falconbridge and Foix,
Beaumont and Marle, Vaudemont and Lestrale.

“Here was a royal fellowship of death,” says Henry, as he hands back the list to the French Herald, and this royal roll-call is made to sound all the more shocking when contrasted with the names of the English dead whom Henry calls next:

Edward the Duke of York, the Earl of Suffolk,
Sir Richard Ketley, Davy Gam, Esquire;
None else of name …. (Henry V, IV.viii.92-105)

Roll calls can be created from place names too. In Dylan Thomas’s radio play, Under Milk Wood, the Rev. Eli Jenkins compares his little local River Dewi with the great rivers of Wales:

By Sawdde, Senny, Dovey, Dee,
Edw, Eden, Aled, all,
Taff and Towey broad and free,
Llyfnant with its waterfall,

Claerwen, Cleddau, Dulais, Daw,
Ely, Gwili, Ogwr, Nedd,
Small is our River Dewi, Lord,
A baby on a rushy bed.

And well before Thomas, A.E. Housman had gathered together the names of these Shropshire villages:

Clunton and Clunbury,
            Clungunford and Clun
Are the quietest places
            Under the sun.

One of U.A. Fanthorpe’s best-known poems, ‘Rising Damp’, is about the ‘little fervent underground’ rivers of London. She lists them:

Effra, Graveney, Falcon, Quaggy,
Wandle, Walbrook, Tyburn, Fleet

And these names return to haunt the poem as the rivers themselves haunt the city, until the last stanza where Fanthorpe warns:

It is the other rivers that lie
Lower, that touch us only in dreams
That never surface. We feel their tug
As a dowser’s rod bends to the source below

Phlegethon, Acheron, Lethe, Styx.

Names ‘tug’ at us too. We could all call own private roll of significant places and significant people. Sometimes it is their very absence from us, and ours from them, that tugs. One of the most moving scenes in the recent TV adaptation of Birdsong was the calling of the battalion roll at the end of the first day of the Somme, when there was almost no one there to answer to their name. In the novel itself this moment prompts an extraordinary elegiac passage, which begins:

Names came pattering into the dusk, bodying out the places of their forebears, the villages and towns where the telegram would be delivered, the houses where the blinds would be drawn, where low moans would come in the afternoon behind closed doors ….

These reflections on names have been prompted by a short story I read this week consisting only of place names, specifically the names of villages and towns in Lincolnshire, Cambridge and Norfolk encircling the Wash. It’s the final story in Jon McGregor’s new collection, This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You. All the stories are set in this part of East Anglia, which is one reason I bought the book: I lived as a child in this fenland area, and though it’s now nearly fifty years since I left, the village of Tydd St. Mary and the fields, dykes and drains between Tydd and the sea are still – to borrow a phrase from D.H. Lawrence – ‘the country of my heart’.

McGregor’s stories are experiments in the limits and fissures of language: their force often lies in the resonance of what is not said, of what slips into the silence either side of speech. So a story like Memorial Stone consisting of nothing but names arranged by sound and type (Tathwell to Maidenwell, Bag Enderby and Aby, Dogsthorpe, Hogsthorpe, Dogdyke and Quadring Eaudike – hundreds of names over five pages) is in effect a prose poem. Read aloud, it creates the same kind of mesmeric effect of repetition and variation achieved in music by Philip Glass, but with this difference: that each name, each village, carries its own history and its own stories, created from the memories of and about everyone who ever lived there: parish records, war memorials, roads, schools, houses – all names .

But there is one name missing from Memorial Stone: Tydd. The villages that lie around it are there: Sutton St. James, Leverington, Newton, Holbeach (the coldest place in England last week: -16°C). But no Tydd St. Mary (or St Giles, or Fen or Gote). As I searched for Tydd I felt disappointed, even offended. Somehow an injustice had been done. Absurd perhaps, yet this has preyed on my mind all week. But now I think I have found a way to put things right: I have come up with my own roll call of Tydd – roads, fields, people, pubs. Here it is:

Teed, Earth, Flint

Roman Bank, Minerva Farm, Sea Wall
Foul Anchor, Five Bells,
Raspberry Cottage, Strawberry Hall

Tydd St. Mary
Banks, Burrell, Balls, Bills, Hicks
Jack Buck, Catling, Cush Knott, Spinks

Tydd Gote
Pedley, Pearson, Paddy, Pat
Cross Gate, Low Gate, Common Pit

Tydd Fen
Greendyke, Harold’s Bridge, Woad Farm
Salt Field, Oldfield,
World’s End.

[illustrations: (i) Map of the Fens around the Wash
                       (ii) Tydd St. Mary’s Church photo: the author
                        (iii) Tydd Church in a stained glass window by Tom Denny (private collection)

Sunday, 5 February 2012

John Betjeman and Windlesham

Writing letters to the newspapers, it’s been said, is an entertaining but essentially solitary pastime. Perhaps, but I was touched by how many friends contacted me to say they’d seen my recent (very brief) letter in the Times. It was about a poem by John Betjeman, and I wrote it in answer to an enquiry from the founder of the Betjeman Society as to the identity of Pam, the mountainous tennis player in ‘Pot Pourri from a Surrey Garden’. Did she exist? It’s well known that Miss Joan Hunter Dunn was based on a real person, though certainly not on anyone to whom Betjeman ever got engaged, as happens to the nervous young officer at the end of ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’. That’s the poem in which Miss J Hunter Dunn appears, ‘furnished and burnished by Aldershot sun’. In ‘Pot Pourri …’, however, the poet goes one further, and ends by describing confidently the scene and the setting for his eventual marriage to Pam -whoever she may have been.  Pamela Mitford? Possible but unlikely: she never lived anywhere near Windlesham.  

This was my letter as published:

Sir, I suspect that John Betjeman’s Pam is as much a figment of his fevered imagination as the wedding he conjures at the end of ‘Pot Pourri from a Surrey Garden’. He imagines “Windlesham bells” ringing out, but the parish church of St. John the Baptist, Windlesham, has only one bell. When my father was rector there in the 1960s, I was sometimes allowed to ring it.

The first Betjeman poem I ever encountered was ‘Hunter Trials’  (probably in O’Malley and Thompson’s Rhyme and Reason) but ‘Pot Pourri from a Surrey Garden’ was the second, and I approved of Betjeman because he had written a poem about the place where I lived. I remember, though, being puzzled that he was wrong not only about the bells but about the architecture. In the last stanza he imagines himself and Pam processing up the ‘Butterfield aisle, rich with Gothic enlacement’, but Windlesham Church was neither built nor restored by Butterfield: it was enlarged, in 1874, by Ewan Christian in a notably plain and unadorned style. At the age of fifteen, I had already been to All Saints, Margaret Street in London (rather to my father’s alarm) so I knew what a Butterfield church looked like, and it certainly did not look like Windlesham.

The village of Windlesham is described in Pevsner’s Surrey thus:

On the Berkshire border, half heath and half meadows. Big C19 houses and a busy nest of Victorian brick boxes on the former; sleek old farms on the latter, which is almost the first true countryside on this bearing coming out of London.

It still has the feel, in parts, of an old Surrey village. Its roads have names like Pound Lane, Updown Hill and Snow’s Ride. This commemorates the infamous highwayman, Captain Snow, who used the local Pelican Inn as his base. (The Pelican is now Woodcote House School, where I began - for two terms between school and university - my teaching career.)

Did Betjeman have any particular connection with Windlesham? Not that I know. I suspect in fact that he chose the village both because its name conveniently rhymed with ‘Pam’ and, more significantly, because of its dactylic sound: dum-diddy. This is the key rhythmic feature of the poem. From ‘pram in the …’ onwards, phrases like ‘whizzing them …’ ‘size of her …’ and words like ‘slippery’, ‘bountiful’, ‘mountainous’ and ‘arrogant’ are all dactyls. They give the poem its momentum.

A friend who contacted me after reading my letter in the paper recalled how easy it was to parody Betjeman. That’s true, of course, and while I was still at school I memorized a splendid parody published in the then infant Private Eye.

Lovely lady in the pew
Goodness, what a scorcher, phew!
What I wouldn’t give to do
Unmentionable things to you!

If old God is still up there
I’m sure He wouldn’t really care,
I’m sure he’d say a little lech
Never really harmed old Betje.

I have never accepted the argument that good poets are literally inimitable: in a way, their very distinctiveness makes them easier to parody. Put this to the test: listen to Dylan Thomas reciting ‘Chard Whitlow’, Henry Reed’s definitive parody of Four Quartets. Betjeman, too, was a good parodist and perhaps it’s one of his strengths that he can easily wrongfoot his readers, leaving us unsure whether or not we are missing a joke.

‘Pot Pourri from a Surrey Garden’ is itself a good example of what I mean. It’s perhaps a more serious poem than appears at first, paying an oblique homage to T.S. Eliot (who, remarkably, had taught Betjeman at Highgate Junior School). The gauche narrator who hopes to catch a glimpse of the Amazonian Pam is an adolescent Prufrock, washing his face in a bird bath before deciding which path he dare take. Prufrock, indeed, seems a kind of ghostly presence stalking Betjeman’s writing at this time: after all, both title and opening line of ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’ – “Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn” gesture towards ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’.

Betjeman insists we pay attention to the title of his poem too.  ‘Pot Pourri from a Surrey Garden’ derives from a once-popular book of the same name. That book survives now, as its subtitle ‘The Classic Diary of a Victorian Lady’ suggests, as a record of an earlier, gentler age. Betjeman’s poem does something similar. Published in 1940 at the start of the War, it accumulates remembered details of youthful summers from a suddenly vanished world: the ambiguous ‘miles of pram in the wind’, the unsettling horses’ hooves, the cheap Players’ Weights cigarette packet trodden into the sandy gorse track. Is it good to rake up these memories at such a time? Potpourri itself reminds one of Eliot’s ambivalence about memory at the start of Burnt Norton:

But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.

Still, scents and shrubs overwhelm Betjeman’s trespasser. The ‘coco-nut smell of the broom’ draws him towards the ‘remarkable wrought-iron gates’ and ‘over the boundary’. He steals into the exclusive world of stockbroker-belt Surrey:  it’s a world hidden behind gorse, conifers, above all behind rhododendrons.  ‘Lucky the rhododendrons!’ sighs the love-lorn poet when Pam, ‘full of a pent-up strength’, swipes at them with her tennis racquet. He knows he’s no match for her, but he can still dream:

Over the redolent pinewoods, in at the bathroom casement,

One fine Saturday, Windlesham bells shall call,

Up the Butterfield aisle, rich with Gothic enlacement,

Licensed now for embracement,

Pam and I, as the organ

Thunders over you all.

‘Redolent’ not only echoes the dactylic sound of ‘petulant’ in the previous line, it recalls the scents and memories evoked in the opening lines of the poem and in its title. But the rest of this last stanza offers an unexpected rebuff to all those who have despised the speaker for his hopeless and inappropriate passion for Pam. They (we) will have to sit and watch as he, the seven-stone weakling, walks triumphantly up the aisle with his Charles-Atlas like bride. Betjeman doesn’t expect his readers to take any of this seriously, of course. Though it is a poem mixing memory and desire, it is also a fantasy enjoying its element of self-parody: no serious poet would write a serious poem with such tortured rhymes  as rhododendrons / Hendren’s or enlacement / embracement.

Betjeman’s whole persona showed him to be a master of self-parody. He loved a joke against himself. Since, indeed, he contributed to Private Eye from its very earliest days (he was the original Piloti, writing the architecture column ‘Nooks and Corners’), it would not surprise me to discover he had been author of ‘Lovely lady in the pew’, the spoof that caught my eye while I was still a schoolboy, living in Windlesham.

[illustration: Windlesham Church, c.1970. Artist: Doreen Barlow

My new book, Extramural: Literature and Lifelong Learning, is due to be published by Lutterworth Press later this month.