Monday, 30 December 2013

Paris, as I see it

Here’s a view of the Paris skyline you’re unlikely to see yourself. I took this photograph recently from a window of the top floor cafeteria of a French Ministry building in the 7th Arrondissement. It’s not, of course, an atypical view with the Eiffel Tower and the dome of Les Invalides, it could hardly be that. The roofscape, too, is quintessential Paris: chimney pots like jagged rows of teeth on top of huge flat stacks, walls in fact that overbear the next-door buildings. Even the monochrome grisaille of the scene is something I always associate with Paris.

I first visited Paris a year after ‘Les Evénements’; I remember how hot it was, how crowded Versailles seemed - my earliest experience of mass tourism - and how in Les Invalides, as I approached Napoleon’s sarcophagus, an ancient attendant shouted at me, ‘Enlevez votre chapeau!’.  (I was wearing my Donovan cap – that essential fashion accessory of the sixties.) But my most vivid memory is simply of sitting one midday outside a Montmartre café, writing this poem:

At the corner of the Rue Ronsard
Stranger in a city I do not know
I have sat two hours.
The sun has warmed me, warmed my beer
And dried the gutters, and people move faster now
Out of the sun. An old man leaves his balcony
And slowly draws his shutters, slats
Without paint and walls that are cracked
And dry. The drone of passing cars
Is the sound of bees weaving
To another bush in perhaps a shaded avenue.
Watch the old woman
Who sips her absinthe,
Counts her centimes carefully,
Shuffles into the shade. My reflection
Grows in a window opposite
And in this corner of this city,
On the corner of this street,
My presence is observed in silence.
And the trees are moved by a breeze
Which doesn’t reach me.

The following year, in 1970, it won a Northern Arts Poetry Prize in a competition judged by the poet Basil Bunting, who kindly and accurately said he ‘detected something of Eliot’s Preludes’ in what I’d written.

I have been trying to work out when and how I first encountered Paris. Tentatively I date this to 1956. In that year, aged seven, I moved to a new school which had a small library of books we were allowed to borrow overnight. I chose a large picture book with a semi-detached cover my mother had to stick back to pre-empt its falling off altogether. Having no sellotape, she used Elastoplast instead. I’ve no idea what prompted me to pick up this particular book, but from the moment I opened it, I was entranced:

“In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines

Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.
In two straight lines they broke their bread

And brushed their teeth and went to bed.

They left the house at half past nine

In two straight lines in rain or shine -

The smallest one was Madeline.”

I’m sure it will have been here, in Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline, that I first saw illustrated the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and the tall houses whose roof lines immediately evoke Paris for me. Later, such images would become familiar through films: Rene Claire’s Le Million and – in a very different key – Louis Malle’s  film noir, Ascenseur pour l’Echafaud. As for books, I must have been no more than thirteen when I read Paul Gallico’s Flowers for Mrs Harris, but not long after that I graduated to Françoise Sagan, devouring Bonjour Tristesse and Aimez-vous Brahms? in a kind of adolescent astonishment. At the same time, and with the same enthusiasm, I was in love with Françoise Hardy, whose EP, C’est Fab!, said it all.

This is how the idea of Paris evolved in my imagination. But two specific pictures also sharpened my image of the city. First, a Montmartre street scene by Utrillo, hanging in a classroom at my prep school: we had to copy it during an art lesson, and to that early exercise I owe my first understanding of perspective. I loved the picture’s silvery grey tones, its high houses and the distant glimpse of the white dome of Sacré Coeur; I loved, too, what I came to recognize as a Utrillo trademark: those lonely pairs of figures walking slowly up the street.  It’s fashionable to belittle Utrillo these days, and he has been too much imitated – some would say he spent too long imitating himself. But I agree with Jean Oberlé who admired ‘the nostalgia and poetic feeling engendered with almost heart-rending intensity by those subdued tones.’ *

The second picture shows another Paris street, but not quite Montmartre this time: Pigalle.  It’s an oil painting by Don Rivett, my uncle. I adored my mother’s brother, who was a magician, literally and metaphorically: I thought there was nothing he couldn’t do. I have only very recently seen this picture again, after more than half a century, but I recognize every detail: the wet street, the mother and her red-coated child heading into the Metro, the sleek black Citroën and the chic lady with the furled umbrella walking in the direction of Sacré Coeur.

My uncle had just finished the picture when we went for our 1957 summer visit to his home. While he was out of the room, I looked closely at the painting and - not realizing it was still wet – prodded with my finger the face of the man in the cap. Of course it smudged. When Don saw what had happened, and asked who was the culprit, I was much too embarrassed to confess. But he knew, of course, and I knew he knew. So, when next day he announced, ‘I’d give half-a-crown to whoever smudged that face! I’ve repainted it and now it looks much better than it did first time,’ I couldn’t say a word. But I loved that picture of Paris, and my uncle, all the more.

Adrian Barlow

* Jean Oberlé: Utrillo: Monmartre, Methuen 1956.

[illustrations: (i) Paris rooftops, July 2013  © Adrian Barlow; (ii) Pigalle (1957) by Don Rivett


Footnote: on my first visit to Paris in 1969 I travelled with my lifelong friend, the traveller and writer Christopher Arthur. This Christmas, I have been enjoying his new novel, A Tale of Two Russians (Dynasty Press, 2013)

Thursday, 12 December 2013

King’s Cross in all its glory

Leaving Cambridge one morning this week, I head for London. I have just come from a meeting about a report I’ve been commissioned to write. It’s an important commission (for me), but the project has run into difficulties: permissions, citations, non-public domains: these words rattle around my brain, and I’m no longer sure I can write the report in the way I think it needs to be written. I must wait for the outcome of other meetings, further decisions taken and revisions demanded, before I can get on with the job.

The train makes its familiar way through stations where it doesn’t stop – Royston, Letchworth, Hitchin, Stevenage: all of them truly ‘destinations not of the heart’. Fog hangs over the passing fields like the fog enveloping my report, and by the time we are nearing the terminus, even Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium has all but disappeared. With a couple of minutes to go we enter the tunnels on the approach to King’s Cross, much to the irritation of those travellers who’ve been on their phones all journey: ‘Hello?.... Still there?.... Can you hear me?.... Hello?.... Damn!’ But then, astonishingly, we emerge into bright sunlight and when we debouche onto the only station in the world to boast both a Platform 0 and a Platform 9¾, I can see blue sky through the glass roof.

In sixty years of arriving at King’s Cross I have never seen this before - the roof having recently been reglazed as part of the station’s restoration and redevelopment. Nor have I ever walked outside before and seen the view that has now been opened up. In December sunlight the huge double-arched frontage of the station is spectacular, every detail sharp and visible. Even the cleaned yellow gault-clay brickwork lifts the spirits. Let Network Rail be congratulated, for once! This whole area used to be a dire mess, somewhere to be hurried though; now people stroll and even sit in the sun to enjoy the exhilaration of great architecture. Brunel himself would have raised his high hat to acknowledge what architects and clients, contractors and Camden Council have achieved here. My one regret is the new glass and steel awning that runs the whole width of the façade, destroying the rhythm of the lower arcade; but no doubt one day I’ll be glad of its shelter.

I’ve written before about the newly created concourse between King’s Cross and the now revamped
Great Northern Hotel. Every time I’m here I admire again the modest but magnificent plaque commemorating the opening of the concourse. Most people, I suppose, simply miss it. But everyone should see this, for the lettering is beautiful, and the stone stele on which it is incised has its own story to tell.

Look closely and you’ll see that the text (itself hardly inspiring, I admit) is inscribed with letters of different sizes, phrase by phrase. Each letter has just the hint of a serif, and I love the way the letter ‘O’ – which appears twelve times if you count the nought of 2012 – always swells a fraction more on the right side than on the left. How neatly too the calligrapher has solved the problem of space by enfolding the letter O within the letter C, H within C, and E within L, even - so discreetly I have only just noticed this myself – by eliding the N and the E of ‘opened’! Rarely, if ever, can an erstwhile Transport Secretary (she’s since moved on to International Development) have been so beautifully marmorialised as Justine Greening is here. Some half-remembered lines from Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale chase away the last traces of my morning’s mental fog:

By process, as ye knowen everichoon,
Men may so longe graven in a stoon
Til some figure therinne emprented be.

Precisely. Carving this inscription must have been agonizingly slow work, one slip of the chisel sufficient at any moment to ruin it all. I like the way the text is all justified to the right, emphasizing the straight edge on that side of the stone, in contrast with the ragged edge on the left. But, if one looks more closely, the straight edge is not perfectly straight: the lower half is slightly concave. That’s because this slab was originally a tread on the staircase leading to the Great Northern offices, and over more than 150 years the step had been worn away by generations of railway clerks, dutifully keeping to the left as they headed up the staircase to their desks each morning. A hidden notice on the left- hand edge (you have to flatten yourself against the wall to read it) tells you this step also serves as a memorial to all these unremembered men.

You can imagine Betjeman on TV, talking about the newly restored King’s Cross and revelling in this tiny fact. I think he would have revelled too in the sight greeting him a little further to the left. For here is the sign for Platform 9¾, below which half a station trolley bearing a gilded birdcage is disappearing into the wall. And that’s not all. A giggle of young persons is queuing to be photographed: one by one they pose ecstatically, hanging onto the handle of the trolley and poised to dematerialise through the wall. A woman from the strategically adjacent Harry Potter Store supplies a Hogwarts scarf to complete the illusion. Into this store I venture nervously, amazed to see children buying Hogwarts kit (scarves, sweaters and ties) with an enthusiasm I never managed to muster when, as a pimply thirteen year old, I was marched into Gorringes to be fitted for my own school uniform.

I can’t afford the Harry Potter wands on sale, though I’d hoped a swish of a magic wand might get my report-writing back on track. But one thing I’m glad to have discovered in the shop is the Hogwarts School motto:

Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus
      (Never Tickle a Sleeping Dragon)

Now, with due deference to Justine Greening, wouldn’t that have been a text worthy the unknown stone carver’s art?


Adrian Barlow

[illustrations: (i) The restored façade of Lewis Cubitt’s 1852 King’s Cross station, and King’s Cross Square (architects: John McAslan and Partners); (ii) the commemorative stone in the station concourse: Photographs © the author


My previous blog about the new concourse is King’s Cross and E.M. Forster. I recommend Philip Wilkinson’s excellent  ‘English Buildings’ blog, and his November 2013 piece about the newly opened space in front of King’s Cross.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

At the Biographers’ Club Prize Dinner

To Brooke Street, Mayfair, on a damp November evening. No. 69 is the home of the Savile Club, founded in 1868 and haunt ever since of writers, artists and bookmen; an apt venue, therefore, for the annual Biographers’ Club Prize Dinner. This takes place in the Ballroom, a first-floor saloon of stunning opulence mirrors, murals and windows in the French manner reached by a very grand double staircase.

In the room, the people come and go: a Regius Professor of History, biographers of royalty, of celebrities, even (these days) of cities, mountains and the London fog; life-writers short and tall, publishers and agents, politicians and biographers of politicians. There are kind souls who make a point of introducing themselves and greeting strangers as we are while others accost old friends cheerily, as if always bumping into them on occasions such as this. I am thus astonished to hear my own name called by a former colleague who has spotted me in the crowd. It’s good to meet him again. His companion is one of the short-listed writers in the ‘Best proposal by an uncommissioned, first-time biographer’ category. I wish her luck and head back to my own party, for we are guests of our good friend John Smart, whose biography Tarantula’s Web is short-listed for the ‘HW Fisher Best First Biography’ award. I wrote about this book when it came out a year ago, and I admire more than ever its unravelling of the complex network of relationships connecting and later dividing John Hayward, TS Eliot and their circle. (John Hayward was a bookman par excellence. I’m sure he’d have known the Savile Club: the word ‘clubbable’ fitted him perfectly.)

*          *         *
Biography is much on my mind at the moment: I’ve recently completed a commissioned entry for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. A life in miniature: personal details – birth, upbringing, education, marriage and family – followed by career, details and significance of; publications ditto, and a thumbnail sketch of personality, reputation and legacy, all in a thousand words. By contrast, my self-imposed task of writing a book on the life and stained glass of Charles Eamer Kempe, presses insistently on me. And I feel that the better I know him, the more elusive he becomes. Here, for instance is an extract from an enthusiastic letter twenty-three-year-old Kempe wrote in 1860 to his mother from Rouen, which he was visiting for the first time:

I have wandered about its intricate streets (thanks to a good topographical skull) with round eyes, & open mouth, like little Johnny head-in-air….The cathedral and St Ouen have given me several hours’ delight: the western front of the former grows on me hourly – at the end of each day I wander back to it again & again, to peep at it & “find a spell unseen before”…. Altogether my visit to Rouen has been most successful. Its gay streets (I do not know what you wd say of its back streets in the evening where every alley might contain a murderer for aught I know to the contrary), its crowds, among whom I pass quietly on my way, in happy unconsciousness of them, and its grand old buildings render it delightful.

This letter seems straightforward enough, but it’s both frustrating and tantalizing: frustrating because it says nothing specific about the buildings Kempe has been enjoying – no reference at all to stained glass, for instance. (Elsewhere he talks about making notes and sketches in his diary, which alas has disappeared, believed destroyed.) It is tantalizing because one wants to know why Kempe was spending his evenings wandering through the back streets and dark alleys. He enjoys shocking his mother – ‘I do not know what you would say’ etc. – a widow living in sedate Cheltenham, but Mrs Kempe would have been much more shocked if she had read the account of this same area in Madame Bovary, Flaubert’s scandalous novel published only three years earlier:

This is the area of theatres, bars and whores. Often, a cart passed close beside Emma, laden with a wobbling piece of theatrical décor. Youths in aprons were spreading sand on the paving stones, between the tubs of green shrubbery. There was a smell of absinthe, cigars, and oysters.

In a letter to his friend Louis Bouilhet (23 May 1855) Flaubert had written of these streets: ‘The word is out: Babylon is here.’

So what was Kempe doing in this seedy part of Rouen? He certainly had a taste for theatricals and he’d inherited a love of historical costume and fancy-dress from his mother and his aunt, Mrs Claxon, wife of the Dean of Gloucester. Sometimes his early stained glass designs look like carefully dressed stage sets (as in the window above, showing Dives at dinner with his friends). He was a sociable man, given to celebrating friendship, but he never married. Who knows why not? For much of his life his closest confidante was his sister Augusta, but their letters give nothing away about his private life – if he had one. Until shortly before this visit to Rouen, Kempe had been planning to become an Anglican priest, only a bad stammer apparently preventing him. I have been writing and lecturing about Kempe for twenty-five years but I’m baffled by what he still keeps hidden from me. I’d like to discover if he read Madame Bovary. And, if so, what he’d thought of it. I might learn a lot, if I knew.

*          *          *

At the Biographers’ Club Prize Dinner, the judges described Tarantula’s Web as ‘a wonderful book that needed to be written’ and praised John Smart’s research, but the £5000 prize went to Charles Moore for his biography of Margaret Thatcher. Moore, whose ungenerous attack on Seamus Heaney I blogged about recently, read out a confidently pre-rehearsed acceptance speech; but it was Antonia Fraser, receiving a Lifetime Services to Biography Award, whose speech I preferred. She neatly inverted Carlyle’s dictum that ‘A well-written life is almost as rare as a well-spent one’ by declaring that ‘it is possible to have a well-spent life trying to write a well-written one.’ I hope she’s right but, if she is, I still have a long way to go with Kempe.

Adrian Barlow

Postscript (28.11.13): I’m delighted to see that Tarantula’s Web is listed as one of the Books of the Year, in today’s Times Literary Supplement. Biographies of former prime ministers are conspicuous by their absence.

[Illustration: ‘The rich man’s table’ – detail from a window depicting the story of Dives and Lazarus (St. Saviour’s, Oxton), by Kempe 1872. Photo © Philip Collins



Friday, 1 November 2013

History, Heaney and Hilary Mantel


Dublin’s United Arts Club is an hospitable and appropriate place to lecture on Irish literature. I was there last week, invited by the Irish Byron Society, to speak about Seamus Heaney.  Taking my title from the blog I wrote in early September, Seamus Heaney Full Face, I reminded my audience that the line ‘Full face, foursquare, eyelevel, carved in stone’ (from ‘The Pattern’ in Human Chain, 2010) describes the image of a bishop who had stared down at the youthful Heaney as he nervously approached his first confessional. Would he be telling the truth, the beady-eyed bishop challenged him, or would his confession amount to no more than what Yeats had called ‘polite meaningless words’?

I felt similarly challenged, and by Heaney himself.  If my lecture was to be more than simply carrying coals to Newcastle – talking respectfully to the Irish about the Irishness of a great Irish poet – I wanted to confront head-on a difficult topic: the charge recently levelled in England against Heaney that he had been cowardly, disingenuous and deceitful (‘sly’) in not condemning ‘without equivocation, from within the same tribe, the thuggery, murder and bigotry of the Provisional IRA’.

This charge (in The Spectator) had been brought by Charles Moore, the prominent Catholic editor, commentator and biographer of Margaret Thatcher. It had struck a sour, dissenting note at a moment when obituaries were praising Heaney as a humane and generous man, the greatest Irish poet since Yeats.  Henceforward, one even suggested, we ought instead to speak of Yeats as the greatest Irish poet before Heaney.

Moore began his attack thus: ‘Many articles say what a nice man Seamus Heaney was. I believe it, and it is nice to be nice. But niceness is not necessarily the same as goodness, let alone courage.’  He went on to give two examples of Catholic priests (‘from within the same tribe’) who, he said, had condemned the IRA outright, but 

nice Seamus Heaney never quite did: his work left enough word-room for the bad people to thrive. ‘I loved his whole manner,/ Sure-footed but too sly’, he wrote of a drinker in a Derry pub. That was Heaney too.

‘Word-room’ is a term Heaney himself might have used. But if Moore was right, how could I square ‘sly’ with my conviction that  - as Heaney had once said of Robert Lowell – what we see as we read his poetry is the man himself? 

Full face, close, kindly, anxious, testing – a husband’s face, a father’s, a child’s, a patient’s, above all a poet’s.

My defence of Heaney began with ‘Casualty’ (from Field Work, 1977), the poem Moore had quoted. The poet recalls a stubborn Catholic fisherman who’d ignored an IRA-imposed curfew, in the wake of Bloody Sunday, and visited a loyalist pub because no one was going to tell him whether or where he could or couldn’t go for a drink. The pub had been bombed and Heaney’s friend killed. Now the dead man forces him to question both his own loyalties and responsibilities as a poet:

My tentative art
His turned back watches too ….

I contrasted ‘my tentative art’ with a description Heaney once gave of Yeats: ‘bold, reckless and outspoken’. These are words Heaney would never, I suspect, have applied to himself: indeed, he only once really railed against his own caution (in ‘Weighing In’, from The Spirit Level, 1996), but – and here’s the nub of my argument – he had the courage to admit the ambiguity of his feelings and to keep interrogating his need to see ‘Two sides to every problem, yes, yes, yes’. He speaks pointedly in ‘Casualty’ of ‘our tribe’s complicity’ and at the poem’s end, like Hamlet appealing to his dead father’s ghost, urges the dead fisherman:

Dawn-sniffing revenant,
Plodder through midnight rain
Question me again.

Even stronger self-scrutiny appears in the poem ‘Punishment’ where Heaney contemplates the bog-preserved body of a young shaven-headed girl, who had, in another age and in another country, been blindfolded and hanged – perhaps for adultery:

My poor scapegoat

I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence.

I noted how silence, as here, can signify complicity in the rough justice of the tribe, a silence over which Heaney agonizes when comparing the punishment once afforded the hanged girl with that exacted by the IRA:

I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in  tar,
wept by the railings,

who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.

There is, I argued, an honesty here that has escaped Charles Moore.

Equally, though, Heaney recognized the power of silence as a weapon. In  ‘Weighing In’ he wrote of ‘the power / Of power not exercised, of hope / Inferred by the powerless forever’; and in ‘To George Seferis in the Underworld’, a key poem from District and Circle (2005), he paid tribute to the power of the Greek poet’s ‘elected silence’ to express outrage against the unelected junta of the Greek Colonels. By contrast with this devastating refusal to dignify their brutal regime with a denunciation, today’s language of protest, Heaney notes ruefully, is merely ‘marshmallow, rubber dagger stuff’.*

Earlier this week I heard Hilary Mantel say in a lecture at Exeter University that ‘in Ireland especially, history is still lived and suffered through. Though it leaves its mark on the landscape its real marks are internal.’ She added that in England we have heritage, not history – ‘castles, cathedrals: you pay for admission and they let you through the door. In Ireland, for better or worse, you can get in for free.’ Precisely. It’s always dangerous to rush to judgment – especially about people living in and through historical conflicts of which we are merely spectators. Charles Moore might have thought twice before accusing Heaney of cowardice, had he really read his poetry and pondered the honesty and, yes, the courage with which Heaney articulated his moral uncertainties. I hope I said so clearly enough in Dublin.

Adrian Barlow

*I have written in more detail about 'To George Seferis in the Underworld' in World and Time: Teaching Literature in Context (C.U.P. 2009, pp.58-59). The phrase 'elected silence' appeared in the poem's first version, published in the TLS in 2004; by the time it was revised for District and Circle, a year later, this phrase had been replaced by 'your much contested silence'. Was this a more pointed echo of Heaney's own disinclination to speak out unequivocally about the Troubles?

I have also blogged about Heaney before: