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.

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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: