Capturing Everyday Beauty: An Interview with Gwendoline Riley
Gwendoline Riley's novels honour the small things. Cold Water (2002) and its successor Sick Notes (2004) tell the stories of Carmel and Esther respectively, as they live out their 'wilderness years' in Manchester. Drink, doomed love and dysfunction accompany passing friendships and casual jobs. Bleak and beautiful, Riley's stories are drawn from the ordinary, but wry observation and intelligently-developed characters prevent the books from ever seeming banal.
Riley's characters read Russian writers, and she quotes Dostoevsky in the preliminary pages of Sick Notes; an American accent lingers in both books. But has Riley been at all influenced by English writers? "I don't know what they're going on about," she says. "I like Alan Warner, though, and I just read a book of short stories by Ewan Morrison that I enjoyed, but then he's Scottish, too, and the stories were set in America."
As is Riley's new book, Joshua Spassky. But is this a conscious effort to get away from writing about Manchester? Riley doesn't think so. In fact, although both of her novels are set in Manchester, she states that there are no particular places in the city that have influenced her writing. Nonetheless, a general sense of place pervades both books, and critics comment on it again and again. When asked if her portrayal of Manchester has changed between novels, she says: "In my new book I say 'every building drips with the thrush of failed love', and I imagine that was true for the first two books too."
Emotion and surroundings are intertwined for Riley's characters. Their habitat is observed with the same keen eye for detail that examines them, and a hundred tiny moments expand to fill the pages of each novel with a tribute to the everyday, to the way we live out our lives. The thoughtful prose produces a kind of poetic realism. Riley's anti-heroines are flawed or stagnating, but they are always sympathetically described and touchingly human; a combination of banter and self-reproach softens their hard edges. Hers is a rare brand of existentialism that makes room for both humour and warmth.
Riley's youth and style have often been drawn into journalistic comment on her work. When asked about her reaction to this sort of attention, her response is mixed. She thinks that the idea of herself as a 'hip lit' icon is ridiculous: "[Hip lit] was coined by that one article [in The Times Online], it hasn't been splashed across Time Magazine, and clearly it doesn't exist." But: "'Camus in hotpants' [3am Magazine] is a genius bit of description, I'm hardly going to be a churl about that." And perhaps it would be churlish to take offence at any comparison to Camus, hot-panted or not.
Several times during the Albion interview Riley responds tersely: if the answer to a question is a simple no, she doesn't shy away from saying so. Along with Carmel and Esther, she seems to refuse meaningless niceties. This is central to her work, giving it its integrity. The books and writing always take precedence over her public image: "I still work in a bar. I don't think it's unusual for writers to have other jobs. I'm just living my life."
Riley is serious about books and about becoming a more proficient writer. She reads widely: "I just read Everyman, Philip Roth, and I enjoyed it so much. Roth is definitely right on the edge of writing a Karamazov. I'm thinking about death more and more and Everyman confirmed what I've been thinking. One of my favourite books of all time is My Life as a Man. I think it's pretty holy, in its own way. I'm also reading Alan Warner's new one, and the Penguin Book of Russian Short Stories, which I've followed up on, and so I'm reading Varlam Shalamov's Kolyma Tales. It's like being kicked in the stomach. And as to writing, I just finished my third novel, called Joshua Spassky, which is also about death and love, and is set in Asheville, North Carolina, where I went and stayed for a while last year."
When asked about her development as an author (her first novel was published when she was just twenty-two), Riley says, "I don't think many people are good writers at age seventeen, are they? Unless they're Rimbaud or Mary Shelley. I kept working on it. I wanted everything I wrote to be as good and to have as much integrity as The Great Gatsby or The Brothers Karamazov, but that couldn't be in my mind as I wrote, clearly. So I was just developing my brain's calibration, and following my instincts, and soon I knew I was good enough to begin, but that was only the beginning. I have to keep thinking all the time, and addressing certain questions, and investigating certain situations; I have to keep my mind in shape and be open to the world."
Gwendoline Riley's new book is out in 2007. Her books are published by Jonathan Cape and Vintage. --Chelsey Flood
Many thanks to Gwendoline Riley for her time, and to Deanna McFadden for helping to arrange the interview.--Ed.
Westwood and Simpson's The Lore of the Land
The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England's Legends, from Spring-Heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson (Penguin Books, 2005)
This deeply scholarly, tastefully-illustrated, and extremely well-written compendium of England's local legends is the best reference book that I have seen in years, and certainly the best book available on this subject. Amply proving their point that "in this respect (as in many others) the scope and variety of English tradition is commonly underestimated," the authors recount tales associated with places all over England, some of them villages so tiny that hardly anyone from outside the immediate area will have heard of them. The book is organised by county, each with a county map containing symbols (a skull for ghosts and apparitions, a witch's hat for wizards and witches, and so on) which allow the reader to visualise the distribution of the various legends connected with it. There are also fascinating two-page essays scattered throughout the book, on topics such as Giants, Secret Passages, Robin Hood, and Dick Turpin, as well as on more obscure subjects including the Book-Fish, a fish found at Cambridge whose stomach contained three works by a Protestant reformer, the Death of Sir Cloudesley Shovell (the result, apparently, of a very grim curse), and The Seven Whistlers, birds—sometimes curlews, but they vary from region to region—who are thought to whistle to warn miners not to go down the pit. Unfortunately, however, although these essays are indexed in the regular way, there is no separate table of contents for them. (Perhaps this will be included in a future editon.)
The book is a gorgeous gallimaufry of anecdotes. There are many ghost-stories, some fairly conventional and others very strange, such as that of the ghost of Glowrowram which would "fall down and spread out like a sheet" and then vanish when anyone tried to approach it. An eerie fairy-tale, first written down in 1190 but probably much older, involves a dwarf king who lived inside a mountain somewhere near the banks of the Wye. There are numerous Black Dogs ("the diabolical Black Dog of Bungay" is a particularly terrifying example), as well as dragons, hobgoblins, fairies, and many (many) more. Some of Westwood and Simpson's stories are highly amusing: on the very first page, we read of a man who appealed his rates assessment "on the grounds of ghosts." Then there is the fairly well-known story of Elmer, a rather eccentric monk who seems to have been the first to discover hang-gliding, according to a story told by William of Malmesbury in about 1125. Such ancient stories are plentiful in the book, but, to remind us that folk culture is not something dead or fossilised, there are some recent anecdotes as well: in 1967, for example, some little boys from Studham Common in Bedfordshire swore unanimously that they had seen "'a little blue man with a tall hat and a beard'."
These are only a few random examples from a volume absolutely groaning with delightful stories. Physically, too, The Lore of the Land is a stunning book, with a tapestry pattern on the jacket and pages that are sewn (rather than merely glued) to stand up to years of reference use. The pictures--old engravings and paintings as well as photographs—always complement, never dominate, the text. (Unlike many other books on English folklore, this is in no way a mere coffee-table book.) If there is one criticism that could be made, it would be that Westwood and Simpson's decision that all the folklore included must have a story associated with it means that certain figures (the Green Man, for example) do not appear. This is a truly niggling complaint, however. It is rare that one comes across an almost flawless reference book, but this is it.
Clocking in at an enormous 847 pages, exclusive of index and bibliography, The Lore of the Land is worth every penny of the price. Folklorists will find it indispensable. Writers, artists and musicians looking for inspiration from English folklore will find something to consider on practically every page, while antiquarians and lovers of English rural culture will never exhaust the pleasure that can be gained from dipping into it. Within a few years, it will probably have achieved the same sort of status as Brewer's ("Pixies in Hampshire? Hmm... Have you looked it up in Westwood and Simpson?")
One word of advice: don't ever kidnap a pig, particularly when there's a chance that it might actually be a fairy. --Isabel Taylor
Richard Weight's Patriots: National Identity in Britain, 1940-2000
"American studies" is one of the most vibrant academic subjects today, and it is even a very popular subject in Britain. Yet "English studies" has not managed to take off in the same way, and still remains subsumed under media or cultural studies. Despite this, the number of people interested in the cultural state of England has been growing by leaps and bounds during the past decade, a fact to which the existence of this web-magazine is testimony. Admittedly, many of the books available about "English identity" are spurious and highly subjective, so that reading them is at times frustrating. Nonetheless, perhaps because of increasing anti-American sentiment in England, or maybe in response to the strengthening national identities of the Welsh and Scottish, English people are becoming ever more conscious of their nationality.
Examining national identity is an important part of studying any culture, and the way in which identity changes over time is of particular importance. This is the history that Richard Weight's Patriots delineates, specifically the changes in British identity from 1940-2000. Weight approaches the study of British culture strictly as an historian, showing how different modes of thought and ideas took root and affected how people viewed their own national identity.
The starting point for Weight's exercise, as he explains in the introduction, is the increasing separateness of England, Scotland and Wales. The three nations were united as never before during World War Two, within the imperial wartime economy, but the situation changed rapidly after the war. With the British economy in tatters, the Government had no choice but to cultivate a special relationship with America, and follow the Americans' directions with regard to decolonisation and economic reform.
Weight excels at drawing real links between political and cultural institutions. In one fascinating chapter, he outlines the early stages of television broadcasting and the emergence of the BBC, which grew so popular within such a short space of time that it became the foremost medium through which people could visualise their nation. Another major social change which began not long after the war was the rise in immigration from within the Commonwealth, with the passing of the Nationality Act in 1948. After this date, larger numbers of Caribbean and Indian people started to arrive in Britain, radically altering the composition of British communities.
Each chapter gives the British people a different name (warriors, citizens, viewers, etc), to underscore the fact that national identities change with the introduction of new technologies, peoples, and ideas. The final chapters show how Britain has now firmly separated into individual nations. Weight argues that this cultural separation can only result in political separation, of which devolution is probably the first step. He also examines the choice of involvement with either the EU or America, a source of political tensions ever since Margaret Thatcher established a strong connection with Ronald Reagan. Weight's conclusion is that a strong position in Europe is favourable in the long term, but that it is unlikely that Tony Blair will ever turn against Bush in the UN.
Overall, the book is a fantastic introduction to how the huge changes in Britain over the past sixty years have affected the British populations' senses of themselves. The range and scale of the book make it an extremely useful manual for the study of national identity in Britain. I highly recommend it to anyone with more than a passing interest in our society and in how Britain reached its present state. --Alexander Flux
Gerry Hanson's England, My England: A Treasury of All Things English
Robson Books Ltd., 2005
There is nothing wrong with a bit of patriotism, so long as it doesn't mutate into nationalism (leading us to think our country superior to any other on earth and look down our noses at foreigners). A focus on the things that we can all be proud of, combined with an awareness of our past mistakes, might even give us the energy to start repairing our fragmented society. That's why I greeted the news of the publication of Gerry Hanson's England, My England with hopefulness. Perhaps at last, I thought, we would have a patriotic commonplace book for our time.
Only it isn't—quite. The heart sinks to find, on the very first page, the quote from the imperialist Cecil Rhodes "To be born English is to have won first prize in the lottery of life," along with others on the same theme. A little later on we are confronted by a Eurosceptic poem culled from the pages of a certain quarterly magazine, and we sigh at the intrusion of politics into what should be an apolitical anthology. Then there is a chauvinistic editorial from TheTimes --excerpts from Conservative newspapers figure largely in general— and some inclusions, such as Flanders and Swann's "Song of Patriotic Prejudice" and Betjeman's "In Westminster Abbey," should really have large starbursts saying IRONY beside them, given that they appear in a patriotic anthology and thus might be taken seriously.
It would be unfair, however, to give the impression that the book is uniformly nationalistic. It probably was not intended to be nationalistic at all, though the remark in the Introduction that "an anthology about England should engender a spirit of pride in every true-born English man and woman, even at the risk of evoking envy in those not privileged to have been born in this great land." (This is worrisome with regard to the feelings of English people who were not born in England, and the attitude towards foreigners that it seems to convey.) There are plenty of jokes at our own expense amongst the pages, as well as some genuinely prescient observations about England and English character: Churchill commenting in 1953 that "England, like nature, never draws a line without smudging it," and Thomas Beecham's joke that "The English may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes." There is also the Norwegian historian and soldier Halvard Lange's remark that "We do not regard Englishmen as foreigners. We look on them only as rather mad Norwegians."
The overriding theme is one of nostalgia for Olde Englande, and while it is inevitable, being the wistful lot we are, that such poems should feature prominently in a collection like this, there could have been a little more material from the post-war period. However, Hanson has succeeded very well in his avowed mission to dig up the more obscure patriotic songs and poems, such as John Pudney's poignantly stoical poem about a dead RAF pilot, "For Johnny" ("Fetch out no shroud/For Johnny-in-the-cloud;/And keep your tears/For him in after years"), so movingly read by Michael Redgrave in the wartime film The Way to the Stars. In fact, the RAF is the inspiration for another good (and similarly little-known) poem in the collection, Noel Coward's bittersweet "Lie In the Dark and Listen." Much of the war poetry is mediocre, like the more self-consciously patriotic verse, but one must give Hanson credit for deliberately including an anti-war poem, Wilfred Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth." He has also taken care to insert some truly great poems from the canon of English literature: William Wordsworth's "Upon Westminster Bridge," Browning's "Home Thoughts From Abroad," Edward Thomas's "Adlestrop," and Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach."
Some of the inclusions defy logic. What is patriotic about Alan Coren's musings about the introduction of the Oxford University credit card, for example? And why on earth is the section of official and unofficial anthems entitled "My Country, 'T'is of Thee," which is the name of an American anthem? (We might also ask why an American army song is included).
Whatever this reviewer's reservations, however, it must be admitted that this is the widest-ranging collection of patriotic verse, song and editorials currently available, and it was obviously inspired by a genuine and deep affection for England. Since it includes all the patriotic songs (and I mean all of them), it would be invaluable at a St George's Day sing-song. The book is well-designed and bound, with a charming jacket.--Isabel Taylor
"This book too will be scorned - not for its manifest inperfections as an elegy, but for such little success as it might have, in praising the virtues of Old England."
These words are part of the closing chapter of Scruton's brave but overly sentimental "elegy". From the outset, the author appears to be suffering from a sad and slightly bitter nostalgia for an Englishness that is now one with the past. The aim of the book is to provide the reader with a sound understanding of the traits, qualities and achievements of the English, whilst also mourning their loss or radical transformation.
The chapters run in a logical progression, covering the different symbolic locations of Englishness (such as law, religion, society, government and culture) and simultaneously tracing the author's own past to give an idea of how Scruton's perception of "Old England" grew in him. Something strange and alluring in Scruton's tone makes certain parts of the book fascinating to read, but elsewhere it reads like someone ranting in a pub about England's fall from the grace and former glory that the "English opinion-makers" now scoff at.
The sections on English law, government and society are very well researched and informative. Undoubtedly the most fascinating chapter of the book, however, is the final, boldly-titled "The Forbidding of England." Here Scruton's tone changes from being scholarly and yearning to one that is angry and proud, as he offers articulate rebuttals of arguments against English patriotism. He maintains that the denigration of English identity is an obvious trend: while Scottish, Welsh and Irish national identity goes from strength to strength, England is suffering from a prolonged bout of national guilt. This is pitching it a bit strong, in my view. Although expressions of patriotic pride have been comparatively slow to take off amongst the English, the feelings still exist, as they have always done. Scruton's book is an attempt to portray England as dead, or passed away into some kind of oblivion, an extreme and ultimately untenable position. It has serious flaws, largely due to an overweening nostalgia for a vanished England.--Alexander Flux
Antony Easthope's Englishness and National Culture
From our point of view, this is a very promising title for a book. The specific idea that Easthope explores is even more interesting; he attempts to argue that, beginning in the period 1650-1700 and continuing on into the contemporary age, a particular way of saying things, or discourse--in this case, empiricist discourse-- has dominated English culture, so thoroughly that most of us are oblivious to this background to our mental landscape: "I am interested in nation as an identity that can speak us even when we may think we are speaking for ourselves."
It's a fascinating proposal, though many would take issue with the notion that Englishness can be defined in terms of any one school of thought. Empiricism was the main, though not the only, movement in the development of English philosophy. (We should not lose sight of the fact that the Scottish philosopher David Hume contributed immensely to it.) Empiricism is essentially the idea that we can perceive reality using our senses, that this experience forms the basis of knowledge, and that such experiences and knowledge can be communicated to others so that they understand what we mean. This is how most of us believe that we function, but this theory of knowledge has recently been challenged by some Continental philosophers, who argue instead that there is no objective reality outside of language, a movement known as post-structuralism. It is one of the strands of postmodernism, and although it may sound bizarre to some readers, it is in fact in vogue in many academic arts faculties. It is to this school that Easthope belongs. Although this need not have prejudiced his analysis, his take on English empiricism is, alas, clearly biased from the start.
The way in which Easthope sets about pursuing his provocative thesis is neither linear nor logical. Frequently, just when he has opened a promising line of argument, he wanders off into psychoanalytic or poststructuralist theory, leaving the reader baffled in his wake. He invokes Derrida and Lacan (postmodernist philosophers) or Freud to gloss over weak points in the argument and, apparently, awe the reader into agreement, a manoeuvre which used to be known as the fallacy of the appeal to authority. Many of Easthope's suggestions seem quite plausible, but he fails to argue convincingly for them. Overall, with a few exceptions, his choice of sources is inappropriate, and this is compounded by a misinterpretation of many of them. An obvious example of this is a quotation from BridesheadRevisited. When Sebastian remarks that he loves his sister Julia because she is so like him, his friend Charles asks how she is like him, says Easthope; in fact, Charles expresses mild scepticism, with the words "Do you? Is she?" Easthope then interprets Sebastian's admission that "I wouldn't love anyone with a character like mine" as an example of false modesty, thereby completely ignoring the novel's sincere preoccupation with sin. Sebastian is attempting to make light of a defect that troubles him. However, if one views literature from Easthope's point of view, such considerations are irrelevant: he espouses the theoretical approach to literary analysis (which involves starting out with a theoretical template -Marxist, feminist, etc-- that you then impose upon a literary text. This is the opposite of the traditional approach, in which one tries to extract the author's meaning through a close examination of the text itself. By assuming the reader's familiarity with Continental theorists, Easthope produces an argument that is inaccessible except to those of us who are already familiar with them, and thus impenetrable to the very reader at whom such a book should be aimed-the intelligent layperson. Rather than making a worthwhile contribution to the contemporary debate on English identity, Easthope's analysis only serves to muddle it further.
His argument in favour of an embrace of this theoretical approach by London literary journalism and by academic writers of history not only makes no sense, it also shows a lack of respect for the methodology of either profession. (However, this seems to stem from a deeper unease with English culture --at one point he cavalierly dismisses not only English music and art in comparison with Continental culture, but the English novel as well). One might ask how reviewers are supposed to make a living if they start to write book reviews that do not communicate a critical opinion based on what is actually in the text. One might also ask what the purpose of history-writing would be, if it is rendered incomprehensible to ordinary people.
These are the biggest problems with the book, but there are others. Easthope's attempts to tie his analysis to feminist theory, arguing that empiricism is fundamentally a masculine, mastering way of looking at the world, does nothing but irritate the reader. By ignoring the plentiful examples of English feminine empiricist discourse throughout history, he attempts to argue that the empiricist tradition consciously excludes 'subjective' feminine discourse—a conclusion that would have been seen as insulting to women not too long ago. The book is also carelessly written; there are frequent grammatical mistakes, and typographical errors appear even in the transcription of some of the quotations. There are also careless slips in the writing, as when he remarks that nation is "more mixed" by gender than a pre-national grouping of people-- which is clearly impossible. He fails to discriminate between 'British' and 'English.' This reaches its apogee when he cites the Irish poet Seamus Heaney as an example of the English empiricist style in poetry, ignoring all that is distinctively Irish in Heaney's work. Again, he interprets the results of a 1995 Demos survey of 18-to 34-year-old young people, many of whom expressed disaffection towards Britishness, as evidence of alienation from Englishness. The two are not equivalent.
Easthope's is a thesis in search of a convincing exposition. Had he approached his topic in a logical manner, with fuller, more appropriate and better-dissected examples, it could have been an invaluable contribution to the contemporary discussion surrounding Englishness. As it is, however, although there are a few cogently-written passages and some genuinely interesting points, the book is unenlightening, while Easthope's admission that "some other examples could have been found which would not have confirmed this hypothesis" opens a huge hole in the argument. If this is the case, these counterexamples should have been dealt with in the course of this analysis. Could it be that they might have revealed a greater diversity and richness in the English intellectual tradition than it is convenient for a Continental theorist, obviously queasy about English culture, to admit?
If 'cultural studies' are going to continue in this fashion, they are doomed to become nothing more than whispering in the dark. The theoretical approach which currently sustains them seems designed to prop up intellectual elitism; if your work is unintelligible to non-specialists, who make up most of the population, they cannot criticise it. Easthope seems to view as desirable a situation in which English intellectual life would be yet further divorced from the ordinary person. Given that Englishness concerns us all, it is ironic that he has chosen this particular topic as the vehicle for advocating the theoretical approach.--Isabel Taylor
2006 is the John Betjeman Centenary year, and to mark it John Murray are reprinting the famous Collected Poems, with the welcome addition of Betjeman's verse autobiography Summoned by Bells and a splendid and informative new introduction by Andrew Motion. Reviewing this volume is a daunting task. How does one even begin to do justice to such a various and rich body of work? However, ploughing through the book from cover to cover does confirm a hitherto-vague impression: that Betjeman was unjustly undervalued by many critics.
Reading Betjeman's earlier poetry is rather like looking at a sepia photograph of an England that most of us have never seen: the picture is sharp and distinct, with a clarity somehow qualitatively different to that of modern photographs, but everything in it is overlaid with a slightly unreal glow. Mist, sun, water, flowers and church bells recur intoxicatingly throughout these poems, contributing to the dream-like sensation, but it is the people--strongly beautiful "sports-girls," lonely spinsters, middle-class families—who give each land- or townscape its meaning and, crucially, render it comfortable. A good example of this is the famous "A Subaltern's Love-song," in which suburbia is transformed into a sensual Eden by the presence of Miss Joan Hunter Dunn ("Furnish'd and burnish'd by Aldershot sun") who drives to the country-club through the enchanted haze of "nine o'clock Camberley, heavy with bells/And mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells."
Betjeman's work becomes darker in the later years. Here the landscape poems are longer, more detailed, and associated less with the comforts of human companionship and more with the passage of time and the inevitability of death. The fear of death which trembles in the earlier poetry ("Death in Leamington"), and which Andrew Motion has identified as one of Betjeman's major preoccupations, now becomes more pronounced. The later poems express the poet's worry about his own mortality, fear of losing friends, and religious doubts concerning the afterlife. Lost love also troubles him more. Nevertheless, Betjeman did not allow himself to sink into morbidity. He was unrivalled at recalling past happiness; his verse-autobiography Summoned by Bells, with its memories of 1920s Oxford, delights the reader with its remembered pleasures.
Most modern poets take their images too seriously to indulge in the play and silliness that Betjeman permits himself ("Return, return to Ealing,/Worn poet of the farm!") Humour and whimsy abound in his work, and the poem "Diary of a Church Mouse" ("Here where the vicar never looks/I nibble through old service-books") is a popular example of this. He deploys self-deprecating humour again and again, particularly, as Motion notes, in poems dealing with his taste in women ("Agricultural Caress," "The Olympic Girl"). Niceness is a key-note of the poetry, too; even his satirical poetry is hardly ever really nasty. Betjeman has a trick of writing a poem which initially seems to mock its subject and then suddenly relents, with a twist at the end which demands the reader's sympathy for the poem's former target ("Interior Decorator"). The satirical verse is only really vicious when Betjeman is attacking the post-war new men --the advertising executives and town planners—whom he views as cynical, self-serving and philistine.
One sound dominates in Betjeman's poetry: that of church bells. Bells, bells and more bells ring down the years, and their sound means different things according to the poet's varying moods. They provide him with a comforting reminder of continuity, they exacerbate his fear of death and doubts about heaven, they remind him of lost love and the happiness of former times, or they call him to Evening Prayer. Betjeman was a profoundly Anglican poet, deeply preoccupied with various aspects of the Established Church (most famously, church architecture -he conducted vigorous campaigns against "restoration"), and heart-broken when his wife became a Catholic. This fascination with organised religion is one of the things that make his verse now seem old-fashioned: the tension between High and Low Anglicanism (which means --to be crude about it-- the more 'Roman Catholic' and the more 'Protestant' sides of the church) doesn't perturb many of us today, Anglican or not.
Betjeman's reputation as a poet of the Establishment is perhaps well-deserved. He even immortalised the Investiture and one of the Royal weddings, apparently by request on both occasions. It is true too that most of his poems are concerned with Middle England. This does not mean, however, that they are Conservative, as some critics have thought: the mature Betjeman was apolitical, and as a young man he saw himself as on the Left (according to Summoned by Bells). His poems are fundamentally nostalgic, although the focus of this nostalgia is not always easy to pin down. Although he has often been criticised for personal snobbishness, this has to be set against poems in which he shows a real and sympathetic understanding of those beneath him ("The Cockney Amorist," "The Retired Postal Clerk"). His affinity for the upper class is explicable, Motion believes, in terms of his insecurity about his foreign name, and about his father's position in 'trade.' (It may also stem from the childhood experience of hearing a grownup refer to him as a "common little boy," a trauma that rears its ugly head more than once in the poems). It must be said, however, that it is almost impossible to find any trace of real snobbery in his poetry, with the exception of "How to Get On in Society," a poem that is unrepresentative of his usual preoccupations. (It rather snidely satirises the pretensions of a social climber whose vocabulary betrays her true class origins. Anthologised in Nancy Mitford's Noblesse Oblige, it has since become one of Betjeman's best-known poems: "Phone for the fish-knives, Norman/As Cook is a little unnerved"...) Betjeman's general attitude is not one of superiority: he lays bare his vulnerability, his fears and sorrows and foolish infatuations, and above all his complete lack of heroism.
The critics who have dismissed Betjeman on aesthetic grounds miss the exciting elements in his work, such as his exceptional ear for a particularly English type of word-music ("plimsolls, plimsolls in the summer,/ Oh galoshes in the wet!" --"Westgate-on-Sea"). No-one had a greater appreciation for words that have the swish of Anglo-Saxon about them. Then there is the slightly subversive use of Shakespearean blank verse as a medium for depicting Middle English life. Betjeman describes landscapes in a way that combines almost photographic detail with an evocation of each place's sounds and sensations, making his poems, in many cases, better than a photograph. More than anything, however, no modern poet was ever so adept at conjuring up pure, melting loveliness; there are so many examples of this in the collection that it is impossible to know which to choose. Betjeman combines whimsy, cosiness and beauty in a very English way: "When melancholy Autumn comes to Wembley/And electric trains are lighted after tea/The poplars near the Stadium are trembly/With their tap and tap and whispering to me."
Betjeman covers the gamut of the joys and tragedies of small-scale suburban lives, and renders them powerful in an almost epic way. The emotions that he summons up are both particularly English and universal: grief at the death of an eccentric naturalist friend ("On a Portrait of a Deaf Man"), calf love at a suburban children's party ("Indoor Games near Newbury"), the irritations and fleeting enjoyments of seaside holidays ("North Coast Recollections"). Here is a deeply-satisfying collection, crammed with memorable lines and haunting images.--Isabel Taylor
An English Apocalypse is a collection of poems about England by the Hungarian-born poet George Szirtes. Szirtes and his family came to England from Hungary in 1956 as refugees, after the failed Hungarian uprising against the Soviets, so that he spent part of his childhood "learning England," as he puts it in the Preface. Then as a teenager he began to write poetry, playing with the shapes and sounds of these exotic English words. These poems, written over the decades and combined into this new volume with the cycle of poems which gives it its title, combine fascination, affection and discomfort with an eerie sense of the ineffable.
The collection makes deeply rewarding, if sometimes disturbing, reading. Szirtes admits that his feelings for England are somewhat ambivalent, and this comes through in the poems: many of the pastoral poems have an undercurrent of uncertainty and a feeling that disaster is somehow immanent. This is probably linked to the hostility that his family sometimes experienced ("The boys who beat up my brother"), though Szirtes does not forget the many kindnesses either ("Scene at a Conference"). There is a chilliness and sea-shiver in many of the poems. In fact, the sea seems to represent all that the poet finds unnerving or incomprehensible about England; the fact that he himself is not comfortable with the sea suggests to him that it is an elusive part of Englishness that he can never capture: "The child I never was could show you bones/that are pure England. All his metaphors/are drawn from water./His ears admit the sea/even to locked rooms with massive doors." The greyness of the sea recurs again and again in the collection, often connected to the poet's frustration at finding this part of the English mind beyond his fathoming—at being unable to understand that child, or the pensioners who like to sit and stare out at the waves ("Cromer Green at the Regency Cafe")—or to a sense of danger, alienation and fatigue ("Payne's Grey"). There are many scenes of domestic loneliness filled with an oppressive silence, broken only by the tick of a clock. In his earlier poetry Szirtes evokes a fragmented catalogue of English culture, giving us a glimpse of what England must seem like to a newcomer: a jig-saw puzzle with pieces that don't quite fit together.
There are some moments of happiness, too, but there is always the sense that these are provisional, that the passage of time will bear them away. A wry and slightly whimsical sense of humour sometimes lightens the poems (in "North Wembley" we find the lines "a lazy rat/emerged and crossed, legally, over the zebra"), and one poem stands out for its loving playfulness, "Prayer for my Daughter." The masterpiece of this collection, however, is the extraordinary "Backwaters: Norfolk Fields (for W.G. Sebald)." Tender, somewhat eerie, masterly in its evocation of place ("Willows, faint blue/in the afternoon, light gently whistles through"), it captures the oddity and richness of English history, the timelessness of the English countryside (so strangely indifferent to the human gaze), and suspicion of foreigners. This is one of the best poems about Norfolk in particular, and England in general, that has ever been written.
Technically Szirtes is a master-craftsman, using a formalist approach (employing rhyme and meter rather than free verse) in such a subtle way that the reader notices the lilt and the rhythm but not the devices. His use of English is refined and careful, more careful than that of most native English poets. This is a very fine collection, full of beautiful and unusual, if frequently unsettling, poems to pore over. Occasionally the poems are so personal that the reader cannot understand them. In general, however, An English Apocalypse offers both a moving meditation on post-war England, and a profound insight into the refugee experience.--Isabel Taylor