Attempting to not-bore for England about limericks

I must apologise to all subscribers for their having received notification last week of a blog post that had no text in it! This was the result of human error, aka Aussie Flu. Unfortunately, when I did write the text for the post, WordPress would not allow me to repeat the notification to subscribers, just as it won’t allow me to lay out limericks properly below. Well, the lost post is viewable below this one as ‘So what IS biography?’, and the real point of it (beneath the parrot) is Jenny Uglow’s biography of Edward Lear.

To what extent should one expect a biographer to be intimately acquainted with their subject’s specialism? Is it reasonable to expect the biographer of Nelson to know the finer points of sailing? Or the biographer of Marie Curie to be thoroughly conversant with nuclear physics? I think not, but obviously they should have acquired a good working knowledge of these important areas of their subjects’ lives.

For readers who feel they have never ‘got’ Lear’s limericks, Uglow’s is the book. She explains that ‘the key quality of the nonsense rhymes is surprise: this is what makes us laugh’ (p. 154). There surely never was a writer so able to produce the unexpected as Edward Lear. A vital part of the power of Lear’s limericks is also the interplay between the verse and the inimitably wonky (‘unexpected’) drawing that goes with it. Essentially, Uglow sees Lear’s limericks as proto-modernist Kafkan allegories of non-conformity, persecution, rebellion, violence, escapism and agony; yet theirs is a ‘cartoon’ world in which nobody ‘really’ gets hurt… All this, if a weeny bit old hat in literary terms (like her gratuitous reference to ‘carnival’), is valid and helpful and stimulating and accompanied by excellent discussions of Lear’s rhymes and the play of sounds in his limericks.

But there is a statement she makes about limericks on p. 310 that appears (and I hope I am wrong) to open a chasm of literary ignorance:

For a while, because of Lear, limericks were all the rage. Poets of Lear’s generation and the next had a go: Rossetti, Lewis Carroll, later Kipling, and even, allegedly, Tennyson. Making up a limerick seemed so easy, old or young, drunk or sober, and it proved a perfect form of pornographic jollity in clubs and mess rooms across the empire.

The popularity of Lear’s published limericks may well have raised the profile of limericks generally, but the limerick of ‘pornographic jollity’ that all these Victorian lads found so irresistible was not the Lear form of limerick. If my memory serves me, I have only ever seen one Lear-form limerick inscribed in a Victorian/Edwardian Visitors Book or album; all the rest have been in the classical limerick form which long pre-dates Edward Lear. George Calderon himself wrote a masterly limerick for his hosts Evey and Violet Pym on his and Kittie’s visit to Foxwold in 1912 — and it’s in the pre-Lear form. (I am deeply indebted to John Pym for permitting me to publish it in my biography.)

Afficionados, addicts and inveterate composers of the ‘classical’ (scatological) limerick hate Edward Lear’s limericks.

The reason, if I can put it as briefly as possible, is that they deplore his having destroyed the epigrammatic punch of a clever new last rhyme-word and replaced it with mere repetition of the last word of the first or second line. They see him as having produced a crashing anticlimax that is the very antithesis of the art of the ‘classical’ limerick. This is true, but I think Lear’s intention is to suggest his characters are trapped in this world of the ever-recurring rhyme-word; the ‘clever’ punch of his limerick is always one extraordinary word in the last line (‘borascible Person’, ‘propitious Old Person’, ‘smashed that Old Man’), or even earlier (‘casually’ in the example I give below).

Limerickians can bore for England about why Lear’s limericks are so awful, and if there are any out there who want to do so as Comments, please feel free. But personally I will limit myself to four examples that illustrate — I intend — (a) the glories of both forms of limerick and (b) why to write a good classical limerick you have to understand the form, and why to write a Lear limerick you have…er…to be Edward Lear:

1. Perfect ‘classical’ limerick [warning: scatological]

There was a young Fellow of Wadham
Who asked for a ticket to Sodom.
When they said, ‘We prefer
Not to issue them, sir,’
He said, ‘Don’t call me sir, call me modom.’

2. Perfect ‘Lear’ limerick [warning: absurd]

There was an old man, who when little
Fell casually into a kettle;
But, growing too stout,
He could never get out,
So he passed all his life in that kettle.

3. Dud ‘classical’ limerick by J. Brodsky, 1969

Our Russia’s a country of birches
and axes and ikons and churches
without any priest
and crosses; at least
our Russia’s a country of searches.

4. Dud ‘Lear’ limerick by P. Miles, 1974

There was a young Russian cried, ‘How
Can I inculcate Marx in this cow?
Whatever I say
She bleats a loud neigh,
Whilst objectively staying a cow!’

(These limerick-critters don’t like intellectuals trying to ride ’em.)

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So what IS biography?

I began the pre-typesetting read of my book — all 183,000 words of it — a fortnight ago, and immediately relived the never-ending malarkey with the Introduction… Even this late in the day I found myself tweaking the opening paragraph for the twenty-first time. But suddenly this final revisitation seemed to focus for me the underlying issues.

The reason I had eight willing but long-suffering friends read and advise me on this Introduction was that there is a fictive-creative element in this book, it’s not just facts and non-fiction, and I find it impossible to write about something creative that I have created, because if I could have written about it I wouldn’t have created it. In fact I don’t believe one should try to write about something one has created. It’s like trying to describe the self. The self can’t do it. Secretly, I felt that someone else should write the Introduction; but I knew that the convention was against me there and I couldn’t defy it. I compromised by appointing a sort of committee.

The readers’ initial reaction was, quite rightly, that I was not selling George strongly enough from word one, and they suggested various ‘commercial’ angles, most of which I adopted. One reader even rewrote the whole Introduction from what can only, I’m afraid, be called a clichéd marketing point of view, and I even adopted some of that. As I drafted and redrafted, more and more of my readers approved of the result.

Then came the bombshell. I showed the Introduction in this ‘late’ form to one of the most respected and experienced senior literary figures in London, whom I had known for a while and will call Q. His embarrassment, poor chap, was acute. He repeatedly asked me whether I ‘minded’ him telling me this, but the Introduction was fundamentally wrong, a total disaster, because ‘it’s about you, Patrick, it’s all about you’. I did not mind him telling me this, quite the contrary, but it was something I was extremely sensitive about. Also, I couldn’t help wondering why the other readers hadn’t said something similar. Had they been afraid to? However, I knew that in literary terms Q’s opinion outweighed all the rest, so I profusely thanked him, tore the Introduction up, and started yet again.

I could see that it came down to two extremes of Introduction, a ‘solipsistic’ and a ‘non-solipsistic’. The first tells how the author ‘discovered’ his/her subject, what that subject ‘means’ to the author, why he/she feels the subject’s story must be told, why he/she has told the story this way, etc. The second is focussed from word one on the subject of the biography and basically, as they say, ‘sells’ the subject of the biography as hard as it can; the author is discreet, reverential and practically self-effaced.

Well, reading the Introduction this last time before the proofs, I suddenly saw that even if the ‘committee’ had not criticised the Introduction for being solipsistic, i.e. ‘about you, Patrick, rather than George Calderon’, the pull of all their advice had been in the non-solipsistic direction: ‘get his achievement into the opening words’, ‘mention famous contemporaries/friends in the first ten lines’, ‘get the War into the first paragraph’, ‘get stuck into the romance/sex on page one’, ‘rabbit about the Edwardians, who are flavour of the decade’, ‘drop famous names all over the place and make a person casually reading the first sentence believe he/she will be ignorant and deeply unfashionable if they don’t buy the book’. So my re-jigging in those directions had been a substantial move away from me.

But equally, I felt I could see why Q’s response had been so extreme. He surely had little experience of biographies of unknown people. Obviously, if you are writing a biography of someone extremely well known, it would be ludicrous to drag yourself into it (although I daresay even Peter Ackroyd allows himself a bit about what Shakespeare means to him). Yet how someone ‘discovers’ an unknown, what the unknown means to them, and how they came to write his/her life, are profoundly significant: without them, the book would never have been written and they are surely a vital part of the ‘sell’ of the book. Several readers told me as much; they enjoyed reading the ‘personal’ story behind it all. I was hyper-sensitive about the solipsistic element in my Introduction, because I am aware of the parallels between my and George’s experiences of Russia, our involvement with Chekhov, and Russia-related career difficulties. On the other hand, how I first came across George when I was a literary consultant at the National Theatre, my originally negative reaction, my deeper delving after being commissioned to research the history of Chekhov on the British stage, my ‘discovery’ of George and Kittie’s archives, and my realisation of what vibrant people they were, are surely vital to ‘introducing’ the Calderons?

I think I have now got the balance right between the ‘solipsistic’ and ‘non-solipsistic’ in my Introduction, although I fear there will still be too much there about me for Q and some other readers (but the whole book is about other people!). The underlying issue, I see now, is this: biography is not entirely about its subject, or at least it’s about its subject in a peculiar way, because it is the product of a me reacting with that subject. Whether obtrusively or not, the relation of every biographer to his/her subject pervades the whole of the biography he/she has written. As an example, I take the beautiful biography of Edward Lear by Jenny Uglow, published at the end of last year:

Mr Lear Cover

Click the cover to find this book on Amazon.

I have never read a biographical work by Uglow before. She has written so many that I had rather come to regard her as a ‘professional biographer’ who wrote her stories to a very high documentary standard but did so for no particular personal reasons and never got involved much with her subjects. Indeed, she was quoted by Susie Boyt in an article entitled ‘The Experience of Writing a Biography’ (Financial Times 6 June 2009) as saying:

I’m so conscious that it’s dangerous to think of your subject as a friend or to over-identify. It would be completely bonkers to think you could actually get close to them. Liking is dangerous, loving is dangerous because, of course, it will change the way you see things. I hate the idea of things being soppy.

Quite. Thus we get a meticulously informed, densely documented, superbly illustrated, fast-moving account of Lear’s family, youth and early work as a zoological painter that absorbs us and bears us along until…in my case about page 200. At that point I asked myself, where is this going? There had been a minimum of speculation about why Lear’s life was thus — in particular, so restless — what his real ambitions were, what his sexuality was, how good his contemporaries actually thought him as an artist. The impression of motion over substance in Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense is enhanced by the fact that the chapters are short and there are over forty of them.

But I am so glad I persisted, and I recommend others to. All at once I realised that the reason Uglow’s treatment of Lear’s rejection by his mother, his epilepsy, his relationship with Frank Lushington, his on/off interest in Gussie Bethell, his obsession with memory and the past, his relationship with his lifelong servant Georgio, or with Tennyson, or with Foss his cat, is so, well, unexplicit, so discontinuous, so pointilliste, is not that she doesn’t want to probe or pry, but that she understands these problems of Lear’s so well. Gradually, cumulatively, we understand the complexity of Lear’s relationships too. Beneath Uglow’s low authorial intervention, beneath her ‘restraint’, there must be a profound empathy for her to be able to leave us understanding them so well.

Nevertheless, I have to say that the narrative spine here is too weak for me at times to think of it as biography. After you have followed Lear from Britain to Italy, from here to there by steamer, back to Italy, back again to Britain, per Bradshaw’s all over Britain, back to Corfu, or wherever, several times, you yearn for a bit of generalisation and personal interpretation. Again, you want to know what the biographer makes of it all.

Uglow, or Faber, have got round this problem in a most ingenious way. Every chapter is headed by a Lear drawing and limerick, Lear’s verse and accompanying drawings thickly bestrew the text, and every so often there is a fabulous reproduction of one of Lear’s mind-blowing watercolours or oils. Throughout, Uglow quotes Lear’s poetry and letters copiously. Without wishing to sound cynical, one can only describe this as a marketing masterstroke. It means that Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense is really a burgeoning Lear compendium, a grandiflora of all that’s best in Lear, the finest Lear Experience for the uninitiated that has ever been confected.

I instinctively feel this ploy detracts from the book as biography, but I cannot deny that it ends by making you feel you know Edward Lear as well as it is, probably, possible to know him. I stress: this is the achievement of Uglow and Lear, of the two authors in their own mysterious dialogue. You end by feeling you know the vulnerable, kind, despairing, hilarious, indignant, rebellious, supremely tolerant and civilised man who had an impossibly modern sense of beauty, who gave endlessly of his time to children and their parents alike, who worked like a Trojan. And to know Mr Lear is extremely pleasant.

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Some notes on orthodoxy

A very happy New Year to all Calderonia’s subscribers, followers, and casual viewers! (If you are one of the latter, please consider subscribing top right.)

This is ‘the year’… Following an almost complete absence of response to my last reminders to half a dozen publishers in December, I have decided to go it alone. I intend to publish George Calderon: Edwardian Genius in a limited hardback edition on 4 June 2018, the anniversary of George Calderon’s death at Gallipoli. The one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of George’s birth is 2 December 2018, when we shall have another selling blitz. I aim to more or less sell out the hardback by this time next year, then transfer to Kindle and Amazon Paperback.

The imprint I’ll use will be my old Anglo-Russian one, ‘Sam&Sam’, which has produced about thirty titles here and there in the last forty years. The printers will be the best in the business, Clays of St Ives. I will explain the origins of the name Sam&Sam in a future post: believe it or not, it involves a fictitious Elizabethan poet…

The not so good news, for potential purchasers, is that the book will cost £30. Jenny Uglow’s beautiful Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense (which I will review next time) costs only £25, as does Ruth Scurr’s John Aubrey: My Own Life (also printed by Clays), and someone complained to me recently about paying £30 for a new biography (mind you, in paperback). But I feel that the job we make of this book should be worth £30 and it has to do better than break even if I am going to remunerate a smidgeon of my own labour. Moreover, Helen Smith’s biography of Edward Garnett just off the presses, The Uncommon Reader, which is very comparable in length etc to mine, is priced at £30. I would be very interested to hear subscribers’ reactions to this price, and whether they feel it should include postage if they are not be put off even more from buying the book.

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NOW LET ME SAY WHAT A BLISSFUL RELIEF IT IS NOT TO HAVE TO DEAL WITH ANY MORE PUBLISHERS! O FRABJOUS DAY! I AM AS HAPPY AS A LAMB IN SPRING! IT IS SUCH AN IMMENSE, STRESSFUL BURDEN OFF MY MIND AND SOUL! I FEEL AS THOUGH I HAVE RECOVERED MY LIBERTY AND CAN NOW JUST CONCENTRATE ON DOING AS GOOD A JOB AS POSSIBLE OURSELVES!

A Christmas-card correspondent who follows Calderonia wrote that to judge from my blog I had done nothing all last year except look for a publisher. Well, that’s not quite true; for instance, I also created the book of John Polkinghorne’s and my conversations, which is now going the rounds of publishers who have dealt with John before. And, of course, I had to sort the Permissions for the biography, compose the Afterword, the Acknowledgements, the Bibliography, rewrite the Introduction for the umpteenth time, add some new material, check and re-check the body of the text…

But, yes, it has been a year to the week since I opened my campaign to find a commercial publisher, and a hell of a lot of time, energy and nervous fibre has gone into it. Here are the results:

Publishers approached: 47
Firm acceptances received: 2
Rejections received: 18
No responses received: 27

As I have said before, I suppose that to have received two offers from publishers is not bad. It was unfortunate that these offers contained very deleterious downsides and I just had to let them go. Nevertheless, I don’t think the year-long exercise was a waste of time, as I have learned an enormous amount about the realities of publishing at the moment.

The irony, though, is that I have already decided I am never going to use that knowledge, because I am adamant that I am never going this way again. I am not going to go to publishers in future, they are going to have to come to me. This resolution is reinforced by the knowledge that in all the previous cases of commercial publishers publishing my books, I have had some kind of personal contact there first, they have turned to me for the books, and in all of those books not an iota was changed by editors.

Conversely, the kind of publishers I have tangled with over the past year talk about refashioning and rewriting your book (‘editing’) before they have even read it all. It is the same with agents: they immediately tell you how they are going to ‘reconfigure’ your book to ‘position it in the market’. These editors and agents fancy themselves as writers. When I told a writer friend that I had decided to bring out the book myself, he said he was glad because he was sure I would have ‘fallen out’, as he put it, with a commercial publisher, ‘before you had got very far’. That perhaps suggests I am thin-skinned — some publishers and ‘editors’ would doubtless claim so — but I don’t think I am; I think I can truthfully say I have gritted my teeth and borne a lot of …. from people in academe, publishing and the theatre in my time.

The dark side of the year’s experience has been the arrogance, rudeness and sheer inanity of those publishers who have, or more often have not, responded to my exceedingly carefully researched and crafted approaches. Step forward in particular two grey-suited Editorial Directors, one in Cambridge and one in Oxford. The only reason I have not sent them the floral orange card (see my post of 30 November) is that I have only one of it. I know they are literally men in grey suits, because I have seen a video and photographs of them on the Web!

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Obviously, I want to move on as fast as possible. Now is the time, however, to honour the pledge in my post of 30 September 2017 to respond to John Dewey’s well-argued views on the subject. Please refer to John Dewey’s comment of January 2017 and click on the link there to access John’s essay on the Brimstone Press blog. Click here to access George Orwell’s original preface to Animal Farm, which deals with a particular form of publishing orthodoxy in Orwell’s day and which John quotes.

When I set out to find a commercial publisher this time last year, I certainly admitted to  myself that I was unlikely to succeed because the ‘bottom line’, the litmus test, was going to be: can it sell 6000 copies? Publishers have repeatedly quoted this figure to me in the past five years. Well, actually, I have always believed they could sell 6000 copies if they marketed it properly. The reason I believed it, was that I thought the book’s story and substance could catch the imaginations of people who can read.

However, really I knew they would tell me they couldn’t sell anywhere near 6000 copies. Why did I know this? Because I sensed deep down that publishers are process-driven people, not risk-takers. This has been borne out by all my experience over the past year. They just want to feel they are in sole control of their ‘process’, as though they were some kind of officials, or cultural civil servants. Hence they create Procrustean beds of ‘series’ that a book can’t, or ‘has to’, fit into, and refer to books as ‘units’. They set up interminable processes of ‘refereeing’ by people who have a vested interest in trashing perceived rivals. There is something Gogolian about publishing today: hardly any of it appears to operate in real time, but in a special chaotic time not corresponding to any known to science or philosophy. I know someone for whom the refereeing and rewriting process ran into the ground after eighteen months, but three years later he was staggered to receive a letter offering him a contract. Most publishing is bureaucratic.

I think John Dewey will agree, however, that the root problem is orthodoxy — what George Orwell in his preface calls ‘the gramophone mind’, the uncritical absorption of ‘the record that is being played at the moment’. What stalled the publication of Animal Farm (I have seen figures from 4 to 37 quoted for the number of times it was rejected) was political orthodoxy, or as we might say today political correctness: the British intelligentsia’s ‘uncritical loyalty to the USSR’ and to the mass-murderer ‘Stalin’ in particular. My efforts in the past year have not suffered from that species of orthodoxy, although it is interesting that numerous kind souls advised me not to mention George Calderon’s anti-suffragism or strike breaking in my approaches to editors, as the latter would immediately reject the book for ‘reasons’ of political incorrectness (on my part, presumably, for taking these subjects seriously rather than censoring them!).

No, the underlying cause of my, John’s, and thousands of other writers’ problems is orthodoxy tout court — orthodoxy of thought and institution. Commercial publishing is a vast agglomerated institution and therefore by nature bound to produce its orthodoxy. It will tend overwhelmingly to play ‘the record that is being played at the moment’. X have published a thin biography of Victoria Beckham, so we should rush one out. We must publish ‘new’ biographies of Shakespeare, Austen or Dickens, even though they contain less than one per cent new material, because people always want ‘new’ biographies of very famous people by well known biographers; it’s a tried recipe that ‘works’. That way orthodoxy always lies, although I would never suggest that orthodoxy does not change or even innovate; it’s not stable, it just changes/innovates/wobbles at the slowest pace necessary for its survival.

Although George Orwell analyses political orthodoxy brilliantly in his preface, what we are talking about here is a general anthropological-psychological phenomenon, which some might describe as simply fear and incomprehension of the new. ‘Nobody we know, nobody like us, has ever heard of George Calderon, so he can’t possibly be worth bothering with.’

I once happened to hear some people talking about me on the other side of the room (it is rather dangerous to have such sensitive hearing) and one said: ‘He’s not an establishment man, he’s never been part of an establishment.’ No, but I am certainly a passionate team-player, especially in the theatre. The point about establishments and orthodoxies is that you can only improve the design of boats by rocking them.

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An Edwardian Christmas

Happy Christmas to All Our Readers,

and thank you for following Calderonia into its fourth year!

Buckingham Mansion Christmas

The Calderons’ 1907 home in Hampstead

At Heathland Lodge, George and Kittie’s home from 1901 to 1912 in the Vale of Health, they always staged a large family Christmas, despite the fact that they had no children of their own. The secluded house giving directly onto Hampstead Heath had been built in the 1860s but made over by the Arts and Crafts architect George Birch in the 1890s. It was very comfortable and had at least fifteen rooms. Everything was done on a grand scale at Christmas (see George’s cartoon), with friends and relations sitting down to dinner with them, games, singing, and a full-length charade written by George. Kittie was stage manager, wardrobe mistress and programme designer, George played the lead, and there were always parts for his brother Frank’s children, Philip and Joan. In Kittie’s words, she and George invited ‘a large audience of all our friends who had children to bring and some who had not. These charades were capital elaborations […] Sometimes the show was repeated at Frank’s later’.

Christmas 1907, however, was different. The Calderons had shared Heathland Lodge with Kittie’s mother, Mary Hamilton, who had taken out a mortgage on it. Mrs Hamilton died on 30 August 1906 as George was on his way back from Tahiti, and it is possible that by the time he arrived in London on 30 October 1906 Kittie had already vacated Heathland Lodge for probate or financial reasons and moved a mile away to apartment 33 at Buckingham Mansions (see above today). The Calderons failed to sell Heathland Lodge in 1907, but let it quite lucratively and did not reoccupy it until 1908. At Christmas 1907, then, they were living in a flat and although it was spacious this changed things somewhat, as the only surviving diary of George’s illustrates:

Saturday 21. St Thomas.

K. called on the Briton Rivières. G. to tea at Frank’s (children back) to prepare charade etc. Memo: Tahiti.

Sunday 22. 4th in Advent. Peace Sunday.

Jones [Johnny Jones, their Aberdeen terrier, see passim] became ill.

Monday 23.

Jones ill. G. to BM after lunch, met Binyon & wife at tea.

Tuesday 24.

Jones convalescent. 4-7 children’s party at the Armsteads (Streets, Hugh Armsteads, Calderons). G. dined at Frank’s preparing charade.

Wednesday 25. Christmas Day.

Jones restored to health. K. & G. lunched at the Grays. Dinner [possibly pheasant supplied by George] at Frank’s (Hetty, Lotty, Mother, Marge), afterwards came Aunt G., Clara Sumner, Draper, Lowden and wife. Charade.

Thursday 26. St Stephen. Boxing Day.

Jones relapsed. 4.00 Sangster (vet.) to see Jones. K. to visit the Lubbocks.

Friday 27. St John, Evan.

Vet. again. G. to BM after lunch. K. & G. to dine with Mother (Clare Sumner, Ethel, Frank).

Saturday 28. Holy Innocents

G. to BM after lunch.

I have cut very little from these entries. Obviously they are minimal (it is only a pocket diary), but one drama looms large. George and Kittie had Christmas lunch and dinner out, they appear to have had few callers at 33 Buckingham Mansions over the Christmas period, and the annual long charade composed by George for Philip and Joan was postponed until Twelfth Night at their parents’ house. By 27 December George was back in his chair at the British Museum working on Tahitian history. And Johnny Jones, who did NOT die, had cost his owners a fortune in vet’s fees…

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Own a commemorative masterpiece

A Group Photograph

For details of how to buy this book see below.

I first wrote about the above book on 10 February 2016 . I suggest going now to http://www.groupphoto.co.uk/the-book for Andrew Tatham’s own description of it and how it came about. As you will see, it has been praised to the skies by communicators from Jeremy Vine and Melvyn Bragg to William Boyd and Gyles Brandreth.

Now that I have revisited Andrew Tatham’s book many times since I first read it in 2015, I feel qualified to sum up what I find truly great about it and why I think everyone should consider owning a copy.

The whole Group Photograph Project, with its travelling exhibition, animated film, multi-media presentation by Tatham, ethereal tree drawings of the families of the men in the photograph, time-lapse photography of their relatives gathering for a ‘new group photograph’ today, and of course book, is an ARTWORK.

This means that the project is both an aesthetic and a profoundly HUMANE experience. The historical basis of the book is impeccably researched and documented, but the 2000 photographs, and especially the ‘stained glass portraits’ that Tatham has designed for each of the 46 men, comprise a magnificent piece of visual art, whilst the text takes us back into the men’s lives before May 1915 and forwards to their families’ lives today. As Tatham has written, a lot of his aim was ‘to go from that original picture of soldiers and show the fullness of them as human beings’. And he has succeeded: if you are at all interested in people, you will never tire of the life- and family-stories contained in this book and historically focussed on the Battle of Loos… I know people who, as well as reading it straight through, dip into its humanity at random, at odd times, or at Armistice time, for instance.

Altogether, I feel that ‘A Group Photograph’ is the only work of art produced by the 1914-18 commemoration so far that is on a par with Paul Cummins’s and Tom Piper’s installation ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’. Both artworks were refused state subsidy and have been created at their authors’ own substantial financial risk. Both have caught the imagination of the British public and I am certain both will live on.

In the case of the ceramic poppies of Cummins’s and Piper’s creation, the public have connected with it so emotionally that they have wanted to own part of it by buying one of its poppies. One can imagine these poppies being passed down through future generations of these families as ‘living’ markers of this great 2014-18 commemoration. And I see Tatham’s book rather similarly. It lives for me now and I think it will for future generations. My wife and I want to hang a copy in as many branches of our combined families as possible, for their and their descendants’ enjoyment and satisfaction, so have decided to make it our staple Christmas present. We have bought copies taking advantage of Tatham’s special offer of ten for £180 including postage (a saving of £38) . I realise this may be a bit of a ‘spoiler’ for those family members who follow the blog, but all of you, historians, scientists, artists, whatever, are going to be wowed by this book!

To buy the book A Group Photograph, go to the link given in the second line of this post. To buy ten or more copies at the reduced rate, or to book its author’s inspiring talk about the project, email: andrew@groupphoto.co.uk .

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The ‘politics’ of publication

They Said "Say It With Flowers"

I bought the above postcard on impulse in about 1975, thinking: ‘That’s hilarious! It would be difficult to take serious offence at receiving it, yet the message is unmistakable! I’m bound to need one of those some day…’

And I have. But I haven’t yet sent it. It has disappeared for the odd decade at the back of a drawer, then surfaced during the next move, been refiled where I could find it if I needed it, and now rests only an arm’s length away at the back of a card rack on my desk. I would never admit this, but probably the reason for its promotion is that in the last year of wrestling with publishers I’ve come closer than ever to sending it. I have actually extracted it from the rack, placed it in front of me with a view to signing and addressing it, incandescently contemplated its visceral and acerbic message, then…put it back in its rack.

The ‘politics’ of publication (by which I mean ‘personal politics’, of course, not the ideological variety, although they can enter into it) are turbid and tetra-toxic. Take last Monday and Tuesday. I decided to make a final, final list of publishers to tackle (I had so far approached 47), by collating the notes from my last four visits to the Biography section at Waterstones AND going through the 65 pages of ‘Book Publishers UK and Ireland’ in Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook 2017 for the very last time.

It did not take long to extract the marrow from my notes, but since the list in Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook comprises over 500 publishers, re-examining them was slow work. It is no exaggeration to say, though, that the process was accompanied by an internal monologue something like this:

Ah, Caligula…he once sent me an ‘advance’ of £1000 after I’d flatly refused to work for him, assuming I suppose that I would take the poisoned bait…

Aaaargh, X Publisher…it’s a complete tragedy that I can’t tackle them, they are one of the most suitable, but they would give it to that ghastly Russianist to read who is so competitive that said person would diss it on principle and steal my material…

Hello, there’s that formula ‘no approaches except through a respectable agent’ again…could those two publishers separated by ten pages be owned by the same person? Goodness yes, they are and he diddled me in the 1980s… How on earth does he know what a ‘respectable’ agent is?

(Sigh) It really is a pity about Y Publisher…couldn’t I possibly reconsider them? No: they offered me a contract then told me the book didn’t ‘read well’. Of course, they might be right, but their examples revealed them as literarily naive. In any case they are rude. Who tells their own author ‘you can’t write’?!

Ah, Z Publisher… I’ve done four books with them…when did I write to that smarmy bloke up there…what, 28 August! Not even to reply to my proposal, which took four hours to compile according to their template, is downright insulting… He’s a candidate for the orange card, if anyone is.

Hang on, what is this outfit? ‘Biography’…how did I overlook them? Authors include…eminent names…Kim Philby…Donald Trump… Er, I don’t think so!

I could, of course, go on, but you get my drift. The theatre is a piranha pool of ‘politics’, but at least you can see the piranhas, distract them, sweet-talk them, take evasive action and so forth, but most of the time with publishers you can’t get anywhere near them physically, you can’t see the whites of their eyes, you only have written communication which enables them to behave outrageously and get away with it… Yes, publishing is profoundly personally politicised and one must take that very seriously if one is not to waste one’s time. I have even been prevented from taking on the best (‘respectable’) agent in the country for a book like mine by the fact that they represent a well-known Russianist virago whom they would be bound to consult.

By the end of last Monday, I had that ‘final, final’ list of publishers to approach and it consisted of twelve. I spent all Tuesday morning researching them and their personnel on the Web. By lunchtime I had to reject them all, for one reason and another, sometimes objective, sometimes purely ‘personal’, such as, alas, the look of their editors’ portraits…

Yes, finding a publisher is, as John Dewey has said, a matter of luck. Or chance. Or contingency. Or personal politics. All my past experience tells me that. Publishing is what mathematicians, I believe, would call ‘a system near to the edge of chaos’. Quite by chance, I notice that a very bright publisheress, with whom I had good dealings back in 1998, has taken over in a ‘distinguished’ firm that I was warned off three years ago because it did ‘no marketing’ (London literati). Now they do do marketing. Will she remember me? I have written her such a careful, subjunctive letter as Proust himself might be proud of.

Someone, though, at the end of this exercise, is going to get the floral card from me, I just know it; unless, after forty years, I can’t bear to part with it and I convert it into a kind of witch’s doll (technically, I gather, a ‘poppet’) that I take out every so often to mutter over, in order to exorcise my wrath, then replace in the rack.

Meanwhile, the decision about who is going to publish George Calderon: Edwardian Genius will be taken around 15 December as promised, but not announced until the day after Twelfth Night, so as not to disrupt the next two posts. I heard today from our chosen printer for self-publishing that we will have four months from the beginning of January to get the hardback designed and typeset to appear on 4 June 2018, so we should manage that. That date is, of course, the anniversary of George Calderon’s death at Gallipoli. The idea would be to have a second launch/marketing storm to coincide with the end of the War and George’s 150th birthday on 2 December 2018. After that, the book would go to Kindle and Amazon paperback.

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Alan Coren touches root

The Essential Alan Coren

Click the cover to find this book on Amazon.

Giles and Victoria Coren have done a magnificent job in selecting and presenting these 420 pages of their late father’s writings 1960-2007, very many of which are masterpieces. I hope they will not mind me invoking paragraph 8.7, sub-section a(ii), of the MHRA Style Guide: A Handbook for Authors, Editors, and Writers of Theses (‘quotation of brief passages of copyright material for academic purposes’), in order to reproduce these two paragraphs by Alan Coren from page 170:

One of the major headaches with which booksellers are invariably racked is the astonishing intractability of authors. The division between these two twin curators of our literary heritage is over which of the two syllables of the word ‘bookshop’ is the more important. How rarely can an author be found who considers, before even setting pen to paper, the marketability of his product! How often has an author rung a bookshop to say: ‘I’m thinking of doing a book, what’s the best weight to go for?’ or enquired as to the exact dimensions of  the bookseller’s most popular paper bag, so that something may be written to fit it?

Hopefully, GOLFING FOR CATS will change all that. A new era of inter-literary cooperation, it is not too much to say, may well be dawning. For not only has this book been put together at the optimum size and weight, it also concerns the three most perennially popular subjects to be found on the bedside tables of the reading public, viz. golf, cats, and the Third Reich.

Did I say ‘academic’? There is nothing academic about this statement, it’s the trewf! Like other great institutions I could mention, publishing really works top down, not bottom up, and it would have been better for the author of George Calderon: Edwardian Genius if he had asked publishers what kind of book they wanted him to write, or remotely whether, before even setting pen to paper…

I wonder if the surname Coren comes from Russian koren’, a root?

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Brexit: a modest theory

The Times digest of events in the Great War and Mike Schuster’s Great War Project continue to come down the wires once a week, together with scores of daily Tweets from the Imperial War Museum, from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, from individuals visiting the war graves of their relatives in distant places. Segments of Paul Cummins and Tom Piper’s poppy installation ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ continue to tour the country, we have just lived through three months of official and personal commemoration of the Battle of Passchendaele, thousands still embark on visits to the battlefields. The nation’s engagement with World War I hasn’t loosened one bit since 4 August 2014. I for one am surprised by that.

It makes me reconsider an idea that first popped up just after the result of the EU referendum, which, if you remember, was held shortly before the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme (a ‘sacred, holocaust moment’, David Reynolds has called it). I regularly see three French newspapers and three German ones (but I only buy one in any given week). Since August 2014 there have been interesting articles about aspects of the War in each — most memorably, a full-page photograph with text of ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ in Die Zeit, which I regard as the best newspaper in Europe. But there has been nothing in them remotely like the coverage in British newspapers. Although, of course, I have seen media reports of official commemorations in France, Belgium and Italy, I do not get the impression that the War has seized people in those countries, for instance in terms of online family research, the way it has in Britain. Of course I may be mistaken, but I feel Britain’s engagement with the event has been more complete, more deeply reaching, more visceral, more painful.

In the shock of the referendum result, I considered whether our preoccupation with 1914-18 could have affected it; but I quickly rejected the idea as rationalistic and simplistic. How many people who voted Out could realistically have been influenced by events a hundred years ago? Mind you, a Brexiteer businessman neighbour whom I don’t know well recently expressed to me his frustration with the EU’s negotiators by saying: ‘They don’t get it! They don’t understand that we’ve twice had to save them from themselves in a century!’ Although our emotional entanglement with the First World War seems to exceed that in the rest of Europe, it was still impossible, I thought after 23 June 2016, to believe there is any direct rational link between, say, the first day of the Somme and voting Out.

But I am now seeing the subject differently. It was hilariously naive of me to dismiss the hypothesis in terms of reasoning, of rational decision. Any election or referendum is going to be influenced by emotion, and there are those who believe that Brexit was entirely decided by it! The question still is, though, how all our emotions about the centenary could have influenced the vote, and I am not suggesting that they directly influenced it. I suggest that the mood and overwhelming sense of the national commemoration affected us unconsciously, subconsciously, and this may have influenced the vote.

Our commemoration focusses us all the time on ‘going into’ Europe, not on ‘being part of Europe’. We stood morally by the Belgians, French, Italians, but we had physically to join them across the water (and we know that as early as post-Mons there were people who wanted us to pull out). I would go so far as to say that the commemoration of the First World War daily re-enacts for us Churchill’s idea, expressed in print in 1930 and again in the House of Commons in 1953, that we are ‘with’ Europe but not ‘of it’, we are ‘linked but not combined’, ‘interested and associated but not absorbed’. I increasingly feel that the commemoration’s continuous ‘message’ that we intervene from outside in European affairs — that we always ‘go into’ and then ‘come out of’ Europe again — reinforced the Out vote. Looking back, might historians conclude that?

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Dulc(e) et decor(um) est…

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen, c. 1916

I have always been uncomfortable with what I take to be the popular interpretation of Wilfred Owen’s poem Dulce et Decorum est.

My first experience of it was in about 1962 from the lips of our young English teacher, a socialist just down from Cambridge, and he certainly put the full phlegm of disgust into his reading of the final stanza (‘devil’s sick of sin’).

The idea we were given was that Owen’s disgust was with war as such, with war as an imperialist phenomenon, and in particular with the ‘British Establishment’s War’ that Owen ‘had’ to fight in.  One should remember that the early 1960s were when the First World War was rubbished by Alan Clark, Joan Littlewood, A.J.P. Taylor and others, and kitchen sink drama specifically ridiculed Edwardian values and the Edwardian military.

So that was it: Horace’s ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ (‘It is a sweet and fitting thing to die for one’s country’) was a lie, it was in no circumstances right to take part in war, Owen was a tragic victim of the Edwardian upper classes.

Even at fourteen I was uneasy with this for a number of reasons. Could poetry be that simple? I mean, we all knew that war was horrible and should be avoided; this was hardly a new, profound, or interesting message. Was that all Owen had to say? Then I assumed that Owen had joined up willingly, because he did so before conscription. (But I did not know at the time that he even insisted on going back to fight in 1918 after being treated for shell-shock in Blighty for over a year, could have stayed on home-duty, and won the Military Cross before being killed on 4 November 1918.) So he must have felt that the war was worth fighting; no-one was forcing him to go, but something was impelling him to. And finally, I thought, everyone believes we were morally impelled to defeat the Nazis, so why was it wrong to stop the Germans crushing countries in World War I?

At fourteen, of course, you don’t have the experience and confidence to say to yourself — let alone to your teacher — ‘no, poetry isn’t that simple, it isn’t journalism or propaganda, there must be more to this poem’; but I doubt whether I returned to Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ for fifty years. I simply rated other poems of his, especially ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, ‘Greater Love’, ‘Futility’, or ‘Strange Meeting’, much higher. Incidentally, a couple of years later our French master gave us a jolt by lambasting those who reel off Horace’s line as an English trochaic heptameter (Dulchee et deecorum est pro pattria moree) instead of eliding the end of ‘dulce’ and ‘decorum’ as Latin scansion requires, hovering over the caesura, and putting the right long-vowel stresses on patria and mori. Owen’s rhyme glory/mori suggests he knew how it should be read.

In my post of 17 February 2016 I defended ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, particularly the ‘devil’s sick’ stanza, against what seems to have been Seamus Heaney’s belief that it is bad art. I now fancy I perceive that the moral balance of the poem is so fine, so ambiguous, so apparently paradoxical, that it is not surprising if the poem has been publicly reduced to a mere ‘anti-war poem’.

The problem, it seems to me, arises from Owen’s contextualisation of the poem; the fact that he sets it all between the first four words of Horace’s Latin line as his title and the full Latin line as his ending. When you read the title, you get something positive: ‘It is sweet and fitting’. Something ‘sweet and fitting’ has got to be good and right. If you add mentally ‘to die for one’s country’, you may even think: ‘Yes, it is good and right to die defending your country’s values in a just war.’ However, we know that the poem was originally dedicated (sarcastically) to the verse-publicist Jessie Pope who ‘with such high zest’ (l. 25) in the popular press urged young men to sign up for ‘the game’ as she called it, echoing Henry Newbolt’s most famous poem. ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ is just the kind of Edwardian upper-class cliché-quote that she and other white-featherists could have used. If we know that the poem addresses Pope’s obtuse glibness, we interpret its title negatively: ‘Dulce et decorum est’ becomes an expression of jingoism and even aggression. Indeed, the context in Horace’s ode seems to be not a defensive war but a war of Roman imperial aggression and colonialism. But Owen removed the dedication to Jessie Pope and that leaves us with the positive reading of Owen’s title: ‘It is good and right to die defending one’s country.’ Naturally, then, when the statement ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ is reprised at the very end and we are told it is ‘the old Lie’, we are most likely to think that it is the content of the statement that is being attacked as mendacious, not its fraudulent use by jingoists and white-featherists. We forget, perhaps, that Owen has accused Jessie Pope (‘My friend’) of telling this ‘Lie’ to ‘children ardent for some desperate glory’ — in other words it is not necessarily the content of the line that is mendacious but the way she and others exploit it. After all, Owen volunteered to die fighting a (defensive) war, so how could he believe the statement was a lie?

Yet I fully concede that he does call it ‘the old Lie’! This is what I meant by the poem being so finely balanced. He cannot, because of his own act of moral choice, possibly believe that the statement in the sense of ‘die for one’s country in a just defensive war’ is wrong, but neither does he quite leave us thinking the statement is wrong because it is immorally misused by the likes of Pope and particularly in the cause of aggressive war. Alas, Horace’s line as quoted doesn’t specify whether Horace is talking about defensive (just) or aggressive (unjust) war.

The paradox — that it is simultaneously right and a lie to give one’s life for one’s country — is, I believe, contained in the word ‘mori’. If this infinitive is understood as perfective (‘to die’) then Horace’s line is just a very abstract statement that it is dangerous to read particulars into: ‘To die for one’s country is a sweet and fitting thing.’ If you believe, as Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas and George Calderon did, that the soil of Britain was worth dying for because certain values grew in it, then you could agree with Horace’s statement using the perfective infinitive, ‘to die’. However, the second half of the poem is devoted to describing how horrific dying in war can be, and how witnessing it happening can traumatise your fellow-soldiers for life (‘In all my dreams before my helpless sight/He plunges at me’). Owen has shown that if you take ‘mori’ as an imperfective infinitive, ‘to be dying’, then Horace’s line is a lie, because the act of dying for one’s country is sheer Hell (‘devil’s sick of sin’). Owen may, I’m sure did, believe that to die for one’s country in a war for its survival was right, good, ‘sweet’, but he knew that the actual dying for it stank.

They shall grow…not old.

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Russia (concluded)

John Hamilton the Great (Engraving)

John Hamilton the Good, c. 1860

A hundred years ago today Red Guards began occupying key installations in St Petersburg. By early tomorrow morning the Winter Palace had been infiltrated and the Provisional Government arrested. The Bolsheviks, a party of fanatical, fascistic Utopians, subsequently seized power all over Russia. Estimates of the deaths caused directly or indirectly by their tenure of power range from 15 to 66 million. Whichever figure you accept, it was the greatest known act of state genocide in history.

Responsible for executions amongst these numbers were the Bolshevik secret police from the Cheka to the KGB. Vladimir Putin was a member of the KGB under Communism and believes passionately in its so-called ethos. One can hardly expect him, then, to lose any sleep over the physical elimination of his political opponents and the shooting down of a foreign airliner causing the deaths of 298 people. Moreover, paranoia is a vocational requirement for an intelligence officer. Putin hates real democracy because he knows he could never stay in power under it, and he perceives it as merely Western. He therefore fears democracy and the West alike.  He is paranoid about both and must attack them all the time. The former he can attack at home physically, the latter he is actually too weak to attack other than cybernetically, or with threats, or by proxy war.

It would be pointless to speculate on how the Putin regime will end, but I don’t think many people are confident that his successors will be much better. In any case, beneath Putinism lurk enormous unspoken and unresolved problems for Russia and its future. Psephologically, Putin may appear unassailable, but according to Die Zeit in elections to the rigged Duma only forty per cent of young Muscovites with higher education actually vote, and less than fifty per cent of Russians with an average income vote. Is this a protest against the Putin regime, or is it political apathy? A recent poll indicated that 73% of Russians don’t want to live in Russia. The population itself is shrinking. As a former Soviet dissident wrote to me in 2010: ‘Why is everything falling apart? Because there has been no repentance of the genocide, no recognition of the sins and mistakes committed.’ He was echoing Nadezhda Mandel’shtam, who said that ‘until we have made sense of our past, there can be no hope for the future’.

Nevertheless, there is a democratic movement in Russia, with a tradition of over fifty years behind it, and some of Russia’s finest people are involved. But one must be as apprehensive as Andrei Amal’rik was in 1970 that it can sufficiently survive the organised attacks of the government ever to come to power itself. Amal’rik even said that he was doubtful a democratic government could ‘stay in power long enough to solve the problems that the country is faced with’. I am as sceptical myself in 2017.

Clearly Putin is well ahead in repressing and dividing such a movement. But there are deeper problems for it than persecution. The leader of the biggest unofficial opposition party, Alexander Navalny, describes himself as a ‘nationalist democrat’. He is hoping to stand for the presidency in 2018. It is perfectly clear what Navalny is against — the corruption of what he calls ‘the party of crooks and thieves’ (Putin’s United Russia Party) — but he does not have a programme singlemindedly focussed on democratic principles such as the rule of law, freedom of the person, separation of the judiciary and executive, freedom of the media, free elections and peaceful transfer of power. He does not appeal to people to change Russia into a modern open society and democratic state.

One has to fear that this is because, as George Calderon recognised in 1896, many Russians don’t want ‘a Parliament, a free press and the rest of it’, and Navalny knows that. After 1917, Russia experienced nachatki (‘shoots’) of real democracy only once in the twentieth century, and that was for a few years following the fall of Communism. As a ‘nationalist democrat’, Alexander Navalny could vindicate yet again Amal’rik’s view that ‘the mass ideology of this country has always been the cult of its own power and size’. Despite the fact that Russia has no present equivalent to Pobedonostsev (see my post of 23 October), there are remarkable resemblances between the official religio-nationalism of the 1890-1900s and the Putin version. One may legitimately ask whether Russians today are able to live without a nationalist autocracy. Would a ‘nationalist democrat’ government be able to tolerate opposition?  Would it enable and sustain a pluralistic society? Are Russians capable of embracing non-violent, democratic politics?

I know of no better expression of the challenge facing Russia and Russia’s democratic movement than a passage from an 1852 letter about Irish independence from Kittie Calderon’s father, John Hamilton, an Anglo-Irish landlord who financially ruined himself and his family by supporting his hundreds of Irish tenants through thick and thin in the Irish potato famines (not a single one died of starvation):

The people are not yet fit to rule because they are not yet capable of willing obedience to any rule for the general benefit. Till they are so they cannot rule, and it is better till then that they be ruled even by despotism; and they feel it to be so, but do not see the remedy. I am in principle a more utter democrat than any I ever met with, but before the people can govern, they must be able to govern, the test of which is willingness to be governed for the general good; for the people who govern must govern something, and in this case that something is themselves.

I must reiterate what I said in the first of these four posts on the occasion of the centenary of the Bolshevik  seizure of power: I am not a Russian and it would therefore be incongruous for me to criticise, pontificate or recommend about Russia’s current system and political future. In fact I am philosophically indifferent to its fate (as opposed to that of my own country), although I may not be emotionally uninterested.

As someone who had long been persona non grata in Russia and has no intention of ever returning there, I was gratified that in 1992 the popular newspaper Moskovskii Komsomolets described me as ‘a great friend of Russia’. Here, with apologies to Edmund Burke, is the utmost message that I can send my Russian friends now:

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil in a country is that good men and women emigrate.

In the last twenty-seven years about five million Russians have emigrated to the West. If I were Russian, I would call on them to rediscover their patriotism, return to Russia (along with their money), and work tirelessly to make Russia a democratic state on the German model — one that will be a threat neither to itself nor the rest of the world.

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Russia (to be concluded)

Andrei Amalrik

Andrei Amal’rik

My favourite Soviet dissident was Andrei Amal’rik (1938-80). He was short, he had suffered physically during two terms of exile in Siberia, but he was very squarely built and radiated resistance and survival. His black hair was cut in what is called a ezhik, i.e. ‘hedgehog’ (crew cut), but it was always growing out and therefore more resembled bear’s fur. As his absurdist plays show, he also had an irrepressible sense of humour. He was a very lovable Russian bear with the hardest political head around.

Amal’rik’s most famous work — for which he served five years in Kolyma — was Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? He finished it in 1969, when I was a twenty-one-year-old student in Moscow. I read about it in the western press, but it was impossible to get a copy in samizdat: it was simply too hot to handle. It was published in Amsterdam in 1970 and I read it as soon as I returned from Russia that year.

You do not see it referred to much these days, which is a pity and a mistake. In what Putin has called ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century’, the Soviet Union actually broke up in 1991. There is a vague feeling, then, that Amal’rik got it wrong and is passé; that he did not foresee the way in which the USSR would collapse, let alone the ascendancy of the KGB, and has nothing to say about Russia today.

It is true that Amal’rik was glaringly wrong to predict a war with China that would lead to the regime’s demise. Also, there is amazingly little reference in his book to the KGB. It seems astonishing now that he thought the army was more powerful and might stage a coup. But Amal’rik was very focussed on the growth of a Soviet ‘middle class’, as he called it, which he believed would ultimately demand change. He hoped it would espouse the values of his ‘Democratic Movement’, which on his own admission in 1969 accounted for only ‘a few dozen active participants and a few hundred sympathisers’.

However, in my experience at least one in five members of this ‘middle class’ worked for the KGB. Although the Soviet ‘middle class’ did not espouse western democratic values, and the KGB are now in control, Amal’rik was therefore absolutely right about the future of the ‘middle class’! Moreover, when he spoke in Cambridge in the late seventies he said that he had badly underestimated the intelligence and power of the KGB, and now believed that if the Communist Party died of old age and the USSR started to break up, of all the parties and factions that would come out of the woodwork probably only the KGB could hold the country together. Possibly he also suspected that the then chairman of the KGB, Iurii Andropov, was heading for the general secretaryship of the Party.

Above all, though, Amal’rik was right in 1969 that the Soviet system was in terminal decay. At the time, hardly anyone in Russia or the West agreed with him. Shuffling with the ‘demonstration’ across Red Square past the mausoleum on May Day, 1970, I certainly couldn’t believe it myself. But Andrei had only chosen 1984 for literary/marketing reasons; he actually thought the collapse would occur between 1980 and 1985, and let’s face it, in terms of historical time he wasn’t far out.

Andrei Amal’rik died in a terrible, but at least not staged, car accident in Spain in 1980. On my final visit to Russia the year after, it was utterly clear that the Soviet regime was sclerotic. People were openly wondering and worrying about how it would end and what would replace it. I asked a highly educated friend of mine, at the top of his literary profession, what Russians like him wanted. ‘What you have in the West — free elections, freedom of speech, rule of law,’ he replied simply. I asked his wife, similarly at the top of her intellectual profession, what she thought would happen if the whole system collapsed. ‘Budet russkii bunt, bessmyslennyi i besposhchadnyi,’ she answered, quoting Pushkin and meaning ‘There will be senseless, merciless violence in the Russian manner’.

As we know, neither statement came true. The Soviet ‘middle class’ did not want the hard work of establishing democracy, they chose Yel’tsin’s nationalism, which opened the way for Putin. They thought that if everyone started wearing Orthodox crosses and eating cabbage pie in Lent, Russia’s future would be assured.

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Russia (continued)

Konstantin Pobedonostsev January 1902

Konstantin Pobedonostsev, January 1902

Chapter four of my biography, ‘Who Had He Been?’, relates amongst other things what George did in Russia between 12 October 1895 and the summer of 1897. I think it will be a revelation to a lot of people. It was always going to be difficult to piece the narrative together here (he wrote home regularly, but no letters have survived after 1895, he hardly ever talked about what he had experienced in Russia, and Percy Lubbock picked up very little about it for his 1921 memoir). There are still long stretches of time when we don’t know what he was doing in Russia. Having done my forensic best for this chapter, I moved on as biographers must. It is really only now, when the book is finished, that I feel I see the whole of George’s engagement with Russia — i.e. from 1895 to 1915 — in perspective.

Basically, it seems to me a paradigm of certain Britishers’ cultural and psychological response to Russia both in the Communist period and today. I don’t know of any other Victorian/Edwardian examples of this paradigm. It’s profoundly instructive and salutary.

When George arrived in St Petersburg, he wrote wonderful illustrated letters to his mother and father enthusing about the street scenes, the unique palette of Russian life, Russian steam baths and billiards; he wrote vibrant features for Pall Mall Gazette on the same subjects, as well as about the Winter Gardens, skating and sledging, gipsy singers and Russian women. True, he found it difficult moving about and ‘getting things done’. The internal passport police were rather concerned about what he was doing in Russia (as well as teaching at this point, he was culling information about the Russian navy from public libraries and sending it home to a journalist friend!), and they seem to have insinuated an informer into his digs every so often to chat to him. True, he found it irksome having to spend most of a day at the Custom House collecting a parcel from Britain. The insolence and indolence of the numerous petty officials drove another petitioner to a hysterical fit and reduced a peasant literally to tears. But George was able to turn all this to humour:

At last they brought me a number of papers to sign, demanded money under various headings — customs, censor, outdoor porterage, indoor porterage, lighterage, demurrage, insurance, bottomry, &c., and then gave me my package. It proved to be a small pamphlet (privately printed) by my dear old tutor, on the ‘Ontological Value of Consciousness’. I have lent it to a friend out here who goes in for that sort of thing, and am sending my tutor a box of caviare and some cucumbers in return.

For a man of reflexive disposition there are few pleasanter ways of passing a couple of hours than at the Petersburg Custom House.

(Pall Mall Gazette, 20 February 1896)

By the time George arrived in Moscow in May 1896 to cover the coronation of Nicholas II for the Standard and Pall Mall Gazette, he was getting exasperated. In both papers he criticised the ‘attitude to the common people’ of the ‘Russian system of government’, the degeneracy of the upper classes, the potholes in the streets, the drunks, the police, and especially Russian priests, ‘than whom it would be impossible to find a more untidy, unkempt, and uncouth-looking body of men […] illiterate in the highest degree’. He criticised Tsarism itself:

It is amazing that with so many particular sources of well-doing at its command, the Russian system of government should produce so dismal a result. What is the use of an autocracy if it fails in those very respects out of which it expects, or expects others, to justify its existence? […] Everyone that comes to Russia complains of ineffectiveness of the system.

(Pall Mall Gazette, 12 May 1896)

We can only speculate about the impact on him of seeing hundreds of corpses being carted through the streets of Moscow after the stampede disaster on Khodynka Field in the early hours of 30 May 1896, then joining the crowd of about 100,000 who gathered at Vagan’kovskoe cemetery to look for missing friends and view the mass grave. In a despatch he stated that the coronation ‘festivities’ were continuing and ‘not a flag had been lowered or a shutter closed’:

Almost universally, the disaster is attributed to the total want of precautions, usually so conspicuous in Russia when they are wanted least, and to the lack of foresight, and even of elementary common sense, shown in the arrangements for the distribution of the [Tsar’s] gifts [on Khodynka Field]. […] The exasperation of the people is intense.

(Standard, 2 June 1896)

Although, George noted in the Pall Mall Gazette of 6 July 1896, the callousness of the Russian system would ‘drive other countries to a revolution in less than a fortnight’, he had to recognise that ‘Russia does not want a Parliament, a free press and the rest of it. Russia is Russia, and constitutionalism cannot be manufactured out of a peasantry’. He controlled his anger and stress by telling himself it was Russia’s and Russians’ affair, not his or the West’s. He concentrated on his teaching, his friendships and his research into Russian folklore. Nevertheless, he told Pall Mall readers, there was a ‘hopeless tedium’ about ‘everything civil, political, or commercial in Russia’.

I am sure that the curve of George’s response to Russia whilst he was living there matches that of thousands of other young British people who lived for a year or so in the Soviet Union as students. Certainly, after one visit many never wanted to go back. George himself never returned to Russia after 1897. But the ‘paradigm’ I have referred to is not that, it lies in what happened after George got back to England.

Naturally, he wanted to earn his living using his knowledge of Russian and Russia. He could make some money as a translator of quasi-technical texts (‘difficult’ ones, Flowerdew’s translation agency emphasised in their testimonial), he could review works of Russian literature, but to write about Russia itself was a minefield because the subject was so politicised. On the Pall Mall Gazette, for instance, it had been a delicate subject ever since the editorship of W.T. Stead, who was hopelessly entangled with the Russian agent Olga Novikoff. Either you supported the establishment in Russia, i.e. the Tsarist status quo, or you supported the emigrant opposition, headed by such figures as the terrorist Stepniak-Kravchinskii and the anarcho-communist Kropotkin. The Garnett family and many other London intellectuals threw their weight behind these extremists, but George rejected them and decided to engage with the Russian ‘establishment’ in London.

He became a member of the Anglo-Russian Literary Society (ARLS), which was packed with Tsarist patriots like his friend Manya Ross, and on 4 December 1900 he gave a brilliant paper to them entitled ‘Russian Ideals of Peace’. In it, he talked extremely knowledgeably about Slavophilism, Hegelianism, and their impact on the last tsar, Alexander III, and his son Nicholas II. Actually he was wrong about this: the Tsarist regime was as suspicious of Slavophilism and Hegelianism as of any political philosophy other than its own nationalism. But in conveying to his audience that he understood very well what they themselves believed in, and that he accepted it was what ‘Russians’ wanted, he gave them the idea that he approved of it all himself and was on their side. They duly cast him as a sympathiser with Tsarism.

Olga Novikoff kept a close eye on the press and Anglo-Russian activities in the whole country (this is how she had spotted W.T. Stead when he was still a journalist on the Northern Echo). The next thing George knew, she had alerted her old friend Konstantin Pobedonostsev, chief ideologist and propagandist of the Tsarist regime back in St Petersburg, to George’s article in the Monthly Review of May 1901, ‘The Wrong Tolstoi’. Pobedonostsev, who had recently achieved his great ambition of having Tolstoi excommunicated from the Orthodox Church, published his own Russian version of it as a pamphlet. George’s article — probably the best thing written about Tolstoyanism before Orwell’s 1947 essay ‘Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool’ — had focussed on the cognitive dissonance of Tolstoy’s ‘philosophy’, whilst expressing his admiration of Tolstoi as a man and writer. Pobedonostsev mistranslated, deliberately distorted, rewrote and mangled George’s article in ways that a modern propaganda machine would be proud of. The article became a diatribe against Tolstoi, one that Pobedonostsev hoped would gain all the more credence amongst Russians for having been produced in an ‘open society’ with a ‘free press’. (The necrotic Pobednostsev himself was a fanatical enemy of democracy: one of his most famous sayings is ‘parliaments are the great lie of our time’.)

George had been compromised. His name must have been mud amongst liberal Russians everywhere, because Pobednostsev had made him appear to attack Tolstoi like Pobedonostsev, one of the most hated figures in Russia. But what I mean by the ‘paradigm’ is this: George had only himself to blame, because he had given the Tsarist establishment in London to believe that he was their friend and they had repaid the compliment by making him a ‘fellow-traveller’. The phenomenon has been repeated thousands of times with ‘well-meaning’ Britishers in Stalin’s, Khrushchev’s, Brezhnev’s and Putin’s Russia. These people, including George, give the impression of playing with fire without knowing that fire is hot.

What could George do to set the record straight? Britain had no copyright agreement with Russia. In any case, perhaps Olga Novikoff had sounded George out about publishing the article in Russian, he had made encouraging noises, and been too naive to foresee what would happen to it. It was too late to undo; too late to attack his Tsarist ‘friends’, even though he cooled off towards them and left ARLS by 1905. Conversely, he could hardly re-invent himself as a Russian oppositionist and throw in his lot with Kropotkin, the Garnetts and Co. He could have attacked what Pobedonostsev had done in an article in the Monthly Review, or even The Times, but would there be enough interest for their editors to publish it? It would certainly never be published in Russia, where the damage had been done. I think George found himself in a quandary. He had been put on the spot by Russia’s disinformationists. Surely he felt he had been made a fool of. He seems to have been lost for words. As far as one can tell, he said nothing.

And he was confused, in both his political thinking and his thinking about Russia. His last article for the Monthly Review, ‘The Obstinacy of the Romanoffs’ (April 1903), urged readers to accept that Russia was ‘different’, that it had a political culture of its own:

It is natural enough to thank heaven that we are Britishers; but it is wholesome at times to try and realise that there are other civilisations in the world, and that in their poor way, and for the poor folk that are born into them, they have a raison d’être. It is unjust to picture the Tsar as a benighted Oriental potentate, scion of a house of tyrants, waking at last from Asiatic sloth, as he listens to his German Sheherazade [Alexandra] telling him what is being done in the Western world. The Romanoffs have seen and rejected our civilisation since Romanoffs were. They have borrowed our mechanical arts, but never our social order.

With justification, George claimed that ‘English opinion of Russia’ was ‘educated chiefly by exiled revolutionaries, yet it might be surmised that many Russians actually approve of the system under which they live’. So far so good; this was a mere constatation of fact. But George continued that even though we in Britain lived under a form of democracy, ‘if we never tire of abusing the faults of our civilisation’, from the ‘evils of our political system’ to slums and the ‘licence of the press’, what was so superior about it? Our parliamentary system was not even representative, since ‘in each constituency there is a large minority, the unsuccessful party, which has no representative in Parliament at all’. This notion, he claimed, is ‘abhorrent to the Russian creed of justice’. The Tsar, according to George, ‘sits for minority as well as majority, and for the Country as well’; consequently ‘theoretically there is much to be said for the autocratic system’.

It was admirable that George should be stressing the ‘differentness’, the ‘autonomy’ of Russian political culture, but what from his cultural point of view was the ‘much’ that could be said for autocracy? What reservations lay behind that word ‘theoretically’? He seems to have found the Russian system disastrous enough when he was living there. What of the many Russians who wanted western-style democracy? Were they wrong? If the British ‘never tired’ of criticising aspects of their own political life and society, was that not precisely what democracy was for? George’s determination to pursue acculturation to Russia again made him look like a fellow-traveller or apologist of Tsarism.

Sadly, I think this reflects George’s own doubts about democracy, which were sown by the fissiparousness of British politics in the Edwardian era and are most fully expressed in Dwala. In the article I have just discussed, he regrets the absence of Proportional Representation in the British democratic system; but his only solution seems to be autocracy! Similarly, he saw no reason for extending the franchise to women or working-men. It is not surprising that in the 1910s he proposed forming a centre-right party in Britain that would operate outside Parliament

Personally, I think George Calderon learnt his lesson about Russian power politics. He certainly appears never to have expressed himself in print about the ‘advantages’ of the Tsarist autocracy again. The events of 1905 in Russia changed the attitude of many people to the regime, including members of ARLS. An encounter between the Calderons and Olga Novikoff in 1904 suggests that George kept her at arm’s length. After returning from Tahiti in 1906, he concentrated on Russian literature, particularly, of course, translating and staging Chekhov.

The only other major pronouncement on Russia that I have come upon in George’s writing dates from 1914. On 5 October, waiting on Salisbury Plain to leave for Flanders with the Blues as an interpreter, George had time to write to Kittie and his mother, but also to draft a letter to the press headed ‘Philosophy and the War’. Its gist was that Nietzsche had had less influence on the Germans’ ‘outlook on their historic purpose’ than Hegel. Both the Kaiser and the Tsar, according to George, were professed Hegelians who believed in ‘the imposition of the newest and highest [national civilisation] on the world at large’. In the Russians’ case this ‘civilisation’ was a blend of Slavophilism, Orthodoxy, and Russian nationalism. ‘It would be a poor office for the Belgians, French and British’, George wrote, ‘if we were fighting merely to set up a Slav world-domination instead of a Teutonic.’ Few people at the time, I think, would have believed that Russia had imperial designs on the West. However, after I read out this letter in a lecture I gave on George at the Armistice Festival in London in November 1988, a Russian came up to me and said: ‘What a prescient view of Soviet intentions after the Second World War!’

Although Pobedonostsev had destroyed George’s credit in Russia for some time, and George’s views about Russia certainly alienated from him left-wing opinion in this country, I think we should show understanding towards him; towards the fact that he had fallen into a paradigmatic elephant trap. After all, in the early twentieth century neither he nor anyone else had yet had experience of the Bolsheviks’ and Nazis’ exploitation of what Lenin called ‘useful idiots’. We, in 2017, have no such excuse.

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Russia (to be continued)

 

Alexander Pushkin by Kiprenskii, 1827

There is something I dread at dinner parties: being asked about ‘Russia’. I hope and pray, pray and hope, that no-one has heard I was a ‘Russianist’ in another life, lived in Russia under the Communist regime, smuggled for Sakharov etc, played cat and mouse with the KGB, saw and experienced ghastly, even terrible things. Normal English people find this all so exotic and fascinating that they can’t resist asking me about it. Before you know what’s happened the subject is dominating the dinner table and there’s no way back. On the whole, it’s not a good idea to discuss death at a dinner party. It kills conversation.

But 7 November will be the centenary of what many would regard as the biggest disaster to hit Russia since the Mongol Invasion, namely the Bolshevik seizure of power. It would be a misinterpretable act not to say something on this occasion. In any case, George Calderon had at least as deep an experience of Russia as me, he witnessed something more traumatic than me — the immediate aftermath of the trampling to death of 1300 people in Moscow during Nicholas II’s coronation in 1896 — and the development of his attitude to Russia between 1895 and 1914 is instructive.

Let us take the plunge, then, in George’s company.

The kinds of question normal English people can’t wait to ask me are: What do you ‘think’ about Russia? How/why did Russia end up with Putin? Is Russia really a threat to the West? What is going to happen to Russia after Putin? Is authoritarian rule all that Russians ever want? Do any Russians desire democracy, the rule of law, mafia-free markets etc? What do you think Russians should do? Does Russia have a future?

I will touch on these questions, but only very lightly. You see, I haven’t been a ‘Russianist’ for over twenty years and I never wanted to be one in the first place. In the 1970s I was interested in certain Russian writers: in Chekhov, rather than Tolstoi and Dostoevskii, in Pushkin, Tiutchev, Voznesenskii, Brodsky. But in those days you couldn’t just be interested in Russian literature, you had to buy into the whole of Russia’s past and present. You had to ‘catch the Russian virus’, as the saying goes. Russians expected you to become Russian, to live like them, think like them, preferably marry a Russian (I received a few proposals!), and where the regime was concerned you had to take sides (I went with the dissidents). That is a way of getting inside a foreign culture, of course, but personally I had to come out of it again. I could only grow from my very English roots; although the Russian compost was undoubtedly beneficial. Most weeks I still read something by Chekhov, Mandel’shtam, Pasternak or Brodsky, but that’s the extent of my interest in ‘Russia’ (i.e. as some vast Gestalt or ideo-historical system). I engage with Russian writers as writers, but I have absolutely no desire to get involved with ‘Russia’. This means I have no desire to opine about ‘Russia’. It doesn’t interest me.

There is another reason, however. I don’t consider I am qualified by identity to opine about Russia. As an English person, I have an attitude to Russia that derives from my cultural and political values, but it would be absurd for me to criticise Russia or say what I think Russians should think or do about their country. That is the prerogative of Russians, and I am simply not a Russian. As Pushkin wrote to his friend Viazemskii:

Of course, I despise my native country from head to toe — but I’m annoyed if a foreigner shares with me this feeling.

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Is a dog literally…forever?

An alternative title to this post would be: ‘Why are there no cats’ cemeteries?’

Three weekends running we have visited local stately homes that were inhabited in the Edwardian period, and each of them had a Pets Cemetery in its grounds. However, it was clear from the statuary, from one or two still legible tombstone inscriptions, and the photographs in the house itself, that these were dogs’ cemeteries. Where were the cats?

I am not an expert on the history of British domestic animals, but one explanation that instantly occurred to me was that until Louis Wain cats were just regarded as mousers, as farmyard killers who didn’t, for instance, necessarily live inside your house. (The only reason I know about Wain is that the most plausible hypothesis for why George signed himself Peter in his letters to Kittie is that in Late Victorian times Wain’s Peter was the most famous tom’s name you could put with a female cat, a ‘kitty’.) As you will see from my link, Wain felt his hugely popular cat drawings had helped to ‘wipe out the contempt’ in which he considered the cat had been held in Britain.

But the more likely explanation of the lack of Victorian/Edwardian cats’ cemeteries is that the cats didn’t want to be buried in cemeteries!

It is difficult to deny, I think, that dogs want to dedicate their whole existence to their owners — they want to live and die inside their owners’ lives — whereas cats are only interested in manipulating their owners’ deluded belief that they, cats, wish to do the same. If dogs had their way, they would actually be buried with their owners. Dogs must die in the family, preferably at their owners’ feet. Cats, when they know they are near to death, disappear. They just want to go off somewhere and die a cat, not a humanoid.

All of this set me thinking about what it is that dogs give their owners; why the bond with a dog is so individual and strong; why George and Kittie always had a dog.

Bunty c.1924

Bunty, taken at ‘Kay’s Crib’, Petersfield, c.1925

Actually, the last statement needs qualifying. I don’t think George had ever had a dog before he married Kittie, and ‘their’ first dog was Kittie’s and Archie’s. Jones was a thoroughbred Aberdeen terrier that Kittie and Archie had bought in the first year or so of their marriage (1895/96). Perhaps the breed had been recommended by Kittie’s mother, Mary Hamilton, who was Scottish. Anyway, Jones was a very intelligent and playful dog whom (which?) they both loved and who (which?) was a great bond between them.

After Archie Ripley’s death in 1898, as a close friend of Archie’s George was given the task of looking after Jones at Eastcote and exercising him on the golf course when Kittie, living in central London, was away. George evidently took to Jones, and Jones became a great bond between Kittie and him, as one can tell from the fact that in visitors books he always features with their names. Nevertheless, when Jones died in 1909 whilst Kittie was staying with Jones at Acton Reynald, Nina Corbet wrote to her from London:

I do indeed feel for you — I know so well too how he was so part of the past — in a way how he was part of Archie and your Mother — you will know what I mean though I put it clumsily. But you made him so happy — and after all that is a big thing to have done for anyone — and you taught him to love.

Just to confirm: in the last sentence Nina is talking of Jones, not Archie. Nina herself had a leash of Pekes. Jones appears to have been buried in the Pets Cemetery at the Corbets’ family seat, Acton Reynald.

I have a hunch that the Calderons’ next dog, Tommy, started out as George’s dog, so to speak. All we know about him is his name and the fact that, in Percy Lubbock’s words, he was an ‘old, tangle-haired scapegrace’. When the Calderons were living in the Vale of Helath, next to Hampstead Heath, George had taken Jones for a walk there first thing every morning. When Jones died, therefore, perhaps George came across Tommy as a stray on the Heath and took him in? George mentions Tommy in the last sentence he ever wrote Kittie, on 3 June 1915 from Gallipoli: he wished he was ‘back in the bosom of Tommy, Shady, Elizabeth & Co.’.

These words tell us, incidentally, that he and Kittie were not just ‘dog people’, since Shady was their cat Shadrach. They had three cats (Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego), but it is not known whether they owned them simultaneously or consecutively; in the early 1920s only Abednego features on a photo.

Kittie’s last dog, the Cairn terrier Bunty, was very special to her indeed. In 1922 Kittie decided she must at all costs leave London, where she and George had always lived. Her life had fallen apart in 1921 when Nina Corbet died suddenly. It is also possible that she was sickened by London literary people’s insensitivity to George’s memory and his sacrifice. There is little doubt that her decision to leave London was a terrible mistake influenced by her state of stress. Very recently a fragment from Christmas 1922 was discovered in which she writes: ‘Bad times have descended on my head with a wump — and I have cast myself out of London into Kay’s Crib/Little Sheet/Petersfield.’ But she had bought herself Bunty to go with her, Bunty became a further bond between Kittie and her general maid, Elizabeth Ellis, and somehow you can tell how ‘humanly’ close Kittie and Bunty were from this photograph at the end of Bunty’s life.

A few years back, I managed to speak on the phone to the person who had just bought Kittie’s last house, White Raven. She asked me whether I thought there could be a dog’s grave in the garden, because, without digging it up, it seemed that that might be indicated. Yes, I answered, it’s probably Bunty’s.

The differences between dogs and cats have been expatiated on for centuries, of course. So I hesitate to generalise… For instance, it’s tempting to feel that with a dog you have a bond, with a cat you have a relationship, and that you most commonly hear of people wanting to share a life beyond the grave with their dog, not their cat. But in a well-attested instance of the opposite, a bachelor Fellow of my old college, at the point of death in hospital, raised his arms, stared into mid-air, and cried: ‘It’s Ginger! It’s Ginger my cat!’ (However, because the college’s regulations forbade cats, Ginger had officially been a dog.)

Despite the fact that I was born on a bed that had a large dog under it, who growled menacingly at the G.P. as he attempted to approach my mother, and despite the fact that I was given a Yorkshire terrier when I was about ten that lived to be twenty-one, I think I am really a cat bloke. I confess to not understanding what it is that dogs give their owners; why their owners need them. I find the bond rather mysterious. Here, to sign off, I offer words from my recent dialogues with scientist-theologian John Polkinghorne:

PM: And what about the rest of creation? I mean the created world on this planet other than humans?

JP: Yes, well, I feel sure that – perhaps in a slightly sentimental way – there will be animals in the world to come. But I don’t think every animal ever will be there, and certainly I hope not every virus is there. I mean the important thing is, I think, that Christianity doesn’t simply see the whole of created order as a ‘backdrop’ for the human drama which could then be rolled up and stored away… And nothing of good is lost in God. If there are worthwhile things in the physical world – and I think there are – then they will be retained in some appropriate way. It’s difficult to think that the fulfilment of creation, the life of the world to come, doesn’t include animal life in it. I have never thought animal life is simply a means of getting to human life. It has value in itself.

PM: Oh, that’s very interesting.

JP: This is a celebrated conundrum, and of course nobody knows the answer. But when people say, ‘I don’t want to go to heaven unless my doggy comes with me’, they’re expressing a real relationship with that animal and what I would always wish to say is that nothing of good is lost, and how it finds its further expression is not by any means foreseeable, so…it’s an open question but not a ridiculous question. You know, you don’t laugh at the person who says to you ‘I can’t go to heaven without doggy’, or you don’t say ‘my goodness, that’s nonsense’, you just take it.

PM: What I think is interesting is that you don’t have a doctrinal answer. If you were a Russian priest, you would say: ‘Animals have unbaptised souls. FACT. So, of course, these souls will survive in the next world.’ But you lay the emphasis on the human nexus…

JP: Well, eschatological hope doesn’t mean everything that exists in this world has to exist beyond it. Again the wait and see, leave it to God argument, though infuriating to critical inquiry, is nevertheless an inevitable result at some stage in this argument.

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Enough (43) is enough!

Researching publishers and editors in depth, honing letters and email proposals to them, assembling different forms of synopsis and samples, dealing with the comeback (or lack of), and negotiating with publishers over the past nine months, has been hard work. It has also occasionally been stressful: the arrogance and offensiveness of some has beggared belief even by today’s standards. I’m afraid to say that with one or two I was driven to repay them in kind. I shall be revisiting John Dewey’s comments and George Orwell’s essay on the subject and comparing them with my own experience in a future post. The personality obstructions have sometimes been dire.

But altogether it has been a much more varied and positive experience than I was expecting. After all, I had three offers from quite big names, even though these offers turned out to come with conditions that I could not accept and the publishers never considered compromising on. The most impressive publishers were the three or four who responded immediately, asked for samples or the whole thing immediately, read them promptly (in one case, even, over the weekend), then sent me civilised emails explaining in detail why the book wasn’t for them. The reasons they gave made impeccable sense, but I couldn’t have foreseen them, so I don’t regret the exercise.

Most publishers take up to three months to reply (I think this is just about acceptable), or don’t respond at all. Since January, I have approached 43. I have had 15 rejections, 3 acceptances, and applying the three-month rule I’m sure I am now never going to hear from 16. That means I have nine still ‘in hand’. Some of these are actually quite promising, but as my last proposal went out on 14 September I may not know what the outcome is until the middle of December…

All things conspire, then, to get moving with Plan B. The book MUST and WILL come out next year, the 150th anniversary of George’s birth (2 December). It would be terrific if one of the nine commercial/academic publishers took it on and met that deadline, but in case they don’t we must start work on the alternative now. The groundwork has been done over the last few months. Younger heads have persuaded me that if ‘publishing’ means ‘putting it out there where people can read it’, then Kindle is the cheapest for writer and reader alike and, even, the most effective. I feel no sentimentality about this. Yet it is undeniable that the biography has old-fashioned-book-biography aspects to it and ought to have a hardback edition. Printers, publishing outfits and binders have been researched for that and I shall be visiting some of these soon for firm quotes.

So the present Plan B is to produce a limited edition in hardback to the very highest standard, then to go with Kindle, assuming the illustrations can be fixed. Kindle, of course, are run by Amazon, and if a customer doesn’t want an ebook but a paperback, they will produce it. There seems no point in my publishing it in paperback, as that will never encourage anyone else to bring it out in hardback, and Kindle/Amazon is cheaper anyway.

I take this opportunity to thank all those who over the past few years have encouraged me to self-publish and recommended ways of doing it: Anthony Cross, John Dewey, June Goodfield, Robert Jeens, Patrick Marber, James Muckle, Harvey Pitcher, Andrew Tatham, Carole Welch, Anthony Werner.

The timetable for Plan B is to have the self-publishing all set up by the middle of December so that we can go if all the commercial/academic approaches have failed by then. This means we are aiming to bring the book out by the middle of 2018, giving us the marketing hooks of the 150th and the centenary of the end of the War.

Well…all I can add is: Watch This Space. I will report on progress every so often, whilst continuing to blog weekly on a wide variety of topics. This week I have completed the first draft of the last thing I shall ever have to write for the book: the Acknowledgements. On my last count, there were 243 institutions and individuals to thank. At 2759 words it is almost another chapter. I do hope it does not have to go through as many shreddings as the blessed Introduction.

I shall continue to visit Waterstone’s, Heffers, newspaper book reviews, the Web etc on the lookout for possible publishers, but I think it is now statistically unlikely I shall find any. Yes, I admit: I am relieved that proposing to publishers is over.

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Proto-Poldark?

Many followers will have realised, I think, that I kept my previous post in pole position for a month because I thought it might give my last batch of prospective publishers a good idea of the book’s scope and, dare I say it, novelty. I am aware that at least one follower is waiting with bated breath for an announcement on 30 September about the book’s future — and he shall have it, he shall have it.

Meanwhile, I thought it was about time that I posted a sample of George’s reviewing for the Times Literary Supplement, which was first appreciated by the novelist, critic, poet and Times naturalist Derwent May in his Critical Times: The History of the Times Literary Supplement (2001). Mention of the novels of Cornishman Arthur Quiller-Couch in two recent Comments by Clare Hopkins sent me straight to this by George, published in the TLS of 29 October 1908, pp. 376-77:

‘David Bran’

The people of Trescas, the Cornish village in which Mr Morley Roberts lays the scene of DAVID BRAN (Eveleigh Nash, 6s.), are not quite like the people of other villages. Their speech is full of dark sayings about wisdom and destiny and the heart of man; they pass their lives in a state of wonder at each other and at the ways of heaven. They are cast in heroic mould; the women all have strong hearts and strong hands; the men are giants; and, as for David himself, seven at a blow would be nothing to him. The old men in the blue jerseys, smashing their pipes by the shore, do not spin yarns and crack ribald jokes, as in other seaside places, but wag their beards continually over David and his love affairs. There is very little mental life in Trescas, except wondering about David and Lou and the white maiden with the shining golden hair and the eyes of blue. David had a wonderful way with the women; they used to waylay him in the dark and say, ‘Oh! be good to me; kiss me once, David’, but he never really cared about it. He loved but two. This is the story of how he wooed a dark maiden and a fair maiden at the same time, and could not possibly do with less. And when he married Kate he would still punch Isaac’s head if he so much as spoke to Lou. Mr Roberts has the courage of his opinions. He detects a bigamous instinct in man, and justifies those that give it active expression because they fulfil their nature. His heart bleeds also for the women who never marry; and he would like to kill both these birds with one stone. About the instinct of many men he is no doubt right, though the instinct is not universal; and, indeed, other men-novelists have often made the bigamous instinct the theme of their novels (women-writers never — each sex demands monogamy in the other); it is the basis of ‘Richard Feveral’ and ‘Harry Richmond’, of Tourgeniev’s ‘Smoke’ and ‘Spring Waters’. But Mr Roberts presents the theme in its most unconvincing aspect. In real life there is always parenthesis, or eclipse; in ‘David Bran’ both passions are present in equal force at the same moment. While David is kissing Lou on the cliff he is thinking about Kate, and on the eve of his wedding with Kate he is leaning against a wall and crying because he feels that it is a kind of separation from Lou. The book is interesting; but it moves slowly; there is really no more than material in it for a short story, and this is eked out with not very recondite moralizations by the author, couched in an archaic Trescas dialect, compounded out of Malory and Moses and Dr Gilbert Murray’s Euripedes.

This review is a good example of what Derwent May calls George’s ‘witty scepticism’, which ‘aligned him wholly with the younger group on the paper’ that included Virginia Woolf and Percy Lubbock. What made it possible for Mr May to write his fascinating history was the fact that the authorship of the unsigned reviews had been cracked by matching the number of lines in the review to the payments by line in the TLS account books. This revealed, for example, that George had written 54 reviews between 1905 and 1912, earning him a useful £13,160 at today’s prices. He was originally taken on to write about ‘serious’ subjects like folklore, Russia, the Balkans, psychical research, but the editor, Bruce Richmond, discovered by chance that George was most entertaining on novels, of which he reviewed fifteen in 1908 alone.

What intrigues me about George’s review is that it seems to display a Cornish novel that already contains features — one might say stereotypes — of other Cornish novels through Daphne du Maurier down to Poldark and Helen Dunmore’s Zennor in Darkness (1993). Was there already, in 1908, a recognisable Cornish equivalent to the ‘kailyard school’ of Scottish novels? Is the Cornish novel a purely literary genre that can be practised by anyone, whether Cornish or not, or is it strictly speaking a nationalist genre, in which case are its topos-es (‘stereotypes’) supposed to be genuine features of Cornishness? I look forward to someone telling us!

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