Saturday, March 19, 2011

Edmund Gosse – ‘Father and Son’

Mentioned by Claire Tomalin in her Thomas Hardy biography as ‘one of the most powerful autobiographical books ever written’, and I can never resist a tangential recommendation like that. It is a surprising conclusion to a paragraph that otherwise depicts Edmund Gosse as a socialite with literary pretensions which his talent did not justify. It tells the story of Edmund’s childhood, spent mostly in rural Devon, and dominated by his father’s attempts to bring him up in accordance with his own Christian faith (he was a minister with the Plymouth Bretheren, who were / are Baptists with some sort of doctrinal difference or other). The Wikipedia entry on the father, Philip Henry Gosse – somewhat longer than his son’s page – gives several examples of critics doubting the truth of Edmund’s account, implying that it is self-serving. It also reports that Ann Thwaite, biographer of both men, ‘argues that Edmund could only preserve his self-respect, in comparison to his father’s superior abilities, by demolishing the latter’s character’. I’m not sure he quite does that, though. By the end, Philip Henry has certainly become a suffocating presence, and one that Edmund needs to escape in order to grow up himself, but that is hardly unusual, at the end of adolescence. There are plenty of moments, too, during which he forgets to be godly and is very charming:
Sometimes in the course of this winter, my Father and I had long cosy talks together over the fire. Our favourite subject was murders. I wonder whether little boys of seven or eight, soon to go upstairs alone at night, often discuss violent crime with a widower-papa?
A potent anecdote told just before this has Philip Henry singing a folk song, delighting his son with his ‘strange, broad Wessex lingo’, when some carpenters overhear and comment on the contrast between the song and the minister’s station. ‘I saw his eyes darken. He never sang a secular song again during the whole of his life.’ Christianity is always a limiting factor in this book. It gets in the way of life (and especially social life) as it should be lived.

It also gets in the way of Philip Henry’s professional life as a natural scientist. He is a man very specifically out of time. Towards the beginning of the book, after his wife’s death, he nobly rises to the financial challenges which ensue by undertaking a lecture tour: ‘The captain of a vessel in a storm must navigate his ship, although his wife lies dead in the cabin’, is how Edmund dramatises it. The lectures were a success, and had their audiences fascinated by the new possibility of being able to observe marine wildlife in aquariums. In any earlier age, this interest would not have been incompatible with religious faith, but this was 1856: Lyell and Darwin were in the process of changing the way the public thought about the creation of the world, and humanity. Gosse’s response was characteristically brave, misguided and bloody minded:
My Father, after long reflection, prepared a theory of his own, which, as he fondly hoped, would take the wind out of Lyell’s sails, and justify geology to godly readers of ‘Genesis’. It was, very briefly, that there had been no gradual modification of the surface of the earth, or slow development of organic forms, but that when the catastrophic act of creation took place, the world presented, instantly, the structural appearance of a planet on which life had long existed.
This was the subject of his book Omphalos, which did not sell well, being on the wrong side of the zeitgeist.

A similar rigidity runs through Philip Henry’s entire approach to bringing up Edmund, who acknowledges, ‘It was not in harshness or in ill-nature that he worried me so much; on the contrary, it was part of his too-anxious love’. Which makes sense: you don’t want the people you love to be eternally damned, after all. He eagerly rushes his son into baptism in his early teens, and Edmund complies, takes it seriously, becomes quite big headed about it. Gradually, though, he lets his natural inclinations take him upon a more sociable, and a more literate path. The sad thing is that you feel that these would also be Philip Henry’s inclinations, were it not for his faith. He delights in reading a poem of Scott’s out loud to Edmund, but will not allow him to read any of his novels. Relenting a little he allows him The Pickwick Papers, on the grounds that Dickens ‘exposes the passion of love in a ridiculous light’. On the subject of his second marriage, Philip Henry has to endure the fruits of his advice to Edmund to ‘testify “in season and out of season”’, and his son grills him about Miss Brightwen’s religious unsuitability – which he does purely as a duty, being fond of her personally. His father fudges the issue for once, an admirable exception to ‘his determination to pull the veil of illusion away from every compromise that makes life bearable.’

Monday, March 14, 2011

Vic Godard & Subway Sect, Edinburgh (Citrus Club) and Dundee (Dexter’s), 12th and 13th March

Story #1: We last saw Subway Sect in December 2009, though I didn’t write about it, as the set was much the same as the previous one, in 2007, and two years on from 1978 Now there were still no new songs. (Apart from ‘That Train’. Like most songwriters ever get near to a ‘That Train’). At the end, being pushed for time, Vic asked what we wanted for an encore, giving a list of three or four Sect Mark One incendiaries. One was ‘Chain Smoking’, a song S. and I love, and, positioned at Vic’s feet, we screamed ourselves hoarse in its favour. Chris joined in with the screaming; I think A. might have been a bit embarrassed. And we got our ‘Chain Smoking’ – the punk version, obviously, given the context, though I admit I’d been hoping for a dramatic switch of register at the last minute, to the tender, world weary lounge version. I still think those switches are the key to Vic.

This time the circumstances were, wonderfully, quite different. Apparently from nowhere, but perhaps drawing on the momentum of 1978 Now and its attendant shows (Vic suggests as much in Andy’s interview for Manic Pop Thrills), We Come as Aliens is the perfect contemporary Subway Sect record. Drawing on their earliest sound, but not slavishly, the album is brim full of joy with its own clatter, and brings its wayward voice (© Brogues) to bear on just the kinds of thing you’d think a fiftysomething punk turned postman would be concerned with. It is not trying to relive adolescence, it is very much a logical progression, a bemused but uncompromising survey of now. Before they came on in Dundee, Chris remarked that, enjoyable as Edinburgh School for the Deaf and Spectorbullets had been, they were also supremely ridiculous, which made them an odd choice to support the most sensible band ever. Make that ‘grounded’, and I agree.

Story #2: Support at the Edinburgh gig came from the Sexual Objects, another ridiculous band, of course, and a great one. Davy Henderson paid tribute to Vic’s parents for giving birth to him, ‘what a beautiful thing’, his mid-Atlantic, intergalactic patter perfectly pitched as always. Their set was raw and crunchy, especially the heavy opening instrumental, I wanted to dissolve into the PA. There was an aftershow party just down the road, at which Spectorbullets played, oddly mannered, but with interesting rhythmical shifts and some killer guitar lines (others admired the bass playing, but I don’t think I’m capable of admiring slap bass). They were followed by a thin blonde Swedish woman who pounded an acoustic guitar, bright-eyed and relentless, looking as though she would have been better placed in a workout video. That was exhausting. And it was hot, humid, late. I sat down, but that didn’t help. Finally giving up, I rushed to the toilets and threw up. Freshening up at the sink afterwards, I rested on my hands, looked in the mirror. Probably I have looked better. As if by magic, looking immaculate, and a good fifteen years younger than he had any right to, Davy Henderson was at my side, with some sage advice: ‘Hey, don’t snort the Carex’.

There was nothing wrong with the Edinburgh gig, nothing at all. It had the Sexual Objects in it, after all, and Subway Sect were enjoying themselves enough by the end to edge gently past the 10 PM curfew (in place to make way for a club night), delivering a playful stop / start version of ‘Music of a Werewolf’, and a rollicking ‘Chain Smoking’. But the Dundee show was better. Kicking off with ‘We Oppose All Rock and Roll’ roughly twenty four hours after leaving the stage in Edinburgh, they soon settled into a far more relaxed set. More chatty, too: Vic gleefully explained that ‘my missus’, who had gone home the previous day, doesn’t like him talking too much on stage, because ‘people want to hear your songs, not a comedy routine’. With her out of the way, he was free to tell us all sorts of nonsense, beginning with a malign hint (connected with this, I expect) that he walks past Vince Cable’s house twice a day on the way to his round, and that unlike his office, it has no police guard. We also heard of his plans for a 1982 Now album, to coincide with his retirement (still quite a way off, surely?) so that he can book a world cruise and croon the days away, with all the Songs for Sale material (but what is wrong with Songs for Sale as it is? Wonderful record. Newly re-available too, if only digitally).

We got a new song, with both the riff and the words from The Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’, one or both of which might need to go when they come to record it; we got ‘That Train’, ‘Nobody’s Scared’ and ‘Ne’er’, none of which graced Edinburgh, and ‘Ambition’, which did. After SP’s recent comment about ‘Ne’er’, I went and checked out the lyrics, and was pleased to find the content as wayward as the delivery:
Oh ne’er, I never wanted it
And suddenly look hey presto
But ne’er, I never wanted to be
Floggin’ me own fake pesto
It was a delight to hear him singing that, and to wonder how many of those listening unprimed noticed the line about pesto, another of those switches I was talking about. As, more overtly, was ‘Blackpool’, which has barely left my head since the EP arrived, and which shows Vic conquering another genre (music hall) with barely a second thought. The main set ended with ‘Chain Smoking’ again, S. and I dancing joyfully by this time, and continuing through ‘Et Même’ and others. Then she shouted out for ‘Chain Smoking’ as an encore, which I thought was a bit odd. Other sections of the crowd were equally enthusiastic, and though the turn out wasn’t quite what we’d hoped, actually there were plenty there to respond warmly to Vic’s songs (especially ‘Ambition’ and ‘Nobody’s Scared’, which had a few old punks throwing great shapes), and to his chat, and to get him back for two encores even though they’d gone through all their material. A very special night, many thanks to Andy and Mike for putting it on, and to Vic for coming to Dundee and making us all feel at home.

Story #3: Walking towards the taxi rank afterwards, S. realised, fifteen months on, that the beserk rumbling thing which goes ‘CHAAAAAAAIN, life is a CHAAAAAAAIN’ is the same song as the elegant ‘Chain Smoking’ she thought she had been requesting, in 2009 and half an hour previously. ‘I’m so stupid!’ Well, not really, they do have completely different tunes, and the words are pretty indistinct on the loud one. But you see what happened there? Vic switched things around on you.


Chris’ photos.
Some reflections on the Glasgow show.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Claire Tomalin – ‘Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man’

On the preface of Late Lyrics and Earlier, published in 1922:
he refused to be labelled as a pessimist. He was an ‘evolutionary meliorist’, he insisted, who believed that the world needed both religion and rationality, and that they might be reconciled and interfused through poetry. His theories are less interesting than his poetry, and Late Lyrics is not read for its ideas. (p. 342)
I’m glad she said that, because I had been wondering. Hardy is best known, perhaps, for bucking against the trend of Victorian fiction to give characters their moral due. The good rewarded, the bad punished, the good-but-fallen conveniently killed off, to the laments of those left behind. He doesn’t shirk from the third category, of course, but the other two? In The Mayor of Casterbridge, the plot seemed to spring from character: Farfrae rewarded for being easy going and level headed; Henchard punished for being short tempered and easily flustered. Tomalin suggests there is something else at work, citing a passage at the end of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, in which Hardy ‘invoked the idea of the President of the Immortals sporting with her’ (p. 221). There is a guiding hand, in other words, though not that of the Christian god:
Later still he saw the Cause of Things as ‘neither moral nor immoral, but unmoral’. (p. 223)
I can’t see how this is different from there being no guiding hand at all, but it is the closest the book gets to explaining the consistently bleak turns of event in Hardy’s plots in terms of an ideology.

The implication is that the ideology is flawed, and that it is pessimism which guides him, after all. Tomalin disapprovingly quotes a moment from Jude the Obscure, in which Jude is sorely in need of encouragement in the studies which have so little precedent amongst his class: ‘But nobody did come, because nobody does’. This, she says, is an instance of him ‘generalising falsely’ (p. 222), because sometimes helpful people do turn up (Hardy is the anti-Micawber). Jude’s position is roughly the same as Hardy’s was, as a boy, coming from a rural labouring family, harbouring scholarly ambitions. Hardy’s parents, seeing that he wasn’t cut out to be a builder, got him started as an architect, which was a step up, socially, and allowed him the move to London from where he launched his writing career. He found people who encouraged him, even before moving away, and the firms to whom he submitted his first book were not discouraging, though no-one liked it enough to publish it. And yet, ‘Reading Jude is like being hit in the face over and over again.’ (p. 254). A character willing to work hard, but dragged down by a lack of opportunity which was not his creator’s experience. Which is OK, it’s fiction after all. But what, besides drawing attention to the plight of the intellectually-inclined poor, is all this bleakness for?

The Time-Torn Man
opens dramatically with the death of Hardy’s wife, Emma. ‘He was not expecting her to die, but then he had not been taking much notice of her for some time.’ (p. xvii). She had taken to sleeping in the attic; the two were estranged without either having moved out. Her eccentric behaviour seems to have been partly responsible for this, and there were suggestions by contemporaries (which Tomalin does not accept) of insanity. The estrangement seems to have been partly cultural – it is when entertaining distinguished literary guests that her odd behaviour (which might mean no more than talking too much about their dog) is most excruciating. Her own poetry is dismissed out of hand, and the novel she wrote, The Maid on the Shore, is assessed as ‘not entirely unreadable’. (p. 157)
She made no progress with her own writing and became one of those wives who regards her huband’s work as ‘our work’ and refers to it that way in public. (p. 179)
Jealousy is part of it, then. Family loyalties too – Hardy’s mother hated Emma, the reason given is that she brought him ‘neither youth nor wealth, small intelligence and no children.’ (p. 172). From 1893, Hardy began to fall in love with other women – first Florence Henniker, then Florence Dugdale, the latter becoming his wife after Emma’s death in 1912. A triumph of sorts for Dugdale, after years of sneaking around, but the death marked the point at which he began to write poems about the early days of his life with Emma. Tomalin sees in the poems Hardy wrote about her in 1912-13 a tenderness and a strength of imagination which was new in his work, and which offer a perfect illustration of the gap between life as he lived it and as he imagined it. Ironically, Emma had been aware of this gap, far more so than Florence was (she hated these poems):
Emma complained that he cared more for the women he imagined than for any real woman, a remark that suggests she understood him better than she is usually given credit for. (p. 197)
Tomalin’s enthusiasm for the poetry is infectious, and makes me want to read more of it (generally I’m not good at reading poetry, but we’ll see). It is in this gap of Hardy’s, between life and imagination, that the reason for Jude the Obscure’s suffocating trajectory can be glimpsed: temperament and pessimism are certainly factors, but really he is just being true to his art. The situation repeats itself in miniature later on, and his future second wife has a veiled warning of what is to come:
[Florence was] further exasperated by the poem he was writing on the death of his cat, described as his only real friend. When she objected that the cat was not by any means his only friend, he explained that he was ‘not exactly writing about himself but about some imaginary man in a similar situation.’ (p. 304)

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