Sunday, October 07, 2012

Ford Maddox Ford – ‘The Last Post’

Isn’t One Day I’m Going to Soar a great record? Unapologetically damaged: celebratory, bold as brass, but ready to bolt for the hole in the skirting board at the merest sign of the gentlest cat. There’s no way Kevin would have betrayed the Dexys name for a quick buck, but still, it’s glorious to have the proof. The telling moment, on record as in the live show, is the mid point of ‘I’m Always Going to Love You’, a blissful duet turning sour on a dime, for no reason but Kevin’s whim: ‘I think I’m going round the bend, now this must end’. Madeline can only exclaim, ‘What?!’ Parade’s End, too, is a story of love gone rancorous on a whim, and its concluding volume, The Last Post, sours the toxic pot of Christopher and Sylvia’s relations still further. Almost entirely left out of the recent TV series, it begins with Mark Tietjens, who has been paralysed by a seizure on armistice day, lying within a ramshackle construction with a roof but no walls, in the grounds of a house Christopher has taken in Sussex, as the base for his post war antique dealings. His long standing mistress and now wife, Marie-Léonie, tends to him, turning the pages of a newspaper held between two picture frames so that he can keep up with the racing news, and in the mean time she bottles cider and gets on with the other day-to-day duties of the smallholding. The day on which the book is set is some years after the armistice. Published in 1928, it finds Sylvia and Christopher’s son, Michael / Mark, at Oxford amongst a set of Marxist-Communists. Since he was born in 1912 or 1913, he would be 15 or 16 in 1928, and he must be at least that old – perhaps the book is set slightly in the future? In any case, it deals with the day of Mark’s death, and his thoughts and reflections make up a good deal of the text. Christopher is absent, off on a doomed mission to prevent the highly contentious Groby Great Tree from being chopped down (it is already down, and it brought down a chunk of the house – including Mark’s childhood bedroom – with it).

Mark’s mind is a stuffy, misogynistic place to be:
It is obvious that women must be allowed what means they can make use of to maintain – to arouse – their sex attraction for their men. That is what the bitches are for in the scale of things. They have to perpetuate the breed.
Make that misanthropic, too. Now, this is a very un-Dexys attitude, but what is similar is the insistence on sexual attraction as a powerful and uncontrollable force. Over the course of his musings, Mark adds to sex attraction ‘sex fever’, ‘sex-cruelty’, ‘sex-madness’, ‘sex-viciousness’ and ‘sex ferocity’ – it is quite clear that he sees it as a malignant force, to be guarded against, and this helps to explain his peculiar life choices. Born to be lord of the manor, in possession of a good fortune, he ran from the universally acknowledged truth that he must be in want of a wife, and hid in a cubby hole in London with a woman who for many years was more maid than significant other. From the TV series (which leaves out Marie-Léonie completely), S. presumed Mark must be gay. Maybe he is and won’t face it. Certainly some of his misogyny stems from seeing what Sylvia has done to Christopher – but then he is the elder brother, so by that stage he had already settled into his weirdly uncomplicated, uncommitted (but monogamous) regime.

It is not possible to understand Mark purely in terms of his own generation, though. He is bound by honour just as much as Christopher, though they understand the idea differently (Mark more in bureaucratic / legal terms – what can be proved against one). Thinking about their father, he reflects:
He had been a younger son who had never spoken to his father for forty years. Grand-father had never forgiven him for marrying Miss Selby of Biggen… not because it was marrying below him but because Grand-father had wanted their mother for his eldest son…
And then, of their father’s death, from an apparently accidental gunshot wound:
Did he commit suicide? If so then Valentine Wannop was his daughter.
Mark later rejects this idea, in order, perhaps, to die at peace, but it’s a shocking moment. It pulls his motives into focus: he has seen the damage that the choosing the wrong partner, or having affairs with the wives of friends can do to subsequent generations, and rather than risk doing the same himself… but it’s not even that, it’s not an altruistic choice, it’s that he resents – whilst accepting – the imposition of his own birth, and wants to minimise its effects.
He had always been tired of the tenantry and of Groby. He had been born tired of them.

Some of the strange vocab of The Last Post: fauteuil, auriference, purfling, apophthegms, incult, jonnock, jigamaree, lustrum, chaffering, flinders, vicegerent, clittering, trituration, cicisbeo, pellitory, skep, stiver, tweeny (as in servant, not teenager), layette, slub, marmoreally, fald-stool.

Blog archive