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Archive for November, 2010

Jean Hartley (c.1968)

Jean Hartley’s wonderful Philip Larkin, The Marvell Press and Me (reissued in Finds) tells a tale of one woman’s love of literature – bound up with intellectual curiosity, cultural entrepreneurialism and perseverance against the odds – that is altogether worthy of an engrossing drama. And now the book has had its due, for the esteemed Hull Truck Theatre Company have just mounted a stage adaptation of Jean’s memoir, entitled Wrong Beginnings and penned by David Pattison. The Yorkshire Post‘s Stephen McClarence last week offered an excellent, funny and illuminating interview with Joan about her life, her book, and its continued currency which testifies not only to the enduring greatness of Larkin but also to the fine manner in which she narrated her own inspiring story. I quote:
“It was 1955 and Jean and her then-husband George, both in their early twenties, had already published some of Larkin’s work in Listen, a shoestring poetry magazine they ran from their home, a two-up, two-down between a chip shop and a beer-off in Hessle, near Hull. All previous contact had been by post, but now there was talk of publishing a book of Larkin’s poems, so he came to see them. “He probably thought we were going to be middle-class, well-established grown-ups and then he arrived and found a little hovel, ill-furnished, poverty-stricken, certainly not a provincial version of Faber and Faber,” she recalls. “But he could see that here were two very idealistic young people who felt as passionately about poetry as he did”… It was a successful meeting, resulting in The Less Deceived, the collection in which Larkin found his poetic voice and which made his reputation.”

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There are times when politicians (perhaps feeling gaily indiscreet, enjoying their lunch greatly, or just wanting to say for once what’s actually on their damn minds) utter things in print that are deemed to trespass ‘beyond the pale’ of the sayable, if not the thinkable. And in doing so they generally make a great deal of trouble both for themselves and for their Party. November 2010 has been a bit of a banner month for this phenomenon, what with the resignation of the Government’s unpaid advisor Lord Young (who proposed that a majority of Britons are enjoying the best of times on account of low mortgage rates) and also the apology issued by soon-to-be-Lord Howard Flight (who contended that the benefits system dissuades ‘middle-class’ families from expanding but positively encourages those on lower incomes.) Interestingly, Flight’s remarks, made in the course of warming up to a journalist’s tape recorder, were widely compared in the media to a speech made in 1974 by Keith Joseph, cerebral co-thinker of Margaret Thatcher’s, who is thought to have ruined his hopes of leading the Conservative Party by worrying aloud about ‘degeneration’ of ‘human stock’  wrought by more and more kids being “born to mothers least fitted to bring children into the world and bring them up.” Of course, no newspaper hack trapped Joseph into making his trespass into the unthinkable/unsayable. He availed himself freely of the view, on a platform and from a prepared speech. So here we have a very different order of ‘crossing the line’. Is it fair to say the most (in)famous example of same in modern political history remains Enoch Powell’s so-called ‘rivers of blood’ speech ( also delivered in Birmingham, at a Conservative Association gathering in 1968)? Powell was addressing the levels of immigration to the UK and what he believed to be an inevitable failure of what we nowadays call ‘social cohesion’ and ‘integration’. Being a man for the Classics, and a wordsmith to boot, Powell made a gruesome prophecy: “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood.”” You probably know the rest: Powell was sacked from Heath’s shadow cabinet and turned in due course to Ulster Unionism as his chosen cause in the Commons. For better or worse, that speech defined Powell in the public consciousness, and so it is no accident that Simon Heffer took Like The Roman for the title of his huge, minutely detailed and widely admired 1998 biography of Powell, for whom he has argued as “quite simply, the most influential politician of the post-war period.” Like The Roman has found a great many new readers through its 2008 reissue in Faber Finds, and the recent furores over Conservative ‘gaffes’ and ‘missteps’ are only one (relatively minor) reason why Heffer’s Life of Powell will continue to repay study.

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“Reading Robert Aickman is like watching a magician work, and very often I’m not even sure what the trick was. All I know is that he did it beautifully…”
(Neil Gaiman)
Call it an irony if you wish, but without doubt one of the happiest endeavours of Faber Finds to date has been the returning to print of a writer whose work is pregnant with unease, melancholia and dread. I speak of the Finds editions of several story collections by Robert Aickman, an author somewhat unsung by the mainstream but, among connoisseurs, a deeply and rightly revered master of the supernatural tale. The Aickman titles available in Finds are The Unsettled Dust, The Wine-Dark Sea, and Cold Hand in Mine.
Neil Gaiman is just one among many authoritative admirers of Aickman, and Gaiman was kind enough to note the Finds editions on publication in 2008 (scroll down).
‘League of Gentlemen’ alumni Jeremy Dyson and Mark Gatiss have also collaborated on adaptations of Aickman for radio and television. I asked Kim Newman, novelist, critic and authority on the supernatural genre in all forms, for his view on Aickman’s standing in the present day, and he gave me this verdict:
“Robert Aickman was the best, the subtlest and the creepiest author of ghost stories of his time; and, as an anthologist, did a great deal to shape a lasting canon of supernatural fiction. But, more than being important, he’s good … still enormously re-readable, offering mysteries which get deeper and scarier with each return.”
(The anthologies to which Kim refers are volumes 1 to 8 of the old Fontana series of Great Ghost Stories, the merits of which are keenly hymned on the web, by Aickman devotees but also those who are acquainted with his work only through these selections.)
The web also offers some lovingly detailed tribute sites to Aickman for those seeking further insight and information. Certainly I can recommend Robert Aickman – An Appreciation, and therein, just for example, a fine essay by Jim Rockhill on ‘The Inner Room’, which is one of Kim Newman’s favourite Aickman stories and can be found in the Finds edition of The Wine Dark Sea.
There is also a wealth of data available at Robert Aickman: A Database.
In noting this avidity for Aickman’s work Finds must also make an apology to those same readers. Though one very much hopes that Aickman fans have been broadly pleased by Faber Finds’ efforts in restoring these collections to print, one must also acknowledge that there were an unacceptable number of errors in our initial reissues as a result of glitches in the scanning-offsetting process. We can only pledge that it won’t happen again, and hope that readers’ overall enjoyment of the works was not spoiled by these same mishaps.
As for those yet to make Aickman’s acquaintance on the page, it should be said that he has power at any time of year, but the dark, dwindling months of November and December might be the aptest time to discover him. As Tim Martin wrote in a piece for the Telegraph on ‘the best ghost stories for Christmas’, published at the time of the Finds Aickman reissues,
“The cumulative effect of [Aickman’s] stories is remarkable, and their hostile suggestiveness stays with the reader long after the book is closed. I can make no stronger recommendation for Christmas unease…”
And nor, for that matter, can I. Christmas is a time for comfort and cheer, of course, but a little disturbance is good for the soul if taken in moderation – and Aickman offers a potent, elegant, undiluted dose.

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There’s a daunting aspect to Tolstoy’s stature in the literary pantheon, and rightly so. His books are big in all the right places, in all the right senses. George Steiner found fitting words in his Tolstoy or Dostoevsky when he described the former of the two Russian eminences as being ‘like a colossus bestriding the palpable earth, evoking the realness, the tangibility, the sensible entirety of concrete experience.’ As if it could not be phrased more decisively than that, Steiner also quoted Romain Rolland c. 1887 to memorable effect: ‘in the art of Tolstoy a given scene is not perceived from two points of view, but from only one: things are as they are, not otherwise.’ Argue with that if you like, the fact is that one can think of very few other novelists for whom godlike powers of omniscience have been claimed, and more than once at that.
In Friday’s FT A.N. Wilson offered a present-day evaluation of Tolstoy’s immanence in the world which indicated that not much has changed: “It is hard to think of any of the great public questions facing the world today that Tolstoy did not anticipate and address in some way, whether we speak of the environmental crisis, religious debate (creationist versus atheist) or the anti-war movement…” Wilson was reviewing a number of titles that have been published or reissued for the occasion of the centenary of Count Tolstoy’s death. He is impressed by Rosamund Bartlett’s new biography for Profile, and cites a couple of translations of War and Peace, highlighting (as did Steiner) the points of comparison between Tolstoy and Homer. Most pleasingly for our purpose there is mention of Faber Finds’ reissue of the first volume of Tolstoy’s Letters, selected, edited and translated by R.F. Christian. Volumes One and Two of Tolstoy’s Diaries as edited by Christian are also available in Finds, as is the second volume of Letters, and brand new to Finds is Christian’s justly acclaimed critical study of War and Peace.

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Tomorrow, Remembrance Day, BBC4 will air Battlefield Poet, a new documentary on Keith Douglas by the poet/novelist Owen Sheers. The prospect is quite unmissable for anyone acquainted with Douglas’s work, and one fully expects that the presence of Owen Sheers as a learned guide will bring new admirers into the fold. Finds is, of course, proud to publish Alamein to Zem Zem, Douglas’s prose account of his experiences on the desert battlefield of WWII, and the interest in this title has testified to the enduring fascination with this exceptional, enigmatic writer.

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For the current TLS Andrew McCulloch has written a fine piece entitled ”Not Love perhaps . . .’ – The poetry of A. S. J. Tessimond.’ (Not accessible online, alas, but then the TLS cover price is always worth paying.) Returning Tessimond to print has proved a striking success for Finds, and it’s a pleasure to see a revived title of this sort inspiring comment and analysis in the present-day literary press.

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The excellent dovegreyreader, who seems under her own stead to do the reading of a hundred women, has posted a lovely, considered and personal appreciation of Adrian Bell’s Corduroy, a Finds reissue that has truly resonated with many other readers. ‘DGR’ says she is reading the Finds edition but has also posted up a delightful jacket of an earlier edition, which I reproduce here. I’d also like to borrow just a snippet of her appreciation as follows:
“[J]ust occasionally along comes a book that transcends the ordinary and fits the reading moment as if born to it and Corduroy did exactly that. Somehow the gentle pace and rhythm of Adrian Bell’s language fits the rhythm of the rural life he is portraying and I slipped into that comforting melody willingly and with ease. I was reminded of Edward Thomas, who I am also reading at the moment, as Adrian Bell recounted his first attempts at ploughing with horses,
‘When I glanced up I was surprised to see the horses treading so slowly. This too I thought, must appear a sleepy occupation to the passing poet. One hears talk of the monotony of ploughing but I found it a keen exercise of hand and eye…’
If you live in the country this book will be comfortingly familiar, and if your are in a town and fancy an escape to the country from your armchair you could head for no better reading. Adrian Bell will quietly transport you to the place where, though his reference is to the cloth but equally applicable to the book, ‘Corduroy takes on an easy grace in wear.’”

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