…for people, places, music, books and particular writers. Some writers I discovered more than fifty years ago quite by chance have remained solid and unchanging reference points for making sense of my life. Hilaire Belloc, for example—‘The Mowing of a Field’ in an old book of essays. Sturt, Chesterton, Lynd… Reading ‘The Mowing of a Field’ had me up early one morning in spring 1953 to dig my father’s allotment!
The Reading Life
Then there are writers’ trails—one book leads to another in The Reading Life. If Belloc recommends an author that’s good enough for me! If Belloc fights HGWells that’s a good recommendation too… If WHHudson had himself buried next to Richard Jefferies in Worthing then that’s a good enough reason for reading him… Perverse obsessions…
Against all fashion & fad, deeming it right to reject both in all things, I’ve read these old authors on and off for sixty years: I came to The Cruise of the Nona as late as 1989. Towards the end of this glorious farrago which had me cycling round the top of Wales to catch a glimpse of Bardsey Island, Belloc gets to talking about ‘the writing trade’ with the proviso that ‘it was never meant to be a trade…’
A man is no more meant to live by writing than he is meant to live by conversation, or by dressing, or by walking about and seeing the world. For there is no relation between the function of letters and the economic effect of letters; there is no relation between the goodness and the badness of the work, or the usefulness of the work, or the magnitude of the work, and the sums paid for the work. It would not be natural that there should be such a relation, and, in fact, there is none; …the market has nothing to do with the qualities attached to writing. It never had and it never will. There is no injustice about it, anymore than there is an injustice in the survival of beauty or ugliness in human beings, or the early death of the beautiful or the ugly… The relationship between the excellence or the usefulness of a piece of literature, and the number of those who will buy it in a particular form, is not a causal relationship, it is a purely capricious one…
Capriciousness! The Watchword…
After describing the reception of his own articles on the 1914-18 war—demand up to sixty thousand a week before the capricious public ran out of stamina for ‘The Question of the Day’ so that within a few months demand had slumped—Belloc has a paragraph which grabbed my attention referring to a writer of whom then I had never heard:-
Mr. Hutchinson, for whose work I personally have (though I am afraid my judgment is not worth much in these things) a great liking, wrote among other books a book called Once Aboard the Lugger. It was exceedingly amusing, fresh, and, as I should have said, well worth anybody’s buying. I do not know how many copies he sold of it; but I should imagine nothing very astonishing. A little while after he wrote a book called If Winter Comes, and it sold by the stack, and by the ton. One could see it piled up man-high upon the counters of shops in America, and it sold, and it sold, and it sold.
Beyond this, Belloc says nothing about the book. But the fact that he had a ‘great liking’ for the writer, in spite of his caveat, set me on the hunt for a book that was obviously a ‘best-seller’ in its day. I hunted for it if only to discover what made a best-seller in the 1920’s—why it should cease being a ‘best-seller’ when the fashion fades…
Very shortly after, as if it were just waiting for me up Charing Cross Road, once the Book-street of London, but now dying of high rents and Kindlemania, I found a copy of If Winter Comes by ASMHutchinson. The publishing record is astonishing: first printed in August 1921, it was reprinted nine times that year, five of those times in December (to satisfy the Xmas market presumably); by January 1923 it had been reprinted another thirty times—my copy is the ‘Fortieth British Edition’… Selling ‘by the stack, and by the ton…’
What about the book itself? The Reading Life grinds slowly on—I decided to read it on a whim twenty years after I had read Belloc’s recommendation!
Any book that, before it’s really got going, contains a paragraph like this, is certain to be likely to penetrate my soul somewhat:-
Lives, homes, activities; the web and the tangle and the amenities of a minute fragment of human existence: Life. An odd business. Into life we come, mysteriously arrived, are set on our feet and on we go; functioning more or less ineffectively, passing through permutations and combinations; meeting the successive events, shocks, surprises, of hours, days, years; becoming engulfed, submerged, foundered by them; all of us on the same adventure, yet retaining nevertheless each his own individuality, as swimmers carrying each his undetachable burden through dark, enormous and cavernous seas. Mysterious journey ! Uncharted, unknown, and finally—but there is no finality! Mysterious and stunning sequel—not end—to the mysterious and tremendous adventure! Finally, of this portion, death, disappearance, awful and complete cessation—gone! Just ‘gone’! Proceeding whither? Persisting why? Insoluble. Proceeding certainly, persisting assuredly, burst out of these mortal bonds, these corporeal shackles, burst out and away, but whither, why, to what?—just ‘gone.’ Astounding development! Mysterious and hapless arrival, tremendous and mysterious passage, mysterious and alarming departure. No escaping it; no volition to enter it or to avoid it; no prospect of defeating it or solving it. Odd affair! Mysterious and stunning conundrum to be mixed up in… Life !
What are We Doing Here?
I dare say that this appealed to Belloc in the same way that it grabbed me.
I enjoy finding myself in books! Confirmation of being—something like that… I find Mark Sabre, the ‘hero’ of Hutchinson’s book, to be a very endearing character—close to my own being in so many ways. Hold on! Since everything ‘out there’ is a reflection of ourselves, if I find Mark Sabre endearing then I also find myself endearing! So there we have it…
By contrast, there are many indications early on that his relationship with his wife Mabel is not likely to progress—she does not find him, or anything he does, in the least bit ‘endearing’!
She tries to get him to fit into her pattern ‘one’s-man-must-have-a-den’ and she designates a room downstairs in their new house for this purpose; Sabre hates the very word ‘den’ and, refusing to fit her stereotype, moves his bookcases upstairs into his bedroom. ‘Sabre liked this room. Three latticed windows, in the same wall, looked on to the garden. In the spaces between these and the two spaces between the end windows and the end walls, he placed his bookshelves, a set of shelves in each space… Mabel displayed no interest in the move…’
Rooms and books and the need for things to be ‘right’ according to one’s own notion of rectitude… Maybe we all desire the world to be disposed in the way that we think it ought to be; problems occur when we sense that our way is not at all the same as that of another’s—a conflict of interests begins to emerge—anything from the birth of an argument with the person you have chosen to live with, to a passionate discussion as to who should have what in terms of a sharing-out of community wealth, to terrorism and nuclear war as a way of settling disputes arising from the pre-suppositions of capitalism…
Without making any demands on Mabel, Sabre is rather pleased with the way his room turns out.
The bookcases were of Sabre’s own design. He was extraordinarily fond of his books and he had ideas about their arrangement. The lowest shelf was in each case three feet from the ground: he hated books being ‘down where you can’t see them’. Also the cases were open, without glass doors: he hated ‘having to fiddle to get out a book’. He liked them to be just at the right height and straight to his hand. In a way he could not quite describe (he was a bad talker, framing his ideas with difficulty) he was attached to his books, not only for what was in them, but as entities. He had written once in a manuscript book in which he sometimes wrote things: ‘I like the feel of them, and I know the feel of them in the same way as one likes and knows the feel of a friend’s hand. And I can look at them and read them without opening them in the same way as, without his speaking, one looks at and can read the face of a friend. I feel towards them when I look at them in their shelves—well, as if they were feeling towards me just as I am feeling towards them…’
Yes, just so! When I’m in the library it’s as though the strands of the books link up together across the room like spiders’ webs; in walking through them I’m walking through all the notional links & connections between this book and that. I can sit in the corner and just the look of various sections is like reading the books themselves—Belloc, Jefferies, Hanley, Hardy, Gissing, Gurdjieff, Nicoll, essays, poetry… round and round.
What are we doing here? One answer to Gurdjieff’s question might to make the richest picture one can of the universe and that exists therein. Anything that’s awry has to be sorted somehow, even though, as Gurdjieff says, one should always do things ‘otherwise’.
The other day some one had had out one of my books and returned it upside down.. I swear it was as grotesque and painful to me to see it upside down as if I had come into the room and found my brother standing on his head against the wall, fastened there. At least I couldn’t have sprung to him to release him quicker than I did to the book to upright it.
Everything in my library is in strict alphabetical order. After we’ve had visitors I sometimes find a book out of place which I find disturbing but I am rather pleased to be given this opportunity to re-establish order!
His books appeared to indicate a fair number and a fair diversity of interests; but their diversity presented to him a common quality or group of qualities. Some history, some sociology, some Spencer, some Huxley, some Haeckel, a small text-book of geology, a considerable proportion of pure literature, Morley’s edition of lives of literary men, the English essayists in a nice set, Shakespeare in many forms, and so much poetry that at a glance his library was all poetry. All the books were picked up at second-hand dealers in Tidborough, none had cost more than a few shillings; the common quality that bound them was that they stirred imaginative thought; they presented images, they suggested causes, they revealed processes; the common group of qualities to which they ministered were beauty and mystery, sensibility and wonder. They made him think about things, and he liked thinking about things; the poets filled his mind with beauty, and he was strangely stirred by beauty.
Diversity of interests… Stirring imaginative thought, presenting images, suggesting causes, revealing processes, beauty and mystery, sensibility and wonder… Yes, that’s about it. What more could one desire? Appealing to all the Centres!
When you find a piece of writing that expresses all that you feel yourself, there’s nothing to do but to sink into it with an audible Aaaah!
Another thing that seemed to come between him and Mabel, because, by the fifth year of their living together, he had learned the inadvisability of sharing his thoughts with her, was his habit of writing which had started during prep school when a ‘famous professor of philosophy’ came weekly to give a little ‘talk about things…’
…And a very good thing (he used to say), an excellent thing, the very best of practices, is to write a little every day. Just a little scrap, but cultivate the habit, of doing it every day. I don’t mean what is called keepmg a diary, you know. Don’t write what you do. There’s no benefit in that. We do things for all kinds of reasons and it’s the reasons, not the things, that matter. Let your little daily scrap be something you’ve thought. What you’ve done belongs partly to some one else; often you’re. made to do it. But what you think is you yourself: you write it down and there it is, a tiny little bit of you that you can look at and say, “Well, really!” You see, a little bit like that, written every day, is a mirror in which you can see your real self, and correct your real self. A looking-glass shows you your face is dirty or your hair rumpled and you go and polish up. But it’s ever so much more important to have a mirror that shows you how your real self, your mind, your spirit, is looking. Just see if you can’t do it. A little scrap. It’s very steadying, very steadying.
And his small hearers desiring, like young colts in a field, nothing so little as anything steadying, paid as much attention to this ‘jaw’ as to any precept not supported by cane or imposition… But it appealed, dimly, to the reflective quality in the child Sabre’s mind. He contracted the habit of writing, in a ‘bagged’ exercise book, sentences beginning laboriously with ‘I thought today—’ It remained with him, as he grew up, in the practice of writing sometimes ideas that occurred to him, as in the case of his feelings about his books, and—much more strongly—in deliberately thinking out ideas. .
The Real You
‘You yourself. The real you’. In the increasing solitariness of his married life, it came to be something into which he could retire, as into a private chamber; which he could put on, as a garment: and in the privacy of the chamber, or within the sleeves of the garment, he received a sense of detachment from normal life in which, vaguely, he pondered things.
Vaguely… without solution of most of the problems that puzzled him, and without even definite knowledge of the line along which a solution might lie. Here, in these cloisters of another world—his own world—he paced among his ideas as a man might pace around the dismantled and scattered intricacies of an intricate machine, knowing the parts could be put together and the thing worked usefully, not knowing how on earth it could be done… Here, into these cloisters he dragged the parts of all the puzzles that perplexed him: his relations with Mabel; his sense, in a hundred ways as they came up, of the odd business that life was; his strong interest in the social and industrial problems, and in the political questions, from time to time before the public attention…
He began to have the feeling that in all the puzzles… some mysterious part was missing… He was like a man groping with his hand through a hole in a great door for a key lying on the other side. Nothing was to be seen through the hole and only the arm to the elbow could get through it. Not the shape of the key nor its position was known…
One day he might put his hand on it…
Which is something Mabel would never have understood…
It was simply that she had no imagination whatsoever. Whatever she saw or heard or read she saw or heard or read exactly as the thing presented itself. If she saw a door she saw merely a piece of wood with a handle and a keyhole. It may be argued that a door is merely a piece of wood with a handle and a keyhole, and that is what Mabel would have argued; but a door is in fact the most intriguing mystery in the world because of what may be on the other side of it and of what goes on behind it. To Mabel nothing was on the other side of anything she saw and nothing went on behind it. . . .
Thinking Things Out
Whereas Mark is a thinker with a passion for thinking things out.
It helps in all sorts of ways to think things out as they happen to you. You don’t realise what a mysterious business life is till you begin to do that, and once you begin to feel the mysteriousness of it there’s not much can upset you. You get the feeling that you’re part of an enormous mysterious game and you just wonder what the last move means…
He had an absurd vision of his two hands feeling about in the polished interior of his skull as one might fumble for something in a large jar…
And Mark is a cyclist, knowing, just as I used to do, the curious pleasure of cycling backwards and forwards to work. Why was this important to me? For just the same reason as it’s important to Mark Sabre. Such a simple thing! Are not all the important things of life built on such simple things?
There had once occurred to him as he rode, and thereafter had persisted and accumulated, the feeling that, on the daily, solitary passage between Tidborough and Penny Green, he was mysteriously detached from, mysteriously suspended between, the two centres that were his two worlds, his business world and his home world.
How many other moments of mysterious detachment can one think of? It’s mysterious detachment, suspension from the accepted world that gives you a real sense of being. I am invisible—the essential me is invisible—and the essence of all those other people is invisible, whether they know it or like it or not. To get into invisibility, the state of being in between releases one from identification with the things and events of this world in which we imagine we live.
With its daily recurrence the thought developed: it enlarged to the whimsical notion that here, on his bicycle on the road, he was magically escaped out of his two worlds, not belonging to or responsible to either…: which amounted to delicious detachment from all the universe. A mysteriously aloof, free, irresponsible attitude of mind was thus obtained; it was a condition in which—as one looking down from a high tower on scurrying, antlike human beings—their oddness, their futility, the apparent aimlessness of their excited scurrying, became apparent: hence frequent thought, on these rides, on the rather odd thing that life was.
He was not in the least aware that so simple, so practical and so obviously essential a thing as his daily ride—as simple, practical and obviously essential as getting out of bed in the morning and returning to bed at night, was moulding a mind always prone to develop meditative grooves…
Mark Sabre’s cycling habit gave him the distinct impression that at the end of the ride he simply descended into the odd affair of life to which he didn’t really belong. Mabel often told him that he was very difficult to understand. What made him even more difficult to understand was a beautiful little game he played on the way home. Mabel called it ‘childish’.
Every day on the ride home Sabre ceased pedalling at precisely the same point on the slope down into Penny Green and freewheeled until the machine came to a standstill within a few yards of his own gate. This point of cessation was never twice in a week at the same spot and Sabre found great interest in seeing, every day, exactly where it would be, and by intense wriggling of his front wheel. and prodigious feats of balancing, squeezing out of the machine’s momentum the last possible fraction of an inch. There was a magnificent distance record when, on one single occasion only, he had been deposited plumb in line with his own gate; and there was a divertingly lamentable shortage record, touched on more than one occasion, when he had come to ground plumb in line with the gate of Mr. Fargus, his neighbour on that side. Each of these records, though marked by the gates, were also more exactly marked by a peg hammered into the edge of the Green.
Oh joyful memory! My father and I cycling home from digging on the allotment—the three hills of Thorndon Gardens—the last hill the steepest. The game was to use the first two hills to get up speed and then stop pedalling to go up the last one. By the time we got to the top we had to squeeze momentum out of our machines by rocking backwards & forwards to get to a narrow ‘winning line’ of tar across the concrete. My recollection is that we usually made it, my father on his old army surplus 28-inch wheel sit up & beg bike, me on my sports bike with drop handlebars.
I don’t think we told my mother about this; it was one of our little secrets.
It’s pretty clear from the start that Mark Sabre has more affinity with Nona than with Mabel. They were very close ten years before… They can share things with ease:-
“Well, it’s not a bad idea,” he said. “It helps in all sorts of ways to think things out as they happen to you. You don’t realize what a mysterious business life is till you begin to do that; and once you begin to feel the mysteriousness of it there’s not much can upset you. You get the feeling that you’re part of an enormous, mysterious game, and you just wonder what the last move means. Eh?”
Nona tells him that he still has ideas. This exchange finishes with them just sitting & wanting to change the course of history… When, shortly after, Nona admits that she should have married Mark, he is thrown into a kind of boundless focus… On a walk to clear his mind he represents October as endings and beginnings. An objective correlative of his internal turmoil & sense of change.
Another way in which I see myself in Mark Sabre. It’s as though I had written the book.
Nature was to him in October, and not in Spring, poignantly suggestive, deeply mysterious, in her intense and visible occupation. She was enormously busy; but she was serenely busy. She was stripping her house of its deckings, dismantling her habitation to the least and uttermost leaf; but she stripped, dismantled, extinguished, broke away, not in despair, defeat, but in ordered preparation and with exquisite certitude of glory anew. That, in October, was her voice to him, stirring tremendously that faculty of his of seeing more clearly, visioning life more poignantly with his mind than with his eye. She spoke to him of preparation for winter, and beyond winter with ineffable assurance for spring, bring winter what it might. He saw her dismantling all her house solely to build her house again. She stored. She was not discarding, which is confusion, flight, abandonment. She was storing, which is resolve, resistance, husbandry of power to build and burst again: and burst again—in stout affairs of outposts in sheltered banks and secret nooks; in swift, amazing sallies of violet and daffodil and primrose; in multitudinous clamour of all her buds in May; and last in her resistless tide and flood and avalanche of beauty to triumph and possession.
That was October’s voice to him, that he apprehended , and tingled to it, as essence of its strange, heavy odours; secret of its veiling mists; whisper of its moisture-ladened airs; song of its swollen ditches, brooks and runnels. It was not ‘Take down. It is done.’ It was ‘Take down. It is beginning…’
Other Things are Boiling Over
It is 1913 and Hutchinson rather deftly sketches the way outside events are impinging on Penny Green, a little village about to be connected to the railway and about to have a ‘Garden Home Development’ attached to it.
Mark Sabre feels more and more alienated from life; it was ‘…like living in two empty houses: empty this end; empty that end. More frequently … appealed to him the places of his refuge: the ROOM of his mind, that private chamber wherein, retired, he assembled the parts of his puzzles… sat among the fraternity of his thoughts…’
How strange that after all the reading I have done I should be so attracted to these minor novels of the 1920’s & 30’s, Galsworthy, Wells, Hutchinson. What is it that so attracts? A slower world, a more intimate world… No TV, no Radio, no Internet disruption and illusion… Maybe a world I have established for myself almost a hundred years later… Before the Destruction of life by two Wars came about and the endless confusion of Terrorism that it is said that we are combatting but hopelessly…
John Galsworthy (reply to an enquirer from Ex Libris):-
The true pessimist and unvirile man is he, who, unless he can look forward to a future life, does not think it worth while to make the best of this; for he has obviously not within him sufficient vitality to say: “I enjoy life—I love living. Let me do all I can to get the best and finest out of my existence.”
The monks would answer this creed with the sneer: “Finest! Enjoyment and that word do not go hand-in-hand, son. If you confess that enjoyment of this life is your highest end—enjoy life, but you will therefore live it like a pig.”
But the virile man rejoins: “Monks! My intelligence and heart both tell me that if it is good for me to enjoy this life, it is good for other people. I wish to order this existence, which is to me so fine and full of fun, so that I need never enjoy it at the expense of others, nor they at the expense of myself. And in the firm belief that this is a possible state of things for mankind to bring about, I go forward! And this is the true gospel of love, among many other things.
Mark Sabre was a virile man…
Whenever there’s some great cockup, the politicians exclaim, “We must learn the lessons and make sure it never happens again…” What lessons were learned from the First World War then (the one that was supposed to end wars…)? The one and only lesson was that you don’t engage your enemy in trench warfare—you invent some much neater way of destroying people—so-called precision-bombing from 25000 feet, for instance…
‘We’re nuts on peace—and all we’re doing about it is to perfect poison gas…’ Galsworthy: The White Monkey