There is a wildness still in England that will not feed
In cages; it shrinks away from the touch of the trainer’s hand,
Easy to kill, not easy to tame. It will never breed
In a zoo for public pleasure. It will not be planned.
Do not blame us too much if we that are hedgegrow folk
Cannot swell the rejoicings at this new world you make
—We, hedge-hogged as Johnson or Borrow, strange to the yoke
As Landor, surly as Cobbett (that badger), birdlike as Blake.
A new scent troubles the air—to you, friendly perhaps—
But we with animal wisdom have understood that smell.
To all our kind its message is Guns, Ferrets, and Traps,
And a Ministry gassing the little holes in which we dwell.
(Now, please click on the image and read the article. Oh and yes, the author of this poem is the C. S. Lewis.)
Sometimes you read a historical novel which turns out to be a real eye-opener. It will be set in a period you thought you knew and deal with a situation you have been familiar with for years – and you find you were quite mistaken. It is like travelling back in a time-machine: oh, wow – so this is how it really was!
City of Shadows teleported me back to Berlin in 1922, and then, in Part II, 1932. The terrible post-war poverty (exactly the same as in post-war Leningrad – I’ve been reading a biography of Anna Akhmatova, the great Russian poet and will post a review of it here soon), the black market and the racketeers, the first ominous indications of the rise of Hitler and nazism: then ten years later, the organised brutality as Hitler makes his bid for the Chancellorship while his personal army smashes all opponents and gradually takes over even the police force, meaning that the many murders they commit will not even be investigated.
One such racketeer is “Prince Nick”, a self-styled member of the defunct Russian royal family living in exile in Germany. In fact, of course, he is just a con-man with a pseudo-elegant veneer and – now – a lot of money. His secretary / personal-assistant, based at the largest of his chain of night clubs, is Esther Solomonova, a multilingual Russian Jew who is extremely beautiful when seen in profile from the right, but had the left side of her face smashed by an axe in one of the two progroms she miraculously survived.
She does not approve of Nick’s activities, but has little choice. It is work for him or starve in the streets.
She is particularly disapproving when Nick decides to take up the cause of a young woman named Anna Anderson, a patient in a mental asylum who claims to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, the only survivor of the massacre of the Czar and Czarina and their children.
Nick’s only interest, Esther knows, is Anastasia’s claim to the Romanov family fortune deposited in a bank in London.
But Esther comes to feel responsible for Anna when she realises that someone actually is hunting the poor woman, that it is not just paranoia, a fantasy, and that this “big man” who appears regularly once every six weeks, will stop at nothing to kill her. Anna claims that it is the Cheka, the Soviet hatchet-men, who have marked her down for assassination because she is the heir to the throne of “all the Russias”.
Esther does not agree.
Neither does Detective Inspector Schmidt, whose task it is to catch the assassin when he starts killing those around Anna in order to get to her. Schmidt is a good man caught up in a terrible situation where everything he believes in – freedom, equality, justice – is being systematically replaced by tyranny, racism and injustice.
In Esther Solomonova, the good man recognises the good woman.
But is Anna Anderson Anastasia? Other books have been written about her, arguing the toss one way or the other. And that doubt remains in this book right till the last pages. I have no intention of revealing the stunning ending, though I must say there are clues in the earlier chapters I should have noticed. Look for those clues, but don’t cheat and go peering at the back of the book – you will ruin the story for yourself!
I must also say that when I picked up this book I knew it would be well written, but I didn’t expect it to be as good as the wonderful Adelia books. In fact it is even better. It is one of the half-dozen or so best historical novels I have ever read. I only wish the author, Ariana Franklin (pen-name of Diana Morgan) was alive to hear me say that. And to write more books like it. She will be greatly missed.
The rain teeming down in Brest that day
And you striding smiling
Beaming streaming with water
Through the rain
The rain teeming down in Brest
And I passed you in rue de Siam
And me I smiled too
I who didn’t know you
You who didn’t know me
Remember at least that day
A man taking shelter in a doorway
And he called your name
And you ran across to him in the rain
Streaming with water beaming delighted
And threw yourself into his arms
Remember that Barbara
And don’t mind me if I address you in this familiar way
I talk like this to all those I love
Even if I only ever saw them once
I talk like this to all those who love each other
That right and happy rain
On your happy face
On that happy town
That rain on the sea
On the arsenal
On the Ouessant boat
What stupidity the war
What has become of you now
In that rain of iron
Of fire of steel of blood
And he who hugged you in his arms
With so much love
Is he dead disappeared or still alive
The rain is teeming down in Brest
As it did before
But it is not the same and all is ruined
It is a rain of terrible grief and desolation
It is not even any longer
That storm of steel of blood
Starving like dogs
Dogs washed away
In the river of water falling on Brest
To decay far away
Far far away from Brest
Of which nothing is left.
AND WHILE WE’RE IN BREST IN THE 1940s, how about this abomination?
This collection of fifty or so poems is actually made up of three smaller collections. The first, “Once Upon a Time Please”, contains only three poems I would want to return to again and again. “Berlin 29/1/33”, “Both Sides”, and this one:
In one room of a damned metropolis a lonely madman works on a plan.
In an all-night corner coffee bar a statistic prays for one last fix.
Under frozen branches in black park pale fingers fumble with elastic.
Twelve inches away from the late-night news a myopic spinster weeps in colour.
Someone somewhere begins a letter to anyone’s silent son or daughter.
The third collection, “Lines from No Man’s Land”, seems to be about a failed marriage. It is simply a poet whingeing, therapeutic writing, and probably better left unpublished.
However – and I do hope you are still with me, for this is a big however – the second collection, “Love Should Be”, is a series of gems in which the poet sees and feels and notes in perfectly crafted lines what others see but lack the imagination to feel or the will, or the skill, to note. As I say, they are all gems, but I must draw attention to“Do You Need Love?”, and to “Escape”
They found him eventually, of course: face down in a stinking ditch, hidden by bracken and gorse and bramble. After more
than thirty barred and bolted years, a dim number became a public name, four terse lines in the local paper conceding
him existence posthumously. I’m glad he died outside, pleased he at least clawed back that week to himself, that one lousy week
in an antiseptic lifetime, defied those grim samaritans with needles full of reason, eluded their muscular
compassion, electric understanding. Yes, they found him in the end, the sick one, the freak, the mad thief who stole one whole week
and spent it all. I see sane eyes above neat uniforms beside that rotting ditch, hear thoughts in trained minds click like rusted locks.
As promised in my post of 27 Dec, here is a slightly fuller look at Elizabeth Bartlett’s Two Women Dancing.
I consider it one of the best books of poetry published in the last fifty years, yet on the first page, in the second poem, we read:
People need contemporary poetry like a hole in the head.
That depends on the poet. They certainly need these poems. We’ll come back to that later though, because the next poem is one of my favourites. “My Five Gentlemen”
Prostitutes have clients, wives have husbands, Poets, you will understand, have editors …
She describes the five editors whose hands she has been in, finishing up with:
Five is dead, of course. His failing health Was a comfort to me, though not to him, Naturally. His death removed one more market For battered goods, and proved a welcome release.
Rest in peace, I thought (for I always think kindly Of the gentlemen who direct me to the pages I am to sit in). I can only hope to be recycled And end up more useful than I would appear to be.
She frequently reminds me of Dorothy Nimmo or Sylvia Platt. Consider for example “Guitars as Women”, and “With My Body”:
With your hand, like that, he said …
and “There Is a Desert Here”:
Come, little creatures, walk on me, Come, little worms, slide on me, For no man ever will again. I watched beetles and ladybirds Long before you gathered birch twigs To beat me in a field – in fun, of course, And I will watch them again, And grow old ungracefully, barefoot And sluttish in my ways.
And she is always so human. Read “Ian, Dead of Polio” and “Farewell, Gibson Square“. Unforgettable pictures of people she has known and will never forget. Nor now shall we. “Farewell, Gibson Square”, for instance, is dedicated to Dr Susan Heath who, if this poem is anything to go by, you would probably fall in love with but certainly wouldn’t want anywhere near you if you were ill. She eventually left, and now, Elizabeth tells us:
Professional boredom has settled in Again, and patients go home whole.
Or “Government Health Warning”, or “A Plea for Mercy”:
For all the poor little sods who shoot themselves off in boarding schools and dormitories, jerking into sleep, and all the prissy girls who ride their horses bareback or wet their knickers and seats at noisy pop concerts …
Or “A Straw Mat”:
I am guilty, she said to me. I didn’t know what to say. We are all guilty, I said, of something, if it’s only living when turf rests heavy on all the people cut off in their prime, or buying this old cardigan from Oxfam instead of doing something real. She said, Like what? I didn’t know. I saw my tears fall on the leper’s foot. What a nonsense. Africa is thirsty for blood and yet more blood, and we wander round the Oxfam shop …
With poems like this around, why would anybody not be reading, not be needing, contemporary poetry?
And “Consumers”, another of my very favourites – but you need to read the whole thing. (In fact, you need to read the whole book.)
Ask me if I ever liked small talk, chit-chat, the smell of a new car, the fat freezers lingering like overweight virgins in shadowy garages. I have to say no.
Ask me if I ever liked the long silence, full of thoughtful emptiness, the bruised smell of geranium leaves, the thin edges of poverty like sides to middle sheets, thin and anorexic. I have to say yes.
Standing in Trafalgar Square I was pleased the skin-heads ate our iron rations. Shouting into the dark I felt at home, the candles in jam jars, the small group of word-spinners sheltering from rain, not ashes.
Ask me if I ever think the nuclear winter will be like a giant freezer full of damaged goodies. Lord, Lord, I have to say yes. After the feast of flesh and red gravy, there will be ice cream for afters, and then, we shall wish we’d said no. Lord, Lord, I tried to say no.
Do people need poems like this? I have to say yes.
The world into which François Villon was born in 1431 was one of extreme contrasts. On 30 May Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in the market square of Rouen. In the same year the newly crowned French king, Louis VII, was hiding from his enemies, shifting from castle to penniless castle. In December the nine-year-old English king, Henry VI, in cloth of gold on a white charger, rode triumphantly into Paris with his gorgeously apparelled retinue, the boy ‘staring for a long time’ at three lovely, naked girls representing mermaids in the fountain of St Dennis. Probably in the same year, but on the other side of the city, François Villon was born in the slums and alleys near the rue St Jacques.
The city was packed because the passage of army after army had left the countryside bare, anything that could be eaten eaten, anything that could be burnt burnt (and anyone who could be raped raped). One of the families taking refuge in the city was that of François Villon, but his father died leaving the family in extreme poverty when the poet was still only a child. That he received an education at all seems to have been due to the lucky chance that he would accompany his devout mother to church and in that way came to the attention of the priest, Guillaume de Villon, who later, probably in 1438, adopted the boy.
But, as Aubrey Burl comments, “there is a wise observation that an urchin can be taken out of the slums but the slums cannot be taken out of the urchin.” And Villon remained all his life a child of – and the poet of – the slums.
Burl is good on everything, but he is particularly good on the poetry. He begins by pointing out that it is much easier to write about Villon now than it used to be. “Censorship has relaxed. Earlier any faithful tranlation was unprintable.” As evidence, he translates for us, in a way that Swinburne was quite unable to in the late nineteenth century, some stanzas from La Vieille Regrettant le Temps de sa Jeunesse (the regret for her lost youth by the ageing but once beautiful mistress of a nobleman), and notes that “François Villon was never mealy-mouthed and he wrote as his old woman, the former courtesan, might have spoken.”
Long arms and groping fingers sly, Fine shapely shoulders, and the round Full breasts and heaving hips that fly Smooth, slick and firm in thrust and pound Against the place where we were bound. Above spread loins my pulsing cunt Between its gripping thighs was crowned With gardened curls across its front. […] But this is where our beauty’s sent, Scrawny arms, hands weak and sick, Crooked back and shoulders bent. My flabby tits? Won’t stir a prick. My arse the same. To tempt a dick, My cunt? No hope! As for my thighs Each one just skin, dry bone, a stick, A pock-marked sausage. Beauty dies.
Yes, beauty dies – a favourite theme of Villon’s and one he frequently returns to, as in the quite different and very beautiful Ballades des Temps Jadis, in which he asks where all the fair women of the past are and concludes each stanza with the line, “But where are the snows of yesteryear?”
Villon lived and died surrounded by death, in a world in which “for the penniless, the only affordable entertainment was a public execution”. “He had elegiac eyes,” says Burl, in a memorable phrase. Villon recorded, like any great poet – or painter – the world he knew.
By the time you finish this book, that world, the Paris of the late Middle Ages and the danse macabre, is home, and François Villon is family.