Thursday, 29 September 2011

Venice at the edges

Venice in late September: a good time to be here again. The figs and peaches are at their best, the light is clear as ever and there are fewer people around now the high summer has passed and the frenzy of the Film Festival has died down.

What we enjoy best is revisiting the quiet places. Yesterday we retraced a route we first took by night five years ago when we were met at the lone tree in the corner of Piazzale Roma and escorted to the apartment we were renting in the Corte Mazor. We followed the Fondamenta Burchielle, and crossed the Rio Terra dei Pensieri. This is very definitely not tourist Venice: the city’s main prison is here and the cell blocks with their upwardly louvred windows look intimidating. But I once saw and heard a remarkable scene here early one morning: a woman standing under the prison wall singing loudly and gazing up at one of the windows where a broom head, poking out between the louvres, was being waved up and down in time to her singing. The more it waved, the louder she sang. Her face streamed with tears, but she was smiling.

When we reached the little square where our apartment had been, we had a spritz at Cambusan, a café entirely patronised by locals, and then made our way round the corner to the westernmost church of Dorsoduro, San Nicolò dei Mendicoli. It is dark inside – there are very few windows – but the decoration of its Byzantine columns is picked out in gold, as are the giant wooden brackets supporting the organ loft at the back of the church. Just inside the door is a plaque announcing in Italian and English that this church was rescued from the floods and restored with the help of the Venice in Peril fund between 1972 and 1977. Indeed it was, and while in restauro San Nicolò was used as the location for one of the most frightening scenes in the film Don’t Look Now (1973). Donald Sutherland plays an architectural historian in charge of the restoration of the church, who is almost killed when the high scaffolding on which he is standing collapses and he only saves himself by clutching at a swinging rope as he falls.

Less than five minutes away we come to the church of Angelo Raffaele, a complete contrast: much bigger, much lighter and all baroque. The organ is playing, and this lures us in. I first visited the church after reading Salley Vickers’ novel, Miss Garnet’s Angel. In the story, Miss Garnet’s little apartment is located in the square beyond the church. The church itself, and the story of the angel Raphael and Tobias, the young boy with the fish, play a large part in the novel. There is hardly anyone around, even though we are only a couple of hundred yards from Zattere, the popular promenade which runs along the Giudecca Canal up to the Punto delle Dogana, at the entrance to the Grand Canal. We don’t walk that far, turning left instead towards San Trovaso. We pass the gondola repair yard and walk under the windows of the little apartment Ezra Pound rented when he first came to Venice. Before we leave Venice we shall go, as we always do, to pay our respects to Pound and Olga Rudge in the little protestant cemetery at the far end of San Michele, the cemetery island. Nearly always, we have the place to ourselves.

And today, getting as far away from the centre of Venice as it is possible to get and still stay within the confines of the city, we have been to Pellestrina, in the remote south west corner of the lagoon. It takes some getting to: first, we have to cross to the Lido, which is easy enough, and the new landing stage at Santa Maria Elisabetta is the smartest in all Venice. Then we catch a Number 11 bus, which sets off down the Gran Viale, the main street of the Lido, and turns west along the Lungomare Marconi. Now the Adriatic is sparkling on our left beyond the beach huts that used to belong to the Hotel des Bains, where Thomas Mann set Death in Venice and where the 1971 Visconti film starring Dirk Bogarde  was shot. The Hotel itself, a monster of a place, closed some years ago and its conversion into luxury flats seems to have ground to a halt. The bus carries on to the further point of the Lido, Alberoni, and then travels by ferry to the next island, which is really no more than a long sandbank with a defensive sea wall, and this is Pellestrina. Even so, the bus has to drive to the furthest end to reach the village itself, and by then we are much closer to the city of Chioggia, across the last stretch of the lagoon, than we are to Venice.

Pellestrina is all about boats and fishing. There are boat builders on the island (many of Venice’s vaporetti come from the Pellestrina boatyards) but most of the vessels one sees are snub-nosed fishing boats that dredge the sea bed for clams. Like most non-Venetians my introduction to the place was Donna Leon’s excellent Inspector Brunetti novel, A Sea of Troubles, in which the elusive Signora Elettra falls in love with a fisherman and Brunetti’s faithful boatman, Bonsuan, is himself murdered.  She made it sound a fearsome place.

Today, though, there is something wonderfully quiet about Pellestrina. The houses are small cottages, not imposing in any way, their shutters closed against the sun; there seem to be more seagulls and pigeons than people. Occasionally a boat sets off or returns, but the sea is otherwise absolutely calm. 

A little way out from the shore there are a few strange random huts on stilts, fishermen’s stores presumably, but looking like odd surviving structures from an ancient lake village or a Borneo kampong. It’s hard to imagine anything or anywhere looking less Venetian than these silent shanties.

When Donna Leon came to Cambridge a few years back and signed copies of her book in Heffers, she wrote in ours, ‘Do not eat the clams’.  She warned us the lagoon was so polluted that the clams were by now almost certainly radioactive. I’m glad to say we ignored her advice today. At the Ristorante ai Pescatori, the tables of which were simply set out in the gap between two cottages, we had probably the best spaghetti alla vongole we have ever eaten.

[Photos: Pellestrina, 28 September 2011

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Edward Thomas at Buchy

Edward Thomas, according to a recent review in The Guardian, is ‘arguably the most influential English poet of the 20th century’. A judgment like this would have seemed extraordinary forty years ago; but such is Thomas’s standing today that the recent biography by Matthew Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France (Faber, 2011) got headline reviews everywhere.

I have admired Edward Thomas’s poetry for as long as I have been teaching: ‘March’, ‘Old Man’ and ‘Tall Nettles’ are the poems I first encountered and can never forget.  I admire many things about Hollis’s biography, too. For a start, his account of the friendships, tensions and rivalries between the Dymock Poets in the summer of 1914 is very good; then, in the final pages of the book, his description of Thomas’s life as a soldier, both in England and finally in France, is very movingly told. What’s more, Hollis has reminded me of several things about the poet that I had forgotten I knew.

Two examples: first, I thought it was news to me that Thomas may very possibly have met Wilfred Owen – indeed, that he may well have instructed him in map reading while in training at Hare Hall Camp in Essex. But I realize now I had come across this before: Andrew Motion’s essay Edward Thomas: an Imaginary Life (2004) takes as its premise the idea that instead of being killed by the blast of a shell at the Battle of Arras on 9th April 1917, Thomas had been knocked unconscious by a piece of shrapnel. When he woke up in hospital Thomas found his left arm had been amputated. (‘I could spare an arm. I shouldn’t want to lose / A leg’ he had written in ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’.) Motion invents a passage from an imagined Autobiography (1929) in which Thomas recalls his one and only conversation with Owen at Hare Hall and his post-war admiration for Owen’s poetry.  The conversation may be imagined; the fact that they overlapped in this training camp is not.

The second example is a single place name: Buchy. Hollis notes that when Thomas eventually crossed to France, he went by train to the Front from Le Havre via Buchy, Alaincourt and Amiens. I should have remembered this. In his diary for 5th February 1917 Thomas records the following:

At 7 a.m. after many stops and starts we were close under partly wooded chalk hills, among railway trucks, and near a village with here and there an upper storey quite open like a loft. Snow. Gradually flatter and poplars regular as telegraph poles, orchards, level crossings, children.  Buchy at 10 a.m. – Y.M.C.A. –  Leave train. Nearly lost train. Fine snowfall.

I have been to Buchy. It’s a small town 25 km north east of Rouen.  Flaubert used it as a location in Madame Bovary. When Edward Thomas stopped at the station, the population of Buchy was barely 1000 people. Actually the station is some way out of the town at a hamlet called Montérolier, a place with a station café, a railway bridge and a couple of farms nothing more. But during the Great War, Buchy was a name known to hundreds of thousands of British troops: the trains from the Channel to the Front stopped there (there were no buffet cars on the troop trains – the men travelled in cattle trucks: 36 men to each truck. Only the officers had compartments to share) so comfort stops were a necessity. There was indeed a Y.M.C.A. canteen at the station, where ‘other ranks’ could get a free cup of tea and send a postcard home. This canteen was staffed by volunteers from England, middle-aged clergymen and young women who wanted to work near the Front but were not trained nurses or ambulance drivers. These would be the last English women many of the men would ever see.

Such railway stops were of unpredictable length, which is no doubt why Edward Thomas almost missed his train. I expect he walked up the hill from the station to get away from the queue at the Y.M.C.A. canteen, to stretch his legs and to see what he could see. Across the snow-covered fields he would not have missed the tents and huts of no. 11 Convalescent Depot, a huge British army encampment where troops came for a few days’ rest and recuperation from the trenches or to recover from minor injuries before rejoining their units ‘somewhere in France’. At the top of the hill was alternative refreshment: the station café, where perhaps he went for a coffee and met the formidable proprietress, Mme Bigot, famous beyond her wildest dreams:

Half of the British Army knows Madame Bigot. The other half has heard of her…. It is time that the women at home learnt of the subtle power wielded by one woman.

This is the opening of a newspaper article by Hilda M. Love, a war correspondent whose reports from France, addressed to ‘the women at home’, were syndicated around the world. Look her up on Google: you’ll see she features in newspapers in London and New York and across the British Empire, from the Straits Times (Singapore), to the Western Gazette (Kalgoorlie, W. Australia), and the Wanganui Chronicle (New Zealand). Her special brand of belligerent sentimentality outraged Ezra Pound, who denounced her in The New Age (November 8th, 1918), and she was certainly not the Kate Adie of the Western Front; but at least she wrote about Buchy at the time Edward Thomas stopped there unwontedly, got off the train and was nearly left behind:

Madame Bigot, who might have lived and died unknown in a tiny village of France, has spread the fame of that village throughout the world, has worked her way into the hearts of the British Army with such homely weapons as a casserole and a frying pan.

Her little inn stands on a hillside and the door commands a view of one of the finest provinces of France. In spring-time a sea of apple-blossom stretches away in all directions. To-day a sea of grey tents stretches away to the left of madame’s windows, while to the right khaki figures gather at their favourite rendezvous, the railway bridge.

It is the presence of the railway that has brought madame such wide fame.  On the boards of that village station are painted names that will wring the heart of France for ever, and the trains that daily pass through that countryside daily carry khaki thousands who have sworn to avenge those significant names.

And, unlike the supercilious expresses that thundered over the rails in peace time, these trains of war stop for an hour or more at this wayside village. Men who have been sitting cramped for long, weary hours, tired, cold, and hungry, rise and stretch themselves, tumble out of the train, and douche their heads in the big wooden tubs of water along the line, while from madame’s inn travel ravishing odours that lure. Etc. etc.

I do not know in which newspaper this article appeared. All I have is a cutting pasted into an old pocket book that belonged to my grandfather, the Rev. Edward Barlow. And why? Because in 1917, the same year Edward Thomas passed this way, my grandfather was a volunteer in the Y.M.C.A. canteen serving tea and handing out postcards to soldiers who had stopped briefly, like the most influential poet of the twentieth century, at Buchy, en route for the Front.

[photo: the station at Buchy, early 20th century

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Reasons to write

Most weeks, I try to read both the Times Literary Supplement and the Saturday Guardian Review. The differences – and the similarities – between them are often striking. The TLS is published (according to the printed date) on a Friday, but is always on the news stands the previous morning; the Guardian Review is folded in with all the other Saturday Guardian supplements – Family, Money, Work and other cheerful weekend topics. The TLS is more obviously academic in focus. The Guardian Review puts more emphasis on using writers from outside the academy and on the craft of writing itself.

The TLS tends to cover a wider range of subject areas in greater depth, but both give a good deal of prominence to fiction. Here, too, the choice of reviewer is indicative: last week Michael Ondaatje’s new novel, The Cat’s Table, was discussed in both papers. The novelist Annie Proulx reviewed it for the Guardian Review; the TLS reviewer was Madeline Clements, who announced, in ‘This Week’s Contributors’, that she was ‘writing a doctoral thesis on Muslim self-representation in the post 9/11 novels of Anglophone South Asian writers.’ Both reviews made me want to go out and read the book, but while Clements approached her subject cautiously, Proulx jumped straight in declaring her admiration for Ondaatje and his importance as a writer.

The TLS letters page is the place to go if you enjoy academic bitchiness, but not if you don’t. Sometimes it’s rather like reading David Lodge’s Small World without the laughs. Last week (2 September 2011, p.6), an outraged American historian took his revenge on a reviewer who had accused him of having ‘some kind of soft spot for Stalin’: her review, he began, ‘grossly distorts the book, my purpose in writing it, and the historical evidence that I present.’ Five paragraphs later (which other newspaper or journal in the world allows an author five paragraphs to fulminate against a bad review?), he declared that a book on a subject such as his own ‘requires, in short, a sophisticated approach to the historical analysis of evidence’ and signed off by saying that neither the reviewer’s review nor her own book on his subject – there’s the rub - ‘show readiness to understand or engage in such work.’ Ouch.

Life is generally friendlier in the Guardian Review. The job of writing and the difference between writing and reading are always under discussion. In the ‘Guardian Book Club’ column last week (03.09.11), Neil Gaiman wrote about his novel American Gods:

I do not know how American Gods looks from the outside. I’ve never read it, not to find out what happened next, anyway. I wrote it to find out what happened next, and that’s a very different thing.

The poet Lavinia Greenlaw (in ‘Author, author’, another regular Guardian Review column, with a different author writing each week about how and why they write) described the impulse to write in not dissimilar terms:

The way I know something might become a poem has nothing to do with thinking about it. It’s a physical sensation rather like the first instant of a memory before you’ve made sense of it.

She quoted Robert Frost: “the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew.”

The biographer Fiona MacCarthy was the writer in last week’s feature interview (‘A life in writing’). Her subjects nearly always appeal to me – Eric Gill, Stanley Spencer, William Morris and Lord Byron – and I was struck by the comment made by her interviewer, Paul Laity:

She has remarked that she doesn’t choose her subjects so much as wait for them “to claim me … always creative people of one sort or another for whom I feel a deep affinity.”

All of this interests me very much as I begin work on a book I have been promising myself (and other people) to write as soon as I have retired. It’s about the life and influence of the Victorian stained glass designer, Charles Eamer Kempe (1837-1907). I have been writing and lecturing on his work for twenty-five years, and it’s time I did the job properly. I’ve not attempted a full-length biography before. Has Kempe claimed me, as Fiona MacCarthy has been claimed by her latest subject, Burne-Jones, Kempe’s contemporary and in some respects his arch rival?

Kempe is a fascinating, contradictory and still controversial figure for those with an interest in Victorian church art and its legacy: Pevsner once described his work as “disastrously retardataire” and he has strong supporters and equally strong detractors. Having read last weekend’s Guardian Review, I am keen to interrogate my own reasons for liking Kempe’s work so much that I want to spend the next couple of years writing about it and him. My provisional title, echoing George Herbert, is Espying Heaven: Charles Eamer Kempe and the art of stained glass, and if the book ever gets reviewed in the TLS  (‘In your dreams!”) I just hope I shan’t feel moved to write a five-paragraph letter of protest against what the reviewer thinks of it.

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From now on, I shall try to add a new post every fortnight or less. I welcome comments and feedback.