Even big boys sometimes cry

Not being made PM is a cruel blow, especially when you’ve gone up to London on purpose.

Lord Curzon in his robes as Viceroy of India, 1899-1905
Lord Curzon in his pomp as Viceroy of India (and dry-eyed)
Will Gordon, David or Nick weep on failing to become Prime Minister? I suspect they’d consult their image consultants first. Yet one noble Lord did, it seems, cry when his summons didn’t, after all, mean being asked to form a government – as I learnt during a visit last week to Montacute House. In addition to the portraits of Elizabethan and Jacobean worthies, the house has Curzon Room, named after the former Viceroy of India who rented the house with his mistress, the romantic novelist Elinor Glyn, ‘enduring,’ the National Trust poetically puts it, ‘Arctic temperatures to stay by her man’s side.’ Thus inspired, the NT’s writer continues: ‘But she couldn’t stop Curzon’s feelings cooling along with the weather, and knew the frost had well and truly set in when she read of his engagement to Mrs Alfred Duggan in the Times.’ This cruel treatment rather undermines the same writer’s claim that ‘We all suffer our disappointments in life, but perhaps not so acute as George Nathaniel Curzon.’ Really? Did they ask Ms Glyn about his sin or only care about hers?

I guess not becoming Prime Minister is a blow, especially when you’ve gone up to London on purpose. For although there was no telephone at Montacute in 1923, when a telegram arrived, ‘the supremely confident Curzon’ travelled up to London with great expectations that he would become the next Prime Minister, only to find that Stanley Baldwin had got the job. It seems the most prominent reasons were that Curzon’s character was objectionable (they must have heard about his treatment of Ms Glyn – or taken against him in person), and that it was inappropriate for the Prime Minister to be a member of the House of Lords. The noble Lord was said to have burst into tears on hearing the news. Or, to express it in doggerel:

Curzon cried when not selected
Trouble was he weren’t elected
Even Kings must succumb
To the voter’s rule of thumb

And so it will be on May 6th – unless, of course, we have a hung Parliament, a prospect that is causing the chattering classes great excitement.

Writing this, I came across this Balliol rhyme about Curzon, ‘a piece of doggerel which stuck with him in later life’:

My name is George Nathaniel Curzon,
I am a most superior person.
My cheeks are pink, my hair is sleek,
I dine at Blenheim twice a week.

And so it that I seem to have stumbled into an imitation of the form. Well, it’s bad enough….

Photograph, from US Library of Congress, taken from Wikimedia Commons

Reading: a Darwinian or an aesthetic activity?

Is Darwinian literary studies the next big thing?

Virginia Woolf: photograph by George Beresford from Wikimedia Commons
Hmm, I'm not so sure about all this, thinks Virginia Woolf

The Observer reported yesterday that literary critics are going to ‘scan the brain to find out why we love to read’. ‘The aim, Yale literature professor Michael Holquist says, is to provide a scientific basis for schemes to improve the reading skills of college-age students.’ Ah, it’s a utilitarian project, then? ‘Lighting up the right neurones is every bit as important as a keen moral insight or a societal context.’ Some hail this as revolutionary: ‘It is one of the most exciting developments in intellectual life,’ said Blakey Vermeule, an English professor at Stanford University. Vermeule is examining the role of evolution in fiction: some call it “Darwinian literary studies”.’ Or, as the journalists put it: ‘Forget structuralism or even post-structuralist deconstructionism. “Neuro lit crit” is where it’s at.’

Others protest: ‘It strikes me as just plain silly. The mind and the brain are two quite separate things, and nobody knows what the relation is between them,’ said Dr Ian Patterson, a fellow at Queens’ College, Cambridge. That old mind-body thing, eh? Now didn’t one Ludwig Wittgenstein, formerly Professor at Cambridge University, deal that some blows? Never mind. As he wrote in 1929: ‘A good simile refreshes the intellect,’ (Culture and Value, translated by Winch, p 1e) and no doubt the neurons will show that on the scans. He also wrote: ‘Sometimes a sentence can be understood only if it read at the right tempo. My sentences are all supposed to be read slowly.’ (ibid, 57e). Will the machine be able to distinguish the different effects of reading quickly and slowly? Classics or trash? Since the Observer used the familiar, rather mournful picture of Virginia Woolf (as here) to illustrate the article, the paper seems to think this is about ‘high art’. Of course (as Wittgenstein might have pointed out) that is probably the product of the way her picture is read – with the knowledge of her high modernist works, tortured life and unhappy death.

Margaret Atwood loves Twitter

Yes, Margaret Atwood loves Twitter and writes elegantly about the process. Which is the least you’d expect – and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that this article first appeared on the New York Review of Books blog, where you can see a photograph of her ‘tweeting aboard the Queen Mary’. She writes how Twitter users are merciless about typos, but also ‘sent me many interesting items pertaining to artificially-grown pig flesh, unusual slugs, and the like. (They deduce my interests.)’

So what’s it all about, this Twitter? Is it signalling, like telegraphs? Is it Zen poetry? Is it jokes scribbled on the washroom wall? Is it John Hearts Mary carved on a tree? Let’s just say it’s communication, and communication is something human beings like to do.

You can follow Margaret Atwood on Twitter yourself if you wish. And you can follow Literary Connections there too!

Remembering the War

A rich harvest of material for those interested in the literature of the First World War

The Pity of WarArmistice Day this year has seen a particularly rich harvest of material for those interested in the literature of the First World War, coming as it does 90 years after the last shots were fired.

The Guardian‘s excellent series of booklets, with a wallchart on propaganda, provided a very accessible overview with plenty of examples from poetry, reminiscences and art as well as the historical background. The complete series, or missing booklets, can now be ordered here. Much of the material in the booklets can also be found online, here along with other material on the war. The Guardian also carried a moving interview with Harry Patch, the last surviving British soldier who fought in the trenches, by Andrew Motion, and a short video on the Battle of the Somme. Oxford University has also just launched a much enhanced version of its excellent First World War Poetry Digital Archive.

All Quiet on the Home FrontAt our consortium meeting yesterday, Nadine was an enthusiastic advocate of All Quiet on the Home Front, ‘An Oral History of Life in Britain During the First World War’, by Steve Humphries and Richard van Emden, which she praised for the valuable first-hand accounts to balance the poetry from the front line. Someone reminded us of the value of the approach in Oh! What a Lovely War – script from 1967 and film version in 1969 (remembering the context in which it was produced). And I didn’t even have time to mention, or play extracts from, The Pity of War: a collection of elegiac First World War works by Elgar, Janacek, Debussy with a second disc of Wilfred Owen letters and poems read by Samuel West, interspersed with wartime songs. For literature teachers, the second disk alone is worth the price.

Finally, for a broader overview, I can commend James Anderson Winn’s The Poetry of War, a wide-ranging study of war poetry from Homer to Bruce Springsteen. My review in NATE’s English Drama Media can be found here.

Every fool in Bakewell: Ruskin’s rant refuted

Ruskin (and food critic Matthew Fort) on the beauties of Derbyshire

John Ruskin - a self-portraitJohn’s Ruskin’s complaint at the desecration of the Derbyshire Dales featured in The Guardian on Saturday. ‘Every fool in Buxton can be at Bakewell in half-an-hour, and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton,’ Ruskin thundered. ‘Call me a fool,’ Matthew Fort wrote, ‘but I can see any number of good reasons to be in Bakewell…. How many towns the size of Bakewell, I wondered, could boast a Tiroler Stüberl, Austrian Coffee Shop & Sausage Importer?’ The answer, I suspect, lies in the large number of tourists who flock there – those same ‘Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain’ whom Ruskin addressed, perhaps, and their womenfolk? Continue reading “Every fool in Bakewell: Ruskin’s rant refuted”

Flying a kite for philosophy

Flying a kite in memory of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s local connections

Wittgenstein flying a kite on Chunal; the Grouse Inn probably in the background
‘Students pay tribute to kite philosopher’ said the headline in the Glossop Advertiser on 20 March. It describes a celebration by ‘fine arts and interactive arts students’ at Chunal, the hill outside Glossop, flying kites to mark the centenary of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s aerodynamics experiments at Manchester University’s Kite Flying Upper Atmosphere Station. Wittgenstein would stay at the Grouse Inn near the top of the hill – and just over another hill from Literary Connection’s own home. He boarded upstairs in a room that looked out on the moors where he often walked alone. The picture shows Wittgenstein and by William Eccles with a kite in the summer of 1908. Whilst at Manchester University, Wittgenstein developed and patented a design for a rotary blade of the kind now used in helicopters – before abandoning engineering for mathematics and then philosophy. On the way he found time to fight in the Austrian army in the First World War and become a school teacher. He hated teaching but wrote a spelling manual, commenting of his students’ reactions to his classroom guide: ‘The orthographic conscience had been awakened.’ Continue reading “Flying a kite for philosophy”

2,000 Philip Larkin letters uncovered

Larkin the letter writer and book stealer

Hull academics are eagerly examining letters written by Philip Larkin, once the university’s librarian, Chris Arnot reports in The Guardian. Already reeling from the discovery that the ’eminent librarian had stolen one book from a library in Coventry and another from Blackwells in Oxford,’ I wonder what else they will reveal. ‘Well,’ as he says in ‘The Old Fools’ in High Windows, ‘We shall find out.’ More about Philip Larkin on this page.

Not talking about ‘The Book to Talk About’

‘Boy A’ wins talking point award for ‘The Book to Talk About 2008’

Boy AJonathan Trigell’s controversial novel Boy A has been named as the first winner of the Book to Talk About award, announced to coincide with World Book Day, the Guardian reports. Learn about all the books on the shortlist on the Books to Talk About section of the World Book Day website.

Since the point is to provoke discussion, the book seems well-chosen – ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, on World Book Day the Forum page said: ‘The discussion part of the Spread the Word site has been suspended due to the large amount of unacceptable and undesirable postings/Spam.’

Happy Christmas!

What’s your own favourite Christmas reading?

At one time, it seemed to be the job of the Head of English to select something modern to accompany the traditional readings at the school Carol Service. T S Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’ was a common, if not necessarily popular, choice. In my classroom, I preferred Charles Causley’s more accessible (and more amusing) ‘Ballad of the Bread Man’, with its arresting opening:
Baby in crib
Mary stood in the kitchen
Baking a loaf of bread.
An angel flew in the window
‘We’ve a job for you,’ he said.

U A Fanthorpe’s enjoyable Christmas sequence, including ‘Cat in the Manger’ and ‘The Wicked Fairy’, has a similar tone. Her Christmas Poems are well-worth seeking out.

John Betjeman’s ‘Christmas’ was another favourite; it must be an English trait to treat this central Christian festival in such a low key, ironic manner before hinting at belief. There is, of course, a long traditional of Christmas verse in English, including Christina Rossetti’s ‘Christmas Carol’ (‘In the bleak mid-winter’), which has become so well-known as, well, a Christmas carol, that it’s easy to forget it’s not traditional. More on the Christmas page.

What’s your own favourite Christmas reading, for the classroom or comfortably by the fireside?