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Wider yet and wider

The hoo-ha about whether to sing “Land of Hope and Glory” at the Last Night of the Proms made me remember the endearing author of the offending lyrics.

We are in the middle of moving house at the moment, which has  involved me in parting from thousands of books, some of them dear old friends. In our bedroom, however, is a bookcase containing about 200 volumes from  which I could not  imagine being parted. They include Proust, P.G.Wodehouse,  The Nebuly Coat, The Oxford Book of German Verse, ditto Prose, and so forth. I might write about this collection of “Desert Island Books” in a later blog.

Two members of the celebrated Benson tribe, children of the Archbishop of Canterbury Edward White Benson,  are assembled in this shelf of favourites. Fred Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels – of course. But also, a book called On the Edge of Paradise by David Newsome (doyen of Benson studies, former Master of Wellington College) , which is the life of Arthur (A.C.) Benson told through his  copious diaries.

They were a very loveable family, the Bensons, but many would consider them rum. The future Archbishop proposed to his wife when she was just 12. Having given birth to the family of writers –  among them, Monsignor Hugh, author of such thrilling recusant tales as  Come Rack, Come Rope! – , Fred, the high camp humorous novelist, and Arthur, A.C., who was an Eton beak, and subsequently Master of Magdalene College Cambridge. Their mum, born  Mary Sidgwick, fell in love with Lucy Tait, the daughter of the previous Archbish. They shared a bed – the children were only mildly embarrassed by this.

Magdalene College, of which A.C. became master, is perhaps chiefly celebrated for housing the diary and library of its famous alumnus  Samuel Pepys. Another great diarist, however, was A.C.Benson, His journals run for over five million words, and it is, sad that so few of them are in print. Techno-incompetence means that I have printed two illustrations of the Pepys library in this blog, and, having tried to delete one of them, and inadvertently deleted the whole entry, I have decided to leave both in place! Perhaps appropriately. If the truth is told, I would far rather read A.C.Benson’s diaries than Pepys. Where Pepys is brutally coarse, Arthur is hyper-sensitive. Where Pepys is on the make, Benson was on the lose, emotionally at any rate. Whereas Pepys stood on the threshold of Britain being about to take off – as a great commercial power, as an intellectual powerhouse, as an architectural paradise, Benson came when all that was about to come to an end, and be irreparably ruined by the First World War. The hateful twentieth century destroyed everything he – and we – ever loved. Pepys’s diaries are for those whose favourite seasons are spring and summer. Benson’s diaries are for those of us who love the melancholy of autumn.

Some entries are thousands of words long. His impressions of life, and of the hundreds of people he met, and of the  innocent pre-First World War days where he led such a privileged existence are indeed a sort of Paradise, when we step back into them today. But poor Arthur was deeply depressive, and often confined in mental hospitals for his crushing black dog periods.

He fell in love with a succession of beautiful young men, but would have been horrified, indeed was horrified, by the idea of “doing anything” about this. Newsome’s book has a poignant jacket, illustrated with a number of photographs –  one shows the Benson tribe entire,  another, old A.C., distinguished don and  and , top left, poor Arthur, standing beside Dadie Rylands, who himself grew  to  be the legendary King’s don, friend of the Bloomsburies etc. I knew Dadie a bit – perhaps that’s another blog.

In this picture, Dadie, a blonde twenty-year-old, had his hand through Benson’s arm. Looking full at the camera, Benson could be some retired Indian army colonel, with his double-breasted suit and his walrus moustache. Behind the staring eyes, though… Ah! Such sadness.

In one diary entry he ruefully reflected that he had always lived on the edge of Paradise, and never entered it. Hence Newsome’s title.

Benson, who would be the first editor of Queen Victoria’s letters, was in his forties when the King, Edward VII, asked him to supply some lyrics for Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March.

He  had first met Elgar in 1902 when the King had asked them to collaborate on his Coronation Ode. Thry met at the Queen’s Hall, which was where the Proms used to be held – before it was bombed in the Second War, Elgar had only been to the Proms once before. He walked straight to the ticket office, ignoring the long queue and insisted on being given a free ticket. He sat through a Saint-Saens march, a Tchaikovsky concerto (“my idea of music”. )“Then came the Ode. Elgar stepped to the box; he is taller and shapelier than I have imagined…a long nose – red hands – large cuffs”. He conducted with a smiling aplomb – has a funny fumbling movement of the hands after end of piece. The Ode did both please and impress me very much; it is wizard-like music”.

Afterwards, in the dressing room,  “I found Elgar with his artists. I ought to have thanked them – but I was too stupid – and just had three pleasurable words with E., who was very genial and pleasant. Once or twice I detected a twang, I thought”.

A typical Benson diary entry, with its close attention to all the details – Elgar’s funny gestures with his hands, his slightly “common” voice.  The “Land of Hope and Glory”  lines were added at the last minute when the King wanted more of the Benson-Elgar duo. Apart from “Land of Hope and Glory”, Benson also wrote the words for a melody called “My Heart”, a poem he composed in ten minutes.

Elgar liked Benson’s work, and suggested they collaborate on an opera on the theme of Cleopatra. Newsome adds, “Arthur never followed it up – probably wisely”.

Elgar came to hate the slaughter and insensitive jingoism associated with the Pomp and Circumstance march. Benson, in 1914, said that he was against war in any circumstances, thought it should be as outmoded as duelling. He died in 1925, having lived through the war which saw the death of hundreds of his former pupils at school and university.

To revisit his diaries, with Newsome as guide, is to feast on an innocent, largely male world. His favourite play was The Tempest. “I think Ariel is the hero of the piece, that pretty, sexless creature, the dreaming spirit of wood and flower. It takes hold of me to think of Ariel serving so zealously and only waiting for his escape to the blossom that hangs on the bough. Then Prospero giving up his enchantments and the isle full of noises to go back to the world and business. Macbeth frightens me and Hamlet bewilders me; but The Tempest leaves me happier at heart”.

Heading for the Inferno

We live in a dystopia . Very hard to imagine any  imaginative young writer, poet or novelist, producing a work of uplift in the Covid-infected, climate-changed planet, where all the governments of the world seem to be either grossly incompetent, or hideously corrupt or both. . Whenever you think the post-Christian generations began, – at the time of the French Revolution? Or much later? Post-Second World War? –  it is striking that the Biblical templates borrowed by the post-Christians are now  those of apocalyptic destruction and disaster.  Optimistic socialists of 1945 might have looked forward to a New Heaven and a New Earth. The generations under 30 do not see that world coming to pass.

Young Greta Thunberg is the environmentalist Joan of Arc. But most people, certainly most young people I know, do not want to believe that the world can be saved. Like latter-day Anabaptists or Muggletonians, they derive evident satisfaction from the thought that humanity, and the world it inhabits, is heading for incineration. The inside of their heads must be like one of the more apocalyptic canvases of John Martin.

Valerie Fritsch is one of the young stars of German-speaking literature at the moment.

Born in Austria in 1989, her novel Winters Garten was published five years ago now and has already achieved a sort of classic status. It deserves it. Like Rilke or Pasternak, she has written prose fiction as if she were writing a poem. She does not go in for explanations, so we do not know why the European country in which we find ourselves is deep into a disaster. In one of the most memorable scenes, the hero peers down from a harbour wall and sees the corpses of innumerable naval officers, many of them wearing their medals, and gleaming like fishes beneath the sea. They are only one example of a current wave of mass suicides.

Anton Winter, son of a violin maker, had an upbringing outside the unnamed city, on his grandparents’ farm or estate. The garden where he roamed free, and where ladies sat among the rhubarb patches, seems timeless. At first the reader wonders whether it is an historical novel, possibly a Vienna of the time of Musil. But we are soon brought uncomfortably forward into a time beyond our own. Anton has left the superabundant, tickly planted world of the grandparents behind and now inhabits a tower block in the city . From his prefabricated Grenfell-like block, h e can look down on the ruins of the city.

The  grandparents’ world was far from idyllic. His granny kept the foetuses of all her miscarried babies in jamjars which were buried with her. But she lived in a recognizably  Catholic, or ex-Catholic world, with a figurine of her Guardian Angel on a gold chain round her neck. Anton must find, or be, his own Guardian Angel.

He is a bird-breeder, and as the disaster in the  modern city gets worse, he meets, and begins to make love to, a red-haired mysterious woman called Frederike, who is working in the hospital, which is now almost entirely devoted to  a maternity unit. She helps to deliver a child who, it turns out, is Anton’s nephew. They all – his long-estranged brother, the mother of the child, Frederike and he, retire to the now more or less deserted and ruinous garden of childhood. I won’t spoil the surprise ending for you, but I strongly recommend the novel. The scenes in which, from the unbearably cold house, they gaze across the snows to the  distant city in flames will long stay in my mind as an image of what the modern pessimistic imaginative  mind sees when it looks out of the window.

Hilaire Belloc 150 years on

Hilaire Belloc was born on 27 July 1870. He died a couple of weeks before his 83rd birthday, in 1953. To British and American  Catholics of those times it would have been unimaginable that one day  his name would fade, for he was by far the starriest defender of the Faith, and his books were on the shelf of every literate Catholic – histories, in abundance, travels, poetry, apologetics, economics, politics. I still treasure a bookmark made for me when I was about six,  by a teacher,  Sister Mary Alban OP, inscribed in her matchless calligraphy ,  with Belloc’s lines about the grace of God being in courtesy –  not always a grace of which he availed himself.

It is now forty years since Belloc’s grandchildren approached me and asked me to write his life. I was an unlikely choice, being the Hon Sec of the Wishy Washy Society, whereas Belloc liked banging the drum.

Remember The Arundel Carol – “May all good fellows who here agree/Drink audit ale in Heaven with me/And may all my enemies go to hell,/ Noel, Noel!”.

 I still feel grateful to the family for asking me to chronicle his life . “When I am dead, I hope it may be said/His sins were scarlet but his books were read”. Alas for him, his sins were of a kind we find unpardonable and largely for this reason, the books  go unread..

Imagine a modern reader ,  who had barely heard of him,  picking up a volume of  Belloc’s  verse in a second-hand bookshop .  She might be  surprised by how good it is.  Such a reader  might place the poet in the tradition of English pastoral. 

Spirits that call and no one answers

Ha’nacker’s down and England’s done.

Wind and Thistle for pipe and dancers,

And never a ploughman under the sun,

Never a ploughman. Never a one.

But the pessimism of the poem is coming from a different imaginative world than that inhabited by his Prot public-schoolboy  “Georgian”  contemporaries ,

Likewise the  poems seemingly for children are animated by  something  hard-edged which is at variance with anything we would call either  English or Pastoral .They depict children who  were incorrigible – Henry King, whose habit of chewing little bits of string led to his grisly fate – “Oh my Friends be warned by me/That Breakfast, Dinner/Lunch and Tea/Are all the human frame requires/With that the Wretched Child expires”. Matilda dies in flames. Jim who did not keep a hold of nurse, is devoured by a lion. Lord Lundy’s inability to restrain tears leads to the anathema of his grandfather –“Sir! You have disappointed us!/We had intended you to be/The next Prime Minister but three:/The stocks were sold: the Press was squared./The middle class was quite prepared./But as it is! My language fails/ Go out and govern New South Wales”.

The child who has  absorbed  these verses has actually learnt to be subversive. The England depicted, where the “hoary social curse” stinks “a trifle worse/Than in the days of Queen Victoria” is being  judged  by a quite different value-code. “The moral is, it is indeed/You must not monkey with the Creed”.

Belloc, though  for a time a Liberal MP,   and though the celebrant  of the Sussex pines, was not really English: he was  half French . His  Englishness was that of the awkward squad: his mother, a redoubtable feminist called Bessie Parkes was descended from  the great chemist Joseph Priestley, and from nonconformist radicals. It was through  Cardinal Manning she  became a Catholic, and it was Manning’s Catholicism , with the social radicalism of Rerum Novarum, and an Ultramontane hope that the Papacy would provide the conscience of Europe, which guided Belloc’s thought.

The book which expounds his political  outlook most succinctly is The Servile State (1927), an application of the principles of Leo XIII and Cardinal Manning to the world scene of the 1920s. Faced by the instability of the Capitalist system (he published his book two years before the Wall Street Crash of 1929) and by the social injustices it inevitably produced, he foresaw only three possible solutions. First was Collectivism, the experiment already being tried in Soviet Russia with catastrophic effect. Secondly, the re-establishment of Property by Distributism in which the mass of citizens should severally own the means of production”. (Sometimes nicknamed Three acres and a cow). Third, what he called A Servile State which is really what we live in today.

The twentieth century saw a number of heroic attempts to put the ideas of this great book into practice. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement in the United States springs at once to mind. There was the Ditchling Community in Sussex, where Eric Gill and his Guild of Craft workers put many of Belloc’s views into practice. 

Belloc saw that  all this political and economic  evil went hand in hand and stemmed from  the loss of the Catholic faith in Europe .

The ideas of The Servile State, so distrustful both of the tyranny of state and of market, are echoed in many of the encyclicals  of John Paul II  . Whether there would be much chance of  Belloc’ s histories enjoying widespread popularity again, one rather doubts.  They were composed at lightning rate: he wrote the life of James II in a fortnight on a holiday in North Africa, with no books to hand. The best of the historical books relate to France. His history of Paris, which gives out in the 18th century, is packed with good stuff. The revolutionary histories – the Life of Danton in particular – are marvellous.

Rereading  the chatty travel-books, notably The Path to Rome, when he walked to the Eternal City  opining on everything under the sun,  and The Cruise of the Nona, his book about sailing (he was a passionate yachtsman) ,  has been disillusioning .  I found the former arch and purple prosy, and the latter – despite its many sad  beauties, blustering and absurd.

No, worse than absurd. For here one comes to the core  difficulty, and the reason why the Church in our day has distanced itself  both from what Belloc stood for and his way of standing for it.

What I  first found most attractive about Belloc’s Defence of the Catholic Faith , still has enormous appeal.  He  propounded not the inner life,  but  the Catholic Thing, “the Thing that is the core and soul of all our history for fifteen hundred years, and on into the present time: the continuator of all our Pagan origins, transformed, baptised, illumined; the matrix of such culture as we still maintain”.

If  you value the common European heritage from  “the pagans on whom we all repose)  to Dante , from St  Benedict to St Dominic , from Aquinas to John Paul II, there is  something obviously attractive about the Bellocian catchphrase , “The Faith is Europe, and Europe is the Faith”.

But, but, but….when you read The Cruise of the Nona, with its adulation of Mussolini, its casual antisemitism,  then you realize it is not just Belloc you are finding repellent: it is a whole mindset, exemplified , distinctively but not uniquely French ,  which carries along with its piety a bundle of odious falsehoods and sheer nastiness.

Before I researched this article, I’d promised myself not to express priggish horror at Belloc’s  unreconstructed  views, picked up when doing his National Service in the French Army, in the 1890s .  Why not just celebrate Belloc the elegist,  , the humorist ,the tramp who in the Path to Rome was a sort of Edwardian Jack Kerouac,  the yachtsman who gazed with such lyricism and such heart break at the sea, “the common sacrament of this world?” Why not just cast out the slimy dark bilge water gurgling around in the stern of his old boat the Nona and bucket out the filth, without mention, into the ocean? And the answer must be, that, in his lifetime, Belloc was not just a supremely entertaining journalist-poet.  He had also set up his brass plate as a Catholic apologist and as he banged the drum for “Europe and the Faith”, he dragged all his less salubrious prejudices into the foreground, actually making them part and parcel of his defence of  Catholicism  itself.

The anti-semitism can not be overlooked.  The Cruise of the Nona , published in 1925, still persists, against all the contrary  evidence then available , in proclaiming the guilt of Dreyfus.  If the familiar pattern – hatred of the “Money Power”, distrust of international capital, slithering into   the bullyism of   antisemitic cliché , –  could be detached from Belloc’s Catholicism, one could , almost, laugh it off as an ugly period detail. These horrible ideas, however, persist to this day. Consider the underbelly of Le Pen’s Front National

Belloc himself was not a Nazi, if only because he detested Germans even more than he disliked Jews  . He was the first British journalist to denounce the Pope, Pius XII, for not doing more to protest against the Hitler regime and in particular the persecution, later massacre, of the Jews. But I never found a scintilla of evidence that Belloc could see a connection between the sort of anti-semitic views he expressed throughout his life, and the horrors of the Third Reich.

The pilgrim Church went on a very long journey after 1945 towards a discovery of how true Pius XI’s words had been, that we are all spiritual semites.  The present Holy Father, with his call to  everyone to read the Scriptures,  could not be further from Belloc who dismissed the Epistles of Paul as those of a “muddly old yid”.

I do not want, however,  to end negatively.

In early life he had dreamed of being a don at Oxford and he never forgave All Souls’ for not giving him a fellowship.  Thank God  they  didn’t.  He  rampaged off, after Oxford, to become  one of the great men of Fleet  Street ,  absurdly opinionated, drunken, sometimes hilarious and sometimes hectoring. He was a better writer in every way than his chum Chesterton. For one thing, you sense in his writing, especially in the funny verses,  a deep sense of life’s cruelty and  sorrow.  In his religion,  Belloc was honest enough to find no consolation for this sorrow, which stemmed from the loss of his wife and two beloved sons.  Apart from the sea,  it was drinking and laughing with friends which brought consolation. I find that – and his absolute absence of humbug – very sympathetic.

From quiet homes and first beginning

Out to the undiscovered ends

There’s nothing worth the wear of winning

But laughter and the love of friends.

            This article was written for The Tablet, and appears in their issue of 24th July 2020.

Perjuring Bishops

This picture could be entitled “Laughing all the Way to the Bank”.

Like many old hacks, I have done a range of jobs in the Street of Shame. While I was Literary Editor of the Evening Standard, a  dream job which could scarcely be described as demanding, my  editor, Paul Dacre – a demon-figure for  the chattering classes but the kindest and best employer I ever had and certainly the best editor – suggested I cover trials. I sat through every day of several famous ones – including Rose West at Winchester Crown Court and  the William Kennedy Smith trial for rape in  Palm Beach, Florida.  (Kennedy Smith was acquitted, West was sent down for life, both interesting judgements in my view). In some ways the most instructive, however,  from a legal point of view, was the trial of Jeffrey Archer for perjury. It emerged that he had lied in court, when suing a newspaper for a story that he had given money to a woman, in a brown paper envelope, who mysteriously died shortly before the perjury case.

He was sent down for four years and served two – 2001-3.  The trial was interesting because the Judge, Mr Justice Potts, made it so clear to the jury  that perjury really strikes at the heart of the entire legal system. You simply can not have a system of justice which is effective if the word of witnesses and plaintiffs and defendants is unreliable. Hence the significance of their swearing to the truth of their statements on the Holy Bible .

I do not know Jeffrey Archer’s religious beliefs, and it could well be that he thought  the Bible was a work of no more significance than one of his own novels. You might have guessed that the wife of an Archbishop of Canterbury would think otherwise, but apparently not.

A former Dean of Canterbury, an old chap called Victor  De Waal (father of the charming, and famous potter) has now admitted that he had a fling with Lindy Runcie, while her husband Bob was Archbishop of Canterbury. Why de Waal wants the publicity at the age of 91, we are not in a position to say. His affair with Mrs Runcie  was  no one’s business but their own, you might say, and how can a gutter journalist like myself justify bringing a private matter such as this to the public notice?

Good question, but I would submit, m’ lud,  that it WAS in the public interest if the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Dean of the Mother Church of the Diocese of Canterbury were having a friendship the Dean now deems to have been “inappropriate”. After all, the Church presumes to tell people how they should behave in the bedroom, whether it is admissible for unmarried people to sleep together, whether it is in order to be gay, divorced whaddever.

Rosalind Runcie, when she read a reference to her affair with de Waal in the Daily Star, sued for libel. She won substantial damages which she spent, it was said, doing up the gardens  at Lambeth Palace.  Some genial old Anglican bishop once said that he always thought of the Ten Commandments as like an exam “seven only need be attempted”. Clearly,  Lindy Runcie thought the same, choosing to ignore the injunctions both against committing adultery and bearing false witness. When I think of the , admittedly repellent, Jeffrey Archer doing two years in prison for committing perjury, it seems preposterous that Mrs Runcie, later Lady Runcie, was not banged up for committing the same offence.

Another of my journalistic assignments in days long gone was to write a column for Private Eye about the bishops of the Church of England. My by-line was Lucy Fer. All sorts of disobliging things were written by Lucy Fer about most of the diocesan bishops and some of the smaller fry. I liked a letter, sent to Lucy, by a Jamaican lady  who said she was prepared to have ONE of her sons abused by the bishop but when he did it with all three she felt that it was a step too far. Only one bishop, Bath and Wells, sued.  He had done a real estate fiddle, and sold a property for grossly under its market value to favour a friend. He also perjured himself, since I knew for absolute fact that the matter over which he complained was true. He settled out of court and got £43,000 which he said he was going to give to charity but , as far as investigation was possible, no evidence was ever found which suggested the money  ever left the bishop’s own bank account.

While I was writing my Lucy Fer pieces I often had twinges of conscience, thinking it was rather mean to reveal  quite what a shower the bishops were. The story of Rosalind Runcie’s  making substantial sums of money out of lying, while holding a Bible in her hands, makes me realize that, as a character says in one of I. Compton Burnett’s novels, cynicism can never go too far.

Dickens – Racist

Those who spray-painted the Dickens Museum in Broadstairs with the words DICKENS A RACIST were unfortunately accurate in their description.

In 1865, there was a rebellion of plantation workers in Jamaica. The manner in which it was suppressed provoked outrage. That eloquent liberal John Stuart Mill, called for the Governor of Jamaica, Edward John Eyre, to be prosecuted for murder.

The rebellion had been instigated by a Baptist preacher called Paul Bogle, now a national hero in Jamaica. In the course of the uprising, 18 British militia-men were killed. Eyre’s response was to have 600 Jamaicans flogged. He burned down 1,000 houses and killed 439 people, including one of the mixed-race members of the Assembly, George William Gordon. The only possible defence for Eyre’s monstrous, truly monstrous, behaviour, was to suggest that Black Lives really do NOT matter. Eyre was prosecuted but he was exonerated in the Queen’s Bench, his legal costs were paid for by the Government and he lived out a comfortable retirement in Devon.

The incident was not typical of the way the British Empire was run. The very fact that John Stuart Mill, and other decent individuals, wanted to prosecute Eyre for murder shows that Victorian men and women did have a conscience about it.

Charles Dickens, in common with many others, vigorously defended Eyre’s position. It is not the only example of Dickens’s racism. The depiction of Fagin in Oliver Twist is  plainly coloured by all the old antisemitic stereotypes. His mockery of Mrs Jellyby, in Bleak House, stems from her wish to support African charity-work .

In my  recent book, The Mystery of Charles Dickens, the mystery is – how could such a  mixed-up character have come to write such wonderful books? And, more, how could someone who was so  genuinely humane   have been so monstrously unkind, domestically,  and – on occasion publicly. He was, for example, an assiduous prison visitor, but he  pressed for ever tougher, and more pointless punishments in British prisons.

The answer is, of course, that we are all a mixture of good and bad, and in the case of great geniuses, the  extremes of vice and virtue are often glaring. When it came to pricking the conscience of the steel-hearted Victorians about child poverty, no one did it better than Dickens. When it came to imagining what it would be like to work as a poverty-stricken, recently liberated slave in Jamaica, the great novelist’s capacity for empathy deserted him.

Does this justify someone vandalising a Dickens Museum? That is for the magistrates to decide. We live in angry times. John Stuart Mill, who denounced the behaviour of Governor Eyre, worked for many years, as did his father, for the East India Company which exploited, diddled, and murdered many of his fellow-mortals. The past is a bloody awful place. We maybe learn more  about it by reading the words of our ancestors than by smashing their statues or daubing paint on walls. But such actions are, I am afraid, very understandable .    (This article appeared in The Daily Telegraph, June 30, 2020.)

Poets’ Fountain

There is an excellent article in the June 19th, 2020 edition of the Times Literary Supplement on the question of statues,  and the topical question of their  ethics: when to remove, or put up  ,  statues of individuals once admired, now deemed obnoxious. –

https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/fall-guys/ will find it.

The author points out for example that there was considerable opposition, from Irish MPs about the erection of a statue of Oliver Cromwell, in 1895, outside the Houses of Parliament.  The statue had to be surrounded by a steel barrier to prevent attacks from the Fenians. The sculptor was Hamo Thornycroft.

Another Thornycroft sculpture, of which I had never heard , is the Poets’ Fountain. It was erected at the end of Park Lane, and depicted Milton, Shakespeare  and Chaucer.  Erected in 1875   it  was (slightly) damaged by enemy action during the Second World War. This was used as an excuse never to put it back. The anonymous TLS author asks “might a new poets’ memorial, including the original trio but adding more by popular vote be welcome? Then again, poets with unblemished reputations also might be in short supply”.

The questions raise any number of mare’s nests. Rudyard Kipling’s IF was voted not long ago to be the nation’s favourite poem – by a long margin.  But just imagine what would happen if you tried to add Kipling to Poet’s Fountain! Given the fate of the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford, his  chum Kipling – the author not only of IF but of “The White Man’s Burden” would surely be asking for a red paint job before it was even erected. Auden said that “Time that with this strange excuse, pardoned Kipling and his views”… but that was written a very long time ago, and I am not sure Time is making those kind of excuses just at the moment.

 Chaucer?  My first six weeks of lockdown were spent reading the entire works of Chaucer and I absolutely loved it. But … The Prioress’s Tale? Oh dear. The virulent antisemitism… I know that when  Chaucer wrote the tale, there were no Jews in England – they had all been long ago expelled – but even so, it makes your hair stand on end.  And then there is the  possibly Rolf Harris side to Chaucer: Cecilia Chaumpaigne, daughter of a London baker, was the young person in a case in which Chaucer was accused of “raptus”. Whether this was mere abduction or actual rape, and whether Chaucer fathered a child with this girl remains unclear, but he paid her £10, the equivalent of his entire annual salary as a Customs Collector. You do not pay that sort of hush money unless you have something to hush up.

However much we love the poetry of Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, T.S.Eliot, Ezra Pound , (well I love Ezra’s poetry even if some of you do not!)  it is not difficult to imagine the reactions if you started trying to add them to Poet’s Fountain. Obviously, and hooray, – there would be calls for the big trio (assuming Chaucer survived because of all-round genius despite the objections I have raised)…to be joined by women. C.Rossetti, Stevie Smith., Hilda Dolittle (HD) and Vita Sackville-West, three paces  forward !  Not to mention Sylvia Plath, of course… Even the thought of it, however, makes me see trouble of some kind ahead. If you had to choose just ONE female poet, I think I’d plump for Charlotte Mew , but there would be howls that she was not well enough known, that she was too sad, and that her ghastly end (drinking a disinfectant called LYSOL) did not provide a suitable role model for young aspirant female poets of today. That line of thinking will lead you to a “popular” choice.

At one of these literary festivals one is kindly asked to, I met Pam  Ayres. Loved her. She is an extremely nice woman, and I love her verses, but if you put her on a plinth with Milton and Shakespeare, you would be making a mockery both of her and of poetry itself.

So –  a nice idea, but maybe the Poet’s Fountain should remain dry.

If you haven’t read Charlotte Mew, try her. Well, that’s for another Blog maybe.

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