An Index of the 1970s


‘piles: see Benn, Tony’… Just occasionally, a book’s index is a work of art in itself. Here, Jonathan Law finds some that offer a hilarious insight into 1970s Britain…

In a recent Dabbler Diary, Brit wrote interestingly about reactions to the passing of Tony Benn – that “indefatigable, articulate, admirable, unique man who happened to be completely wrong about everything”. To anyone like me, who first came to political awareness in the 1970s, the near unanimous warmth of the tributes can hardly be other than puzzling. I’m old enough (just) to recall the days when the same Benn was the most vilified man in Britain, invariably drawn by Cummings, Jensen, Jak and the rest with strobing eyes and the body language of a mad Nazi robot. You can’t help asking how and when that happened – the morphing of a once potent bogeyman into a cuddly cross between Alan Bennett and the late Queen Mother.

Seeking some enlightenment – and aware that my knowledge of Benn in his earlier incarnations was actually pretty vague – I looked him up in the index to Dominic Sandbrook’s Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain 1974-79, a very thick book that has been languishing in my ‘to read’ pile for much too long. I was richly rewarded, if not entirely in the way I had expected. Sandbrook’s index turns out be a minor comic masterpiece and – by and of itself – one of the best things I have read about the 1970s. In case that sounds implausible, then here is an edited version of the entry on Benn:

Benn, Anthony Wedgewood, (Tony): airy-fairy stuff 36; and the CIA 153-4; consoles himself with a new quartz clock computer 649; fails to take part in orgies 154; has the most ghastly piles 786; inhales his own rhetoric 273; insularity 501-2; as a madman 275-6, 329-30; on the towering genius of Mao Tse-tung 488-9; paranoia 154; tries to spoil the Silver Jubilee 630

Not only is that genuinely funny, but it also conveys the authentic texture of a life – and of a still puzzling era. The effect depends most obviously on Sandbrook’s eye for detail and his mordant turn of phrase, but it is surely heightened by the index form itself; the weird medley of items is made to seem all the more incongruous by our expectation of orderly analysis, logical arrangement. Nor is the Benn entry a one-off. Working through the rest of the index, I found myself repeatedly laughing out loud at the biographical entries, with their apparently arbitrary (and yet always very apt) choice of particulars. In much the same way, there is something deeply surreal about the index as a whole – a space where Bagpuss curls up next to the Baader-Meinhof Gang, Love Thy Neighbour is neighbour to the sinister-sounding Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Peacekeeping, and Murdoch, Iris materializes next to Multi-coloured Swap Shop (now there’s an appearance I would love to have seen).

In all this, I suppose, the index acts as a faithful mirror to what we can all now agree was a very odd decade. Indeed, if you wanted a lurid snapshot of Britain at that time you could hardly do better than to compile a selection from the indexes to Seasons in the Sun and Sandbrook’s previous volume, State of Emergency – The Way We Were: Britain 1970-1974:

Akenfield; Anal Rape (film); Angry Brigade; Askwith, Robin; Betamax; Bird’s Eye; Black Dwarf (radical paper); Black and White Minstrel Show; ‘Blueprint for Survival’; BOSS; A Bouquet of Barbed Wire; Brain Salad Surgery; Brentford Nylons; calculators, pocket; Camping and Outdoor Life Exhibition, Olympia; Carlos the Jackal; Carry on Emmanuelle; Castaneda, Carlos; The Collapse of Democracy; The Comedians (TV show); The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady; Crowther, Leslie; Dead Babies; Doomwatch; Feather, Vic; The Flumps; Free Wales Army; Freud, Clement; George and Mildred; Gleneagles Hotel, Torquay; Golden Wonder crisps; Green Goddesses; Harris, ‘Whispering’ Bob; Hawkwind, Warrior on the Edge of Time LP; Hill, Geoffrey; Holder, Noddy; Idiot International (radical paper); Ivor the Engine; John Curry Ice Spectacular; Lane, Carla; League of Empire Loyalists; Liberty and Property Defence League; Little Black Sambo; McGahey, Mick; Mahirishi Mahesh Yogi; Maplin sands, plans for new airport on; mugging; Nabarro, Sir Gerald; Newton-John, Olivia; Pershore, rural dean of; Petition for Public Decency; Phillips, Big Jeff (pornographer); Pizzey, Erin; Puffin Book Club; Purves, Peter; Rinka the Great Dane; Robin’s Nest; Robinson, Derek (‘Red Robbo’); Quatermass; Showaddywaddy; Simmonds, Posy; Suck (Dutch underground newspaper); Survivors; swearing; Thrower, Percy; vacuum cleaners; Vesta ready meals; Von Däniken, Erich; Weighell, Sid; Who Killed Enoch Powell? (thriller); Wombles (band); ZX80 minicomputer

It’s the stuff of a thousand pop-culture retrospectives, to be sure, but with a strong current of fear and paranoia running right through it. And somehow all the more comic and unsettling for being laid out like that, in an orderly, alphabetical list.


All of which got me wondering about indexes in general – a subject to which I had never given a lot of thought, beyond occasionally cursing a bad one. Does an index have a point, beyond the banal but indispensable one of helping a reader to find stuff? Can an index ever count as literature? And what makes for a really useful, satisfying, or entertaining example of the form, like the two we have been looking at? (I ought to stress that Sandbrook’s indices – which I will assume he compiled himself – are very well constructed and user-friendly as well as continuously amusing.)

Of course, there are those who’ll try to tell you that the art of the indexer is now as obsolete as that of the farrier or the coracle maker. In the age of the computer-generated index and electronic full-text search, doesn’t the old-fashioned back-of-the-book list have, at best, a quaint artisanal appeal? Well, if that’s the case someone ought to be mounting a Campaign for Real Indexes (and while we’re at it, for Real Source Notes, the omission of which from any serious work of non-fiction is a disgrace). In the first place, a decent hand-crafted index will usually get you to the info you require much more efficiently than its digital equivalent. A computer-generated index can never really be more than a bare concordance of words and page numbers and, as we all know, digital search has a way of leading you up any number of blind (or at least, very short-sighted) alleys. But there’s more to it than that; a really good analytical index is also satisfying on an intellectual or aesthetic level. An index has an important taxonomic function – if the job is well done, the entire content of the book (and therefore of its subject field) will be laid out before you in a beautifully elegant hierarchy of concepts and sub-concepts, categories and sub-categories. I have heard authors say they never really knew what their work was about until they saw it indexed.

However, none of this can explain the browsing appeal – occasionally, the sheer entertainment value – of a really good index. I suppose any large, lively subject becomes potentially funny, if you strip it to bare bones and try to anatomize it; in its vitality and profusion, it will be constantly escaping any logical scheme that you can impose. Also, there’s the way in which an index aspires to an almost ghostly ideal of reason – only to have this undermined by the arbitrary nature of alphabet order, with its odd juxtapositions and strange feats of serendipity. You could get all post-structural and say that the A-Z arrangement – an accidental product of language – works against the pure conceptual order that is the Platonic dream of the indexer (if Derrida and the other big-shot Deconstructionistas never wrote about indexes, they really ought to have done). Oh, and a magpie mind and a witty way with words will go a long way too.

All this is pre-eminently true of Sandbrook’s indexes, which set out everything I half-remember or have since heard about the 1970s – but then give the whole thing a marvellous twist or twerk, sending the pieces of the kaleidoscope flying into new patterns and relationships. An anthology of the best bits follows (SOE indicates State of Emergency – the book about the Heath years – and SITS Seasons in the Sun – the one about Wilson and Callaghan):

Amin, General Idi: (SOE) Guardian praise for 254; hit on the head with a hammer 254; offers financial aid to UK during three-day week 593

Amis, Kingsley: (SOE) abandons sentimental mollycoddling of women 413: (SITS) accuses Kenneth Tynan of conniving at his execution 148:

Betjeman, John: (SITS) terrible Silver Jubilee hymn 631

Blackpool: (SITS) dearth of bread and cheese in 476

Booker, Christopher: (SOE) on masculinity 396-7; on Milton Keynes 365-6; unlikely to wear skimpy red pants 399

Britain: (SITS) Hughie Green’s call for national renewal of 179; military coup, possibilities of 124-49

Callaghan, James: (SOE) hairstyle of 399: (SITS) embarrassed by nudity 46; as a gnarled tree 463; shocked by impersonation of homosexual cook 462

Castle, Barbara: (SOE) wears a trouser suit 407

Creme Eggs: (SITS) see Thatcher, Margaret

Crosland, Anthony: (SOE) falls asleep on television 214: (SITS) tells Hattersley to fuck off 432

Daily Mail: (SOE) urges greater sexual experimentation 600

Devlin, Bernadette: (SOE) makes a fine mermaid 261

Doctor Who: (SOE) giant maggots in 206; giant rat in 348; supports European entry 163; supports 1974 miners’ strike 601: (SITS) more popular than Militant 306; people running interminably up and down corridors in 371

Donoughue, Bernard: (SITS) believes polytechnic lectures are a bunch of wankers 302

Elizabeth II: (SITS) washes the dishes 420

‘Fanfare for Europe’ (SOE) (to mark British EEC entry): 170-72

Fawlty Towers: (SOE) contributes to Anglo-German relations 174

fluorescent bat-wings: (SOE) see Gabriel, Peter

Gabriel, Peter: (SITS) wears an obscene monster suit 539

Gladstone, W.E.: (SITS) bugged portrait of 74

Greer, Germaine: (SOE) talks about breasts at Cambridge dinner 383-4; writes gardening column for Private Eye 384

Healey, Denis: (SOE) promises to squeeze speculators until the pips squeak 622; tucks Barbara Castle under armpit 407: (SITS) does the choo-choo train 504; tells the left to go and fuck themselves 423

Heath, Edward: (SOE) disappointed by Himmler’s handshake 136; as a frustrated hotelier 53; massacres French language 150; massacres Mozart 42; peculiar voice of 17-18; plays the piano for Union bosses 105: (SITS) leans nonchalantly on an Italian deep-freeze 425; stacks books on his chairs to stop Thatcher sitting down 257; stares at Thatcher with undisguised hatred 238, 328; unconvincing attempts to look cuddly 158

housing: (SOE) horrible decoration of 336-8

industrial unrest: (SOE) Rigsby’s views on 98

Jenkins, Roy: (SOE) big smooth head 157; called a Fascist bastard 166; hopes Labour will lose 1974 election

Jones, Jack: (SOE) denounced by Benn as too right-wing 623; as Soviet agent 103

Joseph, Sir Keith: (SITS) declares support for lavatories 235; as a saloon-bar Malthus 233-4; warns of Soviet threat to nation’s campers 235-6

Lambton, Anthony: (SOE) as a vigorous gardener 469; three-in-a-bed romp 470

Larkin, Philip: (SITS) admires Thatcher’s pretty face 254; trenchant views on immigrants 631; trenchant views on lower-class bastards 741

lavatories: (SITS) see Joseph, Sir Keith

Longford, Lord: (SOE) strangled in Copenhagen sex club 196; watches girl take off her knickers 453

MacLeod, Ally: (SITS) predicts Scottish world Cup victory 529; puts up a new corner unit to hold the World Cup 530; returns from World Cup empty-handed 534

Mason, Roy: (SITS) as an amateur necktie designer 122

masturbation: (SOE) see Thatcher, Margaret

Maudling, Reginald (Reggie): (SOE) has brandy for breakfast 64; eats baked potato and caviar 512; watches A Clockwork Orange 448: (SITS) drinks a jug of Dubonnet and gin 669; likens Thatcher to a grub 670; summons up enough energy to be quite rude 670

Moore, Roger: (SOE) questionable dress sense 398

obscene vegetable matter: (SOE) see Whitehouse, Mary

Paisley, Ian: (SOE) heavy breathing of 503

Palin, Michael: (SITS) fails to eat a piece of cheese 96; fails to eat some pickled onions 96; fails to have his car mended 96; fails to write a novel 261-2; thinks it is cold 723; thinks it is hot 697

piles: (SITS) see Benn, Tony

Poulson, John: (SOE) incapable of designing a brick shithouse 509; sacks employee for having a beard 509

Powell, Enoch: (SOE) sings Te Deum 635

Revie, Don: (SOE) urged to call out Bingo numbers in Arabic 569

Scanlon, Hugh: (SOE) fails to breed goldfish 103

Scargill, Arthur: (SOE) unsuccessful holiday in Bulgaria 144

Silly Burghers of Sowerby Bridge: (SOE) 444

Sun: (SOE) as pro-European 162; banned from Sowerby Bridge 444

Thatcher, Margaret: (SOE) on masturbation 422: (SITS) and chocolates 783; makes a mess of some Cadbury’s Creme Eggs 791

Thorpe, Jeremy: (SITS) contracts gonorrhoea from Greek prostitute 442-3; plans to have his ex-lover eaten by Florida alligators 444; wades ashore from sinking hovercraft 159

Waugh, Auberon: (SITS) claims that pensioners are being mercilessly raped 758; claims that Wilson is a KGB agent 72; declares war on dwarves, ugly women and New Statesmen journalists 792; stands for the Dog Lovers’ Party 455-6

Whitehouse, Mary: (SOE) alarmed by obscene vegetable matter 461

Whitelaw, Willie: (SOE) horrified by pork pies 53; looks into abyss 126

Williams, Kenneth: (SOE) disdains the English working man 121; disdains Porridge 49; disdains The Good Life 212

Williams, Marcia (Lady Falkender): (SITS) fellow aides’ plans to murder 60; ‘lavender list’ 436-40; rows about lunchtime arrangements 57-8, 165, 172

Wilson, Harold:  (SOE) views on cheese 139; elaborate getaway plans 634, 637; plans to sail up the Clyde in lighthouse-keeper’s uniform 84-5; wades in shit for three months 159: (SITS) burglaries 63, 67, 71, 74; compared with George Smiley 76-7; compares himself to a big fat spider 452; complains of ‘the squitters’ 38, 418; coup hysteria 141; and the KGB 68-73; on Morecambe and Wise 431; paranoia 66-7, 68, 73-4, 418, 452-3; polishes off five brandies 39; polishes off six brandies 39

women: (SOE) expected to reduce men to chattels 414; mollycoddled by Kingsley Amis 452

Hilarious bonkers stuff. But isn’t there also, from our perspective – forty years on, and peering back across the great gulf of the Thatcher times – a strong pull of sadness too? Nostalgia be damned and perhaps I’m just imagining it: but doesn’t this long roll-call of once potent names carry the same inexplicable pathos as the lists of ships in Homer, of knights in Malory, of pagan gods in Milton? If for no other reason than that almost everyone here – et tu Tony – is dead.

Jonathan Law is a writer and editor of reference books at Market House Books.

The Surprising History of Poetical Misprints

macliesh ars poetica
From Wordsworth to Auden, a surprising number of famous poems have been blighted – or sometimes, improved – by printing errors, as Jonathan Law reveals…

On a hazy day at the close of August Frank Key gave us his startling revisionist take on a well-known poem by Sylvia Plath:

In her mad poem ‘Daddy’, Sylvia Plath makes mention of “a bag full of God”. I have always taken this to be a misprint … I am as sure as eggs is eggs that what Plath originally wrote was “a bag full of Goo”. A slapdash printer made “Goo” into “God”, and the error has persisted for half a century …

I’m not enough of a Plath scholar to say whether Frank could be right, but the history of these things suggests that it’s far from impossible. Given Wilde’s dictum that “a poet can survive anything but a misprint”, you’d think that printers and publishers would take fierce pains to avoid even minor errata in poetry: but this just isn’t the case. If anything, radical, outrageous, sense-subverting typos are more common in verse than in the workaday medium of prose.

I suspect there might be two reasons for this. In the first place, many poems make their debut in tiny, no-budget magazines that can’t afford proof-readers and don’t send page proofs to the author; this is true even of new work by the Big Beasts of the poetry world. Errors introduced here are often perpetuated in later editions and can easily end up enshrined in the big posthumous Collected unless there is a thorough check of printed texts against MSS. Secondly, and rather more interestingly, there’s something about the language of poetry that makes it strangely pervious to error. In prose, any half-decent editor will query an incongruous word or a phrase that doesn’t seem to stack up in the ordinary way; some mistake surely. But in poetry, where odd collocations abound and everyday meanings get stretched and twisted like blu-tack? As long as a word passes spellcheck, then who’s to say that it’s (certainly) wrong? Editors with fidgety fingers need to remember the case of Richard Bentley, the great classical scholar who published his ‘corrected version’ of Paradise Lost in 1732; arguing that the blind poet had been let down by his scribes, Bentley expunged scores of sublime Miltonisms that troubled his 18th-century notions of sense and taste (obviously, the great Milton could never have written anything as illogical as “darkness visible” – what he wanted to say was “a transpicuous gloom”).

In the best poems, words are charged with a weird static and every stanza carries its tiny shock of delight. But if the language of poetry depends crucially upon surprise, then the word that slips into a poem by sheer fluke – through accident or inattention – will sometimes look and act as if it has a perfect right of abode. At times there may be a true serendipity – the word that was never meant bringing a rich strangeness or glamour. There’s a well-known example in Auden’s Journey to Iceland, which originally began:

And the traveller hopes: “Let me be far from any
Physician”; and the poets have names for the sea;
The citiless, the corroding, the sorrow
And North means to all: “Reject!”

However, when Auden received the galleys from Faber this had itself undergone a sea change: the second line now read

 …and the ports have names for the sea

– a gift that the poet was happy to accept.

There’s a more dubious case in Wordsworth, in his otherwise not very interesting poem ‘To Miss Blackett, on Her First Ascent to the Summit of Helvellyn’. In the poem that he wrote in (probably) 1816 Wordsworth alluded to certain “choral fountains” that he imagined playing in certain caves in the mountains of the moon; come the collected edition of 1832, however, and these had become “coral fountains” – a freakish but not unappealing idea that fits well enough with the odd vein of fantasy in the piece. Very likely this originated as a mistake, but if so it’s one the poet decided to stick with in all subsequent editions appearing in his lifetime (Wordsworth was a fanatical reader of proofs, so it’s hard to believe that he simply missed it). Rather unimaginatively, all the great poet’s modern editors have opted to restore “choral” – the 1914 Oxford edition insisting sternly that “Wordsworth was not a writer of nonsense-verses” and opining that “coral fountains” is in any case a “vile phrase” (if anything, he should have written “fountains coralline”).

Something a bit similar happened in US editions of Yeats’s Collected Poems, which for many years printed this version of lines from his glorious poem Among School Children:

Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;
Soldier Aristotle played the taws
Upon the bottom of a king of kings …

Miraculous stuff you might think, a signature piece of full-blown late period  Yeats; but hold it right there – what Yeats actually wrote was “solider Aristotle” (solider, that is, than spumy old Plato).  Having grown up with the ‘wrong’ version of this I can’t help preferring it: surely the line scans better and the epithet “soldier” is all the stronger for being unexpected (Aristotle was never himself a fighting man but certainly cheered on the exploits of his pupil, Alexander). Just possibly Yeats agreed: if he was aware of the error, then like Wordsworth he took no steps to put it right.

Prestigious collected editions seem oddly prone to this sort of thing. In terms of its typos and other minor errors, the most notorious Collected  of modern times has to be the bestselling edition of Larkin’s poems published by Anthony Thwaite in 1988 (but don’t let that put you off: there are several important reasons why this book is better than either of the subsequent big Larkins). According to James Fenton, writing in the New York Times, one 12-line poem, ‘Long Sight in Age’, contains no less than three significant  errors:

They say eyes clear with age,
As dew clarifies air
To sharpen evenings,
As if time put an edge
Round the last shape of things
To show them there;
The many-levelled trees,
The long soft tides of grass
Wrinkling away the gold
Wind-ridden waves—all these,
They say, come back into focus
As we grow old.

 That is the poem as Thwaite prints it; but his own eyes were obviously far from clear. Larkin wrote “lost shape of things” not “last shape” and at the close of the piece there are no “waves” of any sort but rather weather vanes, glinting as they turn in the sun:

The long soft tides of grass
Wincing away, the gold
Wind-ridden vanes

The real surprise is how little any of this matters; Thwaite’s errors do nothing to detract from the chill beauty of Larkin’s poem or the coherence of its central conceit. “Last shape” brings the idea of mortality into a still more pitiless focus, and the lines about “wind-ridden waves” of grass seem finely characteristic of Larkin when he is working this lyrical-elegiac mode. As Fenton writes: “I can see it, the wind riding the grass in waves that seem to wrinkle. But it’s not Larkin.”

Sometimes, of course, a misprint will be more jarringly subversive of a writer’s intention. In the Collected Poems of Archibald MacLeish, for example, the editors somehow contrived to misprint two of the best-known lines in his very famous Ars Poetica:

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.

Is it just the over-familiarity of this piece – cited ad nauseam in every discussion of modernist poetics – that gives me a sneaking fondness for the botched version?

A poem should be worldless
As the flight of birds.

That makes no sense at all, in context, and entirely subverts MacLeish’s insistence on the concrete, this-worldly nature of poetry (“A poem should be palpable and mute/ As a globed fruit” and so on). But all the same, that “worldless flight” is beguiling – a rush of the airiest Shelleyan romanticism where no one would look for it.

And there perhaps you have it. There’s something of the romantic sublime about a good misprint, something that makes it a little bit harder to think straightforwardly about the relation of word to world (or indeed, of goo to God).

Jonathan Law is a writer and editor of reference books at Market House Books.

Sylvia Plath’s Tomato Soup Cake (and other baking exploits)

plath tomato soup cake

‘Cake imagery in the writings of Sylvia Plath’ is an underexplored literary topic, but if anyone can take it on, marginalia maestro Jonathan Law can…

On a damp afternoon in May, enraged cake-obsessive ‘ianf’ posted a plea for more serious treatment of his favourite subject:

You seem to be stuck forever in some make-believe land where Humanity’s Primary Dessert, Cakes, DO NOT MATTER. Yet nothing could be further from the truth – which I’ll now expertly demonstrate by piling literary logick upon more literary logick—until you can’t take this anymo.

As part of his argument – which is far too complex and nuanced to be summarized here – Ian alluded to the baking exploits of the poet Sylvia Plath, and in particular her Tomato Soup Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting (sounds disgusting but apparently delicious).

‘Cake Imagery in the Writings of Sylvia Plath’ is an underexplored literary topic but one that I am happy to broach here in the hope of placating Ian – and happy to pass on gratis to anyone casting about for that elusive PhD subject. Indeed, the failure to address this area of Plath’s sensibility seems quite puzzling, given the numerous references to cakes in her Journals and the wholly characteristic intensity she brings to descriptions of baking, frosting, and (of course) eating the things. Could it be that the subject of Plath and baking has been avoided out of a misplaced delicacy, because it sounds like some awful joke? (In case you’re not there yet, and to avoid circling the issue for the rest of this post: oven.)

As any reader of the unexpurgated Journals will know, cakes good, bad, and indigestible formed a major part of Plath’s daily experience – as was the case, no doubt, for millions of stay-at-home wives in those pre-feminist days of the 1950s and 60s. The poet was not only a keen baker but something of a connoisseur – a stern critic, too, when occasion demanded. Here, for example, are a moist handful of references from the last journal to survive, the one written in Devon (cream tea country) in early 1962:

a handsome fruit cake, with one quarter cut out … Green and red and brown fruit studded the bottom of the yellow slab sides, and it rose to a browned crown …

a big tea laid, scones, cream, cherry jelly; a chocolate cake with rich dark frosting …

a plate of absolutely indigestible “Black Walnut flavored” cupcakes from a Betty Crocker mix Mrs. Tyrer had dug out of her closet …

But there’s a lot more to it than this Keatsian responsiveness to the tastes and textures of our cake-crumb world. If Plath knew all about the Joy of Cakes, she was also aware of the dark side – the obsessive, immersive nature of the baker’s craft, the loaded associations with femininity and home-making, the trauma and shame of a bake gone bad. The earliest of her diaries, written at Smith College in 1951, contains this harrowing account of layer-cake disaster:

I headed back to the kitchen, where my layer cakes reposed. I couldn’t figure out how to turn them over so that the plates would hold the two cakes. I put the plates upside down on top of the layers as they sat on the rack and turned the racks over so that the plates would turn out rightside up … Lack of foresight was revealed when the heavy rack, turned over on top of the cakes, crushed deeply into them and crumbled large pieces from the edge. I had not made enough frosting to spread over the side of the cake to conceal the messy uneven edges, so I cut three pieces of the worst-looking part … They crumbled into little shapeless brown masses on the plates. So I hid them in a cupboard in order that no one would see them.

And then there is this sinister observation from the Plath-Hughes household in 1959 – an imagist poem in itself, as well as an omen suggesting more than culinary doom:

The chicken, raw, wrapped in paper in the icebox, dropped a drop of blood on my pristine white cheesecake.


More substantially, baking and kitchen-work figure in two ideas for short stories that Plath worked on in 1957-58 but never managed to complete. The lighter of these is a “modern pot & kettle story” called ‘Changeabout in Mrs. Cherry’s Kitchen’:

Shiny modern gadgets are overspecialized – long to do others’ tasks. Toaster, iron, waffle-maker, refrigerator, egg beater, electric fry-pan, blender. One midnight fairies or equivalent grant wish to change-about. Iron wants to make waffles … refrigerator tired of foods, decides to freeze clothes, toaster tired of toast, wants to bake fancy cake. Egg beater dizzy with whirring around decides to iron ruffly white blouse. Roasting spit wants to bake cookies. Dish-washer wants to cook. Disturbance caused by jealousy, return gladly after whirlwind experiment to doing best of own job.

If this sounds like a deeply conservative message – stick to what you know, you ‘tired’ toasters and dizzy egg-beaters! – a similar moral emerges from ‘The Day of the Twenty-four Cakes’, a tale of threatened yet victorious domesticity sketched out by Plath in July 1957:

THE DAY OF THE TWENTY-FOUR CAKES … woman at end of rope with husband, children: lost sense of order in universe, all meaningless, loss of hopes: quarrel with husband: loose ends, bills, problems, dead end. Wavering between running away or committing suicide: stayed by need to create an order: slowly, methodically begins to bake cakes, one each hour, calls store for eggs, etc. from midnight to midnight. Husband comes home: new understanding. She can go on making order in her limited way: beautiful cakes: can’t bear to leave them.

In her later development of the story, the wife (Ellen) is on the point of leaving her husband (Jock), who seems to be having an affair:

Compelled to leave something for children: their favorite cakes: starts baking. By compulsion, feels the need to keep on, orders four dozen eggs, confectioners sugar, measures out vanilla, baking powder: sense of order, neatness, creativeness. Born homemaker, sense of dignity, richness: knowledge that she’s what Jock really needs and wants. Trusts him to see it, too … Jock comes home, walks into kitchen: she is vital, flushed from baking, at peace with herself. Knows she will stick with him, and that he has truly come back to her. The last train to the city: she is dressed: just putting frosting on cupcakes.

Although this was written in the happiest days of the Plath-Hughes marriage, hindsight gives it a poignant edge; indeed, the denouement seems like a kind of wishful thinking before the event – in Sylvia’s case, there could be no “new understanding” through eggs, sugar, and baking powder, however manically deployed. ‘The Twenty-four Cakes’ is no great loss to literature, perhaps – but there’s something haunting in the compulsive nature of Ellen’s domesticity, her existential need to “go on making order in her limited way”. Plath seems both like and unlike the wife in the story: a kindred spirit in her craving for “order, neatness, creativeness” – and her need to please her husband – but unlike in having wider outlets for these urges. She could make cakes with the best of them, but she could also do the poems. A few days after writing this story sketch, Plath confided blissfully to her diary:

I feel good with my husband: I like his warmth and his bigness and his being-there and his making and his jokes and stories … and how he shows his gladness for what I cook him and joy for when I make something, a poem or a cake, and how he is troubled when I am unhappy and wants to do anything so I can fight out my soul-battles …

The equation cake = poem seems odd but on second thoughts is rather apt; in its combination of airiness and density a good cake is a lot like a decent poem, and no doubt vice versa.

That her fiercely undomesticated art might arise from the same impulse to order as her domestic goddess act is a paradox that Plath sometimes seemed to recognize. At other times, of course, household duties could feel like a dead weight choking any more adventurous form of creativity. In that same summer of 1957, after a day devoted to baking a pie, Plath worried that she was becoming:

too happily stodgily practical: instead of … writing – I go make an apple pie, or study the Joy of Cooking, reading it like a rare novel. Whoa, I said to myself. You will escape into domesticity & stifle yourself by falling headfirst into a bowl of cookie batter.

But this feeling seems to have been the exception, not the rule. Even in the inspired desperate days that saw the writing of the Ariel poems, Plath carefully noted her baking routines in her daily calendar; this is how we know that she dug out her comforting tomato soup cake recipe on the day that she wrote Death & Co and that she made a lemon pudding cake – from that same Joy of Cooking – a few hours after releasing Lady Lazarus into the world.

Yes, baking is an art, like everything else. She did it exceptionally well. She did so it felt like hell. She did it so it felt real. I guess you could say she’d a call.

(OK, Ian?)

Jonathan Law is a writer and editor of reference books at Market House Books.

Professor Parker’s Patented Poetry-writing Machine


This automated poetry-writing computer system is so good that most readers ‘strongly prefer’ its verses to those of Shakespeare. Or at any rate, that’s what its creator claims. Jonathan Law investigates…

On a bone-cold day in March the Wikiworm brought us some much needed cheer by digging out “The Bookseller/Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year … a humorous literary award that is given annually to the book deemed to have the oddest title.” The winds cut like a skinning knife, the skies lowered with snow: but who would not be warmed by the thought of the 2002 winner Living with Crazy Buttocks or 2003’s The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories or indeed Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice (1978)?

I’m in the book business myself, so this stuff, great as it is, was not really new (just occasionally I’ve run into the prize’s founder, Bruce Robertson, at book fairs – the undeniable longueurs of which inspired him to begin his collection of strange titles back in the 1970s). However, I’d quite forgotten one of the more piquant details in Worm’s account – the moves to disqualify the 2008 winner, The 2009–2014 World Outlook for 60-milligram Containers of Fromage Frais, on the grounds that it had been created by a computer, rather than by its listed author, Philip M. Parker. And what I didn’t realize at all was the sheer range and volume of work produced by this Parker, a professor of management science with a background in marketing and economics; indeed with some 200,000 titles to his name, he could probably claim to be the most productive ‘writer’ in history.

A little Googling shows that Professor Parker has also concocted the following page-turners, any one of which could surely have been a contender for the Diagram:

The 2007-2012 World Outlook for Rotary Pumps with Designed Pressure of 100 psi or Less and Designed Capacity of 10 gpm or Less.

Avocados: A Medical Dictionary, Bibliography, and Annotated Research Guide

The 2007-2012 Outlook for Golf Bags in India

Webster’s Albanian to English Crossword Puzzles: Level 1.

Oculocutaneous Albinism – A Bibliography and Dictionary for Physicians, Patients and Genome Researchers.

The 2007-2012 Outlook for Premoistened Towelettes and Baby Wipes in Greater China

These, and many, many like them, have been created by Parker’s patented book-writing system – a modus operandi designed to eliminate what he refers to with some scorn as the “costs associated with human labour, such as authors, editors, graphic artists, data analysts, translators, distributors, and marketing personnel”. Essentially, Parker creates the template for a particular type of book – a handbook on a rare medical condition, or a survey of the sales outlook for the nichest of niche products – and then uses his algorithms to trawl the Internet and his own vast databases for content. The computer decants this into the prepared mould, takes care of grammar and format, and – hey prestissimo – you’ve something that looks like a book.

The  beauty of the Parker system is that it is not so much print on demand as write on demand: only the title need exist until somebody, somewhere admits to the hole in their life that can only be filled by, say, The 2007 Report on Wood Toilet Seats: World Market Segmentation by City. An order is placed – and the computer creates a unique literary product that is then dispatched to the lucky punter. Parker has estimated that the total cost of producing a book in this way, which might sell for upwards of £200, is something like 12p.

Until now, Parker’s published works have all been in fields that might be considered friendly to the algorithmic approach – medical and marketing texts, solvers for crosswords and other word games. But – and this is the real subject of this post – recent years have seen him move into something altogether more intriguing. Using a notion of ‘semantic webs’ based on graph theory and a new suite of programs that he has nicknamed ‘Eve’, Professor Parker is now making a bold assault on the literary genre that might seem most inimical to his methods – poetry.


To demonstrate his belief that perfectly good poetry can be written by program, Parker has devised a set of heuristics to “mimic what I think my brain does when it is asked to write a poem on a particular topic using a particular poetic form (as assigned to me in grade school or college)”. In very simple terms, a set of algorithms is used to search over the semantic web associated with the chosen subject – ‘dogs’ perhaps, or ‘Charles Darwin’, or ‘Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’. The results are then filtered through a further set of constraints imposed by a given poetic form – chiefly metre, scansion, and line-count. In this way, Parker can create a ‘poem’ based on (virtually) any word in the English language, in any one of a series of demanding technical forms. The professor of management science claims, on this basis, to be the author of over 1.3 million poems.

To see how this might work in practice, you can click through to the website of Parker’s Toto Poetry Project and have a go yourself. Put a word or subject into the box, click search, and lo, you have a set of digital poems – in forms ranging from the traditional sonnet, limerick, or haiku to some choice new ones of Parker’s own devising (for more on which, read on).

So, to start with the altogether obvious, what do Parker’s patent poetry-writing programs make of the subject ‘Dabbler’? On the simplest level we get this seven-word diagonal acrostic:

dabbler acrostic
Well, I suspect most of us Dabblers are five or six or seven of those, so full marks for accuracy, at least. Moving up a notch or two on the technical side, we get this enigmatic rondelet – a French form consisting of a seven-line stanza alternating lines of four and eight syllables:

Causal agent,
skilful in administration.
Causal agent,
field engineering department.
Traffic conditioning function,
composition of transmission.
Causal agent.

An indirect treatment, certainly, but I think it’s a grower. Rather less oblique is this little quinzaine (a poem consisting of three lines, comprising a total of 15 syllables):

Dabblers are several sprays.
Are they concordant?
Do you care?

Two very pertinent questions, I’m sure you’ll agree (the answer, I take it, is ‘Not really’). Next up, two of the more ingenious verse forms devised by Prof Parker himself:

Dabbler: Master, can I become adroit?
A dilettante, without exception, you were!
An authority, you have not been!
An instructor, you are not!
A babbler, you will continuously be!

That is a Yoda – a four-line poem based on the distinctive inverted speech patterns of the Jedi Grand Master.

Can I pass a pulse, published so pupils might see
Fully cheerful allusions, perhaps educating, and oh but revealed free?
Dipper or picker look all too absolute. But is fumbler?
Macerator, lover? – or dampener, twiddler? Darn! I excluded mumbler!
I wonder irrigator and otherwise disturber, but frankly ought I
I – state concepts so – abstracts crafted from computers spry?

And that – which reads a bit like some of the more recent work of Geoffrey Hill – is a Pi: a verse form in which the letter counts of the words follow the sequence in the celebrated ratio (3.1415926 and so on).

Trusting that this has whetted your appetite, let’s go on to see what Parker’s algorithms make of our esteemed editors. I’m afraid the program seems to have something of a crush on young Brit:

brit zed poem

That’s another Parker-devised form – a Zed – and a piece to prove the old critical nostrum that strict formal constraints need do nothing to inhibit the expression of passionate feeling.

I’m afraid that Gaw fares a good deal worse in this Continue reading

John Ferrar Holms – The least productive writer in the English language (part 2)

Jonathan Law continues his look at John Ferrar Holms, the greatest writer never to have actually written anything…

Not much is known of the early life of John Ferrar Holms, the “genius” writer who in a career of some 15 years managed to write almost nothing at all. However, one episode is recorded by his great friend and admirer, the diarist Emily Coleman. When Holms was at prep school in England, he was obliged to write the standard weekly letter home. As his fellow pupils filled a sheet or two with the usual chatter, Holms found himself neurotically unable to write a word: when time was up, he hid his disgrace by slipping the blank sheet into an envelope and putting it in the post. Next week, his nervousness was worse, as he knew he would not get away with the ruse a second time: predictably, his parents received another blank letter. The school was informed and hell was duly paid.


Otherwise, Holms’s early years provide few clues, his background being solidly conventional for his class and era. The son of the governor-general of the United Provinces of India, he was schooled at Rugby, where he excelled as an athlete. Rather than university he chose Sandhurst and, with the advent of World War I, joined an Infantry regiment at the age of just 17. At the Front, Holms made a name for himself with a single rather shocking incident. Having stumbled on four Germans breakfasting under a tree, he took them on single-handed and somehow managed to beat their brains out (with what is not clear). For this Holms was awarded the MC, although it is said that he never spoke of the matter, regarding it as vaguely comic and disreputable.

Having survived the Somme, Holms was captured in the great retreat of March 1918 and spent the rest of the war in prison camps at Karlsruhe and Mainz. At the latter, fellow prisoners included the writers Alec Waugh (Evelyn’s brother) and Hugh Kingsmill – not to mention John Milton Hayes, author and declaimer of The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God. As the men had no duties and books were plentiful, they spent most of their time talking, reading, and writing; Waugh would later refer to his education at the ‘University of Mainz’. It was here that Holms first conceived the ambition of being a writer; less happily, it was here too that he seems to have developed a deep depressive streak – for some years after he is said to have carried a service revolver at all times, just in case the urge became too strong to resist.

At first this writing thing went rather well. Although he planned more works than he ever produced, Holms made the right sort of contacts and in the 1920s his byline began to appear in The Calendar of Modern Letters, a highbrow quarterly often seen as the forerunner of Scrutiny. These pieces include his one completed work of fiction – an apparently excellent short story entitled ‘A Death’ – and a number of reviews notable for their length and severity (Wyndham Lewis gets a roasting and Mrs Dalloway is dismissed as “aesthetically worthless”).

Otherwise these were years of restless travelling: Holms had run off to Europe with a married woman named Dorothy and the couple knocked about in France, Germany, Austria, and Yugoslavia. It all seems a bit aimless but Holms could no doubt have claimed to be gathering material. In 1928 this peripatetic existence brought them to the home of Emma Goldman, the famous anarchist, in the South of France – and it was here that Holms had his first fateful meeting with Peggy Guggenheim, the woman with whom he would spend the rest of his life. After a certain amount of melodrama, Guggenheim left her husband and Holms abandoned Dorothy (whose main emotion seems to have been relief: she told a friend that living with Holms was like being a “governess to a baby”).

This change of partners did nothing to encourage Holms in a more settled way of life, although with Peggy’s millions – she had inherited a fortune when her father went down with the Titanic – things must at least have been more comfortable. Peggy would later write with pardonable exaggeration: “John Holms and I did nothing but Continue reading

John Ferrar Holms – The least productive writer in the English language

Anyone who has suffered writer’s block might take consolation from the life of John Ferrar Holms. In the first of two posts, Jonathan Law introduces perhaps the least productive ‘writer’ in the English language…

On a murky day in June, Mark Pack wrote feelingly about the miseries of writers’ block – of self-doubt, procrastination, and hours spent sweating it under the evil eye of the cursor:

Oh how I learned to hate the blank screen, its emptiness mocking my inability to turn years of accumulated knowledge into even mere scraps of disjointed sentences. No thought seemed the right commencement. No premise the correct starting point. No anecdote a relevant prologue.

Just the blinking cursor …

Now, if there’s one subject on which writers tend to be eerily lost for words, it’s this one – the block. Two attitudes seem to prevail, neither of which makes for verbosity. On the one hand, there’s a superstitious dread of the whole topic – something like the old fear of naming a demon aloud, in case the mere saying becomes a summons and all at once the nasty thing is squatting on your shoulder. On the other, there’s a brusque scorn for any scribbler so weak-minded as to credit such stuff. Call yourself a professional? Then stop your blather and think on Trollope with his stopwatch and his 250 words every 15 minutes. After all, those in other walks seem to get through the day without this sort of fuss. Chiropodists’ block? Ambulance drivers’ block?

I suppose it all goes back to the Romantics, with their interest in the psychology of creation and the view of inspiration as something wayward and fleeting (Shelley: “A man cannot say, ‘I will compose poetry’ ”). The idea that creativity springs from mysterious, hidden sources has as its flipside the idea that such sources may inexplicably dry up. So we find Wordsworth on the cusp of middle age, mourning a power that already seems to be deserting him:

The hiding-places of my power
Seem open; I approach, and then they close;
I see by glimpses now; when age comes on,
May scarcely see at all …

And then there’s Coleridge, of course – a man who found a strange sort of vocation in his failure to live up to the promise of his early genius. The predicament of the blocked artist has rarely been summarized with such fearful concision as in this entry from Coleridge’s Notebook, dated October 30, 1800:

He knew not what to do – something, he felt, must be done – he rose, drew his writing-desk before him – sate down, took the pen – found that he knew not what to do.


If I ever get that blocked feeling, I tend to consider the strange case of John Ferrar Holms – both as a consolation (things have never got that bad) and as the most awful of warnings. Probably you’ve never heard of Holms (1897-1934) and probably that’s only as it should be: he has given the world little cause to think of him. If he has any claim to fame, it is the sad and singular one of being quite probably the least productive writer in the English language – an odd status that raises the question of just how little a man can write and still be a ‘writer’. Although widely considered a genius in his time, Holms comes down to us as a mere footnote in the biographies of his friends and lovers, with even the vast lumber room of the Internet retaining barely a trace of his 36 years on earth.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. As the 1920s wore into the 1930s, those who knew Holms best rarely faltered in their belief that this strange, obsessive man – a manic perfectionist who seemed to regard even the most universally praised writers as sloppy underachievers – was hatching works to make future ages gawp. To his boosters, he was no mere literary hopeful but a being whose gifts of intellect and expression put him up there with the greats: a man to be mentioned in the same breath as Shakespeare or Plato. The poet Edwin Muir, who was never one for hyperbole, stated quite simply: “Holms was the most remarkable man I ever met” – and it’s worth pointing out that Muir had met most of the big English writers of the day. To Muir, Holms possessed a mind of such preternatural strength that it seemed to belong to an unfallen order of creation:

His mind had power, clarity, and order, and, turned on any subject, was like a spell which made things assume their true shapes and appear in their original relation to one another, as on the first day.

Peggy Guggenheim, the heiress and art collector, was another who considered Holms by far the most extraordinary man she had known – again, quite something when you consider that her lovers (to say nothing of her wider circle) included Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Samuel Beckett. According to Peggy, who survived a stormy six-year relationship with Holms, being in his company “was equivalent to living in a sort of fifth dimension”. Others to fall under the spell included William Gerhardie, Alec Waugh, and the radio pioneer Lance Sieveking – who believed that if Holms could have overcome his demons he might have been “a literary figure as familiar as any man who ever wrote.”

Well, perhaps, maybe, possibly, who knows? There’s no way of telling. For as it turned out, Holms’s complete works would consist of one short story, a few critical essays, and a handful of unfinished poems.


History is, of course, not short of figures who managed to enthral their contemporaries in ways that later generations struggle to understand. More often than not, the explanation has something to do with Continue reading

The water which feeds the roots of all evil

From Ruskin’s anti-capitalist rivers to the evil ‘hydraulic empires’ of the Soviet Union, Jonathan looks at the connection between water and social engineering…

THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE. Life including all its powers of love, of joy, of admiration.


So, in thumping block caps, John Ruskin threw down his challenge to the economic thought of his age. This resounding blast of the trumpet is from Unto this Last – Ruskin’s most radical, root-and-branch assault on laissez-faire capitalism and the tenets of that “true science of darkness”, political economy. It’s a dazzlingly eloquent performance and still, I think, poses questions that the more dogmatic forms of free-market ideology fail to address. But given my riverine theme, the bit I’m going to focus on is a long passage in which Ruskin attacks popular notions of supply and demand – especially the idea that these are forces beyond human law or direction. His choice of metaphor will be familiar to anyone who has been following these posts.

The popular economist thinks himself wise in having discovered that wealth, or the forms of property in general, must go where they are required; that where demand is, supply must follow … Precisely in the same sense, and with the same certainty, the waters of the world go where they are required. Where the land falls, the water flows.

The course neither of clouds nor rivers can be forbidden by human will. But the disposition and administration of them can be altered by human forethought. Whether the stream shall be a curse or a blessing, depends upon man’s labour, and administrating intelligence. For centuries after centuries, great districts of the world, rich in soil, and favoured in climate, have lain desert under the rage of their own rivers; nor only desert, but plague-struck. The stream which, rightly directed, would have flowed in soft irrigation from field to field … now overwhelms the plain, and poisons the wind; its breath pestilence, and its work famine. In like manner this wealth “goes where it is required.” No human laws can withstand its flow. They can only guide it: but this, the leading trench and limiting mound can do so thoroughly, that it shall become water of life … or, on the contrary, by leaving it to its own lawless flow, they may make it, what it has been too often, the last and deadliest of national plagues: water of Marah — the water which feeds the roots of all evil.


Ruskin the lover of rivers and keen amateur irrigationist here joins with Ruskin the social critic and economic iconoclast. We are presented with two sorts of river, standing for two kinds of political and economic system – the “rightly directed” river that becomes “water of life”, versus the “lawless flow” of wealth that brings only plague, pestilence and famine. The alternatives are set out even more starkly later in the book:

Government and cooperation are in all things and eternally the laws of life. Anarchy and competition, eternally, and in all things, the laws of death.

As so often, Ruskin’s ultimate source seems to be Old Testament: here specifically Deuteronomy 30:19, where God makes the Israelites an offer they seem only too able to refuse:

I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life.


Ruskin’s hydraulic metaphors can, however, be read in a very different direction. The history of big water projects, ancient and modern, suggests that there is indeed a connection between irrigation and social organization – but that it is often a much darker one than Ruskin supposed.

Writing in the 1950s, the US historian Karl Wittfogel identified a specific type of society that he termed a “hydraulic empire” – a state characterized by massive irrigation projects and government control of water. These empires had one other feature in common: they were all despotisms of the most extreme and murderous kind. In ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia, the prototypes of the hydraulic state, the system of irrigation and flood control required both a large, absolutely obedient workforce and a highly centralized system of command. The “hydraulic dynasts” built not only their power but also much of their mystique on what must have seemeda near supernatural command of the elements. Provocatively, Wittfogel went on to identify many of the same features in communist China and Russia, arguing that the vast hydraulic schemes undertaken in these countries served chiefly to legitimize the state by asserting its brute mastery over nature. In the words of Simon Schama, who Continue reading

Ruskin the Irrigationist

Jonathan Law reveals John Ruskin’s mania for mucking about with water, and explains how it stood as an emblem for his wish to tame the “frantic monster” of unchecked capitalism…

Richard Nixon loved mashing potatoes; Gladstone had a passion for chopping down trees; and John Ruskin – in many ways a similarly obsessive and hyperactive type – adored digging holes.

This mania for pick and spade can be traced from his childhood garden at Herne Hill – where the enthusiasm was not encouraged – through the “digging clubs” he organized for high-minded undergraduates at Oxford, to the last sad years of ‘brain fever’ and broken health. Indeed, Ruskin seems to have spent a good part of his life seeking outlets for his “original instinct of liking to dig a hole” – and rarely seems to have been happier than when he found one. In Praeterita, for example, he recalls a blissful day on which he did nothing but gouge thistles out of a Scottish bog (“an inheritance of amethystine treasure to me”).

As Ruskin was also a great lover of rivers and streams – from the mighty Rhone to the tiny Wandle – it’s no surprise that his favourite kind of digging involved the added element of water. Chanelling, damming, and generally mucking around with water formed the core of many Ruskinian projects – from his famous road- and ditch-digging scheme at Hinksey to his attempts to purify the springs at Carshalton. Ruskin seems to have found a special kind of joy in any occasion involving mud, water, and the conviction that he was doing something useful. Praeterita, again, records the delight he took in sluicing the staircase of a dirty French inn:

I brought the necessary buckets of water from the yard myself, poured them into a beautiful image of Versailles waterworks down the fifteen or twenty steps …and with the strongest broom I could find, cleaned every step into its corners. It was quite lovely work to dash the water and drive the mud, from each, with accumulating splash down to the next one.

Perhaps the most ingenious of all these projects was the elaborate irrigation system Ruskin created in his gardens at Brantwood in the Lake District. Visitors would be led up the steep path at the back of the house to admire the water catchments he had scooped out of the moor, their devious flood-gates, and the myriad channels that ran shimmering down to refresh each level of the garden.

Guests would soon learn that, for Ruskin, such projects had an ideological as much as an ornamental or even practical value. Apart from embodying his Continue reading

Ruskin and the River

In a recent Dabbler post, Nige sang the praises of the River Wandle. But as Jonathan Law explains, the river also had a profound significance for a great Victorian…

On a sultry morning in May, Nige celebrated the rebirth of the little River Wandle, now running fresh and clear through Sutton, Merton and Wandsworth after more than a century of neglect:

Industrialisation had long since transformed what was once a sparkling chalk stream, famous for its plump brown trout, into one of the most comprehensively polluted waterways on earth. And yet today the water is again clean and clear and the trout are back …The Wandle sparkles and teems with life again, and the passing years have, for once, brought nothing but improvement – though the habit of dumping litter and other detritus in the river remains stubbornly persistent. Every prospect pleases, and only man is vile…

This rejuvenation would have delighted no one more than John Ruskin, who grieved fiercely for the Wandle in his once widely read polemic The Crown of Wild Olive. Here, in one of his great rhetorical set pieces, Ruskin contrasts the sorry state of the river in 1870 with the idyllic stream he remembered from earlier, preindustrial days. In a series of rapt, luminous paragraphs, the fringes of South London – where Ruskin had spent most of his rather odd childhood – take on the hues of an earthly paradise:

Twenty years ago, there was no lovelier piece of lowland scenery in South England … than that immediately bordering on the sources of the Wandle, and including the lower moors of Addington, and the villages of Beddington and Carshalton, with all their pools and streams. No clearer or diviner waters ever sang with constant lips of the hand which ‘giveth rain from heaven’; no pastures ever lightened in spring time with more passionate blossoming …

It could almost be a scene from Samuel Palmer’s  Valley of Vision – some 12 or 15 miles away across the rooftops of Bromley and Orpington. But then comes the horror of the Fall:

With deliberate mind I say, that I have never seen anything so ghastly in its inner tragic meaning … as the slow stealing of aspects of reckless, indolent, animal neglect, over the delicate sweetness of that English scene: nor is any blasphemy or impiety –any frantic saying or godless thought – more appalling to me … than the insolent defilings of those springs by the human herds that drink of them.

Just where the welling of stainless water, trembling and pure, like a body of light, enters the pool of Carshalton, cutting itself a radiant channel down to the gravel, through warp of feathery weeds, all waving, which it traverses with its deep threads of clearness, like the chalcedony in moss-agate, starred here and there with white grenouillette; just in the very rush and murmur of the first spreading currents, the human wretches of the place cast their street and house foulness; heaps of dust and slime, and broken shreds of old metal, and rags of putrid clothes; they having neither energy to cart it away, nor decency enough to dig it into the ground, thus shed into the stream, to diffuse what venom of it will float and melt, far away, in all places where God meant those waters to bring joy and health …

On one level, the “inner tragic meaning” of this is quite straightforward: the poor, polluted Wandle is an emblem of English life, once sweet and clear and true but now tainted by Continue reading

Deakin’s Dome: A refuge for all seasons

From pubs in trees to childhood dens, Jonathan now concludes his arboreal notes with a treehouse for the old…

In my last post, I mused on the fierce comfort that children take from their tree houses and brooded on what these knocked together and wholly gratuitous structures could mean to us, the more-or-less middle aged (chiefly through this fine poem by Kathleen Jamie).

My final tree house is one for the later stages of life, and not only because it took its author some twenty years to create. Poignantly, the ‘ash dome’ or pleached bower erected by Roger Deakin in the grounds of his Suffolk farm has become a kind of memorial; by the time he came to describe it, in the closing pages of his Wildwood, Deakin was already terminally ill (although apparently unaware of this). In the book’s final sentence, he prophetically looks to a time “when the bower eventually comes of age, long after I am gone.”

As he proudly tells us, Deakin created his dome, a sort of natural folly or living sculpture, by planting a double row of ash trees, letting them grow to man’s height, and then grappling them together and grafting them each to each. The result of all this “wood-welding” – or ‘pleaching’ as it is properly known – is a sort of “composite pollard, or … laid hedge on stilts” in which the bent ashes have “the pent-up power of strongbows”.

Like the Sforza of Milan or Henry Hastings, the Dorset wodwo, Deakin was a maker of forest rooms. He designed his intimately welded ash hedge-on-stilts to be at least semi-habitable:

In the summer heat it is a cool, green room roofed with … the flickering shadows of ash leaves. I sometimes sling a hammock inside. I even installed a bed last year  …

As described by Deakin, it is a refuge for all seasons:

The bower is floored in lords and ladies, ground ivy and mosses, and its eight trunks cross-gartered with wild hops, our English vines. They thatch its roof with their big cool leaves, dangling bunches of the aromatic, soporific female flowers from the green ceiling like grapes. As spring comes on, the bower fills like a bath with frothy white Queen Anne’s lace … Even at the age of twenty the trunks of the bower are beginning to show some of the early signs of what will accrue with age: they are green with algae and lichens are beginning to form around their damp feet. They are putting on ankle socks of moss. There is something goat-footed about ash trees: the shaggy signs of Pan.

If there is something uncanny about this creation, Deakin is also at pains to emphasize its solid practicality: it is, he assures us, “a remarkably stable structure, engineered in exactly the same way as a timber-framed house”. And indeed, there are clear continuities between Deakin’s ash den and the famously eccentric timber-framed house in which he chose to live for almost 40 years –  described here by Robert Macfarlane, in a piece written shortly after the death of his friend:

Walnut Tree Farm … is made largely of wood. It is as close to a living thing as a building can be. When big easterlies blow, its timbers creak and groan “like a ship in a storm”, as Deakin put it … He kept the doors and the windows open, in order to let air and animals circulate. Leaves gusted in through one door and out of another. Swallows flew to and from their nest in the main chimney. It was a house which breathed. Spiders slung swags and trusses of silk in every corner. As I sat with Deakin, 10 days before his death, a brown cricket with long spindly antennae clicked along the edge of an old biscuit tin … Walnut Tree Farm was a settlement in three senses: a habitation, an agreement with the land, and a slow subsidence into intimacy with a chosen place.

Both house and bower rejoice in a blurring of indoors and out, a wholesale rejection of boundaries and thresholds. Nothing could be further from the Continue reading