Where three counties meet…

The not-so-new castle at Newcastle Emlyn. Image: Derek Turner

Beyond the high watershed to the north of Carmarthenshire, which separates the Rivers Gwili and Teifi, lies the countryside where the three counties of west Wales converge: Carmarthenshire, with Carmarthen town, steeped in legends of Merlin the wizard and Dylan the poet – Pembrokeshire, once called ‘Little England Beyond Wales’ – and Cardiganshire, its wilder, ragged character, wind-bent coastal trees and moor-like appearance, so well captured by the illustrators of the old Shell Guides.

The counties’ confluence is more or less pinpointed at Cenarth Falls, a rocky, densely-wooded gorge hewn out of the land by the Teifi. Known for its former culture of coracles and fishermen’s tall-tales, the Teifi is one of the country’s great salmon and sea-trout (sewin, in Welsh) water-courses, although ironically in our age of supposed greater environmental awareness, the river has never suffered from so much pollution.

Nearby, the smaller River Cych flows through woodland straight from the pages of the Mabinogion, or Gerald of Wales’s ecclesiastical tour of Cambria. After heavy rainfall, dozens of tiny streams and springs bubble from the hilly embankment by the lane that winds through the valley; rooks and the occasional red kite seem to brush the tree-tops. Gerald, or Giraldus he styled himself, knew this district – crossing the Teifi with Baldwin, Archbishop of Canterbury, in their quest to rally men to the Cross and to the Crusades.

The Teifi in spate at Cenarth. Image: Derek Turner

In their travels, the churchmen unearthed many oddities of folklore, not least the tale of a young man who discovered the entrance to a fairy world, but who enraged its inhabitants by stealing treasure from their subterranean kingdom. In fury, the fairies pursued him, retrieving what was theirs, but when he tried to return to the crevice in the earth – the gateway to the hidden realm – all traces of it had disappeared. But, after all these centuries, does another entrance exist? Close to the Teifi, a curious pool may offer an answer…

The home of the Tylwyth Teg? Image: Stuart Millson

Said to be fathomless, the pool (on private land) looks to be the result of floodwater that has spilled over into a small dip of the land by the riverbank. For folklorists, it is a place inhabited by the Cambrian fairy-race, the Tylwyth Teg – the beautiful ones. To this day, some fishermen doff their caps in the direction of the pool, or even offer a libation to the invisible inhabitants. Even unbelievers have spoken of experiencing a peculiar sensation here, of being watched, of someone lurking at the very extremes of their peripheral vision. A few fruit trees stand nearby – the land’s previous owner trimming their branches on a sunny afternoon, remarking how he felt his every move being studied, but not another human soul in sight.

A much more tangible lost world exists on the northerly bank of the river. Like an industrial leyline, threading through woods and knotted thickets long since rewilded by the hand of Nature, runs the trackbed of the old Great Western Railway. Occasionally, from the road (perhaps only a temporary victor over the railway?) the once-neat embankment comes into view, on which the freight of milk churns, coal, and the county solicitor on his rounds, would all trundle by. And if you look carefully into woodland, the bridges which upheld the single track over difficult dips in the terrain are still visible. Weeds and vegetation drip from the stonework – forlorn remnants of steam and country branchlines, ‘henges’ of the railway age, dotted through Cambria.

Forlorn viaduct of the Great Western Railway. Image: Stuart Millson

The district was also known for its many waterside mills, now as silent as the Cornish coastal tin mines, or the colliery wheels of south Wales. One village, Drefach Felindre, was even likened to Huddersfield, so impressive was its industry and wool-making. Some 12 miles away, Cardigan’s quayside, once banked up by trading vessels, still retains some sense of old importance as the Teifi estuary’s commercial port. 

Here in Wales, unlike in south-east England, structures of old industry still stand, symbols of an age long gone, but not beyond recall – an age you somehow feel could be reclaimed. So enduring are the foundations of everything, in this land of long memories.

Un-harkened Angel

Angel

Alex Kurtagic, London: Spradabach, 2023, hb., 997pps.

DEREK TURNER finds mordant fun in a tale of modern alienation

In 2009, Alex Kurtagic published Mister, his novel of a highly-cultured IT consultant operating within what he saw as the hellscape of contemporary Europe – a man too intelligent for an age suspicious of intellectual distinctions, and too independent-minded for a continent in thrall to neurotic pettifoggery. In Angel, we meet a similarly misfitting man, but one with even less adaptive ability – indeed, a man almost without agency. This is a behemoth of a book about a midget of a man, wandering solitarily in the drab wasteland of these times.  

Angel is a student of 17th Century literature at an English university, whose unhappy fate it is to combine refined tastes and fastidiousness with an inability to impose these on even his immediate surroundings. He is physically slight and correspondingly cowardly, chronically short of money, and not even compensatingly articulate. Traditionally, angels enunciate glad tidings, but this one (aspiring poet though he may be) can barely sustain a basic conversation. He is announced to, rather than an annunciator. His most obvious resemblance to Biblical or Hebrew angels lies in his essential insubstantiality.

Angel is surrounded by people infinitely more impressive than he is – especially women, from his formidable mother and sister, and brilliantly inductive fellow-students to the mothering Amelia who (for some incomprehensible reason) pants to enfold Angel in her ample embonpoint. He is an incel, but unlike some incels, not potentially dangerous. He is not even angry – although the debased nature of his university, and society, deserves almost unlimited contempt. Kurtagic’s front-cover oil of his Van Dyck-bearded subject excellently conveys the nervy nature of his character, his twitching worriedness and state of blinking surprise at the awfulness of almost everything.

We do not lose sympathy for Angel as the tale unfolds, because we never really develop any. Even if somehow we could, he would haemorrhage it with his every action, or more precisely inaction. It is only at the very end that we start to feel sorry for him, but we can never feel respect. He is epically inept and wholly dependent on others, unable to perform the simplest task without mishap. He gets a menial job, but can’t manage the hours. He is given expensive things, and loses them. He is given excellent advice, and makes no attempt to follow it. He gets blamed even for things that aren’t his fault – and we are neither surprised, nor particularly perturbed. The reason he has no money is that he burned through a generous grant from his wealthy and influential parents in pursuit of an American woman (Madison) so obviously unworthy that people who have never met her instantly smell the gold-digger.

Huge events unfold around him, which culminate in unexpectedly dramatic style, but he is so busy mooning about his love-interest (and feeling sorry for himself) that he misses all the portents. And yet this over-specialised evolutionary aberration ends up as one of his cohort’s rare survivors. His near-invisibility ensures that he is mercifully overlooked by the most malign influencers, except when he accidentally offends à la mode ‘activists’ of one kind or another. He does encounter real rebels, but (probably luckily for him) never capitalizes on these encounters, through distractedness or pusillanimity.

But if we cannot admire Angel, we can smile at some of his pratfalls and predicaments. The author’s mordant sense of humour is abundantly in evidence, as his protagonist lurches from one petty indignity to the next – building up debts, humiliations and resentments, borrowing money he can’t repay, exasperating his family, failing his few friends, irritating his tutors, losing all his clothes at the launderette (and all his illusions about Madison), and vomiting all over the fragrant front of the only woman in the world who wants anything to do with him. Angel’s phobias are Ruskinian in their rarefaction, as he registers disgust with bad table manners, dirt, drunkenness, earrings, oxter hair (on women), tobacco and tattoos.

This is however not just a novel of amusing incidents, but also of serious ideas. The author is a determined logophile, and even those with above-average vocabularies may encounter words that are new to them, or that they have forgotten. These pleasing encounters contrast with sometimes over-long staccato dialogue sections when Angel is trying to attract the attention of barmen or shopkeepers, or, yet again, failing to explain himself to his supposed intellectual peers.

Sophisticated sociopolitical arguments are seeded through this book – about sex differences, elitism, the nature and purpose of universities, and freedom of conscience – but none of these viewpoints are expressed by Angel, although we infer that he generally agrees with their conservative-reactionary tenor. There are shrewd observations of today’s cry-bully tendencies, with their manic oscillations between psychological extremes, attacks on easy Aunt Sally targets, and protesting-too-much parading – and excellent evocations of cityscapes in all their Bladerunner alienness, or broken-down decrepitude. Strewn names of books, films, and paintings betoken authorial wide interests, and the book’s production values hint at his awareness of the importance of aesthetics in shaping worlds. Kurtagic is certain there is such a thing as ‘good taste’, and that it is at root a moral choice. This is weighty literature, in more than just a physical sense.

We eventually leave Angel all alone, contemplating the ruins of all his hopes and with no obvious avenue of escape, with even his once-powerful parents implicated in his downfall. It is a desolate outcome indeed even to so inglorious an odyssey, and even for someone not obviously deserving of respect – because behind his seriocomic unfolding can be seen substantive insights into 21st century society, and in his deeply-grained disappointment something of ourselves.

This review first appeared in The Miskatonian (Home page – The Miskatonian) and is reproduced with permission

London Lies Bleeding – Prologue

Image: Derek Turner
GOMERY KIMBER introduces Justin Martello, “a new kind of hero”

‘No,’ I said. 

Saul Ruzo opened the cell door. 

‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,’ said Ruzo.  ‘Strip.’ 

‘No.’ 

At knifepoint, Ruzo’s thugs stripped me naked and bundled me inside. 

‘You like it, Martello?’ Ruzo asked. ‘I call it the torture cell.  It’s based on a design by Alphonse Laurentic.  You heard of him?  He fought for the good guys in the Spanish Civil War. Only we’ve made a couple of improvements, bring it into the twenty-first century.’ 

‘American progress – where would the world be without it?’ 

Smirking, Ruzo slammed the door shut on my remark. 

The torture cell. 

It was impossible to rest. The concrete bed sloped at an angle of twenty degrees. It was impossible to sit comfortably on it either. And exercise was out of the question because the floor of the cell was an obstacle course of house bricks fixed haphazardly into concrete. 

Painted on the cell walls were surrealistic patterns designed to disorientate the prisoner. The clock above the cell door ran either too slow or too fast, and there was no window, making it impossible to know whether it was night or day. 

Air con and cameras were two of Ruzo’s improvements, the lighting effects also. 

Sometimes the cell was tolerably warm, sometimes freezing, and sometimes so hot that the sweat ran down my bare legs. And at any moment, the space might be bathed in lurid green light, or pitch suddenly black, followed by strobe lights, daylight, dusk, dawn, then back again to green, or crimson, or puce. 

And all the time the phantasmagoria was accompanied by repetitive music and noisy sound effects: death metal, advertising jingles, vicious dogs barking, babies screaming, women weeping. Over and over and over again. 

‘It’s designed to send you crazy,’ Saul Ruzo confided when his men returned me to the chamber after the first mock execution. 

And it had. 

With a start, I opened my eyes and looked at my visitor. 

‘Lieutenant Mbweha is very pleased with the progress you’ve made, Justin,’ said Piers Wyvern. ‘She says you might be well enough to be discharged in a day or two.’

I was seated in the uncomfortable armchair beside the hospital bed. Piers Wyvern glanced at me to gauge my reaction, but I was so full of sedatives that I barely reacted at all. I wondered where I would go, now that my house had been sold. 

‘Pity about the rain,’ he said. ‘We might have had our picnic in the grounds.’ 

Piers opened the wicker basket that he’d brought to the military hospital where I was being held. He claimed he’d just returned from a week in Venice where he’d lost heavily at the casino but enjoyed some wonderful food. He was certainly plumper than the last time I’d seen him. His sandy hair was sun-bleached and his florid face tanned. He wore a reddish-brown suit, and not for the first time he put me in mind of a well-fed fox. 

‘Still,’ he said, spreading out the picnic blanket on the hospital bed, ‘cosy little room they’ve given you. We can have a nice chat.’ 

I made an effort to stir myself. 

‘Chat?’ I said. ‘About what?’

‘Why, the future, of course. Now, what would you say to a glass of wine?’ 

I didn’t respond. I sat slumped in the chair wearing military issue pyjamas and dressing gown feeling nothing at all, apart from the draught from the window. So far as I could see I had no future. 

Piers removed the bottle of Gambellara from the wine cooler sleeve and poured two drinks. As I put my glass down on the wooden bedside locker, I spilled some wine. Piers produced a paper napkin and fussily mopped up the drops. He needn’t have bothered. The stained old locker was defaced with many a scratch and cigarette burn. 

‘There’s roast beef with watercress and horseradish,’ said Piers, trying to tempt me. ‘And antipasto, kalamata olives – or one of these delicious miniature scotch eggs.’

His voice was thick with anticipation, for Piers was a greedy man, at his happiest when there was the prospect of not just three, but four meals a day. 

‘Pour me some water,’ I said. 

Reluctantly, Piers did so, from the two-litre plastic jug that stood on the locker. The medication made my mouth dry and I drained the plastic tumbler as soon as he handed it to me. Piers looked disappointed.  I was spoiling a treat. 

‘I don’t wish to appear rude,’ I said. 

‘Not at all, Justin. They’ve got you doped, haven’t they? Silly of me. I thought you might be fed up with hospital fare, it’s always ghastly. But perhaps you’d have been happier with a bowl of clear soup and a soft bread roll.’ 

Disappointed, Piers popped one of the miniature scotch eggs into his mouth and devoured it with relish. 

I looked away. Summer rain ran down the dirty windowpane, and outside in the gardens a gusty south wind whipped the rhododendrons. I didn’t care for Piers Wyvern, just as I didn’t care for the Royal Navy psychiatrist, Lieutenant Missy Mbweha. Before diagnosing me, she’d gone and fetched the official manual of psychiatric disorders and consulted it for some minutes before pronouncing her verdict. 

‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ she’d asked at one point. The question had made me burst out laughing. 

I looked at Piers. He was a confirmed materialist as well. As far as Wyvern was concerned, pleasure was the only thing of undoubted value, and it was around pleasure that he arranged his life. I watched as he decided what to devour next. 

‘Won’t you have something?’ 

‘Have you been discussing my health with Mbweha, Piers?’ 

‘Of course not. Patient confidentiality, and all that,’ said Wyvern, looking up sharply from the delicacies. He softened his tone. ‘The thing is, everyone’s concerned about dear old Justin, who’s come through a very rough time, who in fact has had a rough old life, all told.’

‘A very rough time,’ I repeated. ‘A rough old life.’

‘Your parents and everything,’ explained Piers with great kindness. ‘That sort of traumatic event in childhood, it’s bound to affect one in later life.’

The comment angered me. I wasn’t ‘traumatised.’ So far as I could see, the psychiatric profession pathologised any deviation from ‘normality.’ The only people considered ‘normal’ were those who posed no threat to the possessors of power. 

‘This has nothing to do with my parents’ murder, Piers.’ 

‘We just want what’s best for you,’ he went on, blithely. ‘I mean, you don’t want to be stuck in one of these places for the rest of your life, do you?’

So that was it.  I suppose I would have realised sooner if I hadn’t been doped. 

‘Where exactly are we, Piers?’ 

‘Thought they’d told you, dear boy. Rendlesham Hall, Suffolk.’ 

‘Yes, that’s what they told me, and I said I’d never heard of a military hospital of that name.’

‘Well, neither had I for that matter.’

‘It’s off the books.’

‘Now now,’ Piers chided me. ‘Don’t get upset. Why not try that wine? It’s Giovanni Menti.’ 

‘So, what is your plan for me?’ I asked. 

‘We thought you might like to do us the occasional service,’ Wyvern said, choosing one of the roast beef sandwiches. ‘Nothing too onerous, and nothing that will trouble your conscience, either.’

He bit into the finger sandwich. 

‘No.’

Hurriedly, Piers chewed so that he might respond. ‘There’s no need to decide right away. Have a think about it over the next few days.’

‘The answer is no, Piers.’ 

‘It will do you the power of good. The nine-to-five, there’s something to be said for it. Reason not to get hammered in the evening for one thing, or at lunchtime.’ With a smile, he raised his glass to me.  It was a thin smile and not entirely pleasant. ‘Ordinary life, more or less, keeps one grounded.’

Mounting anger was rousing me from my sedation. 

‘I flew too close to the sun, you mean.’

Piers regarded me sceptically. 

‘I intend to speak of forms changed into new entities,’ he quoted.   

Piers had no time for metaphysics, which was surprising given his ancestry (the Wyvern family had produced many an occultist and alchemist). I’d known him twenty years. As a green lieutenant, I’d been assigned to act as his bodyguard while on secret service in Iraq, and Piers had been delighted to learn I’d attended what he allowed was a fairly decent school and knew Latin and Greek. 

I intend to speak of forms changed into new entities

It was from Ovid, the opening line of The Metamorphoses. The poet’s unifying theme of transformation, I recalled, involved the hunter and the hunted, and more often than not, violence inflicted on the victim, as well. 

‘Come home, Justin,’ Piers said. ‘All is forgiven.’ 

I was feeling emotional.     

‘That’s right, drink your wine, there’s a good chap. Remember Thorne, your old Staff Sergeant? We thought he might act as liaison.’ 

I almost choked. 

‘What do you mean? I run my own ship.’ 

Piers frowned. ‘Not any longer, I’m afraid,’ he said. ‘Theresa thought it better you step down. After all, it was only on an interim basis, wasn’t it? And you’re not really a businessman, are you?’

I took the comment personally. True, I wasn’t a businessman, but I was a leader, and it was on that basis that I’d agreed to run the Seton-Glennie operation.   

‘Theresa spoke to you?’ I said. 

‘Mrs Seton-Glennie did indeed speak to me, icily admittedly, but she told me she wanted you to step down. I’m sure you’ll speak to her, in due course.’ 

‘Get out.’ 

‘Steady, Justin, steady.’ 

‘Leave me alone, you bastard.’

‘Now that’s quite enough! Need I remind you I was the one who rode to the bloody rescue after you were shanghaied by Ruzo?’ 

‘Shanghaied?’ I repeated. ‘Abducted, you mean, from the most secure police station in London, Paddington Green. Do you really think I believe you people didn’t have a hand in it?’ 

We did not, asserted Piers, red in the face.  Handing one of our own to the Yanks so that they could torment you? Absolute rubbish!’ 

I bit my lip and looked away. I was absolutely certain that the powers that be had indeed handed me over to Ruzo and his loathsome ‘gators, but saying so, even to my ears, sounded like paranoia. 

Piers regarded me as though with great concern.   

‘Justin,’ he said softly, ‘you’re my friend and I have your best interests at heart. What has to be has to be. You’ll come back to work for us, and that’s that.’

‘Never.’

Wyvern was about to remonstrate but when he saw the murderous look on my face he decided that discretion was the better part of valour. I watched the smooth-talking cynic struggle to stand. 

‘I shall leave the picnic,’ he said, breathing hard, ‘for you to enjoy. Goodbye, Justin.’

After Wyvern left, it took me some time to calm down, and by then I was hungry. I stood up unsteadily and examined the picnic hamper. Amongst the food I discovered presents – Italian coffee and biscuits, a pack of Marlboro cigarettes (the brand we’d smoked in Iraq), a lighter, and a little box of Baci chocolates. On the back of a picture postcard Piers had written in his florid hand: ‘Dear Justin, trusting you’ll be on parade again very soon, much love from your DQ.’

DQ, Delta Quebec. That had been Wyvern’s call-sign in Baghdad, until the Americans learnt what DQ referred to, that is. 

I turned the postcard over and looked at the picture, not surprised to see the Botticelli self-portrait. When Piers first saw me in shorts he told me I had ‘Botticelli legs.’ 

Rejecting the nostalgia and the feeling I’d behaved discourteously to an old friend, I flicked the postcard aside, and helped myself to a sandwich. 

That was when I discovered the phone, in amongst the food.  It was of a special design, the kind issued to MI6 officers in the field overseas.  It contained only one contact number: Thorne’s. 

There was something else – my passport. But when I opened it I discovered it had been stamped ‘WITHDRAWN’ in red ink and the top corners of the pages clipped off. I supposed it meant I’d be working for 6 in the UK, MI5 territory, and therefore supposedly forbidden. I swallowed the food in my mouth, but without appetite. 

I remembered the time when I had dominated life, but for some time now life had been dominating me. 

Cutting the grass

That was the phrase Saul Ruzo had used. 

‘You got above your station, Martello, you need to be reminded who’s boss. You loused up my operation, Operation Eagle’s Nest! Well, now you’re gonna pay.’ 

Hands trembling, I cleared the picnic away, got into bed and tried to go back to sleep.

Forest fantasy

Image: Leonhard Lenz. Wikimedia Commons

Seren of the Wildwood  

Marly Youmans, Wiseblood books, illustrated, hb., 72pps., US$16

LIAM GUILAR is beguiled by a dream of tangled trees

The Wildwood holds the remnants of the past, / Strange ceremonies that the fays still love / To watch – the rituals of demon tribes / Who once played havoc with the universe, / And everything that says the world is not / Exactly what it seems is hidden here, / But also there are paths to blessedness.

So begins Seren of the Wildwood, Marly Youmans’ narrative poem that drifts the reader through a tale that seems both familiar and strange.

Traditional fairy and folk tales have been a resource for many modern writers and film makers. The old story is usually rewritten to correct a perceived ideological bias, or to rationalise the magic, or to make it acceptable to modern audiences, whose ideas of story have been shrunk by mass market films. With notable exceptions, rewriting fails to produce anything that comes close to the originals in their ability to unsettle and entertain. Writers can study archetypes, read the psychoanalytical literature, immerse themselves in Joseph Campbell et al, naturalise Propp’s Morphology, and still produce a story that fails to hold an audience.[i]

The stories Walt Disneyfied are closer to inappropriate dreams that don’t care about your daylight ideology, or your preferred version of the world. They exist in the liminal space between waking and sleeping, recalling a time when the wolves were real and the forest was a dangerous place. Marly Youmans’ story moves bodily into that space, where nothing is quite what it seems, and never quite what it should be, where hope and disappointment are as commonplace as leaves and what we might label cruelty is just the way the world is.

Her poem is not a retelling of a previous story – but is rather a new story, inhabiting old spaces to make them new again. Seren grows up on the edges of the Wildwood, her childhood overshadowed by the death of her brothers, which the story ascribes to her father’s ill-chosen words. Constrained at home by her mother’s care, she is lured into the trees by the promise of friendship and adventure. She meets characters who harm and help her, moving through a dream-like landscape, made real by Youmans’ descriptions, until she finds her way home.

The poem is written in sixty-two stanzas, each consisting of twenty-one lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter ending with a ‘Bob and Wheel’. The Bob is an abrupt two syllable line, the Wheel four short lines rhyming internally. They break the visual and aural monotony even the best blank verse can produce over a long narrative; they can summarise the stanza, comment on it, or provide an opportunity for epigrammatic statement:

[…]Next, a King

Not young but middle-aged his curling beard

Gone steel,

His mind turned lunatic,

His body no ideal

Of grace and charm to prick

Desire: man as ordeal.

The Bob and Wheel, famously used in Gawain and the Green Knight, inevitably evoke medieval precedent, as does the walled garden Seren finds but can’t enter. Although the Wildwood is not the harsh landscape Gawain rides into before returning home, the Knight of Romance rode into the forest to seek adventures because the forest was the place where the normal social rules and expectations did not apply. There is often a didactic element to such stories, but fortunately Youmans avoids the temptation to turn hers into a sermon.

Her poem is full of good lines:

Like some grandfather’s pocket watch wound tight

But then forgotten, Seren moved slower

And slower.

The descriptions of the landscape anchor the fantastic story. In the following quotation Seren is heading towards a river she must cross and discovers a waterfall:

And so she travelled toward the roar of rain

With thunder, apprehensive as she neared

The lip where torrents catapulted free

From stone and merged into a muscular

And sovereign streaming force – the energy

That shocks the trembling pebbles into flight

And grinds the massive boulders into bowls.

Occasionally it is not easy to decide if a line is padded or what might be padding is deliberate stye: ‘It seemed satanic, manic, half insane’, but this is so rare that the fact it’s noticeable is a tribute to all the other lines where it isn’t.  

The poem is rich in images and incidents and packed with a diverse cast of characters, but what does it mean? This is the wrong question. In school we are taught ‘how to read a poem’. For ‘read’, understand ‘analyse’ and the purpose of the analysis is to explain ‘what the poem means’ or, in its most depressing formulation ‘what was the poet was trying to say’. These questions and the approaches they require have little to do with the experience of reading poetry outside the academy.

Stories, poems, and narrative poems especially, can be a way of thinking in and through language, in a non-linear, perhaps non-rational, associative way. The story works for the reader when it activates memory, prior reading, knowledge and experience. The question therefore should be, what does the story do for you while you’re reading it, and afterwards, when a phrase, an incident, or an image remains in your memory.[ii]

Youmans’ poem encourages such a line of thinking; there are numerous allusions to other stories, tying Seren into a network of intertextuality, (at one point she is helped in the story by remembering the stories she has been told), there are images, which evoke a host of medieval precedents, but Youmans avoids the simplification of neat equivalence or the temptation of a tidy conclusion.

In terms of traditional narrative arcs, if you believe in the importance of such things, the story ends abruptly and very little is explained. There are questions left unanswered and threads that were run out but not neatly tied together at the end. The reader is being treated with respect and left alone with the story. It is a book that invites and rewards multiple rereading.

Reading is made easier because the book itself is a beautiful object. Wiseblood books are to be commended on producing such a fine hardback at such a low price. Printed on good quality paper, one stanza to a page, Seren of the Wildwood is illustrated by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. His black and white images complement the tone and mood of the story.


[i] There are obvious exceptions to this generalisation and to be precise everyone who has told these stories has altered them; the Grimms were notorious revisers.

[ii] The undeniable consequence of this line of thinking is that the book that haunts one reader is the same book another reader can’t be bothered to finish, regardless of the reviewer’s praise or condemnation. This seems especially true of narrative poetry. 

Taking Possession

LIAM GUILAR is Poetry Editor of the Brazen Head. His most recent book is A Man of Heart (Shearsman, 2023)

Normans on the great north road

somewhere in England in 1071.[i]

Hubert, lord of these grey riders,

fought at Senlac, and since then

has been useful to the King

His reward, the manor he rides towards,

larger than the home he left in Normandy.


Walter, his seneschal, riding beside him,

fought at Senlac with distinction,

rallied the savaged in the Malfosse .[ii]

Between them, non-armoured, long haired,

Aelfric, an Englishman. Their local guide.

Their translator. He makes them awkward

in ways they’d struggle to define.

If pushed, Walter might reply;

he has no scars: his hands are soft.


The manor is wooden, unfortified.

Too easy to attack and futile to defend.

All this, thinks Hubert, I will change.

After the automatic military appraisal,

the childlike revelation: this is mine.

All mine. A group waits, women, children,

men so old they can’t stand straight.


The lady of the manor steps towards him.

Hubert remembers that in the English time

she could have run this place without a husband.

Now she and it are forfeit to the crown,

the crown bestowed them both on him

and he has come to take possession.

That thought will take a long time growing old.

He examines her the way he will inspect the cattle,

fields, fish weir and the little mill.

Tall, straight, young, blonde: she will do.


‘Where are the men?’ Vague images 

of those long legs, fine hips and breasts

do not make him stupid. ‘Where are the men?’

He has lost friends who were not so cautious,

in this green folded landscape, where the trees

and ditches hide those desperate for revenge.

Aelfric translates the question.


‘Where you should be.’ He ducks his head

til he remembers he rides with the victors

and she’s the one who lost and all her pride

will not avert the fate that rides towards her.


‘Her brothers, father, uncle, nephews died

at Stamford bridge and Senlac hill.

Their tenants and dependants died with them.’[iii] 


The idea that Englishmen are long-haired,

beer swilling, effeminate, will creep

into the Norman mind but not in Hubert’s

even if he lived a long and idle life.

Those longhaired drunkards stood their ground,

all day. Charge after charge breaking

on that obdurate line of shields. 

Anyone who’d seen a horse and rider split

by one swing of an axe would think twice

about disparaging the man who swung it.

But Aelfric swung no axe. That much is obvious.

2

After inspecting the boundaries,

a wary country ride with scouts,

after the inspection of the manor house,

after the welcome meal, Hubert decided

it was time to inspect his human property.

The men at arms were organised.

Guards posted, tasks allotted.

Walter thanked, allowed to leave.


Hubert talking to his Lady through Aelfric

was reminded of those shields.

When he was polite, she seemed insulted.

When he had tried to show an interest

she had seemed offended. He sensed

that what he said was not the words she heard.

She was nobility, understood the world

and what would happen next and so he doubted 

his tame Englishman was being honest.

He would have to learn her language,

some words at least, while she learnt his.

Bed, he thought, could be his classroom.


He stood up, took her hand. She did not move.

‘If you don’t go with him’, said Aelfric 

he’ll strip you for his men at arms.’

It was a stupid lie. This Norman was no fool

who’d break his prize possession out of spite.

Aelfric ignored the look she cut him with.

Once she’d been too proud to notice his existence

now she was this Norman’s mattress

and whatever in his character was broken,

or unfinished, rejoiced at her humiliation.


The curtains closed behind them.

Aelfric edged towards the drapery,

heard the sound of fabric falling,

imagined the pale body emerging.

He heard Hubert’s belt and sword unbuckled 

then set down, heard them move together.

Imagined his hands, heard Hubert grunting,

then making garbled noises like a stricken pig.


A female hand, the curtain parted.

She was naked, radiantly naked,

white flesh tinged pink about the throat.

Aelfric moved. She was majestic,

desire erased the thought that he’d been caught

erased the room, erased his name

and everything except desire

for the body moving closer to him

small hands reaching for his belt.


Who knows a dead man’s final thoughts?

Perhaps he was thinking mine at last,

perhaps he heard her say, ‘You should have died

with all the others’, and perhaps, before the knife

sliced the artery in his throat and geysered blood,

he realised she had spoken flawless Norman-French.


She caught him as he fell, pulling him down

screaming in English, help, help, murder, help.

Walter, sword drawn, running, saw

the Englishman raping the frantic lady

thrashing on the floor, hauled him away

one quick blow striking off the head.


The woman, sobbing, pointing at the curtains.

Behind them Hubert’s naked corpse,

twisted, reaching for the knife stuck in his back.


While the bodies were removed

Walter held the shuddering woman.

The King still owed him for the Malfosse.

Perhaps this manor. He would need a wife.

Hands skilled in settling a skittish mare

gentled the shaking body

aware of its taut lines, soft curves,

its bloody promise. She would do

when he came to take possession.


[i] This date is entirely arbitrary.

[ii] When the English army finally broke and ran at the Battle of Hastings, a small group turned and savaged the pursuing Normans at a place the Normans called The Malfosse.

[iii] Fulford Gate, Stamford bridge, Senlac, the three battles fought by the English in 1066. Many of the victors at Stamford Bridge died at Senlac (Hastings).

Keys to the past – Restoration in Rochester

Wenceslaus Hollar, Coronation Procession of Charles II Through London, 1662
STUART MILLSON visits one of Kent’s great houses – and savours a perfect choice of music

On the eve of his royal return and progress from Dover to London in 1660, the heir to the throne, the second Charles Stuart, paused for rest at the City of Rochester on the River Medway. He stayed in an Elizabethan mansion built in 1587, on a gradient just above Rochester’s main thoroughfare – a stately town abode that took the name, Restoration House, in honour of the great event that would soon be formally confirmed by the English state

Today, some 360 years since that first visit, Restoration House continues to project and transmit an aura of history to its many visitors, thanks to the care, custodianship and ownership of patrons of the arts, Jonathan Wilmot and Robert Tucker. On Saturday 7th October, these renaissance and restoration gentlemen hosted a recital by the emerging eminence that is harpsichordist, Nathaniel Mander – a young musician already distinguished by a recording of J.S. Bach’s monumental Goldberg Variations, and performances with the celebrated Les Musicians du Louvre and Marc Minkowski. 

In a grand, yet intimate candlelit room, accessed by an ascent of a wooden staircase (upon which a ghost must surely walk past midnight), Mr. Mander performed a recital of harpsichord pieces, from Frescobaldi and Froberger in the middle of the 17th century, to Bach and Handel, a century later. But at the centre of the concert, echoes of Tudor and Elizabethan England abounded, in the form of Grounds, Almans and Fantasias by the masters of that first English musical renascence, Byrd and Gibbons.

The audience was particularly delighted by the soloist’s engaging introductory mini-talk before each work, a sometimes humorous, neat lacing-up of the historical context of the music – none so remarkable as Johan Jakob Froberger’s travels to England, during which he was not only robbed on a European highway, but intercepted by pirates at sea, thus arriving at the royal court in little more than rags donated by sailors. Froberger had to play some music before his Royal hosts believed who he was.

Historical authenticity was very much the lodestar of the evening – Nathaniel performing on Restoration House’s Zenti Harpsichord of 1658, an instrument once in the possession of and adapted to the needs of Queen Christina of Sweden (r.1632-1654). The craftsmanship which created the instrument remains a thing of wonder – a work of art itself, a piece of furniture so delicate, it seemed almost dangerous to walk near it. Yet Nathaniel Mander drew from the elegantly-turned casket on its delicate, spindly legs sounds of such antique quality, that audience members – judging from their closed eyes and expressions of sheer peace – seemed transported to the candlelit past.

For me, two of the highlights were the Ground by Thomas Tomkins and Nathaniel’s first encore to the evening’s proceedings, the Aria to Bach’s Goldberg Variations ~ the five-minute meditation that forms the beginning and end to the piece. For Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) church music was a lifelong calling. From his early days at St. Davids, Pembrokeshire, to his life in the service of Worcester Cathedral (during which time he endured the ravages of the Civil War), Tomkins came to signify all that we understand by the English ecclesiastical choral tradition – anthems, pieces for services, which rely so much on great spans of sound (the imprint of Tallis and Byrd) and which, centuries later, would continue through Parry, Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Howells. Yet we discovered from Nathaniel that following the destruction of the Tomkins home in a Civil War bombardment, the composer – taken in by kind friends – sought solace in the writing of dozens of pieces for harpsichord. An English melancholy was certainly conjured by our soloist in the Tomkins Ground.

However, happier thoughts were prompted by the inclusion of Byrd’s folk-based airs, The Woods So Wilde and Selingers Round; music which, along with a spirited Allegro by a gourmandising Handel, provided an uplifting, animating spirit to a memorable oak-brown October evening.

Nathaniel Mander is artist-in-residence at Restoration House. His recording of Bach’s Goldberg Vatiations is available on the ICSM label

Uplifting falling

The Book of Falling

David McCooey, Perth, Western Australia: Upswell Publishing, 2023, 109pps. Aus$24.99

LIAM GUILAR says David McCooey’s poetry is intelligent, skilful, varied – and plain enjoyable

The Book of Falling is David McCooey’s fifth collection of poems, and if nothing else, gives the lie to the invidious myth that people who work on academic writing programmes can’t write.

He’s very good at what he does. His poetry evokes Bunting’s praise of Scarlatti:

It is now time to consider how Domenico Scarlatti

condensed so much music into so few bars

with never a crabbed turn or congested cadence

never a boast or a see-here…

Every well-chosen word in its place, and each word doing the necessary work. In the first four lines of the collection a sense of vague but threatening menace is swiftly evoked:

The unseen night creatures – scaled and feathered

for their occult ceremonies – rasp and call outside

in the dark beyond the half dark that

surrounds this marbled, half lit house

(‘Questions of Travel’)  

Such deft verbal economy is a feature of the wide variety of poems that appear in The Book of Falling and plays against often surprising content. The first three poems are conventional poetic monologues as though the poet were setting out his stall and proving his ability. At the same time the subjects are anything but conventional. Elizabeth Bishop packs to travel; Sylvia Plath looks at her life on her 80th birthday; Marilyn Monroe divines the future and amongst other things, ‘…see[s] who will be forgotten first/ Queen Elizabeth, Molly Bloom, or me.’

These are followed by word play, short sequences about family, a group of satires and elegies, poems about urban life, as well as ‘Three Photo Poems.’ The latter is a new genre to me: three sequences which juxtapose very short texts (one of the sequences is made up of ‘found poems’) and photographs. 

The juxtaposition of pictures, either of the mundane, as in the sequence about bathrooms, or the family photographs which on closer inspection look anything but mundane, with short pieces of text, lead to the second reason you should read the book.

On a first reading you can never tell what’s going to be on the next page. This is a defining characteristic of the other two books of McCooey’s poetry I have read, and unusual in single author collections, where formal and thematic similarities tend to be on almost every page. The variety here is held together by a unified view of the world, a laconic wit, which takes pleasure in the commonplace while recognising how strange it is. Take his ‘Rain Poem’:

And as if someone uttered the trigger word

rain begins without ceremony.

But it’s not ‘driving rain’;

it’s just sitting outside

engine idling over the neighbourhood.

The poem could stop there, but it turns into something more than a pun and a neatly turned image.

It doesn’t give a damn

And then, like a poem ending

you look out the window

and the rain has stopped.

The birds have returned and the wind

has begun its invisible cover-up job.

Many of the poems present the everyday and familiar, but alter the point of view just enough to destabilise the way you’re used to looking at the world – Freud’s Uncanny perhaps, without the baggage attached to that word.

When was the last time you thought about how strange bathrooms are? ‘Bathroom Abstraction #3’ begins: “Windowless bathrooms are the cave of modernity”.

What you encounter as reader is an intelligence moving through time, and recording the variety of experience, taking interest and pleasure in the world – and above all wanting to share it with the reader. There are numerous single author collections where the reader is left feeling his or her presence is not required – or perhaps only required as an anonymous cheerleader who proved their devotion by buying the book.

If a poem can be a space for thinking through and in language, McCooey’s poems invite readers to look without telling them what to think. A short example is ‘Australia’:

Dropping my son at school.

It is ‘Art Day’;

students are to dress up

as their favourite artist.

I see a kid dressed in white.

He has sunscreen on his nose,

And carries a cricket bat.

This is both bemused and amusing, but open to different ways of being read. There is the traditional art community criticism of Australian attitudes towards ‘the arts’ in a sports-mad country – a criticism of the arts community’s failure to penetrate the education system even on a school day ostensibly devoted to ‘Art – or a wry celebration of the artistry of Australian cricketers, who can flog a rock-like ball a long distance with enough balletic grace to suggest cricket is indeed an art form. The poem holds all these possibilities (and others) open for the reader.

And finally – this may be a heretical comment: poetry is a highly sophisticated form of entertainment. It provides unique pleasures. Reading book reviews, it can seem that enjoying poetry is a subversive activity. The reviewer usually makes great claims for its importance, significance, ground-breaking genre-bending, appropriate ideological stance on the burning issues of the day, but rarely admits to having enjoyed reading the book under review. McCooey’s books are skilfully written, varied, thought provoking, and above all enjoyable. You should read them.

Village lights: Huck Finn’s world, and ours

WILLIAM MARKLEY feels Twain’s great novel has much to say to our age

The ticking of a clock on a mantelpiece – the joy of eating corn pone after a hard day – lights of a hillside village, seen from a raft on the Mississippi River. Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn powerfully evokes the atmosphere of a long-ago America. Along with the details and flavours of everyday life, Twain looks at social problems, habits and moral quandaries that were significant before the American Civil War: slavery, mob violence, feuding families, hospitality to strangers, loyalties pulled in different directions. Some readers today will immediately assume how they would respond to such issues if they found themselves transported back to the 1840s. Yet Huckleberry Finn is concerned with timeless questions and inner struggles which aren’t as easily resolved as we might think. These loom large for the narrator Huckleberry, or Huck as he is known to his friends.

I befriended Huck Finn late in life. Although the book was long considered one of the greatest of American novels, it wasn’t among my schools’ required readings. I was a bookworm as a boy, but I avoided stories with children as principal characters. I wanted to read only about adults and their adventures. Little did I know how Mark Twain offered a narrative and a power of description that would grab a reader’s attention. Huck faces his inner dilemmas as he proceeds on an eventful trip along the Mississippi valley – and Twain weaves several unforgettable characters into the story—especially the runaway slave Jim.

I’m very fortunate to have an early-19th century clock. When I hear it ticking and chiming, I marvel at hearing the same sounds which meant something to people in Huck’s day, and which aren’t commonplace anymore. We still have many of the same yearnings, fears, and joys that people had when my clock was made. And yet, as the English novelist L. P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a different country. They do things differently there.”[1] Americans in the first half of the 19th century had serious worries and troubles I don’t have: cholera, Indian attacks, how the crops would fare, and how many children in the family would survive the winter. All of us today make decisions about right and wrong, but I haven’t had to face the predicaments caused by slavery which plagued northerners and southerners.

Back to the book. Soon after Huck flees downriver to escape his abusive father, he encounters Jim, and the two develop a deep affection and appreciation for each other. Yet Huck grew up in a slaveholding society which stamped its values on him. His white family was destitute, without any slaves, but in this society everyone was expected to consider some people as the legal, legitimate property of others. Slaveholders’ rights were held sacred. At times, Huck is remorseful for going against the law and the feelings of Jim’s owner. Conscience for him isn’t the simple matter that it might seem to be, to one raised in a society that preaches egalitarianism or ‘equity.’ On the other hand, his torments resemble what we sometimes experience today when confronted with very different social matters. Ultimately, Huck decides that his loyalty to Jim and his commitment to help Jim find freedom override what society insists that he should do. Agonizing over this, he believes his conscience tells him that he’ll go to hell for this decision. His unsophisticated yet eloquent ruminations are memorable.

Such struggles might have rung true to thoughtful Southerners in the 19th century. Some of the most devoted soldiers of the Confederacy had principles regarding slavery which today’s readers might find surprising. General A. P. Hill was firmly against the institution, and he did not own slaves. “Stonewall” Jackson was very kind to his slaves, and, against the local laws, he devotedly taught them to read and write as part of a special “Sunday School” which he created for them. Some leaders, such as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, believed that they offered their slaves better lives than would be available otherwise. Immediate emancipation might place former slaves in more dangerous conditions than they had lived under previously. Not all slaveowners considered these factors, but it’s undeniable that people of good will in the South found themselves in a situation without simple, easy answers. And over 600,000 men died trying to settle the issue.

While the West made tremendous, praiseworthy efforts in the 19th century to eradicate slavery, it still hasn’t gone away in the world. Various forms of human-trafficking are thriving, as the recent movie Sound of Freedom highlights. Most of us have been insulated from these all-too-hidden crimes, and yet the victims suffer as horribly as any slaves did in earlier eras.

Apart from slavery, there are other prominent moral issues which beg for our attention. We allow schools and other institutions to influence and indoctrinate our children in ways that earlier Americans would rightly find shocking, outrageous and deeply immoral, and we bow down meekly to governmental and corporate forces which our ancestors would have rejected with contempt.

C. S. Lewis aptly warned about the “chronological snobbery” of people who feel superior to those of the past. A prominent feature of ‘wokeness’ is a vicious form of this – an overwhelming disdain for our ancestors, based on historical ignorance and rampant self-regard. The destruction of monuments, memory-holing of politically incorrect writings, and transformation of public schools and colleges into indoctrination centers are among the manifestations – and of course there is the “cancelling” of individuals.

Huckleberry and other characters use coarse language, especially regarding race, which publishers and HR staff would now find shriek-worthy. Yet Mark Twain shows much more compassion, understanding, moral clarity and nuance about race, character and moral dilemma than many modern people will offer. And despite uttering words which would immediately get him cancelled today, Huckleberry clearly shows in his actions, and in his other words, that he loves others, no matter their race. Jim does the same, and is presented by Twain in a rounded way, rather than as an unblemished victim. Like Huck, he admits that he has acted in ways which he deeply regrets. Both characters are curious observers who sometimes think critically, yet sometimes succumb to superstition, as many of us still do. As T. S. Eliot says, Huck and Jim “are equal in dignity.”[2]

One unforgettable episode, while Jim is absent for a time, is a tragic feud between two families. After Huck is nearly killed in a mishap on the river, he is cared for by a cultured family, the Grangerfords. The intriguing Colonel Grangerford is a sympathetic, strong character, but he and several members of his family are urged on by dire imperatives imposed by their clannish local society. In some regions of America, where law wasn’t as firmly established as elsewhere, family and tribal ties and obligations were much tighter than we see today. This could result in feuds lasting for generations, with later participants not even understanding the origins of the violence. In the case of the Grangerfords and their opponents, Eliot noted that Twain allows “the reader to make his own moral reflections.”[3] My own reaction is that while the feud is undoubtedly a terrible folly, some of the Grangerfords show admirable loyalty to their own kin. Today, maybe we have strayed too far from such loyalty. Somewhere there’s a balance that should be sought.

For the most part, America has traveled far away from the kind of clannishness shown by the Grangerfords. We now have widespread rootlessness, and a separation from family and community. Many grandparents, parents and children live in different states, and social media doesn’t offer enough to make up for the distance. Neighbours rarely interact with each other compared with earlier times, when families frequently invited neighbors and even strangers over for a meal. This atomization has obviously grown more extreme with the growth of digital technology, and the influence of mass popular culture. In Huck’s day, the frontier encouraged some similar centrifugal tendencies, while it also offered opportunities to people who needed a fresh start. Mutual-assistance organizations strengthened community ties, even in frontier areas. These have almost completely vanished. A close-knit community can descend into a mob, as shown in Huckleberry Finn, yet something has clearly been lost.

Grimness isn’t the only mood of the book – far from it. And Twain has a way with describing the world of the Mississippi:

“Sometimes we’d have that whole river to ourselves for the longest time. Yonder was the banks and the islands across the water; and maybe a spark – which was a candle in a cabin window; and sometimes on the water you could see a spark or two – on a raft or a scow, you know; and maybe you could hear a fiddle or a song coming over from one of them crafts. It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them…”

As much as I like the book and find it thought-provoking, a few parts of it are unappealing to me. Huck’s friend Tom Sawyer makes a welcome appearance at first, yet his elaborate schemes for pushing Huck and Jim into 19th-century romantic adventure-novel scenarios become tiresome. Nevertheless, the lyrical passages, adventure narrative, well-drawn characters and realistic, perceptive portrayals of moral questions and resolutions more than make up for any weakness. People act kindly, cruelly and with mixed motives, and in some cases this is all demonstrated by a single character. Like most boys, Huck can be callous, and also kind and generous. In his thoughts he contradicts himself, as most of us do. Along the river he meets murderers, frauds and other unpleasant characters, along with people who are models of charity, and although he and his creator wouldn’t want themselves to be pigeonholed into any particular church or creed, Huck develops a very Christian ability to love his neighbors.

Twain had seen a lot of the world and of people by the time he wrote this book. Born in 1835, he grew up in small Missouri towns, worked a variety of jobs including riverboat pilot, spent time in the American far west, and settled down in the more established east. He knew too much to present simplistic characters and an overly sentimental story. And yet, as critic Fred Pattee wrote, Twain “was a knightly soul, sensitive and serious, a nineteenth-century soul who would protect the weak of the whole world and right their wrongs.”[4] With Huckleberry Finn, Twain shows us a lost world, but he also helps us understand ourselves, if we’re willing to put our smartphones down for a while.


[1] Hartley, L. P., The Go-Between, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1953

[2] T. S. Eliot, “An Introduction to Huckleberry Finn”, in Bloom’s Major Literary Characters: Huck Finn, Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004, p. 20

[3] Ibid, p. 19

[4] Pattee, Fred Lewis, A History of American Literature Since 1870, New York: The Century Co., 1915, p. 61

Britain, from Armistice to Hungry Thirties

Sing As We Go: Britain Between the Wars

Simon Heffer, London: Hutchinson Heinemann, 2023, 960pps., £35

KEN BELL finds much of interest in an account of the interwar years, but wishes it was less Tory

Simon Heffer’s Sing As We Go: Britain Between the Wars is the final part of a three-volume work which takes the country from the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837 to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Heffer belongs to the Tory school of historiography, so the reader who expects a social historian’s account of poverty in south Wales is going to be disappointed. History for those of that school is made by statesmen who sit in magnificent drawing rooms where they decide the fate of nations over maps. Sing As We Go is a quintessential account written in that style.  

A sizeable chunk of Sing As We Go is taken up with a reappraisal of Neville Chamberlain, a man condemned in the popular mind as Hitler’s dupe. As Heffer makes clear, appeasement was a policy that began before Hitler even came to power, with the word itself being first honoured with a place in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1933. The British, ever the fans of balancing the great powers off against each other, had been siding quietly with Germany against France since the 1920s. So, appeasement until the Munich Agreement was the policy of a confident British state that did not want France to become too dominant in the years after the Great War. As Heffer writes it was not about “surrender, capitulation or humiliation by or of the appeaser.”

Leaving foreign policy aside, and to be fair to the statesmen of the era, for the first time in British history they had to engage in the “economic management” of the country. It is no wonder that they did not know how to manage a modern state and economy, as nobody had ever had to do that before. So as Chancellor, Neville Chamberlain was not ashamed to admit privately that he was “very frightened at the financial part,” which is pretty much the central aspect of any chancellor’s role. He certainly seemed to make a better fist of the office than Winston Churchill, who admitted that whilst he understood the words of the generals, the economists “all talk Persian.”

Neville Chamberlain (second from left) visiting Newcastle slums in 1925. Image: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

As Chancellor, Chamberlain helped grow the economy during the Great Depression by spending large sums on rearmament, a fact that was much criticised at the time and is often forgotten today. As Prime Minister the output increased, leading Stafford Cripps, that most cadaverous of vegetarians, to comment that “every possible effort” had to be made to stop military recruitment. He even went on to tell a group of future aircraft builders that they should “refuse to make armaments.” It is hard to believe that Cripps would later be appointed as Minister of Aircraft Production in the Churchill government. Such things can only happen in Britain. Nevertheless, Britain was better prepared for war in 1939 than she would otherwise have been had Chamberlain not spent so many millions on the armed forces throughout his time as Chancellor and then Prime Minister.

The economy by 1937 was booming, but not in the heavy industrial areas of south Wales, northern England and the Scottish central belt. Heffer refers in passing to the distress in such areas, but it is not really the concern of his school of historiography to consider people who live below the elite level, so Heffer asks us to concentrate on the economy as a whole where output and prosperity increased.

Heffer deals with the Irish War of Independence very well indeed, with an even-handedness that surprised me. He is no fan of Eamon de Valera, but few of today’s Irish historians are; the reappraisal of de Valera has been very harsh on the man and his record. That said, he is clearly impressed with Michael Collins, a man who was probably one of the finest guerrilla commanders of the twentieth century. It was Collins who ordered the killing of the ‘Cairo Gang’, a high-level squad of British counter intelligence officers, an action that was carried out with brutal efficiency one Sunday morning. Many were still in bed when the IRA squads burst in and killed them, some in front of their wives or mistresses.

Heffer makes much of the shock and outrage that this action had in the USA and does rather play down the fact that the killings destroyed the British counter-intelligence operation in Dublin. The countryside was largely controlled by the IRA, and the Sunday morning operation in Dublin meant the capital city was also largely controlled by Collins’ men. I suspect that General Collins was happy to take that outcome, and could live with a few outraged headlines from across the Atlantic.

Simon Heffer is on firmer ground when he considers the London negotiations between the British government and the Irish plenipotentiaries to end the war. We are back to the world that Heffer loves the most, that of statesmen in drawing rooms, passing the port and taking momentous decisions. We are given some interesting vignettes of the negotiations, with Collins, the guerrilla leader, complaining to the arch-imperialist Winston Churchill that the British had put a £5,000 reward on his head. Churchill showed Collins a £25 reward poster that the Boers had put on his head two decades earlier. “Collins laughed and the air cleared,” when Churchill pointed out the disparity between the rewards offered that was clearly in Collins’ favour.

The negotiations were conducted on both sides by men who acted in good faith and who wanted a settlement, so compromises were possible. The Irish agreed to take over the Royal Irish Constabulary, change the name and keep the officers. The British accepted that their paramilitary unit of former British officers known as the ‘Auxiliaries’ or ‘Black and Tans’, who mainly guarded fixed locations such as police stations, were a British problem and cost that was not to be charged to Ireland. The British quickly withdrew both units from Ireland, paid them their outstanding wages and discharged them from service.

This level of reasonableness leads us to the final third of the book which is concerned with Chamberlain’s negotiations with Hitler. Heffer makes clear that it is a failure of Chamberlain that he did not cotton onto Hitler’s nature sooner than he did. As Heffer points out, Chamberlain’s supreme self-confidence led him to believe “that he was right” in just about everything, and it took him until early 1939 before he was forced to conclude that Hitler was “half mad”. However, Chamberlain’s reputation will need more than this volume to repair it from the charge that he was Hitler’s stooge, but it is a fair start to the process. Few people realised just what a chancer Hitler was, but at least when that realisation finally dawned, Neville Chamberlain, more than any other, was the man who ensured that Britain had modernised armed forces that could enter the lists against the rearmed Germany.

Viewed overall, Sing As We Go is a solid account of how Neville Chamberlain and others struggled to come to terms with the Britain that emerged from the Great War as the country groped, almost blindly at times, towards the next one. The Britain of Victoria’s era would have dealt with Ireland as she dealt with the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Indeed, it is not too much of a stretch to argue that historically the British treated the Indians and Catholic Irish as if both were dodgy natives who needed a firm hand. By 1921, the British seem to have been pleasantly surprised that Michael Collins and his men were not the dubious natives of the popular imagination, but actually reasonable chaps with reasonable demands. That changed attitude would stand the British in good stead a generation later when it came time to negotiate the end of the Raj.

Seers catalogue

The Prophets of Doom

Neema Parvini, Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2023, pb., 230pps., £14.95

BENJAMIN AFER welcomes a book about neglected thinkers, but wishes it was more systematic

The self-styled ‘reactionary’ Colombian philosopher Nicolás Gómez ‘Don Colacho’ Dávila once characterised periods of civilisational greatness as “the summer noise of insects between two winters” – an especially apt comparison when we realise that there is no set guidebook or sure path to making a civilisation great, or even to making or maintaining a civilisation at all.

‘Golden ages’ are mostly noticed only in comparison to a seemingly inferior present, long after they have ended, which makes every reactionary or conservative action a rear-guard one in defiance of overpowering forces. In his new book The Prophets of Doom, Dr. Neema Parvini (known better online as ‘Academic Agent’ – the name of his YouTube Channel – or ‘A.A.’, gives us eleven such rear-guardists, perhaps more accurately termed ‘seers’ than prophets. Their gift is the ability to get a complete understanding of not just their own societies and times, but the very concept of civilisation and the entropic forces that affect it.

The story of how Dr. Parvini came to discourse on such a topic could itself be a multi-volume book. What began as a series of YouTube videos and livestreams in 2017, dealing mostly with libertarian economics but also partly with the week’s headlines, took a dramatic turn in 2020 when Dr. Parvini found himself suspended from his day-job as an English lecturer at the University of Surrey – apparently as part of a hit-job by left-wing students and faculty. Since then, his focus has been increasingly on the decline of Western power, prestige and self-confidence under the rule of a simultaneously negligent, incompetent and malicious internationalist elite. This book marks the beginning of what we might call the ‘mature’ phase of that trajectory. Despite my reservations about the content of this book (dealt with below), there is no doubt that Dr. Parvini is among the best-read living academics on the subject of civilisational decline. 

That breadth of reading is apparent with a mere glance at the cover (a quality edition thanks to Imprint Academic). The thinkers proffered here are pleasingly diverse and idiosyncratic – a necessity when dealing with a topic as broad and monumental as the decline of civilisations. The roster is made up of Giambattista Vico, Thomas Carlyle, Arthur de Gobineau, Brooks Adams, Oswald Spengler, Pitirim Sorokin, Arnold Toynbee, Julius Evola, John Bagot Glubb, Joseph Tainter and Peter Turchin. From this book alone a relative newcomer to reactionary ideas can gather that there are moral, metaphysical, economic, racial, mystical, religious and purely entropic aspects to the process, and as such, Prophets of Doom shows us that the thinkers of a yet-to-be-assembled reactionary canon are among the most sophisticate and keen-eyed of men to have ever undergone the intense intellectual disquiet that comes with witnessing decline.

That sense of genteel panic is evident throughout the work of all eleven thinkers and conveyed in miniature, but without loss of effect, by Dr. Parvini. The brief biographies provided are, for the most part, both interesting and useful, without straying as so many such books do into mere historical clutter. There is pathos to be found in some of these simple revelations about a particular ‘prophet’or his work, such as the fact that Brooks Adams awoke each morning and sang a tune of his own making to the words “God damn it, God damn it, God damn it,” or that Count de Gobineau’s work was always basically an attempt to find out why the French aristocracy had been reduced to the lamentable status of bourgeois clerks with titles. The reactionary is always a man driven by his instincts and investigations to warn everybody else, but whose words seem (to borrow again from Gómez Dávila) “absurd when he says them and obvious in retrospect.”

As is to be expected, many of the figures of the book are either ignored by the mainstream Western academies (Adams, Glubb, Evola) or dealt with reluctantly as unfashionable but necessary curiosities of the past (Carlyle, Spengler). It is a genuine delight then, to see Giambattista Vico, a central figure of Renaissance humanist literature, given proper due as a man far ahead of his own time, and in this way perhaps the most literally prophetic figure the book has to offer. Quoting an American thinker, Parvini tells us that Vico:

[M]akes it possible to give a rationalist defence of man’s basic irrationality. He gives a non-religious defence of religion. He gives a non-traditional defence of tradition, and an unconventional defence of convention. He’s a non-historical defender of historical life, particularity, and identity.   

Indeed, Vico has been too much ignored by intellectuals. Many reactionaries would date the most general entropic decline to have begun around 1789, but inversion and subversion of hierarchies and the rise of the cult of Man have roots in the absolutist trends of the early 1600s, which coincided with the popularity of scientific humanism and the growing domination of Europe by its merchant class.  

Dr. Parvini deserves great praise for his condensing of Oswald Spengler’s central thesis of decline into what stands out as the finest chapter of the book – albeit one heavy on first-hand quotation to do a lot of the legwork. Though his name is famous, Spengler remains broadly ignored by the English-speaking academies; at least, his thesis is not given anything like as much attention as it ought to be. This is of course because Spengler is not an author that flatters the liberal-bourgeois delusions of many academics, and as such is indigestible.

There are both formalist and anti-formalist traditions in reactionary writing. The formalist would generally balk at comparisons to politics du jour, but as someone usually more sympathetic to the formalist side of things, I must break ranks and praise the deftness with which Dr. Parvini takes us from the considerations of, say, fin-de-siècle East Coast elites to the general stupidities of our own internationalist masters. It is a sobering moment when, having given the conclusion of Henry Adams’ summation of his brother’s Law (“The world tends to economic centralisation. Therefore Asia tends to survive, and Europe tends to perish.”) Dr. Parvini remarks:

At the present time, when many political commentators track the machinations of ‘globalist’ elites who gather at the World Economic Forum at Davos to plan new and ingenuous ways to ration our energy consumption during an ‘energy crisis’, while rising powers such as Russia, China, and India become ever more non-compliant to the increasingly absurd demands of a West that has lost all moral authority, these prophetic lines will not provide much comfort.

It is a shame then, that aside from the odd comparative remark to highlight the more obvious shared fixations, Dr. Parvini has done very little to give a sense of continuum between these men. A “world class scholar,” as he calls himself, should see the metapolitical necessity of building up a shared wisdom between these names, to build up a cohesive corpus of thought.

I feel bound to remark that this is a strikingly dispassionate work, perhaps a consequence of the author’s rather managerial insistence on value-free analysis. None of the authors featured in Prophets produced great work because they were stolidly neutral and ‘value-free’, and this would be a more spectacular book had Dr. Parvini understood this at the outset. Wherever his talent for droll comparative humour does appear (“Won’t someone think of the curry houses?”) it does a remarkable job of hammering home the lessons to be learned, but always leaves us wishing for more.

Most readers would expect The Academic Agent to have given this work the full force of his rather unique rhetorical powers, especially so if they followed his Twitter account (@OGRolandRat) during the period of composition. A great wealth of literature by and about most of the Prophets was being consumed in what looked like a fit of scholarly passion – as evidenced by the impressive bulk of endnotes at the conclusion of each chapter. The rather brief nature of those chapters though, leaves us wondering if this was not actually something like a fit of deadline anxiety. In any case, the summations of each figure are engaging, and helpful to the newcomer in that they spell out exactly what should make the subject of interest to the reader.

Perhaps the best rule of thumb for this kind of reading is that the more pregnant the silence of the mainstream academies when it comes to a certain author, the sharper and more troublesome their analysis. Names like Carlyle and Spengler are obviously too grand to be ignored, even if the attention they get is mainly of a dismissive nature, but it quickly becomes apparent why the weakly dogmatic, gelatinous minds of some present-day lecturers and intellectuals are incapable of grasping the analysis given to us by some of the Prophets.

How on earth could a progressive ideologue, convinced that we are only a few less racists away from world utopia, comprehend Lt. Gen. Glubb’s End of Empires thesis (publicly available online)? John Bagot Glubb (1897-1986) or ‘Glubb Pasha’, as he was known to his Jordanian colonial soldiery whom he trained and led into the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, compared the average lifespans of great empires and discovered that they usually last for no more than 250 years. In such a thesis, our own times are merely the confused, decadent and foolish coda to a cycle all peoples are doomed to repeat ad nauseam, as opposed to the overture to a liberal-progressive stasis-world.

Brooks Adams (1848-1927), a cyclical thinker like Glubb, but one far more concerned with economy and the laws of mercantilism, offers little to sate the progressive ego, which always demands self-confirmation. His excellent and resonant criticism of industrial capitalism might be well received, but his preoccupation with Asiatic races as a looming threat to Western civilisation would surely condemn him as political undesirable. Indeed, I think it is because his warnings about the rise of Asia as a more-than-unfriendly power towards the west seems so terrifyingly prescient that he remains forgotten as “the last and least worthy of the captious Adams tribe.”

The thinker least familiar to me was Pitirim Sorokin, a Russian émigré sociologist who spent much of his life as a professor in Minnesota. Sorokin takes a highly complex and nuanced view of Western civilisation as a whole, developing a theory of “cultural mentality,” in which he described modern western nations as “sensate” – lacking in absolute truth and living in a state of chaotic flux.

It is never wholly fair to critique something for not being something else, but one does wish that Prophets took a more ambitious approach to its subject matter. I was put in mind of the Very Short Introductions series by the Oxford University Press, books of which unusually hover around the 200-page mark, as Prophets does; but the Very Short Introductions typically concern one author, school or concept. If a clear brevity was the aim of Prophets then it has been well achieved, but when we use the term brevity as a positive descriptor we do so in the context that a good poem or aphorism is brief, i.e. that it feels no longer or shorter than it needs to be. Packed with detail though each chapter is, the length and depth to which the ideas are discussed seems arbitrarily limited. I felt the jarring lurch of a sudden stop every time the vast lattice of endnotes came hauling into view. A subject such as this, addressed by a man as capable as Dr Parvini, could have led to a truly remarkable book. Prophets of Doom is in many ways an admirable work with memorable moments, but ultimately only serves as the briefest beginner’s guide to the decline of civilisations.  

Nevertheless, if one remains unfamiliar with the theories of cyclical history but would stop short of diving straight into Spengler, then this book is most worthwhile. Even an initiate will doubtless find something new in the discourses on little-known writers like Glubb and Adams. Personally speaking, Prophets of Doom was worth reading purely for the chapter on Vico. If there is one lesson to be learned from The Prophets of Doom, it is the root of ‘Don Colacho’s’ remark that being a reactionary is not about believing in certain solutions, but about having an acute sense of the complexity of the problems.