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The Past by Tessa Hadley (Vintage)

The Past by Tessa Hadley (Vintage)

One of the things that raises Tessa Hadley’s work so far above its quiet and accurately observed domestic dwelling is the author’s profound understanding of the nature of loss.
The opening paragraph of David Lowenthal’s book about yesterday, The Past is a Foreign Country, is uncompromising in its assertion:

“The miracle of life is cruelly circumscribed by birth and death; of the immensity of time before and after our own lives we experience nothing. Past and future are alike inaccessible. But, though beyond physical reach, they are integral to our imaginations. Reminiscence and expectation suffuse every present moment.”

The direct dramatic opening of Hadley’s novel, The Past, defines a sense of place as well as time and the opening word nudges us to recall a girl from 1865 whom Lewis Carroll described as peering through a door into another world:

“Alice was the first to arrive, but she discovered as she stood at the front door that she had forgotten her key. The noise of their taxi receding, like an insect burrowing between the hills, was the only sound at first in the still afternoon, until their ears got used to other sounds: the jostling of water in the stream that ran at the bottom of the garden, a trickle of tiny movements in the hedgerows and grasses.”

Tessa Hadley is an intelligent reader of literature and there is an appropriate sense of ease with which she weaves Browning’s 1855 poem ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’ into her narrative about a journey into the past:

“For mark! no sooner was I fairly found
Pledged to the plain, after a pace or two,
Than, pausing to throw backward a last view
O’er the safe road, ’t was gone; grey plain all round:
Nothing but plain to the horizon’s bound.
I might go on; nought else remained to do.”

Three sisters and a brother, aptly named Roland, have arrived at a childhood family home for a few weeks of immersion in a long-gone past and as we soon discover “They were in the country, in the middle of nowhere, with no way back…”. As Alice, having forgotten her key, stands gazing through the French windows “the interior seemed to be a vision of another world, its stillness pregnant with meaning, like a room seen in a mirror”. Later in the novel she talks to her brother about this moment of standing outside and explains that “Now I keep feeling as if I passed through the mirror and I’m living in there, on the other side”. The abandoned house to which the grandchildren return has a stillness which echoes that of the house in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse but “sunk further back into the earth” and “perched high above the steep end of a valley” is another cottage which has more association with Robert Westall’s The Scarecrows, Gibson’s ‘Flannan Isle’, Graham Swift’s Waterland or the witches house in the Grimm tale of lost children, Hansel and Gretel. Whereas the grandparents’ home is still inhabited by archives, family letters and books, the cottage smelled awful, “not innocently of leaf-rot and minerals like outside, but of something held furtively close, ripening in secret”.
Just as ‘the child is father to the man’ so the past re-emerges into the present and we tread upon the bones of the dead. This is of course not always recognised by children themselves and the nine-year old Ivy finds it impossible to believe “that she ended at the limits of her skin and couldn’t surpass it”. The past has a language which speaks like a shark’s fin cutting through water and one of the lessons learned throughout this powerful novel is that we do not simply stop at that enveloping bag of skin which holds us in. In a similar fashion the archivist is always searching through the old letters of the past in order to come to an increased awareness of the present and it is no mere accident that Tessa Hadley is both an ardent reader of Henry James and a writer of articles and a book about the great novelist. In a short piece about The Aspern Papers (‘The Cambridge Quarterly’, 1997) she refers to the “ignominies of literary discipledom” as the narrator is caught as “in the flare of a gaslight” opening a desk “in search of those wretched letters”. Hadley’s article concludes with an insight which, now twenty years on, has a prophetic ring to it:

“It might be possible to argue that a certain quality of shifting discomfort which characterises the narrative of The Aspern Papers represents an important development in James’s oeuvre: that in it he begins to interrogate with a new scrupulousness his own authority as ‘writer’, even perhaps the sources in his own ‘editorial heart’ (the phrase recalls those notebooks stuffed with lists of names, anecdotes, fragments of lives) of the need to write. And his including within his narrative what almost amounts to a perpetual critique of the very fictionalising process and its appropriations of ‘real life’ is highly suggestive for any analysis of his late style.”

Tessa Hadley will be talking about the dark art of fiction-writing at London Review of Books this Friday, 29th September, at 7.00 p.m.

Ian Brinton, 27th September 2017.

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Tom Chivers: Dark Islands

Tom Chivers: Dark Islands

II

Terrors of the Dark Island

When Tom Chivers was interviewed by Will Barrett of the Poetry School in 2015 he was asked about his collection Dark Islands (Test Centre) and suggested in reply that it contained work completed since the end of the first decade of the century:

Dark Islands contains poems written over the past six years (since my debut collection How to Build a City came out). As such it’s not governed by any one defining theme; however, I hope that readers will discern a network of interconnecting ideas and motifs: bank collapse, urban geology, magic, ritual, the island as a stand-in for the body. The book also tests out—in various askew ways—the idea of faith; or, rather, what I call a ‘dodgy faith in the truth’. Can we find a centre, a still point, in this whirlpool of voices?

Dark Islands is an intriguing and often disturbing sequence of poems which is clearly revealed as the work of a London poet haunted by landscapes, hidden histories and constant movement. If Graham Swift’s Waterland is one of the influences upon Chivers’s early work the shifting phantasmagorias of Paul Auster seem to lean through this new volume of ‘night-work’. Auster’s 1987 novel In the Country of Last Things opens with a dystopian vision of the future of the city:

These are the last things, she wrote. One by one they disappear and never come back. I can tell you of the ones I have seen, of the ones that are no more, but I doubt there will be time. It is all happening too fast now, and I cannot keep up.
I don’t expect you to understand. You have seen none of this, and even if you tried, you could not imagine it. These are the last things. A house is there one day, and the next day it is gone. A street you walked down yesterday is no longer there today. Even the weather is in constant flux. A day of sun followed by a day of rain, a day of snow followed by a day of fog, warm then cool, wind then stillness, a stretch of bitter cold, and then today, in the middle of winter, an afternoon of fragrant light, warm to the point of merely sweaters. When you live in the city, you learn to take nothing for granted. Close your eyes for a moment, turn around to look at something else, and the thing that was before you is suddenly gone. Nothing lasts, you see, not even the thoughts inside you. And you mustn’t waste your time looking for them. Once a thing is gone, that is the end of it.

Another significant influence lurking behind this work is, of course, Charles Dickens and this becomes immediately evident in poem xix of Dark Islands:

Jacob’s Island

blue linen shirt peppered
with unanticipated rainfall
on Tanner Street and river
so near first one then
two pedestrians with broken limbs
whilst architects and secretaries
close little windows on the dock
or Neckinger perhaps a shanty Venice

Holy Trinity is shut adrift
in its own isle and so
I’m thinking of my body
in the rookery a garden
across another fire station
apathetic bulldog in a dip
wild flowering from boundary wall
a purple especially

who is that crouching
in the highway and slipping
by the fenceline between
the dark water and the wall
I do not call it bank
no sewer here please
as armed police are shuttled
downstream by speedboat
only one looks south their
helmets are so very black

who is that frying onion
throwing balls into the Thames
closing windows racing
scooters thru the island
like it’s never even there

Jacob’s island becomes the last hiding place for Bill Sykes and it was described by Henry Mayhew in the Morning Chronicle of 1849 as the ‘very capital of cholera’ and the ‘Venice of drains’. The description given by Dickens in Chapter L of Oliver Twist suggests the more eerie and nightmarish qualities of the place:

Near to that part of the Thames on which the church at Rotherhithe abuts, where the buildings on the banks are dirtiest and the vessels on the river blackest with the dust of colliers and the smoke of close-built low-roofed houses, there exists, at the present day, the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London, wholly unknown, even by name, to the great mass of its inhabitants.

Dickens stresses that in order to even find this place the ‘visitor has to penetrate through a maze of close, narrow, and muddy streets, thronged by the roughest and poorest of water-side people’. Once at Jacob’s Island the visitor will discover that the ‘warehouses are roofless and empty; the walls are crumbling down; the windows are no more; the doors are falling into the streets’. The world of phantasmagoria weaves its way through Chivers’s poem as the pedestrians ‘with broken limbs’ appear with Baudelairean menace and the subterranean river Neckinger winds on, ‘a shanty Venice’. The air of menace in the poem comes into focus again with the figure (s) ‘crouching’ and ‘slipping’ as well as the police, ‘armed’, being ‘shuttled downstream’. The evocation of this world concludes with senses: the smell of frying onions, the sound of scooters’, but they cannot be located in this shifting world because, after all, it is ‘like it’s never even there’.
The bleak humour which acts as a backdrop to Tom Chivers’s visceral sense of language can be noted from an early email in the Nine Arches Press volume, The Terrors:

Will, take out your field notebook. Make a tryst in blood. Employ your canines. Watch a shank of lamb slip off the bone as a woman stepping from her dress. This steaming viand, in its scrambled mess of lentils (puy), requires your total 100% concentration. I give you ‘The Huntsman’s Supper’, or some other peasant chic moniker.

Ian Brinton 15th June 2015.

Tom Chivers: from drainage to Dark Islands

Tom Chivers: from drainage to Dark Islands

I

Words around the grate

When Nine Arches Press published Tom Chivers’s The Terrors in March 2009 the blurb on the back was written by Iain Sinclair:

Dark London history, dredged and interrogated, spits and fizzes with corrosive wit. Language-receipts sustain the necessary illusion. IT MATTERS. It matters: the weight and pace of delivery, the balance of breath. Tom Chivers understands the risks he risks, the play in a taught rope. “I’ll ghost-write, if you ask.”

The poet addressed the reader at the opening of this startlingly powerful reconstruction of pages that owe much to The Newgate Calendar:

What follows is a sequence of imagined emails sent from the author to inmates at London’s Newgate Prison incarcerated between roughly 1700 and 1760. All mistakes, typos and anachronisms are deliberate.

An interest in how the past threads its way through our present was evident after Tom Chivers went up to St. Anne’s College, Oxford, to read English in 2001 and founded a magazine of contemporary writing, Keystone. The first issue of this little magazine contained work by Ric Caddel, the co-Director of the Basil Bunting Poetry Centre, David Caddy, whose influence on the work of Tom Chivers was immense, Lucy Newlyn, winner of the 2001 British Academy’s Crawshay Prize for her work on ‘Reading, Writing, and Romanticism: The Anxiety of Reception’ and Bernard O’Donoghue, teacher of Medieval English at Corpus Christi College whose collection of poems, Here Nor There, was a Poetry Book Society choice. The long poem which Chivers wrote himself for this first issue was titled ‘Effra’ after the lost river of South London which had two branches in the Norwood area, flowed under Half Moon Lane in Herne Hill towards Coldharbour Lane, Brixton before ending in the Thames near Vauxhall Bridge. It has been suggested that one possible derivation for the name of the river is from the Celtic word for ‘torrent’ and John Ruskin, who grew up in Herne Hill, referred to it in his autobiographical writing Praeterita:

Our house was the northernmost of a group which stand accurately on the top or dome of the hill, where the ground is for a small space level, as the snows are, (I understand,) on the dome of Mont Blanc; presently falling, however, in what may be, in the London clay formation, considered a precipitous slope, to our valley of Chamouni (or of Dulwich) on the east; and with a softer descent into Cold Harbour-lane on the west: on the south, no less beautifully declining to the dale of the Effra (doubtless shortened from Effrena, signifying the “Unbridled” river; recently, I regret to say, bricked over for the convenience of Mr. Biffin, chemist, and others)…

Ruskin also suggested that his first sketch revealing any artistic merit, done when he was thirteen in 1832, was at the foot of Herne Hill (where the Half Moon Tavern is now), showing a bridge over the Effra. He also suggested that the stretch of the river towards Dulwich was ‘a tadpole haunted ditch’ and the language here finds echoes in Graham Swift’s novel Waterland and Chivers’s own poetry:

Under tarmac, Effra
swills in drains,
only witness
to every crime,
and one eye to the Thames.

Let us forget
the river: block him up,
his seasons and his rages.
Let’s shout him out
And seal him up
Beneath the Railton Road.

Effra! Effra!
calling at night.

The river bore strange testimony and in the nineteenth-century a coffin was discovered floating in the Thames having sailed from West Norwood Cemetery although the grave itself was undisturbed. It was hinted that the grave had been dug too close to the course of the Effra which runs beneath the cemetery, and that the coffin had subsided into the river, flowing underneath south London before reaching the Thames at Vauxhall.
Tom Chivers combines a passionate interest in Medieval literature with a fascination for what lies buried below a surface. In 2013 he was commissioned for Humber Mouth Literature Festival to write Flood Drain, published by Annexe Press in the following year. The author’s note at the opening of the chapbook gives an intriguing picture of the poet’s awareness of the connections between the past and the present:

In the opening of the great medieval dream vision Piers Plowman, the narrator lies down ‘on a brood bank by a bourne syde’ and is sent to sleep by the sound of the stream which, as he says ‘sweyed so murye’. The poem registers a universal truth, that there is something mesmeric about running water, but it also prefigures the Jungian association of rivers with dreaming and the unconscious. The river, of course, can also stand for death or, as Styx, the underworld. In another medieval poem, Pearl, an unfordable river separates the dreamer from the ghost of his daughter and the promise of heavenly paradise.

The poet tells us that his poem ‘meditates on the dual themes of dreaming and drainage, inspired by a two-day drift down the river Hull’:

The city, recently announced as Britain’s Capital of Culture for 2017, is properly called Kingston-upon-Hull; but such is the ubiquity of the shortened name Hull that the river itself has got somewhat lost. Perhaps this is not so surprising; after all, the city faces out into the vast grey estuary of a much larger river, the Humber, leaving its eponymous stream to snake through the industrial landscape of wrecking yards and ruined docks undisturbed and unrecognised.

Just as in the early poem ‘Effra’ the derivation of the name is important. Whereas the lost river of south London may have taken its name from the Celtic word for ‘torrent’ or even, given the epigraph to the poem (‘Sous les pavés, la plage! Paris, 1968), the French ‘effroi’, the name for Hull has no definitive etymology:

Some claim it as Celtic for ‘deep river’ or Saxon for ‘muddy river’, but the most alluring explanation was offered by Nathan Bailey in his 1721 An Universal Etymological English Dictionary:

HULL…of hulen, Lower Saxon heulen, Teutonic, to howl, from the Noise the River makes, when it meets the Sea.

An interest in the world of medieval dream-poetry may well have merged with Chivers’s interest in contemporary poetry: the Gawain-poet’s Pearl is linked of course with Barry MacSweeney’s sequence of poems about which he talked on Radio 4 in 2009.
The movement of rivers to the sea lurks behind James Joyce’s injunction in Ulysses, ‘Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past’ and drains filter out those relics which lie stranded on the shores of a grating:

flat world in which everything slips
fix a chain & a windlass at the mouth of the new cut
disgorging of pipes / tubing / culverts & drains
into Sayer’s Creek
disgorge into estuary
deep slug of Humber
pours the gravy of Hull
in a sound like a sawmill
in a sound like vomiting
in a sound like the howling
of the Fever Hospital

Green City
City of Tomorrow

what is old /
what is new

(Flood Drain)

In his collection of short case-histories, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks wrote that ‘We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative—whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs and lives, a ‘narrative’, and that this narrative is us, our identities […] for each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative…’ With these thoughts in mind it is possible to understand why the History teacher, Tom Crick, in Waterland talks of the Grand Narrative as a ‘filler of vacuums’ and the ‘dispeller of fears of the dark’; the ‘dark’ is the absence of a narrative, either on an individual or a collective level. The dark is a terrible amnesia or a fragmented mass of information, unbounded by the comforting coherence of memory, that inner narrative ‘whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. As teachers / adults we tell stories to children and acknowledge that, as Crick informs his class of children in a Greenwich school, reality is a vacuum; defying the amnesia and chaos of the universe we construct narratives, tell stories, tales, look at the debris collected by the bars of the drains, convert detritus to words and, as the phenomenological world dries out, we create islands, even dark ones.

Ian Brinton 14th June 2015

Flood Drain by Tom Chivers

Flood Drain by Tom Chivers

(Annexe Press   www.annexemagazine.com)

 

In The Terrors (Nine Arches Press 2009) Tom Chivers tried to map for us the city and how it all connected: ‘Sodden hooks north; strip developments; turnpikes; vowels that stretch and bend with the roadway.’ Now he has published Flood Drain, commissioned for last year’s Humber Mouth Literature Festival. When Philip Larkin was working on early drafts of his poem about Hull, ‘Here’, he complained that it was caught, trapped, as a ‘pointless shapeless thing about Hull’. In October 1961, having completed the poem that was to stand as the opening to The Whitsun Weddings, Larkin wrote that he meant it as a celebration of Hull: ‘It’s a fascinating area, not quite like anywhere else’.

 

Tom Chivers has written a fascinating poem that could stand most interestingly alongside Larkin’s in terms of the shifts and changes that have taken place in English poetry over the past half-century. Flood Drain is much closer to the world of Charles Olson and the refracted language of R.F. Langley’s ‘Matthew Glover’ than it is to Larkin’s. What it shares with Larkin’s world is that fascination with the merging of history and industrialism that haunts that North-East coastline and the history which interests Chivers is more akin perhaps to that which interested Graham Swift in his writing of Waterland: the tone of voice in the opening author’s note is a register that I suspect Swift would recognise:

 

Hull is also a lost word. A name with no definitive etymology. Some claim it as Celtic for ‘deep river’ or Saxon for ‘muddy river’, but the most alluring explanation was offered by Nathan Bailey in his 1721 An Universal Etymological English Dictionary: HULL…of hulen, Lower Saxon heulen, Teutonic, to howl, from the Noise the River makes, when it meets with the sea.

 

Flood Drain swirls around a walk Chivers made in an attempt to ‘trigger an altered state of conscciousness’ and with that visionary sense he takes as his model Langland’s Malvern dream of Piers Plowman in the opening of which the poet lies down ‘under a brod banke by a bourne syde’ before drifting into a sleep charmed by the sound of the stream’s waters. Very different from the ambitious Medieval allegorical world of Langland’s dream poem this witty and intelligent take on industrial drainage in the twenty-first century has no qualms about playing with sounds and inferences

 

I had a drain                  /

I had a flood drain

in a somer seson

the day after St Jude’s day

 

The reference to St. Jude, the Patron Saint of Lost Causes, has a bleak appropriateness as Chivers conducts us through a ‘flat world in which everything slips’. And there again the echo of Waterland can be heard as the past emerges from a silted land:

 

“See all this waste up here? It’s called slag.

It gets wet & it gets all muddy almost like

a liquid & that’s when it makes a landslip.”

 

Within and across this landscape which is brought to life for us in this splendid new poem by Tom Chivers what we hang on to is our only shield:

 

Hull into Humber.

Humber into sea.

This we know.

This much we know.

 

Ian Brinton 14th April 2014

 

 

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