A BOOK ON THE SOFA XVII

 

I have a large volume of George Barker's Collected Poems but could not resist this first edition, in a wrapper, of his first, 1935 volume simply called Poems.

 

There is much to be said for reading poems in slim volumes – and how many of those first volumes lead to a hefty collected?

 

What's more, this copy's pages have not been cut, and I must be careful about doing so.

 

Meanwhile, pondering such matters temporal, I lighted upon this one:

 

I too will end. I too

Supple of sheer muscle tend apart,

A perianth the head shed to decay

And spinal stalk too wither...”

 

There is more such traversal of fragile body: seek it out while pondering that image of one's head as a floral envelope.

 

What's more, in thinking about an envelope, the volume's near-pristine wrapper tells us about the contents:

 

Those who look for new poets will remember a few poems, in the Criterion, the Listener, New Verse, and one or two other periodicals, which could not be classified as paraphrases or imitations of any of the living poets now generally admired. Some of these poems have been over the signature of George Barker. There are many people who have wanted to see more of George Barker's work, so that they might make up their minds about him. This volume gives them the opportunity of committing themselves to an opinion of a poet younger than those whom they have recently been discussing.”

 

Authors sometimes draft their dustflap copy. Given the Romantic timbre of George Barker's poems, it is hard to think that he had any hand in that Classical paragraph (accurate though it is). This was surely the work of his publisher T. S. Eliot.

 

Be that as it may, the £3.50 I spent on it today was surely an even better bargain than the six shillings it cost more than eight decades ago.

 

 

A BOOK ON THE SOFA XVI

 

Seven decades after Shaw's death, one might not hasten across country to see a staging of his plays. Which is perhaps unfair, for, when one does watch them, it is invariably with great enjoyment. As with Wilde, it is fair to say that his plays are rooted in the the journalism to which he gave much time and energy. Now compiled in three substantial volumes, his music criticism is well-nigh matchless, or perhaps one should say matchful as it remains incendiary stuff – and highly informed.

 

New to me, though, is this volume, published eleven years after his death. As you can see, this copy appears to have been well read – and no wonder. Dan Laurence, who gave more of his life to Shaw than the playwright did himself, explains that he collected these pieces which Shaw delivered on the hoof to audiences in halls which helped to create a public for his work. Time was, when people readily turned out to hear lectures and addresses, and so perhaps it is in our own era: podcasts and TED talks.

 

To collect these talks required some work of Laurence, for Shaw – rightly so – thought that it was cheating to stand up and read out something which he could have simply printed. That would have denied himself and a paying public the dramatic force which an audience can inspire (something which comes close to the Barthesian notion of reader as author).

 

These three-hundred pages bring one close to such an evening out.

 

Among such jaunts is a 1911 gathering. On June 13th in London he addressed the Annual Meeting of the Coal Smoke Abatement Society, where he proposed the notion that “this meeting, recognising the harmful effect of coal smoke on life and property, pledges itself to support the efforts of the Coal Smoke Abatement Society in diminishing the evil.”

 

This was, of course, prescient, for it was not until the Fifties, after lethal “peasoupers” killed many, that measures were taken – and still need to be taken 110 years after his address as we contend with a Climate Emergency.

 

Being Shaw, however, he promptly took another tack rather than weary an audience with statistics.

 

I would like to make a few remarks on the nature of genius. You might say that genius has nothing to do with smoke abatement and that is not what you have come to listen to. But I know little about smoke, which is a common thing, and everything about genius. I am in that line myself.”

 

A Wildean flourish which brought laughter. His point is that genius, by being focussed on one thing to the point of apparent eccentricity, can see matters to which others are blind. “To the ordinary inefficient mind there is one thing which can be seen over and over again without any importance being attached to it, and that is a smoking chimney.”

 

Such chimneys had been around for decades, since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Similarly, a century on from Shaw's address, it has taken decades for people and politicians to wise up to the continual warnings of lone scientists about the coming peril – and, even now, former President Trump unites with those who slather in the readers' comments columns to deny that there is a problem.

 

Shaw proves to be all the more our contemporary, in the same address, by talking of the linked subject of washing: if one did not need to rid one's body and clothes of smoke-driven pollutants, one would not need to clean oneself so often. And he anticipated Win Hof: “it is true I have got into the habit of taking a cold bath; but that is not washing. I do it as a stimulant, and I often think I had better have taken to whisky.”

 

Again he aroused laughter, which brought people on his side, recognising that “a clean atmosphere would probably prolong our lives and enable us to save money”.

 

What an advocate he would have made for solar panels (not to mention the current penchant for summerhouses: there is film of him in the revolving one which he designed to catch – or perhaps avoid - the sun throughout the day).

A BOOK UPON THE SOFA XV

 

Browse. The word was originally used to describe the way in which animals graze upon vegetation. And, in some moods, this is the very way that one can productively read a book, sampling here and there, getting a sense of what might draw one further in, and then going from the beginning to the end for nourishment.

 

This could indeed be the way to approach – as you can see – a neat collection of little-known anecdotes about Oscar Wilde. Published last year, but with no reviews that I saw, it is compiled by Matthew Sturgis who had recently published the best biography of Wilde, one more in the spirit of the man than the stolid one by Richard Ellmann over three decades ago.

 

As Matthew Sturgis mentions in a brief preface, he set about this pendant to his biography by, well, browsing. For a month he pulled books off the shelf in the London Library, flipped their pages and – as we can see – pulled out nuggets from long-vanished memoirs by those fortunate enough to have encountered Wilde here (and in America, where his arrival went unmatched until that of the Beatles in 1964).

 

One would not wish to spoil readers' enjoyment by quoting too much. Here is a taste. G.P. Jacomb-Hood's With Brush and Pencil (1925) hereby sees some light of day again.

 

About that time [publication of The Happy Prince] he came to stay a few days, between two country-house visits in Dorset, with me and three other friends in a cottage let to us, on Brownsea Island, by our friend Frederick Cavendish Bentinck. As we only had an old woman who came in to cook and 'do' for us there, our ménage was not luxurious, but Wilde seemed thoroughly to enjoy it. His only want was a cup of tea before getting up in the morning, for the getting of which I had to rise, light the kitchen fire, and boil some water. 'My dear Jacomb! I positively cannot open my eyes without a cup of tea.' He joined like a schoolboy in the early-morning plunge in the harbour from the castle steps, and we spent most of our days sailing in small boats in Poole Harbour or on the sea.”

 

This is new to me. I feel sure that I would have remembered the combination of tea and Poole had I read it before. Matthew Sturgis has produced a beguiling entertainment, and includes some extracts from early drafts of the plays (elsewhere on this site – under Books – I have written at length on the evolution of The Importance of Being Earnest). One might also urge readers to seek out Wilde's journalism: even when he is reviewing a long-forgotten book, it is as though he is in the room with us and talking of it over tea or something stronger.

 

One's only regret is that this book is not printed on better paper; it will soon be yellow, unlike so many of those, over a century old, which inspired Matthew Sturgis's mining expedition in the London Library.

 

 

A BOOK ON THE SOFA XIV

 

There have been many books about writing a novel. The upshot of this is that any writer finds a way. The crucial lesson is not to be daunted by mistakes. The first blows of the chisel into the marble are far from the finished item. D. H. Lawrence evolved a method at the beginning of his career of writing, from scratch, several versions of a novel. He even rewrote a novel, The Boy in the Bush by somebody else – Mollie Skinner.

 

During two years he wrote four versions of Sons and Lovers. Come 1913, that fourth version was pruned, and more, by the well-known editor Edward Garnett. The full text has been published in the Cambridge edition, and one inclines to favour Lawrence's final thoughts rather than his contemporary thanks to Garnett for that wielding of a pencil.

 

Perhaps all the more interesting is publication of the second draft, as Paul Morel. It is far shorter, sometimes sketchier in its conception of the troubled household, and events take a melodramatic turn. Equally, it contains some comedy downplayed in the final version. In particular, there is a glorious appearance by a rescued rabbit, a creature who brings out some welcome spirit in Paul's father.

 

Adolphus, the friskiest atom, would give a wild start at the jam, turn, dart six inches, then reconsider himself. He climbed with his fore-feet on the rim of the sugar basin, and helped himself to a lump; this before he had been in the house a week.”

 

This is the prose of a man born to write.

 

Lost is the opening part of the second draft, and this edition prints in its place the opening of the third draft. Here, Lawrence evokes the end of day.

 

The sun was going down. It is a countryside famous for its sunsets. Every open evening, the hills of Derbyshire blaze up like a beacon.This night Mrs Morel watched the sun sink from the glistening sky, leaving a soft, flower-blue overhead, while the western space went red, as if all the fire of the day had swum down, leaving the bell cast flawless blue. The mountain-ash berries across the field were like coals among the dark leaves, that were overcast with crimson.”

 

Any of us would relish writing that. Lawrence did not leave it there.

 

Here is the final version.

 

The sun was going down. Every open evening, the hills of of Derbyshire were blazed over with red sunset. Mrs Morel watched the sun sink from the glistening sky, leaving a soft flower-blue overhead, while the western space went red, as if the all the fire had swum down there, leaving the bell cast flawless blue. The mountain-ash berries across the field stood fierily out from the dark leaves, for a moment.”

 

It is possible to prefer the third draft, with that touch of crimson, and the assertion about Derbyshire's fame.

 

We live in times when many people post online photographs of sunsets less redolent than Lawrence's prose but we are also in what might be called The Age of the Archive: one can listen to a dozen versions of Bob Dylan's masterly, if unfinished “She's Your Lover Now” and read the version of The Importance of Being Earnest as first staged – without the additional, brilliant lines which Wilde created after Reading Gaol. I am partial to the version of Pink Floyd's “Wish You Were Here” with Stephane Grappelli (even more surprising, in that Abbey Road encounter, would have been Menuhin taking a solo on it).

 

Life is short, art survives it; perhaps one should use this time to read widely, but to go in these circles on the Derbyshire hills can prove rewarding, an inspiration to anybody who, Klee-like, takes a pen out for a walk across the page.

 

A bosh shot is the prelude to success.

A BOOK ON THE SOFA XIII

 

The other day a Hove resident gave me this little book which had been published by the News Chronicle at the end of 1941. Well produced by that newspaper, with sewn binding, this paperback included some of the poems which it had reprinted each day during the year. A preface notes, “war counts among its horrors the power to make us forget beauty. When we fight, we fight as much for the preservation of that beauty as we do for our freedom and our lives”.

 

And now, eighty years on, there leapt from these pages one evening in Hove a poem called “Light” by F. W. Bourdillon.

 

What? Who?

 

It is eight lines in length.

 

The night has a thousand eyes,

   And the day but one;

Yet the light of the bright world dies

    With the dying sun.

 

The mind has a thousand eyes,

    And the heart but one;

Yet the light of a whole life dies

     When love is done.”

 

Bourdillon, who was born in 1852, died in 1921 – four decades before his opening phrase would be heard upon Bobby Vee's lips. What's more, it had already been the title of a Forties movie, with accompanying music. Splendid as the Vee song is, with those sweeping strings, it is essentially about jealousy awaiting a tip-off from those thousand eyes about a lover seen in the company of a rival.

 

The poem takes another tack, perhaps. Bourdillon, who was brought up in Cheshire and of a religious disposition, spent much of his life in Sussex. The poem has a metaphysical nature. Night's stars, many as they are, cannot match the life-sustaining power of the single orb that is the Sun.

 

Which is true, so far as it goes. And yet, Bourdillon's second quatrain brings that physical, astronomical assertion within somebody's state of being. That is, reason – the mind – might say that when a lover has gone, there might be others and yet the heart – another single orb – can deem otherwise.

 

All of which is to say that, in effect, Bourdillon's poem is not so far from Bobby Vee. Time to seek out more of Bourdillon, and if the rest does not match that line, well, an evocative phrase is more than most of us will leave behind us as the Sun burns out and more stars emerge in the night sky.

A BOOK ON THE SOFA XII

 

How on earth did this front cover for the 1950 Penguin edition get past so many eyes? One recalls that, similarly, Anthony Burgess threw aside any book which referred to Finnegan's Wake.

 

As B.J. Kirkpatrick's Bibliography of Forster notes, there were 40,000 copies printed of this Penguin (she does not remark that it is the Forsterian equivalent of the Devil's Bible - “Thou shalt commit adultery”). Earlier, wartime Penguins – 110,00 copies – had not sported this howler.

 

We can only assume that the cover was not sent to Forster himself before publication (he was vexed later in life when sent a re-bound copy of the novel for signature and its spine contained this appalling apostrophe: perhaps he thought it a greengrocer's work).

 

Meanwhile, come 1973, three years after Forster's death, there appeared The Manuscripts of Howards End. Only a thousand copies were printed (and numbered). As you can see, the title is accurately rendered, but the transcription by its editor Oliver Stallybrass prompted a scholarly article by John H. Stape with many corrections which was then issued with the book by publisher Edward Arnold (it protrudes in this photograph).

 

All of this might seem geekish, but there is a human factor. That editor, Oliver Stallybrass, had hoped to be elected a Fellow of King's College, Cambridge to continue his work on the Edition of Forster. Word is that the Howards End mistranscriptions put the kibosh on that. He had been working on the Edition amidst freelance work of a diverse kind, including translations. So disappointed was he by this rejection that he died in 1978, upon a railway track (an end which, of course, recalls The Longest Journey, which was Forster's favourite of his novels).

 

Almost five decades have gone by since Stallybrass's death. Meanwhile, he had worked upon A Room With a View, which was accompanied by the now-scarce The Lucy Novels (1977) which now commands £200 and more. These early versions of the novel are presented in quite a readable form. Unlike those for Howards End and A Passage to India, whose system – amidst page lines - of arrows and brackets upon brackets for Forster's later thoughts turn any reader into a contortionist.

 

In this Age of the Archive, when innumerable takes by Bob Dylan bring a paying audience, could we see a first, uninterrupted, arrowless draft of these Forster novels? As there has been of many a Lawrence novel.

 

For one thing, it would make many a novelist nowadays – and beyond – feel undaunted at the need to start over as a part of the creative process.

A BOOK ON THE SOFA XI

 

Time was when a Cambridge critic called F. R. Leavis held sway and laid down the law on novels that were granted room in what he called The Great Tradition. He is now rarely mentioned. People in universities and at large have wised up to the fact one can read widely - just as Graham Greene was an enthusiast for Henry James and the rather more hard-boiled W.R. Burnett.

 

And so it is that James Curtis, who died in Kilburn bedsit obscurity in 1977, is now recognised as an astute chronicler of Thirties lowlife. They Drive by Night (1938) was swiftly filmed in England, and, a few years later in Hollywood (with Bogart). And what a corker it is. As I write that noun, I break off to consult the three hefty volumes of Jonathon Green's wonderful dictionary of slang. It turns out that the first recorded instance of corker is by one T. Brierley in 1870. Corker could also mean an alcohol, such as rum, which keeps out the cold (an 1808 usage which came from Jamaica and could be revived now). This digression into slang is apt, for They Drive by Night is full of it, buttressing a tale which can be simply summarised.

 

Albert Mathews, known as Shorty, is about to be released from gaol again. Soon after taking a breath of outside air that morning, he is back in Soho, where he finds that his girlfriend, who is on the game, has been strangled with a silk stocking. He panics rather than go to the police and, of course, is the prime suspect while the killer lurks elsewhere. He takes to the road, hitching lifts from the trucks which ply the Great North Road.

 

Encounters along the way are swift and varied, many springing from transport caffs as fog descends and rain beats upon the windscreens. This is the familiar stuff of pursuit and temporary sanctuary, with quite a few cases of girls hoping for ten shillings for pleasuring those who have taken them aboard the rattling vehicles. What distinguishes all this, bold for its time, is Curtis's language. It is realistic and yet fantastic, his skill such that one need not break off to look up what a slang term might mean. Here we have the higher sordid. Thereby hangs another tale. At one point, for example, a truck driver suggests they stop for some “ackermaracker”, which is evidently tea (one can picture the thick brew poured from the spout by a sullen counterhand). Come the moment, after the last page closes, one looks this up in Green's volumes and finds that it is there, the only citation being this one - with the speculation that it might be a variation upon “cha”. As Jonathan Meades points out in his introduction, Green's dictionary contains three hundred citations from this novel. Whether on many lips at the time or not, here is something distinctive: one is putting the ear with a glass against the neighbouring wall of history.

 

And all the while, the story, with one subterfuge after another, keeps going. Fittingly, the reader - as much as Shorty - cannot stop after climbing aboard. Put your feet up with a glass of corker as the winds blow outside, and let Curtis put his foot on the gas, and you'll have a gas.

A BOOK ON THE SOFA X
 
“Have you read all these books?” Some people are given to asking this, and I have found myself replying, “of course not! Otherwise I should have done nothing else.” This appears sufficient to stop them in their verbal tracks.
 
There is pleasure in anticipation, and one can buy books in the knowledge that they will find their time. Here is Robert Bader's history of the Marx Brothers' stage career.
At five-hundred large pages (over ten inches high), it was published by Northwestern University Press five years ago but did not appear over here; despite transatlantic reading, I somehow missed it until the other week, when somebody mentioned it in the New York Times's weekly column (“By the Book”) about his current and past reading - and I duly tracked down a copy (it appears to be out of print).
 
Over seventy years ago, in reviewing Kyle Crichton's pioneering book about the Brothers, James Agee made the point “The Marxes' existence might fairly be described as bare, and as almost nightmarishly improvisatory, but never as melancholy and seldom even as anxious. The family's career during the nine or ten decades (or so it seems) before they hit the jackpot was rather like a slackwire act, blindfold, in Laocoonic tandem, without a net. The boys showed few special aptitudes and such as they were, they never got the debatable blessing of formal development.”
 
Start to quote Agee and one cannot stop. He pictures how it all might have gone, what with “Chico's one burning interest in life was chasing (and grounding) girls” while “Groucho, the brainiest, most sensitive and glummest of the brothers, always wanted to be a doctor and was constantly reading whatever he could lay hands on; but for the grace of Minnie [their mother] and a lack of even minimal funds he might well have wound up wearing a frock-coat in earnest or, quite as possibly, as just a good run-of-the-mill intellectual.”
 
Thanks to Minnie, they stuck out the provincial tours, Agee's seeming eternity which led to the movies (the first of which is a memento of that stage career). Agee lamented that Crichton's early book overlooked so much of their movies, but even 1950 was not a time for such a perspective. Since then, there have been many volumes about their careers, but it has awaited Ralph Nader for a focus upon the stage preamble (and amble is the word for Groucho's “vulpine stride”, as Graham Greene described it).
 
We are in safe hands here. He tells us, “I first laid eyes on the Marx Brothers on a Saturday morning, when I was around eight years old. My grandmother had parked me in front of a television set with a grilled cheese sandwich, hoping for a few moments of peace and quiet. She unknowingly planted the seeds of a lifelong obsession. What I saw that morning, almost fifty years ago, was Monkey Business.”
 
Which is the movie in which a tooting figure appears from a tattoo on Harpo's arm. Something which would have been impossible on stage (and was a miracle on screen decades before computer-generated images).
 
Back to Agee, and the stage. “But how in God's name can one account for the fact that they had their first smash success, with this new kind of humor, in Philadelphia of all cities! By my own meager but paralyzing impressions of Philadelphia, anthropologists (or, heaven prevent it, humorologists) might puzzle over that mystery for the balance of Western Civilization; Mr. Crichton doesn't even speak of it as odd.”
 
I look forward to Mr. Nader's anthropological take on that city's coming to its senses and propelling the Brothers to those heights which help to sustain sustain us almost a century later.
A BOOK ON THE SOFA IX
 
I am an enthusiast for John Meade Falkner. He is best known for that smuggling tale Moonfleet but the novel I urge upon everybody is The Nebuly Coat (1903). Invariably, after reading it, people exclaim in delight and marvel that they had not known it. I edited it for the World's Classics, and turned up much interesting unknown material along the way.
 
And more emerges (though not the fourth novel which he left on a train and, according to some, was stolen by an enemy agent under the impression that it concerned plans as part of his work for armaments manufacturers Armstrong-Whitworth). Falkner's three novels are rooted in his keen interest in buildings, and so it was natural for him to be engaged to revise Murray's Guides to English Counties. These are compact, well-written volumes which sometimes still have maps tucked into endpaper flaps. Falkner worked on Oxfordshire and Berkshire, but it now emerges that he had a hand in updating Buckinghamshire, work duly revised further and issued under the name of P. H. Ditchfield (and published the same year as The Nebuly Coat).
 
One can detect Falkner's hand in it, not least in a description of a stained-glass window at the church in Stoke Poges. That is of course famed for Gray's "Elegy", but who knew that in the north west of the church "with fine figures of saints, of great beauty and interest but of unknown origin; and also some armorial windows, one of which has the earliest known representation of a man mounted upon a velocipede, or rather dandy horse".
 
Falkner was a keen cyclist, and these vehicles which he highlights were precursors of the bicycle (they did not have pedals but required one to push against the ground).
 
As for the description of The Hell-Fire Club, one wonders how much this inspired Falkner's first novel, a ghost story The Lost Stradivarius. This is a more subtle work than those gatherings appear to have been (according to this volume, one of them had the members terrified when an ape was lowered through the chimney and taken to be the Devil himself).
A BOOK ON THE SOFA VIII
 
We must begin by sending our sympathies to the residents of Brentwood in New York State. No, a cyclone has not hit them this season, so far as I know, but the upper edge of my copy of the Library of America's edition of James Agee's film writings bears a mark to show that this splendidly-produced 750-page volume was discarded by the powers-that-be over there.
 
Ex-library, this copy is but intact, which is more than can be said for my paperback of Agee on Film, first published in 1958, three years after his death in his mid-forties (as would Robert Lowell, he died while in a New York taxi cab). Agee has continued to inspire that enthusiasm in readers which prompted W.H. Auden, in 1944, to write to The Nation: “I do not care for movies very much and I rarely see them; further, I am suspicious of criticism as the literary genre which, more than any other, recruits epigones, pedants without insight, intellectuals without love. I am all the more surprised, therefore, to find myself not only reading Mr. Agee before I read anyone else in The Nation but also consciously looking forward all week to reading him again. In my opinion, his column is the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today. What he says is of such profound interest, expressed with such extraordinary wit and felicity, and so transcends its ostensible - to me, rather unimportant - subject, that his articles belong in that very select class - the music critiques of Berlioz and Shaw are the only other members I know - of newspaper work which has permanent literary value.”
 
As did Shaw, Agee was writing on the hoof. He covered movies from 1942 to 1948 each week, not only in The Nation but also Time, having covered social matters in Fortune during the Thirties. Not for him the luxury of the pause button, he had to make knee-bound jottings in a darkness whose only light bounced from the silver screen.
He had to think fast, and this makes for electric prose (the same can be said for the film reviews by Otis Ferguson who died in the Italian landings). Agee was to turn to writing film scripts (notably The Night of the Hunter) and one posthumous novel, A Death in the Family. To quote Agee risks producing here as many pages as there are in this volume. Perhaps one can best light on some phrases as typical of the whole. In a memorial piece about D. W. Griffith he notes that the director duly found that nobody would hire him: “he lived too long, and that is one of few things that are sadder than dying too soon.”
 
A few years after giving considerable space to Olivier's Henry V he watches his Hamlet, and says of Jean Simmons as Ophelia: “she is a sweet-natured, spirited girl, and unquestionably a talented one; she also has the makings of a big, popular movie star. She already gets 2,000 fan letters a week. Among them there have already been twelve proposals of marriage, and a proposition from an Indian chiropodist which is the ultimate sort of accolade a movie star must get used to. Would Miss Simmons be so kind, the Indian fan asked, as to send him a photograph of her feet, and a sliver of toenail? If Miss Simmons had gone along quietly to Bristol [theatre], she could doubtless continue to call her soul - and even her toenails - her own. She might even, in time, become such an artist as Olivier is today.”
Anybody who wields a pen (or keyboard) can but drool at the flow of such phrases, and must balk at what Agee would have made of Olivier's film appearances - one can hardly call them rôles - in the Seventies.
 
The strength of Agee's film reviews is that he knew of far more than films (as can also be said of Graham Greene's wonderful series in the Thirties). Also in this volume are some of his literary studies: Joyce's “obsessive subjects, the city and the artist, bracketed the whole conflicted matter and spirit of modern civilization”. And in a telling appreciation of Virginia Woolf's posthumous novel Between the Acts (1941), he concludes, “Virginia Woolf was the unlikeliest artist on earth to stoop to propaganda, or to any form of public ingratiation. She did not do so here. Yet England and its people, its present, past, innocence and disease, are here summarized in much the way a night wind can summarize a continent.”
 
Would that she had lived to be chuffed by that. And she took more of an interest in cinema than Auden did (for all that he wrote the verse commentary to Night Mail). Auden could have added her critical writings to those of Shaw and Berlioz - and, indeed, I must make haste to complete my set of his own six-volume reviews (his prose got much better with the late-Thirties move to America, where he gained an Agee dynamic even though some, not me, say that his poetry was not the same as it had been).
 
As for Agee, the geek in me might yet attempt to trawl through the amount of reviews in Time that did not make it into Agee on Film which are there subsidiary to those in The Nation which is the continuing basis for this collection.
Well how to conclude? I have just flicked open the book at random: “it is a tremendous pleasure to see something done in American movies which you can be proud of - however foolish and suspect that sort of pride may be.”
 
Another flick of the fingers could yield more. But there is only so much these fingers can do. Use yours, and find your brain regaled.
 
As for slivers of my toenails, I have got in the habit - after softening them in the bath - of adding them to the composter. Which is perhaps the most that immortality can ask of me.
A BOOK ON THE SOFA VII
 
You never know where a book might take you. A few years ago a friend asked me along to an evening's launch of Ian Helliwell's elegantly idiosyncratic study of electronic composers. A “launch” is usually a matter of standing around with a glass; it is only ships, not books, that enter the world with champagne; even so, one hopes that the glass will be discreetly refilled, and even that a tray of canapés wafts in reach every now and then.
 
This evening was something better, by far. Arranged around a screening of a film and its avant-garde soundtrack, it featured a panel of speakers (humans, that is, as well as electrical devices). One of these was Ron Geesin, who duly described his various works, and turned out to have something of a stand-up nature, with such remarks as having joined a jazz band in the early-Sixties in order to escape Scotland and hit the big time only to find that, on waking, the tour 'bus had come to a halt in... a Crawley car park.
 
One has to surmount life's disillusions.
 
In due course that launch evening, there came the moment for questions. Something which always brings an awkward silence. And so - emboldened by stint as Chair of the Council's Planning Committee -, I raised my hand, and made a point about the use of such music in television series: people at large accept, even relish, a noise on a soundtrack when somebody comes through a door but would deride it if played as part of an audio work. And so the discussion began. Afterwards a woman nearby leaned towards me and said, “thank you for getting that going!” She turned out to be Geesin's wife, Frankie, a designer whom he married not long after arriving in that Crawley car park. I asked her whether he is as funny as this all the time - and she replied, “from the moment he gets out of bed!”
 
Geesin is best known for his work on arranging the pieces which comprise the first side of Pink Floyd's LP Atom Heart Mother, and has written an engaging book about it (although bassoon players might not take kindly to his heartfelt observation that they are invariably the troublemakers in an orchestra). Rather less known is that he is an enthusiastic collector of adjustable spanners. Yes, you read correctly. So much so that he has 3,000 of them.
Now you might think that by the very nature of an adjustable spanner, you only need one (such as I own in order to open the outhouse door which has lost its handle, which makes me think of Ron Geesin most days). As you can see, he took all this further and created a profusely-illustrated book about them in 2016. He had never expected any of this turn to his life. In the Eighties he had been in the habit of going round those nascent boot fairs in a quest for 78s of early jazz and blues. Along the way he noticed that there were buckets of spanners which people were keen to offload. And, as he says, once you have three of something that is the beginning of a collection.
 
Any object can become a focus for social history; for a while there was a publishers' vogue for such single-subject titles as Salt; adjustable spanners are, though, a territory unto themselves. Don't take my word for it. More recently, I went to a talk in Brighton, where Geesin spoke on the subject which was, one could sense, initially deemed absurd by some of the audience, but his way with words beguiled such doubters into fascination - and he revealed that his book, which is unlikely to appear on supermarket shelves, has led to a rise in prices for vintage spanners. Galling as that might be, it does mean that the publishers have asked him for a sequel. And how many authors receive such tidings?
 
Meanwhile, it occurs to me that there could be a continuing Pink Floyd connection. (David Gilmour tells me that Ron Geesin is always wonderful company.) The band once experimented with a series of pieces, entitled Household Objects, which made use of such eponymous things as spoons and whatnot, but it was not released. Perhaps it could yet be revived with a part for these vital spanners, which are certainly likely to be more co-operative than bassoon players.
A BOOK ON THE SOFA VI
 
Kingsley Amis urged "the dictionary habit". Here, there are many, two pinnacles being the First and Fourth editions of Johnson's and the twenty-volume revision of the Oxford. No dictionary can be without great use, and, of late, I have found that I keep to hand this centenary facsimile of the 1911 Concise Oxford Dictionary.
 
As you can see, it has been much thumbed. By that "habit" Amist meant that in going to check a spelling, one inevitably strays to words in the vicinity or is distracted on the way to it. And so the compost of one's vocabulary is maintained, prose is fertilised by such additions.
 
The Concise first appeared while the Oxford series was still underway. In an introduction to the Centenary edition, David Crystal sets the volume in its time, with reference to Punch magazine's frequent disquisitions upon language in a time of flux, such was the rate of invention and assimilation of words from other langauges. He also adds a Daily Mail manifesto signed by many medical practitioners against the addition of chemicals to bread to make it appear unduly white. It remains a mystery that the best part of bread is removed from it.
 
An advantage of using this volume is that it takes one back to a language which has not become heavy with technological words (few of which one is likely to use). A recent Concise, in a larger format than this one, is sure to contain many a scientific term - essential as these are - which makes it the harder to chance upon words that might suit one's own purposes. Did P.G. Wodehouse use it? If so, in his creation of gruntle to mean the oppositie of disgruntled, he went against the evidence. Gruntle was a variant of grunt, which means the same, displeased state as disgruntled.
 
Meanwhile, I find that "croon", a word which I am perhaps not alone in associating with Bing Crosby (a singer much admired by Bob Dylan), in fact is of Scottish origins. And, in another flight of the mind, I have just recalled that in footnote to his memoir Experience, Martin Amis recalls that his father was in the habit of patting the Concise Oxford as if it were a small animal and saying, 'this is the one".
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A BOOK ON THE SOFA V
 
After building a reputation during the Thirties, Nevil Shute's reputation increased with his depiction of wartime technology - and took a further leap with his move to Australia, all of which saw him a best-seller beyond his death in 1960.
 
As evidenced by the cover of this 1962 Pan paperback of a novel first published in 1940.
It describes a rookie officer accused of sinking a Royal Navy submarine during a Coastal patrol. The upshot is that he is defended by a woman who has heard and seen crucial evidence to the contrary while pulling pumps her side of the bar.
 
Shute had a wonderfully economical narrative method, which has become appreciated the more in recent years (one can say the same of Agatha Christie, who had an equal grasp of salient dialogue - conversations in which nobody would say "salient").
 
What's more, Shute had an ear for idiom.
 
"There was a lean, saturnine lieutenant in the RNVR there that she knew as Mouldy James; she was not sure if the mouldiness was his nature or if he had specialized in torpedoes. As a Portsmouth girl, born and bred, she knew it might be either."
 
New to me, that use of "mouldies" to mean torpedoes - and I must also find a chance, even in these times, to say "as merry as a grig".
A BOOK ON THE SOFA III
 
George Melly once remarked that he was in the habit of listening to a track or two by Bessie Smith each morning. Similarly, one can do well with a daily story or two by Ernest Hemingway who was, perhaps, at his best in these (and one might count some of his letters as stories). And there is no better form in which to have them (short of some tasty first editions) than this volume, prepared by James Fenton. Here are 800 pages, well printed on good paper in hardback, and all for some £15. Less than the cost of a bottle of Hemingway's favourite rum.
 
Fenton's introduction sets out concisely his approach to editing all this. He brings the stories back to the order in which they were first gathered (including the scarce first incarnation of in our time, which became In Our Time).
 
Other stories have surfaced since Hemingway stopped writing them two decades before his death. Fenton gathers here, and sometimes sets aside, these in a judicious manner. The result is continually fascinating. Hemingway's aim might not always be at its best but here is a man who could, to use a similar metaphor, cut to the chase.
A BOOK ON THE SOFA II
 
Should this copy of Richard Cook and Brian Morton's The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings ever reach a bookseller's catalogue, there would surely be a note: "considerable thumb marking to right edge".
Goodness knows how many times I have picked it from the floor, looked up something and become diverted to much more.
 
This is the Ninth edition, and, geekishly, I have the previous eight (one of which was honoured with a hardback). There has not been another edition these past thirteen years; nor of the Penguin Classical guide, and the Blues managed only one edition. Perhaps reference works have moved online but these cannot match a sofa's reading, the page flicking testified by that right edge, and the abundance of dicsc' reissues is now beyond even a fat book to manage.
At any rate, I well recall the first edition arriving. I opened the parcel mid-morning and took the volume to the desk at which I was meant to be writing something. That task I forget but do remember that two hours went by as I looked through the book. I duly wrote a review of it for The Times - and am still chuffed that it was quoted on subsequent editions. "Every look through its seductively erudite pages reveals more that simply has to be heard... Here, anyway, is enough for a lifetime."
 
I like that phrase "seductively erudite" (and wonder if it differs from "eruditely seductive"). Meanwhile, I thought today that I must make shifts to fill the Julius Hemphill gap.
 
And mourn again the death of Richard Cook, given a jazz-style memorial entry in this edition by Brian Morton. It was a good evening, the party for that first edition of the book at Ronnie Scott's, and I still have the souvenir beer mat of that edition's cover (a beer mat which, miraculously, is in better condition than the ninth edition's right edge).
I am also quoted as praising the Guide's "sassy wit". It is indeed a masterclass in how to combine humour and insight.
A BOOK ON THE SOFA: I
 
85 years on, a first edition of Aldous Huxley's The Olive Tree (1936) in its wrapper, which I found for £10 (a stained cover - olive oil?). And some 2019 Hove olives, from a tree I planted in 2013.. I shall write more on his wonderful essay. A bargain!