Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: William Blake

Theodore Roethke Part 4 The Far Field

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday January 4 2015

Garments of adieu.

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I learned not to fear infinity,
The far field, the windy cliffs of forever,
The dying of time in the white light of tomorrow,
The wheel turning away from itself,
The sprawl of the wave,
The on-coming water.

Roethke in Ireland

In 1960, Richard Murphy, the distinguished Irish poet (whose father was once Mayor of Colombo and who currently lives in Sri Lanka) received warning from another Irish poet, John Montague, of Theodore Roethke’s impending visit to Ireland. In his autobiography, The Kick, Murphy writes: “I decided to try to entice him from the literary pub life of Dublin and invite him across to the west coast.” Murphy thought Roethke, who was at that time famous (in as much as poets can be famous), might help him to find an American publisher if he stayed on Inishbofin and sailed on Murphy’s boat.

Roethke responded positively and said that he and “one wife aged thirty-four, part Irish” would arrive on 25 July 1960. When Murphy first sighted them, he thought he had made a mistake in inviting them: “There they were Ted and Beatrice. A touching sadness seemed to connect her fragile elegance to his hunky dishevelment”. Roethke himself “was like a defeated old prize-fighter, growing bald, groggy and fat, clumsy on his feet, wrapped in silence…”

Once ensconced in Miko’s bar, the previously sullen Roethke became voluble, sipping alternately wine and stout and occasionally taking a naggin of Irish whiskey from his overcoat pocket. When Murphy mentioned Robert Lowell, Roethke banged the table and shouted, “Why are you always praising Lowell? I’m as mad as he is!” He then roared with laughter, making Murphy wonder if “he was deploying madness, which caused him terrible suffering when he plunged from a manic high into a deep depression, as part of a grand strategy to win fame as the greatest poet on earth – America’s answer to William Blake”. Was he licensed to be what Beatrice called “a nut, a drunk and a lecher” because he was a poet?

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During his visit to Inishbofin, Roethke drank a lot and sometimes seemed on the verge of violence. Eventually Beatrice sent for a doctor who signed a certificate committing Roethke to the County Mental Hospital at Ballinasloe. The law required that he be accompanied to the hospital by police. Beatrice said that when the police were called when he had a manic turn while being presented with his Pulitzer Prize he picked one up under each arm and threw them out of the Waldorf Astoria. The local priest drove Roethke to Ballinasloe in his VW Beetle.

Six weeks later, he returned, chastened, to Inishbofin without Beatrice and Murphy got the job of typing poems for him to send to the New Yorker. Murphy was disappointed that Roethke did not get him useful contacts. Before leaving Galway, Roethke was going to stay at John Huston’s house but managed to engineer matters so that Murphy did not get the chance to meet the director’s wife, who was picking him up at the Great Southern Hotel.

Murphy thought: “Roethke’s ambition seemed deplorable because he displayed it so stridently. Without ambition I might never have written poetry but many years later I came across a sentence by Henri Michaux that left me chastened and subdued: ‘The mere ambition to write a poem is enough to kill it’.”

The Far Field

At the height of his popularity and fame, Roethke balanced his teaching career with reading tours in New York and Europe, supported by a Ford Foundation grant. During his final years he wrote the sixty-one new poems that were published posthumously in The Far Field (1964). This was the first book of Roethke that I bought- I have written on the flyleaf “February 1966”. Its power has never waned for me. The Far Field won the National Book Award. Roethke was found dead in a swimming pool on August 1 1963 on Bainbridge Island, Washington State after a party at the estate of Prentice and Virginia Bloedel. The cause of death was a heart attack although many suspected that alcohol played a part.

The main themes of The Far Field are the individual’s quest for spiritual fulfilment and coming to terms with the inevitability of death:

The far field, the windy cliffs of forever,

The poet’s immersion in nature, his sense of being evolved from primeval organisms is reflected in lines like this:

— Or to lie naked in sand,
In the silted shallows of a slow river,
Fingering a shell,
Thinking:
Once I was something like this, mindless,
Or perhaps with another mind, less peculiar;
Or to sink down to the hips in a mossy quagmire;
Or, with skinny knees, to sit astride a wet log,
Believing:
I’ll return again,
As a snake or a raucous bird,
Or, with luck, as a lion.

The poem employs  rhythms which flow like water and move like rustling leaves.

The river turns on itself,
The tree retreats into its own shadow.
I feel a weightless change, a moving forward
As of water quickening before a narrowing channel
When banks converge, and the wide river whitens;
Or when two rivers combine, the blue glacial torrent
And the yellowish-green from the mountainy upland, —
At first a swift rippling between rocks,
Then a long running over flat stones
Before descending to the alluvial plane,
To the clay banks, and the wild grapes hanging from the elmtrees.

Sad to think that when these words were published the poet was already dead:

For to come upon warblers in early May

Was to forget time and death:

How they filled the oriole’s elm, a twittering restless cloud, all one morning,

And I watched and watched till my eyes blurred from the bird shapes, —

Cape May, Blackburnian, Cerulean, —

Moving, elusive as fish, fearless,

Hanging, bunched like young fruit, bending the end branches,

Still for a moment,

Then pitching away in half-flight,

Lighter than finches…


Influence and Reputation
Roethke remains one of the most distinguished and widely read American poets of the twentieth century. He influenced many subsequent poets including Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and James Dickey. Clive James was not a fan. “It should be obvious by now that the general critical view of Roethke has not a great deal to do with poetry, and everything to do with his efforts (heroic efforts, considering what he went through: but heroism is a term of accentuation, not necessarily of approval) to get established as a poet, to Make It… It seems probable that in Roethke’s case the general critical view has followed the lead of his fellow poets, who simply liked him, just as much as it has followed the lead of industrious scholarship, which finds his work such a luxuriant paradise of exfoliating symbols.” Other critic share James’s view that “Roethke’s incipient individuality as a voice was successively broken down by a series of strong influences – from the close of the thirties these were, roughly in order: Auden, Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Yeats and Eliot again.”

Roethke himself was not ashamed of echoing other poets and indeed revelled in it. He gave a piece of advice regarding influence: ”don’t fret too much about being ‘influenced’ but make sure you chew up your old boy with a vengeance, blood, guts and all.” In 1959, he wrote an essay in the Yale Review called, “How to Write Like Somebody Else”. In that, he described his relation to WB Yeats in terms of “daring to compete with papa.” He boldly quotes his own poems and prompts criticism by blatantly saying who influenced them. He even points out his own “blunders”. James calls some of Roethke’s work “sub-Auden” but Roethke describes Auden’s own “pillaging”, describing him as “a real magpie with a cormorant’s rapacity and the long memory of the elephant”. Roethke’s drive to master his precursors led him to literary innovations that were his own.

“There is no poetry anywhere,” James Dickey wrote in the Atlantic (Nov. 1968), “that is so valuably conscious of the human body as Roethke’s; no poetry that can place the body in an environment.”

John Berryman shared Roethke’s problems with manic depression and alcohol. They did not always get on but there was mutual respect as well as rivalry. Berryman outlived Roethke but eventually gave in and jumped off a bridge. In the New York Review of Books dated October 17 1963, Berryman published a moving tribute entitled “A Strut for Roethke”.

Westward, hit a low note, for a roarer lost
across the Sound but north from Bremerton,
hit a way down note.
And never cadenza again of flowers, or cost.
Him who could really do that cleared his throat
and staggered on.

The bluebells, pool-shallows, saluted his over-needs,
while the clouds growled, heh-heh, & snapped & crashed.

needing a lower into friendlier ground
to bug among worms no more
around our jungles where us blurt ‘What for?’
Weeds, too, he favoured as most men don’t favour men.

 

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Theodore Roethke Part 1

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday November 30 2014

 

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The Poet, a larger-than-life-size figure, balanced on the edge of excess. John Montague.

A reader encountering Theodore Roethke’s poetry for the first time might initially be reminded of other poets. Descriptions of animals as in “The Lizard” are reminiscent of DH Lawrence.

He too has eaten well-

I can see that by the distended pulsing middle;

And his world and mine are the same,

The Mediterranean sun shining on us equally.

 

In “What Can I Tell my Bones”, he reminds me of Whitman:

 

The wind rocks with my wish; the rain shields me;

I live in light’s extreme; I stretch in all directions;

Sometimes I think I’m several.

 

There are elements of Blake. “Once More, the Round”:

 

What’s greater, Pebble or Pond?
What can be known? The Unknown.
My true self runs toward a Hill
More! O More! visible.

Now I adore my life
With the Bird, the abiding Leaf,
With the Fish, the questing Snail,
And the Eye altering All;
And I dance with William Blake
For love, for Love’s sake;

And everything comes to One,
As we dance on, dance on, dance on.

 

“The Pike” prefigures Ted Hughes, although Roethke’s approach to nature does not succumb to the self-parody that Hughes sometimes achieves.

I lean and love these manifold shapes,

Until, out from a dark cove,

From beyond the end of a mossy log,

With one sinuous ripple, then a rush,

A thrashing up of the whole pool,

The pike strikes.

 

Unlike John Berryman, Roethke did not fight against the influence of Yeats – he revelled in it. In “The Dying Man”, In memoriam W.B. Yeats, Roethke deliberately adopts the Yeatsian manner and mood to probe the extremes of perception and knowledge that the self may attain.

The edges of the summit still appal

When we brood on the dead or the beloved;

Nor can imagination do it all

In this last place of light: he dares to live

Who stops being a bird, yet beats his wings

Against the immense immeasurable emptiness of things.

 

I will examine Roethke’s main themes in more detail later but, in brief, Roethke’s work is characterised by its introspective examination of the self, rhythm and natural imagery. His recurring theme is the correspondence between the poet’s inner life and the life of nature, the similarities between his human life – his spiritual evolution and search for psychic identity-   and that of plants.

Life

The poet was born Theodore Huebner Roethke in 1908 in Saginaw, Michigan, the son of Otto Roethke and Helen Huebner, owners of a   25 acre greenhouse, which his parents ran with his Uncle Charlie. He drew inspiration from his childhood experiences of working in the family business. Roethke wrote of his poetry: “The greenhouse is my symbol for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth.”

From “The Rose”:

And I think of roses, roses,

White and red, in the wide six-hundred-foot greenhouses,

And my father standing astride the cement benches,

Lifting me high over the four-foot stems, the Mrs. Russells, and his own elaborate hybrids,
And how those flowerheads seemed to flow toward me, to beckon me, only a child, out
of myself.

What need for heaven, then,

With that man, and those roses?

 

He also roamed the game sanctuary that the family maintained, “a wild area of cut-over second-growth timber,” as he described it years later in a 1953 BBC interview: “I had several worlds to live in, which I felt were mine. One favorite place was a swampy corner of the game sanctuary where herons always nested”

Roethke’s father died from cancer in 1923 and in the same year, his Uncle Charlie committed suicide. Roethke graduated magna cum laude at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1925. Resisting family pressure to pursue a legal career, he dropped out of law school after one semester and, from 1929 to 1931, took graduate courses at the University of Michigan and the Harvard Graduate School, where he worked closely with the poet Robert Hillyer.

The Depression forced Roethke to leave Harvard and he took up a teaching career at Lafayette College. He was able to meet established poets like Louise Bogan (with whom he had an affair) and Stanley Kunitz.

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In 1935, Roethke suffered the first of his recurring bouts of mental illness. He also taught at Pennsylvania State University and published his work in such prestigious journals as Poetry, the New Republic, the Saturday Review, and Sewanee Review. He brought out his first volume of verse, Open House, in 1941.His last teaching position was at the University of Washington, leading to an association with the poets of the American Northwest. His students included James Wright, Carolyn Kizer, Jack Gilbert, Richard Hugo, and David Wagoner. Roethke’s poetry influenced Sylvia Plath so much that when she submitted “Poem for a Birthday” to Poetry magazine, the editors rejected it because it displayed “too imposing a debt to Roethke.”

In 1953, Roethke married Beatrice O’Connell, a former student whom he met while teaching at Bennington . She ensured the posthumous publication of his final volume of poetry, The Far Field, as well as a book of his collected children’s verse, Dirty Dinky and Other Creatures, in 1973.

beatrice

He won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1954 for his book, The Waking, and he won the annual National Book Award for Poetry twice, in 1959 for Words for the Wind and posthumously in 1965 for The Far Field. In 1959, he won the Bollingen Prize. In 2012, a US postage stamp pictured him as one of ten great 20th Century American poets.

Open House (1941)

In his first book, Open House, Roethke reflected the battle within his consciousness between his spiritual aspirations and his sensual desires. WH Auden deemed Open House “completely successful.” Elizabeth Drew wrote that “his poems have a controlled grace of movement and his images the utmost precision; while in the expression of a kind of gnomic wisdom which is peculiar to him as he attains an austerity of contemplation and a pared, spare strictness of language very unusual in poets of today.”

My secrets cry aloud.

I have no need for tongue.

My heart keeps open house,

My doors are widely swung.

An epic of the eyes

My love, with no disguise.


My truths are all foreknown,

This anguish self-revealed.

I’m naked to the bone,

With nakedness my shield.

Myself is what I wear:

I keep the spirit spare.


The anger will endure,

The deed will speak the truth

In language strict and pure.

I stop the lying mouth:

Rage warps my clearest cry

To witless agony.

 

He describes the transition of the seasons in “The Light Comes Brighter”:

The light comes brighter form the east; the caw
Of restive crows is sharper on the ear
A walker at the river’s edge may hear
A cannon crack announce an early thaw.

The sun cuts deep into the heavy drift,
Though still guarded snow is winter-sealed,
At bridgeheads buckled ice begins to shift,
The river overflows the level field.

Once more the trees assume familiar shapes,
As branches loose last vestiges of snow.
The water stored in narrow pools escapes
In rivulets; the cold roots stir below.

Soon field and wood will wear an April look,
The frost be gone, for green is breaking now;
The ovenbird will match the vocal brook,
The young fruit swell upon the pear-tree bough.

And soon a branch, part of a hidden scene.
The leafy mind, that long was tightly furled,
Will turn its private substance into green,
And young shoots spread upon our inner world.

Mind and nature are bound by laws and enjoy a common awakening and nature yields an analogy with human existence.

Roethke knew Schwartz, Berryman and Lowell and his work sometimes has elements of the “confessional”. However, he does not identify with the “urban” themes developed by such contemporaries. In The New Poets (1967), ML Rosenthal wrote:

“For the most part Roethke had no subject apart from the excitements, illnesses, intensities of sensuous response, and inexplicable shiftings of his own sensibility. The greenhouse poems enabled him to objectify it for a time, but then he had nowhere to go but back inside himself. We have no other modern American poet of comparable reputation who has absorbed so little of the concerns of his age into his nerve-ends, in whom there is so little reference direct or remote to the incredible experiences of the age – unless the damaged psyche out of which he spoke be taken as its very embodiment. But that was not quite enough. The confessional mode, reduced to this kind of self-recharging, becomes self- echoing as well and uses itself up after the first wild orgies of feeling.”

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My Dog Tosca

A version of this article appeared in Lakbima News on February 13 2011. For some unaccountable reason they chose to illustrate it with stock photos of fluffy cute puppies rather than use the pictures of the real Tosca which I provided. I restore the real Tosca here.

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Some people have pets thrust upon them. I don’t mean in the Richard Gere kind of way (that story about a gerbil was an urban myth apparently). I mean that, although I did not have much experience of pets as a child, now I am surrounded by animals. A misguided aunt gave me a tortoise called Cuthbert whom I was too young to understand or appreciate. It seems that I killed him trying to wake him up not realising he was hibernating. As Dorothy Parker said on hearing of the death of President Calvin Coolidge, “How could they tell?”

We briefly had budgie that my father won in a raffle. It was very cranky, refused to speak or sing and pecked us whenever we went near it. One day we found it at the bottom of the cage, toes curled up. Perhaps its depression was induced by an identity crisis – he was called Paddy, as was my father (whose real name was Jeremiah), my uncle, my cousin and my goodself. I was too young to understand how cruel it is to keep a creature of flight in a cage. As William Blake almost wrote: “A budgerigar in a cage/Puts heaven in a rage”.

I tended to avoid animals after that but in later life they started coming after me. I was once sleeping with the windows open during a hot Wimbledon summer when I woke to find a black cat on my chest. This was Charlotte who had crawled across the roof from next door. After that, she often used to come through the back door and sit on my lap watching TV. Charlotte was particularly fond of football – one could see her head moving from side to side, as she intently followed the flow of the play.

My good lady wife suffered from a similar kind of animal magnetism, initially with cats. Bumble was dominating her household when I first met her but I understand Socks had preceded him as an uninvited guest. Bumble expired but soon Lucy, Uncle Monty and Maurice took up residence. Throughout our married life, we have found that there is some kind of feline equivalent of Facebook which allows the animals to know when a space has become available.

We took three cats with us to Ireland. When they departed in various ways, three Irish cats arrived to replace them. We brought those three with us to Sri Lanka. In Ireland, three disreputable dogs came to the house every day to take us for a walk.

Since coming to Sri Lanka over eight years ago, we have been inundated with dogs through no fault of our own. I had thought about writing something called “Reigning Cats and Dogs” but found that someone had already used that title. We first lived in rented accommodation in Bandarawela. The owners claimed to be animal lovers but threatened to poison a couple of street bitches that hung around the place and ordered their workers to beat them. Those people have since gone to their heavenly reward.

I noticed Tosca on my way to the kade. She had a horrible abscess hanging out of one eye but had a very benign expression. Dogs are not supposed to smile but she seemed to do so, beatifically. She seemed to take to us and, somewhat nervously started approaching our house. One night we noticed her sleeping in a drain near the house and she was not alone. A female companion, who later became known as Daisy, was huddling with her for warmth.

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We gradually, in the face of disapproval from the owners and the neighbours, adopted these two as our own, although we could in no way believe that we owned them.

Unfortunately, Tosca, in particular, became prey to the rampaging males of the area and was often subjected to gang-rape. One rather timid fellow we named The Suitor, was doing the business when Hendrick, a disreputable one-eyed old roué who lived on the estate and considered he had prior rights, urinated on him in mid-coitus.

The result of all this attention was a litter of pups. One very small one died soon. Two of them were later found homes and given the names Lucky (a bad choice) and Sando. More of those later. Silky remained with us and is still here today in the home we moved to six years ago.

When the pups were first born, Tosca was perhaps not an ideal mother. One got the feeling that she thought a different kind of life was her due. She remained rather plump after the pregnancy and she reminded me of one of those 1950s blonde pneumatic movie stars like Mamie van Doren or Jayne Mansfield (I’m showing my age here, readers). She would often abandon the pups and come to hide from them with us in the sit-out. The little monsters always managed to find her and squawk and bite and scratch at her abused undercarriage.

Luckily, we knew a good vet who was able to perform surgery at our home to remove the abscess from the eye and to sterilise her. A lot of veterinary attention was needed. On one occasion, she seemed very ill and was hiding in the bushes. The vet thought she might have been poisoned. We took her to the Veterinary Faculty at Peradeniya where she was admitted for observation. Tosca loved motor travel. In fact, she demanded to get in whenever we went shopping. Children looked in and told their parents there was a beautiful dog in the car. She serenely took such compliments as her due. If she saw another dog passing by she would bark at it imperiously.

The journey to Peradeniya was not too difficult, but Tosca clearly did not think the accommodation was up to her standards. When we went to collect her after six days she was very huffy and walked briskly to a white car and demanded to be let in. Unfortunately, it was someone else’s car.

When we moved to our own house, Tosca, Daisy, Hendrick and Silky came with us. The intricate social dynamics of this ménage, particularly the antics of Tosca and Daisy in their lesbian love nest, must be the subject for another article (or scholarly thesis or porn movie).

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Tosca continued to enjoy her status as motor-mutt with the plus of long walks through the tea estate and mud-baths, the dirtier the better. She is no longer with us. Like most street dogs, she once had a home with humans who abandoned her. She endured with dignity. She survived a long time after being diagnosed with mouth cancer. I am not ashamed of appearing sentimental when I say that I hope we added something to her life.

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In the New York Review of Books, Catherine Schine reviewed an animated movie version of JR Ackerley’s wonderful memoir My Dog Tulip.

“What strained and anxious lives dogs must lead, so emotionally involved in the world of men, whose affections they strive endlessly to secure, whose authority they are expected unquestionably to obey, and whose mind they never can do more than imperfectly reach and comprehend. Stupidly loved, stupidly hated, acquired without thought, reared and ruled without understanding, passed on or ‘put to sleep’ without care, did they, I wondered, these descendants of the creatures who, thousands of years ago in the primeval forests, laid siege to the heart of man, took him under their protection, tried to tame him, and failed—did they suffer from headaches?’

Tired of London? London in the 21st century. A tale of two Sams.

A version of this article appeared in the July issue of Echelon magazine although they forgot  to  put my name on it. I originally used a strapline – Capitalist capital of crap. London in the 21st century – but the editor did not like that.

 

 

“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” — Sam Johnson

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Dr Samuel Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell was a Scot. Johnson was not a Londoner. He came from Lichfield and spoke with a harsh Midland accent. Boswell and Johnson were discussing whether or not Boswell’s affection for London would wear thin should he choose to live there, as opposed to the zest he felt on his occasional visits from Scotland. Boswell wrote in his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides “By seeing London, I have seen as much of life as the world can shew.”

 

‘London claims to be a world city – a modern, 24-hour metropolis – but this is mostly just a pretence put on for visitors.” – Sam Jordison.

 

Another Sam, Sam Jordison came up with the idea of a league table for crap towns of Britain. The original Crap Towns was a publishing sensation in 2003 and came out of a conversation between Jordison and Dan Kieran, deputy editor of the Idler magazine, (Dr Johnson published a book of essays called The Idler) about the respective awfulness of their own home towns.

The city of Kingston-upon-Hull proudly sat at the top of the league for five years. Hull was Hell and “smelt of death”. It may come as a surprise that London was the city that toppled Hull.

How can London be crap? London is a major world metropolis. It has recently also been voted top city in the world in terms of overall attractiveness in a survey organised by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, in cahoots with the IMF and other multinational financial groups. Financial houses, multinational corporations and management consultants form a major component of what makes today’s London unattractive to humans.

The PwC’s survey boasted: “The women and men of PwC reflect the highly skilled, globally mobile services sector whose personal investment of themselves and their family is so critical to the ongoing progress of urban communities worldwide.”

 

So, all urban dwellers should be grateful to PwC? Many people in London are less blessed than the golden PwC employees are. Significant numbers of families across Britain are skipping meals in a bid to make ends meet. Every region of the country is affected, but in London, the proportion rises to 28 per cent of families.

leather bottle

When I moved to London from Manchester, I had to double my mortgage to get a much smaller house. True, I was able to drink alongside Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones in the Leather Bottle pub, but he lived in a six-bedroom house on the posher side of Kingston Road in Merton Park. Back in 1982, I wondered how the lowly paid people, whose contribution was vital to the operation of the city and the comfort of PwC’s golden employees, managed to find homes. The situation is worse now.

 

I lived in London from 1982 to 1998. I visited it many times before and many times since. I still love many things about the place.

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I can also understand the perspective of those who voted it crappest town in Britain. I was living in London at the time of “greed is good”, when Thatcherism was forcing many to sleep on the streets. Travelling to work on a jammed up underground train, I witnessed an incident that epitomised the tenor of the times. A pregnant woman was straphanging. A gentleman of the old school stood up to offer her a seat. Before she could sit down, a Yuppie type slid underneath her and claimed the seat with a look of triumph.

 

Towards the end of my stay in London, I was paying GBP 2,000 per year for a season ticket to commute to central London from Lewisham (posh Blackheath/Greenwich side).

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It should have been a ten-minute journey but took longer because all the trains were full after six a.m. With privatisation the trains got shorter and shorter. I never got a seat – on these cattle trucks we were just grateful for a small pocket of breathable air away from armpits. One day I thought I  saw an empty seat and made my way towards it. As I approached, I saw that the seat was occupied by a pile of human turds. People were standing all around this without complaint. That is my enduring image of London.

Sam Jordison said that many who live in London are fed up with queuing, rocketing house prices, the chore of commuting, “the dangers and pure exhaustion of living there”. I once enjoyed a memorable night at Charlie Gillett’s World Music Disco but getting home after was a problem. I was a member of Ronnie Scott’s Club and saw many jazz legends perform there. Ronnie’s shuts at about 3.30 am, but the Tube closes its doors around midnight. People complained to Jordison about city bankers and a transport system that abandons late-night revellers to the mercy of rickshaws, minicabs or night buses. Cab drivers do not like going “south of the river”. Taking the night bus is a not recommended- it is a vomitorium on wheels full of drunks and psychopaths.

The annual Cities Survey, organised by the website Trip Advisor, collates the opinions of travellers to the top 37 urban tourist destinations around the world. Moscow came last. London came 11th, but achieved a respectable second place for nightlife and third for shopping. London’s worst performance was in value for money – visitors voted the city 34th in terms of how far a pound will stretch. London came 32nd of the 37 cities when the question was “how helpful were the locals?” The Trip Advisor website provides many horror stories of squalid and expensive London hotels. The horrors experienced by the Griswold family in Chevy Chase’s film National Lampoon’s European Vacation understate the awfulness of the reality.

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London was rather drab in the 1950s and took some time to recover from the war. Years of decline and depopulation made much of the centre affordable. Artists, writers, musicians flocked in. It was possible, even up to the 1970s, to leave university and get a flat with your mates in Notting Hill, Marylebone or Camden Town. I stayed with people just as poor as me in Islington and Hampstead and Kensington. These days, only rich Arabs or the Russian mafia can afford those areas. Central London is a ghost town that only benefits absentee investors. The art students, musicians, and people starting out in the creative industries can no longer walk home from clubbing in Camden. The young creative class will continue to move further and further out. Soon there will nothing cool left about London. Cool will be residing in Bristol or Falmouth or Newcastle.

London has already changed irreparably. Rich financiers have made it unaffordable for the working class. The real threat comes from governments giving incentives to wealthy elites to take up residence. Russians receive a quarter of the “investor visas” that the UK gives to those who can pay a million pounds. The proprietor of the London Evening Standard is Alexander Yevgenievich Lebedev, a Russian oligarch and former officer of the foreign intelligence directorate of the KGB.

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To end on a more cheerful note: If you do decide to visit London, there is still much of interest (if you can manage to find somewhere decent to stay). I have many happy memories of walking around central London and the periphery. I was lucky enough to have done several jobs in the heartland of the metropolis, which enabled me to walk easily to Lincolns Inn Fields, Holborn, Bloomsbury, Clerkenwell, Smithfield, and Covent Garden and to eat my lunch to the accompaniment of brass band concerts on the Embankment near the Adelphi.

Half-Moon-Putney

My first residence was in Putney and on long summer evenings I could walk from Putney to Barnes, stopping on the way to enjoy Young’s ambrosial nectar at the Half Moon (also purveyors of excellent live music – I saw Dr John and Maria Muldaur there among many others). The Bull’s Head at Barnes also purveys Young’s ales and fine live jazz.

Iain Sinclair on the south bank of the river Thames, London, Britain - 26 Aug 2011

Before you visit, I would recommend reading the writing of people like Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd who explore the psychogeography of London and examine the prehistoric atavistic mind of the city that entranced Dr Johnson, Dickens, Blake, and TS Eliot. Ackroyd and Sinclair explore the mythic strata upon which contemporary Londoners walk. Much of Sinclair’s recent work consists of a revival of occultist psychogeography of London. In London Orbital he wrote about a trek around the M25, which JG Ballard described as: “A journey into the heart of darkness and a fascinating snapshot of who we are”. Andrew Duncan’s walking guides provide practical help for those wishing to explore this magical world. Duncan’s Secret London tells you how to find London’s buried rivers, underground tunnels, abandoned tube stations, elegant squares, dark alleyways and cobbled courtyards and explains who owns most of the freehold property. Duncan, Ackroyd and Sinclair help to keep alive the magic of London.

 

 

My Dog Tosca

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Some people have pets thrust upon them. Although I did not have much experience of pets as a child, now I am surrounded by animals. A misguided aunt gave me a tortoise called Cuthbert whom I was too young to understand or appreciate. It seems that I killed him trying to wake him up not realising he was hibernating. As Dorothy Parker said on hearing of the death of President Calvin Coolidge, “How could they tell?”

We briefly had budgie that my father won in a raffle. It was very cranky, refused to speak or sing and pecked us whenever we went near it. One day we found it at the bottom of the cage, toes curled up. Perhaps its depression was induced by an identity crisis – he was called Paddy, as was my father (whose real name was Jeremiah), my uncle, my cousin and my goodself. I was too young to understand how cruel it is to keep a creature of flight in a cage. As William Blake almost wrote: “A budgerigar in a cage/Puts heaven in a rage”.

I tended to avoid animals after that but in later life they started coming after me . I was once sleeping with the windows open during a hot Wimbledon summer when I woke to find a black cat on my chest. This was Charlotte who had crawled across the roof from next door. After that, she often used to come through the back door and sit on my lap watching TV. Charlotte was particularly fond of football – one could see her head moving from side to side as she intently followed the flow of the play.

My good lady wife suffered from a similar kind of animal magnetism, initially with cats. Bumble was dominating her household when I first met her but I understand Socks had preceded him as an uninvited guest. Bumble expired but soon Lucy, Uncle Monty and Maurice took up residence.

Throughout our married life we have found that there is some kind of feline equivalent of Facebook which allows the animals to know when a space has become available. We took three cats with us to Ireland. When they departed in various ways, three Irish cats arrived to replace them. We brought those three with us to Sri Lanka. In Ireland, three disreputable dogs came to the house every day to take us for a walk.

Since coming to Sri Lanka, we have been inundated with dogs through no fault of our own. I had thought about writing something called “Reigning Cats and Dogs” but found that someone had already used that title.

We first lived in rented accommodation in Bandarawela. The owners claimed to be animal lovers but threatened to poison a couple of street bitches that hung around the place and ordered their workers to beat them. Those people have since gone to their heavenly reward.

I noticed Tosca on my way to the kade. She had a horrible abscess hanging out of one eye but had a very benign expression. Dogs are not supposed to smile but she seemed to do so, beatifically. She seemed to take to us and, somewhat nervously, started approaching our house. One night, we noticed her sleeping in a drain near the house and she was not alone. A female companion, who later became known as Daisy, was huddling with her for warmth. We gradually, in the face of disapproval from the owners and the neighbours, adopted these two as our own, although we could in no way believe that we owned them.

Unfortunately, Tosca, in particular, became prey to the rampaging males of the area and was often subjected to gang rape. One rather timid fellow we named The Suitor, was doing the business when Hendrick, a disreputable one-eyed old roué who lived on the estate and considered he had prior rights, urinated on him in mid-coitus.

The result of all this attention was a litter of pups. One very small one died soon. Two of them were later found homes and given the names Lucky (a bad choice) and Sando. More of those later. Silky remained with us and remained with us in our new home until she died eight years later in March 2013.

When the pups were first born, Tosca was perhaps not an ideal mother. One got the feeling that she thought a different kind of life was her due. She remained rather plump after the pregnancy and she reminded me of one of those 1950s blonde pneumatic movie stars like Mamie van Doren or Jayne Mansfield (I’m showing my age here, readers). She would often abandon the pups and come to hide from them with us in the sit-out. The little monsters always managed to find her and squawk and bite and scratch at her abused undercarriage.

Luckily, we knew a good vet who was able to perform surgery at our home to remove the abscess from the eye and to sterilise her. A lot of veterinary attention was needed. On one occasion she seemed very ill and was hiding in the bushes. The vet thought she might have been poisoned. We took her to the Veterinary Faculty at Peradeniya where she was admitted for observation.

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Tosca loved motor travel. In fact, she demanded to get in whenever we went shopping. Children looked in and told their parents there was a beautiful dog in the car. She serenely took such compliments as her due. If she saw another dog passing by she would bark at it imperiously.

Tosca clearly did not think the accommodation at the Veterinary Faculty was up to her standards. When we went to collect her after six days she was very huffy and walked briskly to a white car and demanded to be let in. Unfortunately, it was not our  car.

When we moved to our own house, Tosca, Daisy, Hendrick and Silky came with us. The intricate social dynamics of this ménage, particularly the antics of Tosca and Daisy in their lesbian love nest, must be the subject for another article (or scholarly thesis or porn movie).

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Tosca continued to enjoy her status as motor-mutt with the plus of long walks through the tea estate and mud-baths, the dirtier the better. She is no longer with us. Like most street dogs she once had a home with humans who abandoned her. She endured with dignity. She survived a long time after being diagnosed with mouth cancer.

I am not ashamed of appearing sentimental when I say that I hope we added something to her life.

In the New York Review of Books, Catherine Schine reviewed an animated movie version of JR Ackerley’s wonderful memoir My Dog Tulip. “What strained and anxious lives dogs must lead, so emotionally involved in the world of men, whose affections they strive endlessly to secure, whose authority they are expected unquestionably to obey, and whose mind they never can do more than imperfectly reach and comprehend. Stupidly loved, stupidly hated, acquired without thought, reared and ruled without understanding, passed on or ‘put to sleep’ without care, did they, I wondered, these descendants of the creatures who, thousands of years ago in the primeval forests, laid siege to the heart of man, took him under their protection, tried to tame him, and failed—did they suffer from headaches?’

Julie MacLusky

- Author and Blogger -

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