Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Kafkaesque: an ordinary morning in Newhaven

Eight days ago, a note was pushed through my door. My surname and house number were printed on it in biro. The suggestion was that a parcel awaited me because I wasn't in when the van driver called.

I couldn't guess what the parcel might contain so was keen to get it delivered. I'd not heard of the Home Delivery Network before but hoped it would be as straightforward as collecting a parcel through Royal Mail: wait 24 hours and then pick it up after queuing for a few minutes at the local depot. First, I went to the website which Firefox warned me was dodgy and that I shouldn't visit. Then the site insisted my postcode was invalid, so I couldn't access the system there. While the call centre – which I called to have the delivery rescheduled – had a record of the parcel, it had no delivery address and no tracking data. I put the phone down with the mystery unresolved.

Yesterday, having no more news, no more notes through the door, I decided to cycle to the nearest depot in Newhaven, the continental ferry port nine miles east of Brighton (Royal Mail's is within walking distance). Although it would be the furthest I'd cycled since my accident nearly three years ago and, worse, along a busy, severely undulating clifftop road, I wanted to guarantee taking possession of the parcel. By now I had guessed it was Mathias Énard's Zone and was even more keen. However, the call centre said it could be picked up only between eight and twelve midday on Saturday. So, today instead, I set off in hope and a bright orange rain jacket. Waves were crashing over the marina cobb as I passed and, as the cliffs began, a new sign offering counselling to potential suicides blocked the view over the supermarket car park below. I could tell it wasn't going to be easy.

Newhaven is an English town familiar to those born and raised outside London: low-rise, run down and apparently uninhabited. It is parasitic of the mouth of the river in which Virginia Woolf drowned and, where I crossed on the swing bridge, the thick paste of mud on the banks held in place a rusty, delapidated fishing boat covered in torn and flapping tarpaulin. The best thing about the town is the shell of the Conservative Club gutted by fire.

When I found the depot down a concrete road on an industrial estate, I became part of a small crowd of fellow parcel collectors. We queued in a narrow hall outside a window in a wall with décor from the 1970s except for the digital clock. One woman couldn't stay there because the flickering flourescent light threatened an epileptic fit. The receptionist called for our tickets and we handed them over with proof of identity. "We don't have your address", I was told, so I handed over an envelope addressed to me.

– Don't you know it?
– Yes. It's there, on the paper.
– But you don't seem to know your address.
– What?
– You had to get a piece of paper to show your address.
– Yes, you asked for proof of address, so I brought some.
– What's your postcode?

I spoke my full address and postcode without looking at the paper and the person left to descend into the bowels of the building. In the twenty or thirty minutes we waited for our parcels there was unanimous criticism of HDN's customer service. "I work long hours so how can I be at home all day waiting for a delivery?"; "Why don't they deliver on a Saturday - we could guarantee being in"; "The website says my postcode is invalid"; "You can't blame the staff but they don't have to be rude."

Miraculously, my parcel was found. Only it wasn't Mathias Énard's Zone. However, given all that went before, it seems appropriate that it was this beautiful book instead.

Folio Society

Saturday, September 04, 2010

England and Modernism

So far I have resisted commenting here about the reviews of Gabriel Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism?. Tom McCarthy's in The Guardian (and now Michael Sayeau's in The New Statesman) are by far the most attentive to the book itself and should take priority over the others which only – and it takes some effort not to write more here – confirm Josipovici's thesis that the mainstream critical culture in this country has lost its way.

To redress the balance, let's not ignore what the blogosphere has said. Anthony at Time's Flowed Stemmed says the book has "redefined [his] literary appetite". He goes on: "What Ever Happened to Modernism? enables me pin down just why some writers and artists electrify me and others leave me cold. It has given definition to what I had previously thought an almost arbitrary, random collection of preferences."

I hope more bloggers can add their thoughts because Josipovici has provided tenfold more food for thought about the future of fiction than David Shields' monumentally wrongheaded Reality Hunger.

Another reason to commend Tom McCarthy's review is that he does not take umbrage at Josipovici's dismissal of contemporary English fiction. By contrast, John Sutherland is particularly annoyed and wonders:
[W]hy has he not ... engaged at any length with critics who have defended unregenerate 'Englishness'? Donald Davie, for example, who eloquently argued that the main strand in our national poetry is not Eliot, or Pound, but Thomas Hardy (a naif on whom Josipovici will not waste a single sentence).
It's a question worth asking, particularly if the book did not include a chapter on Wordsworth and discussions of the novels of Muriel Spark and William Golding, while also expressing admiration along the way for John Donne, Harrison Birtwistle, PG Wodehouse, Virginia Woolf and Ivy Compton-Burnett. But it does. Perhaps for Sutherland these are not good examples of 'unregenerate Englishness'. Yet what is Englishness – unregenerate or otherwise? It's not the subject of Josipovici's book so it seems unfair to expect him to answer there. Yet, had Sutherland done more homework with the colleagues to whom he alludes in this review, he may have discovered that Josipovici has indeed engaged with one of the most indefatigable defenders of Englishness and that his book implicitly demonstrates it.

I was fortunate enough to have been taught at the University of Sussex by Stephen Medcalf and remember well the character described in Brian Cummings' funny and moving obituary. But, in those days, I didn't appreciate that his love of English literature was not identical to the little-Englanderism displayed by Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin of old, and Philip Hensher and DJ Taylor of new. I know better now because, earlier this year, The Spirit of England, a collection of Medcalf's essays, was published by Legenda Press. It contains some remarkable pieces on very English writers (even if one is also American): Williams Langland, Shakespeare and Golding, Rudyard Kipling, John Betjeman, GK Chesterton, PG Wodehouse and TS Eliot, among others. What Medcalf does here that is relevant to the question of Englishness is that he shows how there was a profound engagement by many of these writers with other, non-English literatures. The essay on Kipling, for instance, is a close reading of his response to Horace's Odes, while another reads Eliot's The Waste Land alongside Ovid's Metamorphoses. In their introduction to the volume, Cummings and Josipovici explain how Medcalf's conception of Englishness did not exclude modernism because, as they put it, "the move of self-consciousness, the reflexive turn – is there in Virgil, in Ovid, in Augustine, in Chaucer, in Shakespeare":
This also distinguishes Medcalf's complex conception of Englishness. For England is never in Medcalf a little England, a place of mere nostalgia or retreat or homeliness. Great and generous though his admission was of a certain kind of old-fashionedness in himself [...] he meant of Englishness something both more open and more sensuous. For one thing, his Englishness participates in this same culture of mimesis – of imitation of the literatures of the past. But also, he saw literary Englishness as entirely in communication with the other languages of Europe. Englishness reaches back to Virgil not in Edwardian fancies that the Empire is the true home of Aeneas, but in the more challenging sense that Virgil forces the English language to live up to an ideal higher and deeper than itself. Medcalf himself was a praeceptor of literature on a truly European scale. He loved England but he loved it as a European nation and culture. A central manifesto of this was 'seeing European literature as whole in which the ancient literatures interpenetrate the English and other modern literatures'. Perhaps only a mind as capacious as his could see so much of this at one time.
As we can see more clearly now, Stephen Medcalf's influence lives on in works such as What Ever Happened to Modernism?.

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