May 2017 re-reading: Alan Brownjohn

The year in question this month is 1981 – the year I briefly assumed the role of strike leader* as well as letters editor (still), father-of-four, husband etc … But back to reading. There are only 18 entries in my “books read” tally for this particular year, making it one of the shortest lists (only 1997 has fewer, I think), though I see that I read two really big novels – Tom Jones and Bleak House – in 1981. But for my re-reading I’ve gone for a book of poetry: A Night in the Gazebo by Alan Brownjohn.

At least one volume of poetry has appeared in most years’ lists, but I may have missed out some of what I’ve bought or borrowed in the last 40 years. Perhaps because I’ve only half-read some of the poems therein, or not wholeheartedly liked them, I haven’t bothered to make a note of them. Alan Brownjohn is actually a case in point: I have two of his collections on my shelves – A Song of Good Life (1975) and The Old Flea-Pit (1987), neither of which feature on any year’s list, even though the first actually has an inscription on the title page that shows I went to poetry reading by him (“Signed for John with all good wishes – Alan Brownjohn, Walthamstow Central Library, 28th February 1979”). A Night in the Gazebo, though, must have been borrowed.

For this re-reading, I’ve read not only the book in question but also some poems in the other two mentioned, plus a later Brownjohn: Ludbrooke & Others (2010). Although not a Top Writer, AB is, I think, my kind of poet: observant, fond of expanding on the details of everyday life, occasional user of elaborate poetic forms, and not afraid of seeing the funny side of things. In A Night in the Gazebo there are some good examples: ‘A Bad Cat Poem’ is simply about a couple trying in vain to make their cat use a cat-flap; ‘Union Man’ is a poem in praise of a union official (“In a city where minds are slabbed with gold, / He builds a sheltering-wall of brick”); another poem is entitled ‘Art Deco Railway Advertisement’ and that’s what it’s about. Although some poems are dull or disappointing, I liked the collection’s final offering: ‘The Seventh Knight and the Green Cat’ (more cats!), a kind of alliterative parody of Gawain and the Green Knight. This shows, as well as Brownjohn’s sense of humour, his penchant for narrative – which also comes to the fore in his ‘Old Fox’ poems (two in this collection, another couple in A Song of Good Life) which feature a disreputable subverter of committee meetings and other conventions. Something of the same tone is to be found in his sequence of 60 poems, all 13 lines long, about ‘Ludbrooke’. This (fictional) character is an ageing and somewhat deluded figure trying to maintain his dignity while chafing at his lack of recognition for past achievements and his failures to attract younger women. Sample lines:

No one has phoned him for what seems several days.
Ludbrooke tries one-four-seven-one, the lonely man’s friend,
And confirms it, his last call was on the ninth… [‘His 1471’]

or

He does not concede that any quality
Essential if one wants to look civilised
Is actually beyond him. He expects
To be thought well-informed, open-minded, and controlled
In every sort of appetite … [‘His Excuse’]

Brownjohn is also, it should be noted, a London poet. I call in evidence ‘Reflections on Learning’ in A Song of Good Life, an elaborately rhymed poem about his schooldays in Hither Green; or ‘Waterloo Road’ in The Old Flea-Pit, which describes the road’s “rainy stretch up to the river / Past garage, café, theatre, a grey half-mile /Slowing down to a darkness under the railway / Where pedestrians cross it and not notice.” I like that sort of thing.

One further observation: Brownjohn – who is now 85 – seems to have been passed from publisher to publisher in his long career, rather in the manner of a not-quite-top-class utility midfielder moving regularly between football clubs. After Macmillan, Secker & Warburg and Hutchinson, he seems to have settled in at Enitharmon, whose print and paper quality are far superior to (for instance) Secker – their hardback copy of Song of Good Life has paper that has yellowed badly on my shelves. (Secker’s habit of starting a completely new poem two-thirds of the way down a page is irksome, too.)

I think I’ve gone on enough for this month, but more by Brownjohn can be found on the web, for instance at http://www.poetryarchive.org/poet/alan-brownjohn

As for other stuff I read in May, there were a couple of short story collections, very different in manner and subject matter: William Maxwell’s All the Days and Nights (American, suave and rather old-fashioned) and Ludmila Petrushevskaya’s There Once Was a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband … (Russian, bleak and blunt). Plus Graham Greene’s The Tenth Man and Going to the Dogs by Erich Kästner. A mixed bag there but, oddly, nothing set in Britain …

 

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* I was father of the Radio Times NUJ chapel at a time when we had a dispute with BBC management – RT being part of BBC Publications in those days – and we had been ignored in a corporation-wide “regrading” exercise, seemingly denied the pay rise that other BBC journalists got. The strike lasted nearly a fortnight, and threatened to disrupt production of a special Royal Wedding issue. But it ended up being settled in talks at ACAS, where the NUJ side was led by John Foster and the late (and much missed) Vincent Hannah. I was, I felt, more a figurehead than a firebrand – most chapel members provided the impetus in picketing, leafleting and demonstrating, and I was more or less an onlooker at the negotiations.

April 2017 re-reading: Olivia Manning

So far my re-reading has confined itself to Dead White Males, so for the revisit to something from my 1980 ‘Books Read’ list I’ve found a Dead White Female: Olivia Manning, whose The Danger Tree I read towards the end of that year. (Incidentally, there are plenty of women writers in my list potentially to be re-read in the coming months, including some real favourites: Anne Tyler, Christina Stead, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Muriel Spark, Ellen Gilchrist …)

Why did I go for this book, presumably a library borrowing? The Danger Tree (published 1977) is the first of Manning’s so-called Levant Trilogy, three semi-autobiographical novels set during the Second World War. The final book in the trilogy, The Sum of Things, came out in 1980, soon after her death. So I suppose obituaries or reviews had alerted me to Manning’s work; and I have a vague memory of someone asserting at the time that her descriptions of battle in the Egyptian desert had a remarkable authenticity, given that she could not have experienced anything like that herself. Certainly these passages, which centre around Simon Boulderstone, a junior officer newly arrived in Egypt in 1941, read quite vividly – the boredom as well as the danger of desert warfare are convincingly depicted. Briefly at the beginning of the novel Simon meets Harriet Pringle, and it is the story of her uncertain acclimatisation to Cairo, and her relationships with her husband Guy, local Egyptians and various other British and American hangers-on, that takes up more than half of the novel. It’s all written as a conventional third-person narrative: the only characters whose thoughts we are aware of are Simon, Harriet and (briefly) Guy: everyone else is observed from outside, as it were.

The problem with this novel is that although it is the first of a trilogy, it is itself a sequel to Manning’s earlier ‘Balkan Trilogy’ (The Great Fortune, The Spoilt City and Friends and Heroes) which begins in 1939 and follows the fortunes of Guy and Harriet in Romania and then, fleeing the German war machine, Athens. So the new reader – as I was – is given only perfunctory introductions to characters from the earlier novels. What was Dobson doing before he reached Egypt? What’s the significance of Lord Pinkrose? We’re apparently expected to remember them from reading the earlier novels. At least Simon is a new character, is given a fair amount of background and so feels more fully realised. I suppose that is the reason my memories of the book are of the desert soldiering passages rather than anything else.

My novel reading seems to be full of sequences, I have to admit: I’ve read all 12 of Antony Powell’s ‘Dance to the Music of Time’ novels, and most of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin stories; Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy and Ford Madox Ford’s Tietjens tetralogy. The constituent parts of the last two I got through in quick succession, but Powell’s sequence took me from 1977 to 2012, and reading O’Brian has taken me from 1995 to 2010. Oh, and there’s Trollope’s Barchester novels, consumed between 2012 and 2014. Why this sequence-reading habit? Obviously it’s because one has enjoyed X that one turns to X’s sequel(s), and I suppose there’s a feeling that there are loose ends, narratively speaking, that might be resolved in its successor. But even in a sequence it should be possible to read each novel as a stand-alone piece of literature. I think this is the case with Trollope; I’m not so sure with Powell, and I might try reading an O’Brian novel from the middle of his series to see if it ‘works’ on its own. With Olivia Manning, however, I’m sceptical: I note that in 1980 I wasn’t tempted to continue from The Danger Tree to the next novel, and I’m not sure I want to carry on now, either. (Too many other books waiting to be read.) While quite readable, Manning’s style is a bit flat-footed at times, and her attempts at atmospheric description can read awkwardly: “The evening star appeared as if from nowhere, radiating long rays of white light, and the coloured electric bulbs were lit among the creepers …”

What I haven’t got round to mentioning yet is that the whole thing – the two trilogies (hexalogy?) – became The Fortunes of War, a seven-part serial for BBC1 starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh, transmitted in 1987. I notice that in that same year I read all three of Manning’s Balkan Trilogy novels: I was still working at Radio Times and although I remember we put the serial on the cover when it started have no memory of what the accompanying feature consisted of. Did we interview the star actors? The adapter, Alan Plater (who, I note, had done a TV version of Trollope’s Barchester novels a few years previously and was to write Channel 4’s A Very British Coup the following year)? Or was it one of those features that looked into the original books behind the adaptation? Although Olivia Manning was dead, her widower, Reggie Smith, a former BBC radio producer, was still alive, so he may have had a role to play. Anyway, the serial seems to have been well received and to have boosted Manning’s reputation. Most of it can now be found on YouTube: as well as Thompson and Branagh, it featured Rupert Graves (as Simon Boulderstone), Robert Stephens and Alan Bennett.

As for my other April reading, I managed to read two other novels by women: Edna O’Brien’s The Red Chairs (ambitious but slightly disappointing) and The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam (recommended). Also three (translated) novellas by Patrick Modiano, a writer I’d like to return to some time.