Piffle Before the Wind

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Daisy Ashford

This is no portrait of a writer who had to burn the oil at midnight: it has an air of careless power; there is complacency about it that by the severe might perhaps be called smugness.  It needed no effort for that face to knock off a masterpiece.

Preface by J.M. Barrie to The Young Visiters

The Young Visiters was published in 1919 and reprinted 18 times in that year.  The author, Daisy Ashford, was 38 when it came out but had written the story when she was nine.  I think it is one of the funniest things I have read, and one of the oddest and happiest books in publishing history.

Because it was written by a precocious child it has three qualities: (1) “almost but not quite” word choices which are right enough to make sense and wrong enough to be incredibly funny, (2) an “almost but not quite” understanding of how the adult world works which is sometimes naive and funny, and sometimes satirically deflating of adult pretensions, and (3) a flying-across-the-surface-plot that allows no pause for thought.  The combination is powerful.

(1) “almost but not quite” word choices which are right enough to make sense and wrong enough to be incredibly funny

I give you two favourites out of hundreds:

Visiters3

and

Visiters4

(2) an “almost but not quite” understanding of how the adult world works which is sometimes naive and funny, and sometimes satirically deflating of adult pretensions

Visiters

Is it costly and mere, or is it “clatter up” that makes this so good?

Visiters1

(3) a flying-across-the-surface-plot that allows no pause for thought.

Visiters2

Everything works out very well for Ethel in the end who, after one of the best marriage proposal scenes in literature, returns from her six week honeymoon in Egypt with a son:

“They soon had six more children four boys and three girls and some of them were twins which was very exciting.”

You can read this book – and you should – in about 30 minutes, and it is available on line for free here.

***

At the time the book came out people said three things about it: (1) the author is nine! (2) it’s a scream, and (3) is it a literary hoax?  Because Barrie had written the preface some people claimed the work was actually by him.  It wasn’t.  The story of how it was discovered is a good one about how chance and serendipity work.

Daisy stopped writing when she was about 13, and had not written in the 25 years since.  The Young Visiters was kept by her mother, and only rediscovered after her death in 1917 among her possessions in a trunk.  Daisy showed a friend the discovery, and the friend – who loved it – showed another friend – Frank Swinnerton of Chatto and Windus – who then persuaded Barrie to write the preface.

In the interviews I have read Daisy seems modest, and perceptive, and genuinely shocked by what has happened,

visiters

and aware that it is a one off achievement.

visiters1

[1]

By March 1920 the news was reporting 400,000 copies sold, and the happy fact that Daisy and her fiance had been able to marry and buy the farm they had long wanted with the proceeds. [2]  For some reason most of the early reviews say that she was in her twenties when the book came out, but she seemed to have actually been in her late 30s.

Inevitably, there was another book in 1920 with more novels from her childhood and a novel by her sister, written aged eight, called The Jealous GovernessDaisy Ashford: Her Book did not receive a positive review from Katherine Mansfield who felt the other juvenile works were not up to the mark of The Young Visiters.  I will, of course, be reading them all for myself and distrusting the sometimes snippy Katherine.

tempsnip
New Zealand Herald, 2 March 1929, p.23

***

[1] Among the Books – SUN, 2 AUGUST 1919, p.4

[2] Books and Writers – OTAGO DAILY TIMES, 13 MARCH 1920, p.2

Kaitiaki o te Pō

Kotp

I wrote a book.  It was published by my friends.  It is called Kaitiaki o te pō which means guardian of the night.  A guardian of the night is how I heard one Māori man explain the job of an historian.

It occurs to me, two months after the launch, that I should probably say something about the book, and “promote” it on this site.  I say “promote” because this site attracts about ten viewers a day and I imagine most of them have come here through a random link.  My most popular post in terms of comments and clicks is about Flock of Seagulls.  I’m pretty sure the people who read that post don’t stick around.

Rather than say anything about the book, I will reprint here most of what I said at the launch which is how I explained the book to all the people who came to the Aro Valley Community Hall in December 2018 to see the book on its way.  If you want a copy you can go to Unity Books in Wellington, or follow this link.

***

[Sunday 2nd December]

One of my aunts died last night. Aunty Audrey. She was 71.

Each year when I was growing up I went south from Wellington to see my relatives. Sometimes I flew down to Dunedin to stay with my Gran in Mosgiel, and sometimes my mother and I took the car across on the ferry and we drove south. When we drove south there was a routine. Christchurch meant stopping to see Aunty Helen and Aunty Susan and my cousins. Timaru meant Aunty Linda and Uncle Jack. Waikouaiti meant Great Aunty Helen. Alexandra meant Aunty Audrey and Uncle Neville.

I remember their house in Alex. It was actually nearer Clyde, up Springvale Road, a two storey house, and land, in a valley that baked hard and yellow in the summer, and froze hard and grey in the winter. I can remember going to collect the eggs from the coop one morning, and suddenly developing an aversion to soft-boiled eggs when they were presented at the breakfast table 30 minutes later. Being put on a horse and not liking it very much. Going looking for tadpoles with my cousins in the concrete shutes and sluices that ran down from a reservoir. Other things too. Like the terribly unfair way my uncle treated the sons compared to the daughters, and the seeds of resentment that were bedding in for later.  Each time we went to their place the Clyde Dam was progressing. Each time we drove through we wondered if it would be the last time we took the winding, narrow road up the Cromwell Gorge. I remember the Cromwell Gorge as a set of little orchards caught between the road and the steep, rocky ranges; run down old wooden sheds, and tall grass; and on the other side, complicated, jagged rocks, stepping down to the bolting, blue water at the gorge floor.

When they moved to a house outside Mosgiel quite a lot about the complicated internal family relationships had begun to unravel, but I discovered jam and cheese sandwiches in their kitchen, and managed to defeat my much younger but highly rated cousin at a game of chess much to my mother’s silent pleasure.

My Aunty Audrey was easy going. I remember her as having tired, but friendly eyes, and an appreciation for self-deprecation. But enormously troubling things happened to her a lot, and the eyes must have been tired for a reason. The last time I saw her was also the last time I saw my Gran. Seeing my Gran again had rubbed me raw, and Audrey was talking about one of the children she had raised and how he was going to come home from Australia soon. It seemed obvious that he wouldn’t come back from Australia. He had a job, and a life, and got back some of the self-confidence he had been robbed of growing up. As far as I know he never did come back, although I suppose he is planning a trip now. For the funeral. I dismissed her talk of a homecoming as naive, but it was probably hope. Probably based in some regrets. But I don’t know because I never truly engaged with her life when I grew up. Never sat down and figured it out. Which is lazy and unfair.

I try to get it righter in retrospect. That’s some of what I am doing when I write I think. Trying to look back to understand now: understand the students in front of me, the injustices in the world, the causes of the feelings I have about myself and others.

***

And now I must invite three people to the room who cannot be here.

The first is Matt.

When my friend – who was a friend to many in this room also – died in 2012, I was devastated. The solitary positive thing that came out of his death was my renewed understanding of the importance of connection. That sharing loss gives us a little power against death. We don’t have to be entirely naked in the face of our mortality. So I invite you here Matt because you always believed in me. You always said I would write a book. You accepted as inevitable that I had talent and that others would appreciate it. And I always thought, but never said: “Why?” I never said it because you were so confident. Because your belief was complete. And so, I need you here so that I can thank you.

The second is Gran.

I stayed with my Gran in the school holidays a lot in the 1980s and those times are a rock, and an anchor to me in a time that otherwise often felt confusing and lonely. Each day of each visit to my Gran’s had the same rhythm. The same rituals, the same quiet presence of love behind the most prosaic quotidian tasks. I apologise for getting older and thinking too much of myself. For not coming to see you more often in my twenties. I want you to know how much our time sits with me even now. When you died it was time. I was there to take the handle of your casket. But I’m older now and I still want to say, so that you hear, “I love you.”

The last is my father.

He’s on the cover of the book. Looking away. There, but not knowable. He died when I was five and I remember almost nothing of him, and nothing clear and concrete. When I became a father at 33 I went looking for him. Down south. With the people who had known him. The few who were left. It was illuminating and frustrating. As if I could sharpen the focus on the photo of him on the bridge, but not get him to turn around, and look at me. What my trip down south and my interviews did was change my relationship with him. I stopped ignoring him, downplaying and erasing him, and I let him come back. I accepted the pain of it. The confusion of it. So that I could also hear about his love, and gentleness and compassion. His death was one of the detonating events in my life, and it has only been in the last few years that I have realised that the fact of that makes me who I am.

So I ask him here today to say sorry. Sorry I forgot you. I won’t do that anymore.

***

I like to think that the orchards and the old huts are still there in the Cromwell Gorge. Submerged under the wide, flat reservoir waters that rose above them; that built behind the completed concrete buttresses of the Clyde Dam. I like to think that we can go back. That we can slip off the surface and plunge into the depths and see the past, and learn from it. That the past can be medicine. That it can make me better. More compassionate. More loving.

My Aunty Audrey had dementia. Her memory was unmoored. She is gone now, but I still have a duty to her. To understand her better. To make the time to see my cousins.

I remember Matt, Gran and Dad. And I have a duty to my family, friends and colleagues.

Thank you for being here. It means a lot to me. I’m very lucky to know you and I rarely say it. We’re important to each other, and I look forward to being able to celebrate your achievements with you in the future.

Thank you.

Worse than women

MoonSixpence

His faults are accepted as the necessary complements to his merits….  To my mind the most interesting thing in art is the personality of the artist; and if that is singular, I am willing to excuse a thousand faults. [p.1]

In The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham the narrator gives his account of knowing – haphazardly – a painter who would go on to become recognised as a genius.  The man is called Charles Strickland, but many of the plot points come from the life of Gauguin.

I am very wary of the word genius.  To me it means tremendous talent that creates a sustained output of work that is brilliant and either genre transforming or transcendent.  I don’t think there are any requirements around character.  I don’t think you need to be a certain kind of person to be a genius.  I also think that a certain kind of genius might actually be a person of talent who has become a fanatic.

***

Let’s go back a little bit.  To the start of January 2019 when I decided, as I usually decide every six months, that society feels far too wedded to its now.  I say “feels” because daily life is really just daily life and is wedded to nothing except the sun and the moon, hunger, and emotion, like it always has been.  On the other hand, if you engage with society through media – old media, new media, social media – then you are entering a stream of now-ness.  Now-ness is ok.  It’s exciting for a time.  And addictive.  Checking your phone, pushing the update button.  It has its drawbacks though.  I think the main one is that it leads to understanding nothing.  A series of images, short statements, clips, and sound bites is only ever the symptom, and living in a world of symptoms – depending on how you curate your streams – is either empty (the symptoms of vanity and greed), depressing (the symptoms of oppression – of people and the earth), or only vicariously empowering.  You never engage with the complex causes of vanity, greed, oppression, and the sources of the desire for empowerment that might lead you to change.

So I decided to read books from 100 years ago instead.  Novels from 1919.  Not just them though, but the reviews of them that appeared in the newspapers in Aotearoa at the time, and then to follow any interesting leads that doing this presented to me.  It is deliberately disassociative.  It allows you to make your own society strange to you again, and that allows you to notice things you do not notice when you are in the now.

At this point I have read Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham, and I am reading Night and Day by Virginia Woolf.

***

To me, The Moon and Sixpence, is a book about the consequences of fanaticism.  It might be tempting to soften this and say that the central character – Strickland – is an artist in search of “truth” but aren’t all fanatics pursuing their truth?  Whether your truth is valid or not is decided by society, and societies disagree with each other.  They also move on and change.  The idea of an artist pursuing an ultimate truth suggests a number of things: (a) that there is an ultimate truth, and (b) it is immutable.  The last 30 years have been diverse, fragmented and mutable.  It doesn’t necessarily diminish the artist’s work to refute the idea of an ultimate truth, but it helps to keep it in proportion, and can allow people the freedom to say: “this painting doesn’t personally do much for me”.  It helps to deflate the pompous inflated verbiage and lockstep of canonical thinking.

This is probably just another way to say that the book has dated a little bit.  The vaulting genius who is excused everything is not so popular now as an idea, and even less so when Me Too consistently reveals awful corners of the male artist’s belief about what genius entitles him to.  Of course the vaulting genius idea still exists.  It will rise again in popularity, but at the moment it is not ascendant.  The moon is in the house of cynicism.

Also: misogyny.

I’m not sure that there is any other way to say this: Strickland is a total arsehole.  Especially to women.  Even female characters that are not outright abused by Strickland (which aren’t many) are not given a roundedness.  The three women Strickland has relationships with are condemned by the protagonist, only fleetingly defended by the narrator, and ultimately dismissed.  Strickland’s brutal assessments of these women is, in other words, validated.  His views on women, which includes beating them, and not caring when they kill themselves because their lives are worthless, are utterly vile and, as I said, the narrator ultimately allows them to stand in the name of Strickland’s genius.

Sadly I am one of those people who need the art and the artist to be morally palatable.  I don’t have a high bar.  People are people.  Full of flaws.  They do bad things.  That’s ok.  I get that.  Some things though are very, very bad and in the way that I wouldn’t buy something from a shop if the owner beat his wife, I won’t listen to music – for example – that denigrates women even if it is very good music.

Fanatically pursuing truth at all costs has a long history in human life and it always has bad outcomes.  There may be benefits too.  Buddha, for example, was a fanatic.  If you consider what he did in order to reach truth, or who he deserted to make that quest possible: these are not the actions of a reasonable person.  The benefit though was profound insight into the human condition that he then shared.  Buddha’s fanaticism had benefits then, but bad outcomes for his family.  In general though, the fanatic’s path is the opposite: few benefits and a mountain of terrible consequences.  Strickland falls into this category.

It is very hard not to read Maugham’s background and feel that the heterosexual pressures on a mostly homosexual man who married unhappily and divorced are not in play here.

The book is also, of course, racist.  With a few “nigger” minstrels, and the indolent Pacific natives, it gives you that simple worldview that makes white stories central even in a country – Tahiti – where they are a minority.  Even Strickland’s Tahitian wife is a passive prop who will be passed on to another white man at the end.

***

The most striking thing now about the reviewers of The Moon and Sixpence in Aotearoa in 1919 is that they say nothing about any of this.  They all agree that Strickland is an arsehole (they don’t say arsehole), but don’t really say why.  The reviewer in The Evening Post says that it is because Strickland leaves “his agreeable wife and two delightful, normal children.”[1]  Which is fine, except that ultimately Strickland’s wife is not presented in a flattering light, and his children are shown to be slightly boring pillars of society.  In other words: thank goodness Strickland got out!

But I suppose it would be unlikely that the male reviewers would notice much.  At the same time as they are reviewing The Moon and Sixpence they are panning two other books.  “As for the men… they are worse than women, self-indulgent and egoists, shirkers of duty.” [2]  Worse than women!  Is that even possible?  Speaking of distaste for the shirker of duty

“During the war [the author] was some kind of conscientious objector… but no brand of c.o. is entitled to the make the brainiest man in a professedly brainy book say anything as stupid as this: ‘The war began for no particular reason, and it will stop for no particular reason.'” [3]

Which is quite an accurate description of the start and the end of that war.  Certainly the start.

Of the many, many things that are hard to understand about the Great War, one is how, after it all, after all the unspeakable, senseless slaughter, trauma and evil, the official narrative was still of duty, and shirkers, and purpose.  But just ask women now how hard it is to shift the narrative of men about “boys will be boys” and “not all men” 100 years after “worse than women”, or how – in the age of Woody Allen, Polanski and R. Kelly – there are still people who will say:

To my mind the most interesting thing in art is the personality of the artist; and if that is singular, I am willing to excuse a thousand faults.

___

[1] The Bookman, The Evening Post, 12 July 1919

[2] Liber’s Note, The Dominion, 13 September 1919

[3] Among the Books, Sun, 13 September 1919