Tuesday, 26 October 2021

Hugh Creighton Hill

Hugh Creighton Hill 1906-82

I ordered Hill’s 1954 pamphlet (Some propositions from the universal theorem. Artisan 4 Spring 1954; The Heron Press, Liverpool) from a bookseller but it never turned up. I was disappointed. It seemed a moment when the set idea of the 1950s could be dissolved and re-drawn. Hill (born 1906) had published a book in the 1920s and hooked up with Migrant in about 1960. He seemed like someone who had never given up on modernism – a proof that you don’t have to compromise, perhaps. So I was excited to get his 1980 selected poems, from Migrant (”A soundproof gesture”). I was disappointed. I guess 'soundproof' means "no-one was listening".
I love the idea of someone who had got turned on to modernism in the 1920s and who never gave up. But if that someone was never very productive, the music you hear is about inhibition and artistic frustration and the sound of liberation doesn't come through. As it turns out, Hill published 3 books up to 1930. But he excludes them from his Selected so I have never seen what is in them. I guess 24 is too young, you can’t write complex and advanced stuff until a bit later in life. It’s sad, he didn’t publish anything further until 1952. If he published 3 books in 4 years, then published roughly 1 page a year for the next fifty years, it sounds as if he had seen his own style and then didn’t like it. He did a 1968 pamphlet with Tarasque, Simon Cutts’ set-up, here in Nottingham.

The poems aren’t bad. Actually, the 1950s ones remind me of Joseph Macleod. This is rewarding, it help to make my idea of Macleod more secure. There was a sound of a certain time and Macleod was part of his generation rather than just being solipsistic or perverse. His 50s poems are about triangles – that idea of basing poetry in geometry, which you absolutely find in Macleod and Read, and which seems so puzzling today.

Black as god’s bachelors the night
without even a moonface behind
spreading unrepresentative clouds,
mutters prayers for departed day
dead as an island under soldiers.

Too late. Perhaps a silver virgin
could have averted this gloom?

Too late. Maybe the astrologers’ risk
proves too high for the underwriters?

Meanwhile, another death: death
not only to day and the devil of light,
to leaves, cheeks of apples, dahlias,
wreaths enraptured with spiders,
but also, also, to the comic sins of mongrels,
mechanical efficiency, the lapsing love
parading in graceless nudity among
ecstatic day-dream corridors,
and possibly (alas?) to the final pleasure,
solipsistic benefits of mystification.
(from ‘Triangle in a semi-circle’, in the 1954 pamphlet)

This actually could be Macleod (who links astrology and actuaries in a passage in 'Foray of Centaurs'), and I feel sad that there isn’t more like this. It evokes possibilities. A retrospective selection then closes the possibilities off – you can see where they run out. This is a strange poem and I especially don't see how the motif of a triangle in a semi-circle fits in. The "deaths" could mean simply disappearance from sight, as the moonless night sweeps everything out of visibility.

It is interesting that Hill connected with Migrant. The modernist thing had apparently gone dormant for thirty years, the channels had closed because no information was flowing down them, but still he found Migrant in 1960. He was still stirred by the idea of poetry. The flip side of it is that not writing fails to alter the 1950s; it isn’t really an advance on writing weak poetry and being published and upholding the mediocre literary set-up. You change things by rejecting the conventional and releasing your energies in the uncharted realm. The works have the subversive force. Just being sceptical doesn't do it. Hill was too sceptical, too weary. I like the idea that there were people who had seen Eliot and Pound as the Big Thing in 1930 and who had been simply been indifferent to all the poetic waves from then until 1961. Not a completely wrong attitude. You need there to have been people who saw Auden as a big downhill slide, a lapse from modernism, not an advance at all. They represent the honour of the system. So you aren’t just awarding prizes to mediocrity the entire time.
Maybe there were twitches of opposition in the 1950s and maybe that Hill pamphlet was one of them. Migrant didn’t have a cluster of brilliant writers – but they had Roy Fisher, and that is enough. Fisher was writing away throughout the 1950s, maybe we have to see his unpublished poems as the honour of the 1950s. (Actually, they did come out in magazines. Later, he decided not to take them and publish them.) What was ‘Artisan’? It was closely linked to Heron, anyway. Heron did two pamphlets by Vincent Ferrini so I suppose there was already a link with Olson – the other Gloucester poet. Their impress says “Liverpool and Gloucester”, so just possibly this means Gloucester Massachusetts and the co-publisher was Ferrini. Maybe the people at Migrant saw these publications and made inquiries.
The South Bank poetry library re-opens after COVID lockdown and I go there again to find books on the margins of my historical work. Hoping to be proved wrong, I suppose. But the books I dredge up don’t prove me wrong and don’t call for the conclusions to be rewritten. I have also been extracting pamphlets by Koef Nielsen and Pete Hoida, among others. Which don’t change the picture… it’s just a way of collecting more evidence.

Sunday, 24 October 2021

The Norwood Hermit

Nothing Is being Suppressed: footnote

I spent a morning reading up about a story which appears in ‘Place’ (pp. 253-55 of the collected edition) and have to correct my (unpublished) account of it in ‘Nothing is being suppressed’. I had supposed that there was a link between Samuel Matthews taking firewood from a wood which had owners, and him being killed. But the text does not say that, and now that I have looked up various accounts of his life (and death in 1802) I see that there was no connection.
His life as a hermit living off odd gardening jobs is connected with the enclosure of common land near Norwood, which Fisher records a few pages earlier. But that was in 1806, after his death. Also, reading the sources (for what they are worth) shows that he was not living on a common, but in a wood owned by Dulwich College. The wood is still there.
The whole passage is hard to understand because Fisher directly reproduces Matthews’ conversation (from the printed sources) and Matthews had suffered an untoward cerebral event which had partly deprived him of the power of speech, or perhaps of the power of reason. I should say that the very strange language in this section is exact quotes from Matthews, usually ones found in the sources. However, people remembered tags and scraps… not entire conversations, and contexts. He obviously had difficulties (due to brain damage after an illness, the 1803 pamphlet tells us). People were struck by his speech. The informants knew that his speech was “incoherent and sometimes quite unintelligible” and then tried to reproduce stretches of it. The problem is obvious. “stars fight stars fight I see’um” may be a prophecy of war, based on star gazing. Or it may not. These are pioneering records and we would like to know a lot more about his aphasia, if that is what it was. I think the theme may be that dropping out of society changes your language, and that the language of Place (and other underground poems of the time) is mutated because it is written by people who do not believe in capitalism. Chris Torrance is mentioned on the page before the Matthews section starts… Torrance had a job as a solicitor's clerk in the Sixties but gave it up and dropped out to live in a cottage in the Neath Valley (off the road and without electricity or running water, anyway that is the description I was given, it is not a documentary!). So the theme is “dropping out”, however distant the examples are which Fisher juxtaposes. Matthews is recorded as having an uncanny power of predicting the weather, and the same story is recounted about Torrance. A small detail… the poem on page 252 describes remains of Palaeolithic date, in Britain, and in the Matthews section he mentions a “hunter”. The sources do not show Matthews was hunting for food so my guess is that this hunter is a stray from the Palaeolithic. Matthews is in touch with the past because he lives in the wilderness.

He was a hermit, but in a wood quite near London and certainly close to densely inhabited land, with villages. He lived on his wages as a gardener and ate mutton and bread; he was not someone living off the land five miles away from Charing Cross. He went to a pub called the French Horn and drank porter. I mention this because he was quite a celebrity and this is why there are numerous stories about him which made it into print. A vagrant would not normally have a pamphlet published about his life just after he died. Local historians went round the pubs collecting stories, or something quite like that. It was the era when the Noble Savage was fashionable, and members of the gentry came to visit him possibly because they saw him as a savage who was within easy reach of Dulwich. The sources say that he was given permission to live in the wood by the Master and Wardens of Dulwich College, and the dialogue between him and one of those wardens may have connected with patronage from the upper classes, rather than eviction.
Anyway, there is time for me to fix this before the book goes to be printed. For the sources, if you google "samuel matthews norwood" you will see several of them.

Saturday, 18 September 2021

Nothing is Being Suppressed

Pentimento 2021

Nothing is Being Suppressed is currently advertised on the Shearsman website as being out in October, but in fact it has been delayed by the permissions seeking process, and will not be out until the first quarter of 2022.

I signed off the text late in 2020, but the delay has inevitably led to further thoughts about the period (the book is about poetry in the 1970s). I say in the introduction
Victor Turner remarks, about a tribe in Mali: "A fascinating historical and diffusionist problem is posed by the close resemblance between Dogon myth and cosmology and those of certain neo-Platonist, Gnostic, and Kabbalistic sects and 'heresies' that throve in the understory of European religion and philosophy. One wonders whether, after the Vandal and Islamic invasions of North Africa and even before these took place, Gnostic, Manichaean and Jewish-mystical ideas and practices might have penetrated the Sahara to the Western Sudan and helped to form the Dogon Weltbild. The Gnostic sequences of 'archons', arrayed as binarily opposed androgynous twins, have affinities with Fon and Dogon notions. (...) It is possible that adherents of such persuasions filtered or fled through the centuries to the Niger region and as bearers of a more complex culture exercised influence on the beliefs of its inhabitants."

The point I am making is about the counter-culture’s vision of itself as sinking out of sight and permeating the margins of a dominant media culture. However, there is an important qualification to be made about the quality of Turner’s sources. The information about the Dogon derives from the work of Marcel Griaule (and his pupil Germaine Dieterlen), and other anthropologists have shown that these myths are not part of a wider Dogon culture and are unknown to other Dogon informants. In fact, it seems that Griaule’s informants invented the myths during interviews, under very detailed prompting from Griaule. There is a detailed 1991 paper by Walter van Beek (available on the internet) which explains the problems with this material. So Turner’s proposal about mythic themes reaching West Africa carried by exiles from the eastern Roman Empire does not seem likely to be true. The point about the counter-culture still holds. I have to admit that I know nothing about the Fon, and that Griaule did not publish about them.

The idea of a mythology being invented by one or a few people, in a moment when an illiterate culture is meeting literacy, or in other conditions of breakdown and loss of boundaries, is not quite unique to the Dogon. It is likely that the narrative of the Lenne Lenape (also known as the Delaware Indians) published by Constantine Rafinesque in 1836 was invented by Rafinesque. It is true that the text is in the Delaware language and an invented Delaware script, which would have taken great effort. The situation is not clear, and is not clear for any of the remarkable texts which belong in this category (or apparent category). The Delaware were never numerous, dwindled as the British settlers gradually took over their land, and part of the picture is the almost complete absence of surviving Delawares who could have validated Rafinesque’s text. The level of creativity involved is disturbing, but we just have to accept that these powers of affabulation are present in some individuals and in some cultural contexts, and that politically valid myths are more rigid and the act of memorising them inhibits people’s ability to invent themes and persons. In fact, the context where a story is known to many people, and these other witnesses will correct you if you are wrong, is the inhibiting framework, and the creativity starts exactly where that context is missing. Macpherson's Ossian tales seem to fit into this category (his first few efforts were translations but it seems that he began inventing after that point. (Details on Rafinesque in Stephen Williams’ book Fantastic Archaeology.) Blake can also be seen as a mythological forger.
Some odd astronomical facts which appear in the responses recorded by Griaule have led to a lucrative series of Däniken-like paperbacks describing how the Dogon were visited by creatures from outer space, who imparted the astronomical knowledge to them.
It may be that information collected by social anthropologists is genuine tribal lore, shared by many people in the culture in question, but it may also be that interview subjects make things up to please the anthropologist, and that some parts of “anthropological knowledge” are more systematic and more rich in symbolic meaning than is really the case. Griaule set out to demonstrate the complexity of a “tribal” culture and pursued this goal at the expense of careful controls on the interview situation. As for the postulate that there is knowledge which is known to initiates, and not to the majority of the population in the district or the village, this is a minefield. It sounds like anthropologists claiming to understand a society better (and to recognize more layers of symbolic analogy) than the members of that society.
Just to recap, I am not saying that the mythic tales which Griaule collected are not examples of human creativity, or that they were not produced by Dogon informants. I am just saying that they did not exist in traditional Dogon lore. Creativity is the striking thing about them, and I am in favour of that. His publications are answers, not narratives, and the matching narratives (or songs?) do not exist (or have never been found). The only texts are in French.
It is only fair to say that the responses printed in Current Anthropology, the periodical which published van Beek’s paper, show that there is no consensus among anthropologists in favor of van Beek, and about the status of the interviews which Griaule carried out and the information he gleaned from them. However, Dirk Lettens had published, already in 1971, a very long book which denounced Griaule’s reports as fabrications unconnected to the culture of the area. Griaule’s publications told some of the most fabulous stories in the whole anthropological record, and it is fair to say that this fact inspired a lot of anthropologists to go and do field work in Mali and among the Dogon. It seems that none of them found stories and myths resembling the ones that Griaule reports on.

Let me post up here some material which there was no room for in the finished book.

At a late point in the project, I realised that Faber had published four volumes of Poetry Introduction in our period (dated 1969 to 1978), and that these offered a list of 33 young poets who could be read as a version of what was happening in the decade. Exactly one of these names re-appears in Mottram’s “top tips” of 46 names – already a sign that we are dealing with a different view of the world. Crudely, we can define this group as the continuing mainstream of the Seventies, a current moving forward in its own time as if the Underground didn’t exist and as if the rules hadn't changed. This would actually give us a fifth bloc (and the count of genres, or marketing concepts, is bursting its limits). Certainly these early poems are not the best way to get at what was vital in each poet, and we would do better to look at 33 first books (or, even better, second books). Two of these 33 names were Jeremy Hooker and David Harsent.

David Harsent
When Dreams of the Dead was published in 1977, Peter Porter wrote “The people in David Harsent’s new poems seem to have moved into George MacBeth’s world. There is an opulence of drinks on terraces; the silences between lovers (a Harsent speciality) are in luxury hotel suites; a great deal of travelling goes on. […] I wish I could fit plots to the assemblages of lyrics which make up [two long poems]. ‘Dreams of the Dead‘ consists of lyrics dated from 30 April to August 23, yet the progress of the story does not reveal whether it is the dead who are dreaming or whether the poet is entering the lives of dead persons. A huge plot [...] has been lost somewhere: all we have are its lyrical highlights. I am sure Harsent is going in the right direction.”
Porter says this but I think the omission of information is deliberate and part of a strategy of tension. The characters are trapped in a pipe of incomplete information. The loss of resolution means that alertness climbs and climbs; the lack of answers to basic questions about safety means that tension can never be released. It is hard to define this because we do not have access to the unedited text and because the effect of the omissions is not explicit. The sense of threat is impalpable and the plot is never explained. Anxiety and triumph are inexplicit figures. The method is profoundly original in poetry. It may resemble the specialist narrative style of cinema based in violence and risk – where editing which withholds vital information makes the sense of a present threat escalate. Speculation about risk is what sucks us into the heart of the poem. The lack of perspective traps us there. The title echoes a moment in the poem, refers to the culture of dead artists, but is not a central theme. The poem does not add a wind-down which would explain the story and dissipate all the tension. It immerses us in menace, foreboding, and a sense of fate gripping the protagonist and leading him pitilessly through a story. His conscious reactions have no effect on the story. Peripheral details develop an unnatural vividness because of hypervigilance, a displacement of anxiety into an object which offers no resolution. Dreams is something profoundly original which to my knowledge has no successors. Its scale is an exit from the poetic limits of the time, creating an entire narrative. But the narrative is reduced to its essential structure – uncertainty, the vacuum that draws us in.

Soliloquies of a Chalk Giant

Jeremy Hooker published Soliloquies in 1974. The theme is the phallic figure of a giant,180 feet tall, an outline in white chalk revealed by cutting away the grass turf hiding it. The date is sometime in the late first millennium BC, and the site is at Cerne Abbas in Dorset. The chalk ground also contains flints. Because the chalk is the product of a sea bed, and the detritus of shelly creatures on it, some of the poems are about the shore. A poem lists objects found near the hillside:

A reindeer bone carved
in the reindeer’s likeness.
A chalk phallus.
A lump of chalk
with heavy curves
bearing the image of woman.

A necklace with blue beads
of Egyptian faience, black ones
of Kimmeridge shale.
Cannon ball
A phallus carved on the church wall.
A statuette of the Virgin.
(‘Found Objects’)

The concept is heavily influenced by John Cowper Powys and David Jones, whom Hooker had written about. As in The Sleeping Lord, the chalk giant is not so much a person as the tutelary deity of a place. The catalogue style of this poem is notably rapid and assertive. The lumps of mineral are portable and can be held in your hand, but also continuous with the land itself. The materials are endlessly evocative and the relations between them are compelling – like a grotto set with shells and stones. Hooker sees the giant as a symbol of the common people, as opposed to the monks who lived at Cerne Abbas (means Abbot’s), and celebrates the people of the area:

This is the ship of England, carved from a single oak. Her master is the navigant of the obscure passage, a hard-headed merchant with a fabulous map. He descends into the pit, and wrestles with the furnace. His labours are wrought in iron.
(‘The Giant’s Name’)

The collocation of giant and solitude is not sociable, but it opens the way for something superhuman – something which transcends the personal and advances into the terrain of myth. The soliloquist has preoccupations beyond the human:

The rest is illusion
Illusion with talons hooked through my bones.
It is an anchor
From the bottom of the sea,
It is fixed in the floor of the sea
Like an axe-head fast in a skull.
If I could move it, the world would shift.
(from ‘The Giant’s Shadow’)

The chalk comes from the bottom of the sea, and the passage seems to be about the real nature of the chalk and the illusory one of the image which it forms. The force of the poem comes in part from eliminating the human voice – we are not being led around by a tourist, talking about scenery, but the poem is wholly given over to the giant, an irrational force whose senses are wider than and incompatible with ours. The theme could even be the whole chalk land, covering much of the south-west, the floor of the Channel, and even northern France beyond. The voice which speaks is crucial; it is nailed to the giant’s physiology like a picture painted onto the awkward surfaces of a flint. This comes out of the existentialist preoccupations of mid-century, where constricting the world of a poem to the unstable space in and around a body failed for sociological reasons – the human subjects were too sedate and conventional. As David Wevill bypassed this, in poems like ‘Birth of a Shark’, while keeping the physiological density, so Hooker’s poem retains the giant’s ‘point of view’ as its constraint, its horizon. A place could be defined as a zone from which everywhere else is invisible.
Considering two poets from the original Poetry Introduction 1, of 1969, allows us to reflect on the continuing strength of the mainstream. But it also suggests the intensity of underlying historical changes – in several key ways, these two poets resemble what was happening in the Alternative world, and have abandoned the allegiances of the Movement. Their ‘elective past’ connected them to essentially lonely and peripheral figures such as John Cowper Powys, David Jones, and Ted Hughes. They have the charge which makes the underground appeal to me. Without breaking the rules of grammar, they were writing radically unfamiliar poems, original at every point.

The theme of this new material is the pervasive quality of radical innovation – poets not associated with “the Alternative” in institutional terms nonetheless writing very strong poetry which was impressively innovative when compared to the still prevalent 1950s-style conservative poetry. So continuing work is weakening the basic thesis of the book (about the power of Alternative poetry) by adding evidence which points in a different direction. People would have found this confusing. Chapters discussing all 33 of those Faber young poets would have confused people, although I did think about writing them. Other work is turning up poets I hadn't read, like Jeremy Hilton, Pete Hoida, and Ian Seed. Ian has produced terrific poetry in the past 20 years, the fact that he was publishing poetry already in 1974 is unsettling and I have not been able to assess this early work. I also could not find room for this piece about a wonderful poem by George MacBeth.

Slogans, masks, astrology: Lusus

Lusus is subtitled “a verse lecture” and comes in 42 parts, or about 780 lines. Lusus means game, and the theme is play; the poem soars in minimal form over the whole extent of human culture. MacBeth was always a dandy, and this theme allows ideal scope for that refusal to step into an emotional role. Narcissistically, but entrancingly, he shows us a private gallery of game players: D’Annunzio, Isaac Babel, John Cage, Demosthenes, a film by Godard, Hemingway, Walter Raleigh, Erik Satie, Jacques Soustelle, Tyrtaeus, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Lusus obviously deals with an intellectual topic which MacBeth felt close to and had a peculiarly deep understanding of. He serenely surveys the huge range of domains where the idea of a game yields propositions:

Areas: war-
games, game theory, role-

in psychiatry (hysteria
as malingering
etc.), genetic
codes, use
of models in economics,

aggression in monkeys, Games

People Play

The short lines are against speech contours but signal lightness of touch: the poem does not move fast because it is contemplative. We cannot derive the information waiting for us unless we slow down. As MacBeth says in section 13, the model for lineation was A.R. Ammons’ Tape for the Turn of the Year, where all the lines are narrow because he was typing it on a till-roll.
The poem is a list of schemas. How much poets dislike these! They might calm down if they saw a schema as a form of game, where formalism and separateness allow lucidity and, at the right moment, withdrawal. At one point MacBeth (paraphrasing Roger Caillois) groups games, in general, into four domains: jousting; roundabouts (ilinx); roulette, or chance; and mimesis (imitation). Ilinx, Greek for dizziness, is “the most difficult”; it is “orgasms, death-throe, or rock’n’roll.” It appears as a convulsive whirling, high energy and evading the opponent’s senses, and yet not out of control. Could we apply this to poets competing with each other? It is correct to say that a computer program is like a game: it is a model, governed by rules. The phase of computing history when a calculating engine was built, by Johnny von Neumann, to run iterations of a thing called the Monte Carlo simulation, was key to developing the atomic bomb (and the computer industry). It wasn’t quite gambling but it did deal with probability. Von Neumann was later the founder of game theory.
The primary source is clearly Johan Huizinga’s Homo ludens, or “man the player” (1938), a comparative cultural study which was one of the first attempts to define general traits of human behaviour, outside a religious framework. It was published in 1972, but MacBeth had already gone a long way into ludic poems: in 1964, a play of his was produced at the Establishment, a satirical night-club, in which the characters, following a nuclear disaster, are confined in a Paris Metro station and pass their time playing a game called “Fin du globe”. Details of a play-through of the game are given in his poem ‘Fin du Globe’, published in A Doomsday Book. Politics is permeated by symbolic activities– the codes which players have to follow bring it towards the game domain. Huizinga began as a student of South Asian languages, and the permeation of daily life by ritual is what led him, decades later, to the idea of homo ludens. MacBeth takes us into an alternative universe made of glass, where things that were soft become rigid and things that were opaque became transparent. The puzzle of how, in a modern western-type society, there can be an apparent complete lack of applicable rules, and yet there are rules which people follow to structure their behaviour in complex ways, limits accurate description, including of poems. The idea of game can get us closer to this. The theme lends itself to a poem because it lacks purpose. The subject matter is already aesthetic – lifted out of function.
We can compare Lusus with set procedures in poetry. The combination of rule-sets and advancing into the unknown is curiously like games. The extent of the unforeseen in such art can be defined as risk. The odds are not well formalised. The properties of the unpredictable are of great interest. This domain asks for set procedures to avoid the no-go situation of being unable to move or even to know what the state of play is. MacBeth went to Oxford and worked for the BBC and so has been written out of the history of experimental poetry; he was in the original John Matthias anthology of 1971, but when Mottram came to draw up his extended list he struck out some of Matthias’ poets, and one of them was MacBeth. I just want to observe that this was a poor decision. There is a fairly large Collected from which Lusus was excluded. In this way Lusus has disappeared from view and is a crux for the proper evaluation of a decade in which institutional critics went into denial mode. It is quite probably a masterpiece, a moment of genuine self-awareness, evoking anthropological depths at each point without ever lapsing into technical language. It is worrying how the whole column of ludic poetry, so brilliant over the last 35 years, has debouched out while the pioneer has been buried without ceremony. To reiterate, MacBeth was writing game poems in 1964. One game in Lusus was invented by MacBeth and friends, and a play-through is described in ‘The Crab-Apple Crisis’, in his Collected Poems.
33 says:

a rule is a player
in a code, having
its role,

fulfilling it,
according to a rule
in another

code, and so on
infinitum. The rule
moves at its own speed,
in a vacuum. It

creates a code or
a war when

merge. Collide. Out
of the rules
moving, the

structure of
possibility erects


Fuller and d’Arch Smith ran the Atlantis bookshop, and may have funded their poetry series, including Lusus, by selling fin de siècle occultist books to rock musicians.

I regret not finding room for this material in my book. But the process goes on. I wrote, earlier this year, a long essay about Harry Guest, a poet at his peak in the 1970s. I simply hadn't got the Guest story until this year. It’s crowd-out, there are always too many poets and the stage is over-full.

Monday, 6 September 2021



I attended (2-4 September 2021) the Tears in the Fence poetry weekend at Stourpaine (Dorset) and had conversations with three genuine Seventies poets – Paul Matthews, John Freeman, and Jeremy Hilton. I didn't raise the stakes by asking searching questions, but the conversations were very informative. The bookstall had a copy of Hilton’s book Metronome (copyright 1976 but dated 1974 on the title page), on sale at the original price of 50p. I scarfed it up. Try this:

the amphetamine geometry
(partial eclipse of the moon June 4 1974, 2300 hrs)

in white of daughter
o shrouded belly
o spaced-out membrane
like a child a shy lurker
my gypsy grind my gin
my painter see this sprung sky
moon trapped
I void my whelks’-hut
summer looms
from among stars
a craft
we star-gaze we sail
o microscope ocean
coterminous tangents
herbal welsh-wind, border
-light scatter in creamy-faced
moon the last wake is the
final sleep
clear-air crustacean, clouds
are mauve islands hitch up
slow burner moon to low
antares’ scorpion
sounds of birth thrust thru
reedy notes in full-leaf ash or
poplar back against twilight
cries coral

Pretty good, actually. (I apologise that this compiler will not accept left indents.) The title page credits conversations with Ulli McCarthy and Chris Torrance, and you can see Hilton’s language merging with theirs, in some way, as part of the voice speaking these poems. Metronome has affinities to Ulli, and also to parts of The White Stones – like “Frost and Snow, Falling”, the poems about the influence of sunlight on climate, and of climate on social forms. I asked Jeremy if the title referred to the cosmos, as the source of time, and he confirmed that and said also that it referred to the seasons, part of the rotation of the earth and so of its relationship to the universe. It’s cosmic, man. Metron is “measure” and “nomos” is law (or governance), so the title means “regulation of time” (rather than referring to a sort of timer). The poems record a shift from winter and snow to summer. We don’t see a great deal of change, the emphasis is more on harmony with the cosmos as it changes. The book has a quality of lassitude; it has almost no emphases. Everything is smoothly linked, as if in a trance. It is as if the poems had no outside. This does seem to be a quality of a sector of Seventies poetry. I can’t explain all the meaning, for example I suppose there is a link between “crustacean” and “whelks’-hut” but I can't see what it is. A whelk is protected by a shell but in an ocean which is moved by the tides (and so by the gravity of the moon) – is Hilton comparing this with the situation of humans, protected by their structures but still moved by cosmic tides? I am not sure. (Scorpions are related to spiders rather than to crabs.) Key images are not isolated, emphasised, and explained – the evenness of the text is the quality sought for. The book certainly has as a theme change and connection to the Time of the cosmos, but titling or prominent words referring to this are not present. Possibly, a strategy of repelling the expected attempts of conservatives to reduce the events in the poem to recognisable categories, and so to familiarity, and so to dullness, has led to the specific style of these poems. Reviewers try to force scenes and whole poems into categories – they become describable – but also banal, just a variation on something we have already seen. Recognition means we have not got the thing we were hoping for. Metronome is unlike any other Seventies book and is not just part of a genre.
Antares, a red star, is the brightest star in Scorpio – known also as Alpha Scorpii (or Cor Scorpionis).

I guess my book (Nothing Is Being Suppressed) is getting closer to publication. I have stopped adding to it (at least a year ago) but I am still collecting information about the Seventies. The first draft was there in March 2017, but I have been working slowly on the same themes for the past four years. More Hilton:


winter is kept & broken
squalls break the upturned
red soil, mists return -
in the midnight of cold stars
frosts salt the orchards
duped to bud by
lengthened daylights. ‘the
burst or revival is over the ploughland’
rumble sound of outlaws & armies
who trudge the dull east -
the clocks are shut, the peat
is sacked, seeds of Libra sifted
into a knowledge beyond the stiff reeds
the careless friendship of virgins & children
is there but one future? the rivers
still flow the same direction
through the hawk-inhabited hills

‘in the wide silence
Andromeda westering’

I guess "burst" is the Spring bursting, so like cloudburst but made of heat and light, as days get longer. I was impressed by a CD called “English weather” which went back to around 1970-71 and recovered a group of related music makers, almost a genre – focused around flutes and mellotrons. The CD identifies a style which to my knowledge has never been described before, certainly marginal to the music scene as a whole. It is almost painfully evocative of the time. The editors (Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs from the band St Etienne) do not mention the Moody Blues, but surely they defined the flute/mellotron thing and had a huge hit in 1970 (“The Question”) which everybody in the business knew about. Anyway, I like this approach to the Seventies, of identifying a tiny area with inner coherence, and tracing the artefacts that belong inside it. I don’t have a label for the thing that Metronome belongs to, but it isn’t something completely isolated, the poet had a right to feel that the target audience would recognise the implicit gestures. Sinclair's “Red Eye” probably fits inside the same micro-genre. How many micro-genres there were, is hard to say.

Tuesday, 3 August 2021

selection of poets

A network of connoisseurs; legitimated errors

This is a text about rules or methodology, which needs to be there for reference but doesn't talk about individual poets or poems.
If you start with a list of 6000 poets (active 1960 to 1997), an initial suggestion would be to read all of them. So you discount this because probably 90% of them are tedious. This gives away the fact that you have limited faith in your subject. However, reading the whole lot would kill a normal person. So a second suggestion would be a non-selective sample, where you take the list you have developed and take every tenth row, and read that one. But actually, the method I followed was based on anthologies. I read a lot of anthologies (maybe 50, in the end) and chose the poets on the basis of poems I liked in the anthologies. This gives you a sample of maybe 500 poets.

Could there be problems with this method? First, reading a couple of poems can give you a wrong idea about what the poetry feels like at volume length. Secondly, your reactions may not be perfect. The more fascinated you are by one style, the less time you have for the others– and the easier it is to miss something of real interest. Sadly, the same applies to editors. In reading through sheaves of poems, they may simply fail to react to something. If you are in love with a style (or even a subject matter), their responses may not predict yours. They don’t have the same “weakness”, or partiality, or need.
A recent case was where someone recommended a group of four 80s poets to me, names I hadn't heard before. I ordered a 1985 book by Stephen Oldfield and, yes, it was very good. I checked back and found that I had seen his poems in an anthology. But the ones in the anthology were unimpressive – a matter of presentation. Some editors can't select good poems over bad ones. Conclusion: poets you dismiss after reading a dull anthology may actually be very good. I haven't checked out the other three yet, but a trip to London should allow me to do that at the Poetry library. I wrote about 160 poets, but in fact that left out George Szirtes and Stephen Oldfield, so the likelihood is that I am still missing some good poets.

The port of entry for poems is the doormats of editors. (Today it’s all email, but I am thinking of a timenow at circa 1970.) Poets who actually want to get published send envelopes full of poems to editors, mainly magazine editors. The editor reads it all through. An editor recently described to me how he reads about 600 poems every month, as they come in. So 7000 a year. The total had gone up sharply during the lockdown, so it was maybe 1000 a month in that period. But he accepts maybe 120 poems a year. Clearly, he rejects the others. I am terrifically grateful to him, and to many other editors, for doing the spadework and locating the good stuff.
In a second process, some poets go on to produce books. I haven’t surveyed the field, so I can’t be dogmatic. I think magazines are normally the gateway to a book. The typescript may have a covering letter which lists all the magazines who have published the poems, that is a proof of quality. But it could be less mediated. A poem wins a prize, the poet attends a creative writing class, they do a public reading... any of these could stimulate the publisher into action. Or stimulate a friend of the publisher, whose advice they respect.
I am speaking of a social network based on connoisseurship. It is an intelligent network… individuals inside it distinguish good art from bad, they exchange ideas, they store information, they accept advice from other people in the network. Also, they accept people into the network based on critical evaluation; those whose evidence is perceived as bad do not acquire influence. This self-criticism protects the quality of the network. I am definitely thinking of it as something fallible, but one has to admit that the editors/ advisers are eager to gain credit for finding new poets, and that it is multiple – if it fails to accept a new talent at one point, that talent can gain entry at many other points. There is no crucial point of failure, there are gateways everywhere.

My work on British poetry 1960-97 is based on this social network as the source for which poets I need to read. The poets I read came primarily from anthologies. This approach could fail, and I can give reasons for failures. Connoisseurs cannot judge poems they do not read, so poets may never even have been considered by the compilers of anthologies. The system can forget, so that a poet who was active in the 1950s might have fallen out of visibility by the 1970s. The system is sectorial, and poetry relevant to one editor may seem like “modernistic junk” to another. Sectors may lack resources, so that what would have been key anthologies never come out. Difficult poetry may simply perplex an overworked editor and get passed by. Poets may fear rejection too much to submit their work persistently, or after an improvement in technique. They may not understand the system well enough to send work to the right places. The market may be saturated – to put it brutally, 50 good poets arrived and the retail channel only took on 10 of them. (However, the sector of anthologies should take care of that, at least for someone like me who reads anthologies.)

A line of testing is offered by the gap between book publishers and anthologists. I think we probably have 6000 poets who released at least one book in my period 1960-97. I am sure most of those never appeared in the anthologies I looked at. The count in anthologies is less than 1000, maybe less than 700. This means that the publishers are not supporting the conclusions of anthologists. There could be a number of reasons for this, but we have to concede that the anthologies may not be based on reading everything and that one part of the “intelligent network” may actually be blocking out signals from another part. To be concrete, my belief for studying standard anthologies that they repeat the judgements of the predecessors and do not venture out into areas which the predecessors shut out of view. Michael Roberts defined who was modern in 1936 and poets he left out haven’t been picked up by later anthologists. Crucially, this is not true for Edward Thomas: Roberts left him out but other editors have included him. That was a rescue operation, the system can be proud of it, but it is an exception. New anthologies take a receptive view of the newer generation of poets but do not go back 30 years to look for legitimated errors. I cannot think of an external source for measuring system effectiveness, but we do have the internal one. Most published poets do not get anthologised. Somebody is not getting it right – or, one part of the system is invalidating another part.
Magazine editors are reading an awesome amount of unpublished poetry. It would be nice to think that this process meant that everything of high quality rapidly became visible to the “network of connoisseurs”. However, it is quite possible that someone writes terrific poems and they get published in a magazine and then nobody reacts at all. They did't read that magazine. They were busy.
I can see that, if we look at one era-spanning anthology (The Firebox), which contains 126 names, it omits 81% of the poets I have written about within my ‘Affluence’ work. I worked with a group of 15 anthologies of around 1985-95, for an exercise, and I have recorded details of them. The details allow me to say that 50% of the poets I have written about are not in those anthologies. I rely on anthologies, it follows, while finding them all defective. Obviously I have other sources of information, but the conclusion is that all sources are riddled with omissions, not that there are independent or complete sources of knowledge.
Under certain circumstances, the collaboration of experts is not going to correct local errors but actually amplify them. If the individual components are flawed, it is perverse to say that the whole is unflawed. Even though the experts are correcting each other's errors, it is unreasonable to think that the final outcome is perfection.
I am doubtful about the merit of reading large amounts of poetry. Appetite is the key thing. If your appetite gets satiated, you can't take the poetry in. This is simply a useless process or pseudo-process. Normally a critic or editor arouses my appetite for a poem and then I read it. This works really well. I suppose poetry in an agreed genre is easy to take in; it is original poetry which requires sensitivity. Anyway, there was no point in reading hundreds of books quickly. I have read a lot, but over 20 years. Nobody read all those 6000 poets.
I have not discussed the effect of consensus among the connoisseurs ending up as conformity. This is just too hard to measure. If all editors agree in disliking something, it probably is no good. I like some not very popular poets, but this may not be a breakout and win. It may be just me writing criticism which is useless for the reader. Consensus between the poet, me, and the reader is certainly the goal. Art is a social thing.
When I say “network”, I choose the word because it implies parts being knotted together, flexibility, and being able to trawl things up (or, store information). But also, something genuinely made out of holes. Obviously poets fall through the holes. If the experts between them only read 1000 out of the 6000, the intelligent network does not have intelligence about the other 5000.

We can imagine that after 6000 poets got published there are another 6000 who never got published and are hanging around just outside the gates, looking famished. I can't confirm this. Maybe people who were blocked in 1970 are part of the published category by 1980. I simply don’t know.

Anyway, my initial set of poets to read is based on the anthologies and the critical intelligence embodied in them. Of the poets I read, I then wrote about the ones I found interesting to read. Writing about something uninteresting is a chore. I also read a lot of magazines and hung out with other poetry fans a lot, trying to acquire information from them.
Having read this over, I feel I should add something more. There is a game being played by poetry connoisseurs where they win by finding good poets whom other people don’t know about. We don’t need to explain it to see that people are playing this game, and that this is how they win. This is why circulation of info about good poetry is very rapid and why people are willing to spend long evenings searching through bad poetry to find the good stuff. Another rule is that people don’t like reading bad poetry. Editors are willing to read lots of weak poetry coming in ‘off the mat’, but the suggestion “you should read twice as much bad poetry!” does not usually meet with a warm welcome. I didn't mention reviews, but after all the effect is pretty much the same whether the method is a review, a poetry magazine, an anthology, or a conversation in a bar. It's always "Look at this, Andrew!" and it always draws on a network of connoisseurship.
Another key concept is that of hatred of authority. People don't like being turned down. If you are a magazine editor, you can quite easily send out 1000 rejection letters. All the people who receive those letters will dislike you. There is a pool of hostility towards editors, as the people who turn some poets down and validate others. This can extend from disliking the editors to disliking anyone successful in the poetry world. So success becomes proof of guilt. So the energy animating the poetry system has a "negative field", the energy of resentment and desire to overthrow all judgements. The negative energy may even be the larger quantity – it just isn't focused. The people who do the rejecting are also carrying out the steps that give someone reputation and success, you can't really separate the two.

There is something else I need to add. Not all witnesses have equal standing. If a poet votes for themselves, their evidence does not have the same standing as that of a connoisseur who is recalling their feelings about poetry by another person. The network is composed of messages, bits of information of various lengths, and each one has a coding to show its origin (like an IP address). Different origins have different levels of importance and credibility. A great deal of information in the “poemosphere” is publicity and promotion and has very limited value. It is a retail business like another. The inequality is fraught with problems. However, let me point out that, if you want new information, you need someone who has such information, and someone who has spent time reading unfiltered typescripts, in from the public, possibly has it. In fact, work is the basis for being a good witness. Unpaid work, normally. What the perky rebels in the long grass will point out, barely a breath later, is that the choice (or: evaluation) of witnesses is as complicated, and fallible, as the evaluation of poets. Certainly people who are full of resentment are bad witnesses, because they are psychologically off balance. Does it follow that the people closest to the sources of legitimation and validation are the best witnesses? absolutely not. There probably is a problem with conformism and orthodoxy. People who don't accept what the business is telling them to consume probably do have something vital to offer.

Saturday, 31 July 2021

What was Alternative poetry?

What was Alternative poetry?

The start point is a claim in Bloodaxe jacket blurbs that Ken Smith was “the godfather of the new poetry”. That obviously involves a belief about what the “new poetry” (of the 1970s and 1980s?) was.

The Association of Little Presses used to produce a Small Press Directory, and we had access to a copy of the issue for 1997. This lists all the publications of publishers who were members of the Association, and has the advantage of listing them in author order (as well as publisher order).
I photocopied half of the list to use as sample data. Crude total, for the whole list, is 1400 authors. Going through it entry by entry, to eliminate prose works, yields a projected total for poets of 530. Apparently, this is the total of poets active in the small press area – and can be used as a proxy indicator for the level of activity in the 1980s.
Great! But, a closer look at this data shows alarming problems. For example, Bloodaxe, Carcanet, and Arc were members of the ALP and some of their books are listed. It is difficult to see these books as Underground. In fact, Peterloo Press were also members – a publisher so conservative they made Poetry Review look modernistic. So the figure of 530 is unusable. So the list is not usable without further checks. Would this mean scrutinising authors one by one? Well, yes, but who on earth is going to scan those 530 people? The goal seems to be rushing away from us, but in fact the list does contain the names of 200 to 300 poets who can be seen as summing up the underground of that time.
The real count may be much higher. I suspect that quite a few micro-publishers were so small and anti-capitalist that filling in a questionnaire and writing a letter to join the ALP were not within their realm of activity. Ulli Freer’s set-up, Microbrigade, would be an example. Or Open Township. People who put out half a dozen pamphlets and moved on probably didn’t join the ALP.
The ALP catalogue was an attempt to sell poetry by post, to even up the odds. By definition, the Underground produced poetry which was unacceptable to the media and the retail world. It circulated more or less hand to hand. Its signal was weak. So it was likely that someone in (say) London would miss what was happening in Cambridge. The poets who are genuinely alternative are disparate. There were many of them and they were in many parts of the country. I suspect that the idea that they formed an organism in some way, or that they were visible to each other, is a retrospective projection. Only the diversity is genuine. It is clear that the “small press” world includes poetry of low quality, bumbling hedge-poets, grumpy old codgers, firms working as a sort of cottage industry which finds the modern world threatening. So, the professionals habitually write the sector off as being a haven for poets not good enough for commercial publishers. This judgement has also been applied to “alternative” poetry – because it lives in the small press world, it must be part of that amateurism and inability to produce for a market.
There is another figure, for the total of alternative poets over the history of the sector. I don’t have a way of making a list, but I guess 500 would be in the right ball-park.
I wanted to exclude Bloodaxe poets as being evidently conventional and non-alternative, but that offers us an argument, about the question “was Bloodaxe the future of the underground?” I can see that Simon Armitage (published by Slow Dancer) is not “alternative”, but the question is more difficult for quite a few poets. The blurred area is possibly larger than the clear area. Actually, in the opinion of the time Bloodaxe could well have been seen as Alternative poetry – anti-literary poets could be seen as a protest against educated poets, especially if they were anti-southern.
If we go back to Mottram's catalogue of the British Poetry Revival, he gives a fabulous list of poets in the New Poetry, at 1974. He omits Patten, Henri, and McGough. This was a key decision and was almost a protest against accepted opinion – at the time, the Pop poets were seen as a revolt against literary poetry, and wider opinion did not distinguish between Pop and the Underground.
If you dip into Bloodaxe propaganda, you see an image of what happened in the Sixties whereby it was the end of literary poetry and of the old middle class (and of reticence), where performance became pre-eminent over private reading and the immediate present became more important in poetry than learning and stored generalisations. This probably is what happened in the Sixties. However, there was also the acceptance that poetry could be about Ideas, the arrival of the New Avant Garde, the rise of higher education which meant that poets were expected to be intellectuals. All of this was happening. It is apparent that, in the 1970s, there was a split in the original unity of Sixties Poetry, and of the youth culture which produced it, such that pop poetry split off from intelligent poetry, and they became two different worlds. Bloodaxe only took on one of these. Elsewhere, you can see Mottram's definition of the British Poetry Revival, those 36 poets he listed, as being a way of making that split happen. He was defining a separate territory. The exclusion of the Liverpool poets from the poetry revival of the 1960s is almost incredible.
Mottram did include Jim Burns – it looks like a mistake but it also allows us to think about where he drew the exclusion line. Burns’ poetry probably worked when delivered live but looks insignificant on the page. It has a sort of dry wit. He was a jazz fan but his poetry avoids any of the innovation or improvisation which that might suggest. It was similar to a great number of poets who did readings in the Sixties – he was less romantic, more pessimistic, than most. His pessimism about the possibilities of poetry is the striking quality. Anyway, it is difficult to claim that Simon Armitage was “conventional” if you are already claiming that Jim Burns was “alternative”. The gap between them is too narrow.
On the other side of the division, Bloodaxe did include one of Mottram’s choices- Ken Smith. He was probably their “house poet” in the first ten years. If that is true, we can locate the centre of Bloodaxe’s endeavour as being inside the British Poetry Revival. This looks odd today, but it exposes a genuine fact, viz. that Bloodaxe thought they were supplying an alternative poetry in the 1980s, and saw their line as rejecting the past – defined as academic and literary poetry and an atmosphere associated with the old middle class. New graduates, people who came from lower-class families but had gone through the State system to become a new middle class, were absolutely their staple. People who disliked the old middle class and liked the new middle class were Bloodaxe's ideal audience. That is the group they were identified with. A quick sniff around 'Poetry with an Edge' (1993 edition, not the original, I fear) indicates 54 British poets of whom only 7 had attended Oxford. A mere 13%. Apologies for what may have possible errors, but this does point to a new cultural policy. Lucie-Smith's classic anthology of 1970 still had 29% Oxford graduates. This admittedly rough proxy indicator is a telltale of a new attitude towards the poetic voice. Yes, everybody has a degree. They aren't romantic outlaws. But they aren't the southern elite.
(Actually, biographies are inexplicit and I can't check this - so maybe 13% didn't go to university, and maybe even more.)
So, in the flotsam of received opinions in the 1980s, the idea may have been current that Pop was the future of poetry, and Bloodaxe was the alternative to conservative academics and Cold War attitudes. This idea was not going to be disproved unless you actually read the poetry concerned. The counter-idea, that Pop had evolved into dumbing-down and had become conservative and conventional by about 1970, was a conceptual advance which circulated only slowly. Elsewhere, a lot of people thought “the future of poetry is dumbing-down”, end of story. That would apply to people who disliked modern poetry altogether, and to those who thought that Geoffrey Hill and Peter Levi, let’s say, were what really mattered, the Future Legacy. It could also apply to sections of the Left, where cultural differentiation was seen as a problem.
My feelings about Bloodaxe connect to negative feelings about Larkin. Larkin lived in a dour northern town, he was against cultural pretension, his poetry was obvious. He delivered Grumpy Realism. Bloodaxe poets also offered Grumpy Realism. I couldn't see this as having any liberatory charge. It wasn’t a break with the past, if you see the “central sound” in 1960-80 (roughly) as being ’The Whitsun Weddings’. Even many pages of it wasn't going to change anything. It was a sound developed by Oxford graduates, and the aim was at least partly to discourage optimism about political change. For me, if you list 50 significant new poets of my generation, so roughly 1975-90, none of them was influenced by Ken Smith. He may have been crucial both to Stand magazine and then to Bloodaxe, but his cultural plan had design flaws. There was a new poetry but Smith was not the godfather of it.

To return to our count: I do think that some people in the 1980s saw Bloodaxe as being a poetic alternative. They would then belong on the ALP list. Not everybody saw alternative poetry as being the Mottram line – some people went on seeing pop poetry as being the Alternative. So if I count 500 “alternative” poets, that relies on a meaning of the adjective which excludes Patten – or Simon Armitage.
Marketing texts try to set up ideological communities and recruit you into them, and people writing about the sociology of art tend to do much the same. I should emphasise that the big patterns may not be all that important to the life of poetry. The influence of the moon on your local pond may be real but too small to notice – however big the moon is, it’s a long way away. Local forces may be much stronger. We are interested in the history of poetry rather than the history of marketing prose.

Friday, 30 July 2021

Muriel Box, scriptwriter-director

Muriel Box, scriptwriter-director (continuation)

If you read the classic work on British Cinema of the 1950s, they say that there is a 1951 film called White Corridors which is the best of the time because it continues the documentary style, and expands it into drama which also deals with the welfare state and the new society. It is morally mature and not rushing off into nostalgia and fantasy. But, the BFI decided to restore the very old and perishable negatives first, so they won’t get around to White Corridors for a long time. So it was a lost film, you couldn't see it. I posted about this several years ago. But – White Corridors is now on You-Tube. The first thing I noticed about it was that it was scripted by Jan Read, who wrote the story for Street Corner. Then – this is a great film. God knows how it comes to be on You-tube. It overlaps with “My Brother Jonathan”, if you like that kind of thing. And, yes, they are both films about the Welfare State, and explaining why it is a good thing.
Two of Muriel Box’s films seem to be about the nature of fantasy – so “The Passionate Stranger is a gentle satire on the conventions of the romantic novel and the perils of confusing reality with fiction. Directed in inventive fashion by Oscar winner Muriel Box, (sharing writing credits with husband Sydney Box), this hugely engaging comedy is made available here in a brand-new transfer...” and Simon and Laura [1955] “stars Peter Finch (in one of his first British lead roles) and Kay Kendall as an unhappily married couple who decide, for strictly financial reasons, to play idealised versions of themselves in a kind of quasi-fictional soap opera for the newfangled medium of television. The final act anticipates reality TV by around half a century, as a Christmas special broadcast live turns messily chaotic thanks to the machinations of mischievous child-performer Timothy”. This belief that fantasy is unreal is a sort of critique of conventional romance which sounds like the critiques you got in 70s feminism, or leftism in general. This is not to say that a Rank Film could ever be just like an essay in Screen, but the idea of staging the story in a pleasurable way while also analysing its remoteness from reality sounds like a brilliant solution to well-known problems. It sounds a bit familiar, as a lot of professional screen-writers want to tell a story which exposes screenplay conventions as brain-damagingly artificial. So Box accepted that fantasy had to play a role in film.
I now have a DVD of ‘Strangers’ and it is effectively unwatchable. Too much the Fifties Rank film. It definitely is a critique of romantic fantasy – and this is what we can connect with the Seventies. In the film, the female lead is a romantic novelist who has run out of ideas. A new chauffeur arrives, young and good-looking, she has the idea for a romance about an illicit love affair between a bourgeois heroine and a chauffeur. By accident the real chauffeur gets to read the novel. He tries to take her up on it. Just before this point the film shifts into colour and we see the novel story. The cleverest part is the adjustments the novelist (Margaret Leighton) makes to reality. She becomes a concert pianist – a few steps above silly romantic fiction. For her husband, the heightening invovles him trying to stop her from playing the piano – she is now in the right and has a Grievance. The maid, kind and demure in the scenes of ‘reality’, now becomes sexy, scheming and forward – heightening her role as Threat to the lead figure. All this is very good, exquisite even, but it is the kind of thing which appeals to writers rather than making for real cinema. The fact that the heroine has a total of three servants makes it difficult to take her seriously. Leighton has no personality. Patricia Dainton, as Emily the maid, produces the best and most contrasting performances- out-acting Ralph Richardson, in this case. She is also a lot prettier than Richardson. I admit to being an admirer of Dainton – although I am not sure she ever appeared in a good film. With “Passionate Strangers”, the content certainly involves the critique of art itself, the creative control certainly comes from a Left feminist – but the film is thoroughly conservative and reinforces marriage, wealth, and the status quo.
My conclusion, for the Seventies – if people in 1975 thought that a ton of reforms were inevitable and long overdue and utterly obvious, it is because popular art had been frozen for 20 or 25 years. It’s not that the new ideas were wrong, more that they had been available for a couple of decades and the business of popular culture had failed to do anything with them. Left culture was underdeveloped, although developing fast by 1975, because of funding problems – the culture industry conspired to block and repress it. ‘Strangers’ turns out to be pretty much a film about The Servant Problem.
Box’s film “The Truth about Women” may be the only feminist feature film made in the 1950s. I haven’t seen it and, frankly, it sounds pretty dire. But, as I suspect, every woman who graduated during the 1950s could have made a series of convincing and modern-sounding feminist arguments. It’s just that these weren’t seen as cinematic. Jill Craigie's 1950 short documentary about equal pay for women has got all the arguments, even if the Equal Pay Act took another 25 years. You could find ten Fifties films about the servant problem for every one about the Employer Problem. This is just not a reflection of reality.
An actress called Julia Lockwood played a teenage fantasist figure in two films, 'Please Turn Over' and 'No Kidding', where her fantasies are a significant part of the plot. I think this idea may have been copied from 'Passionate Strangers'.
“Muriel Box described The Truth about Women, at 107 minutes by some way her longest work, as “the film personally significant to me above all others”. It is a portmanteau affair in which an elderly aristocrat (Laurence Harvey) reminisces about the numerous ladies in his life, each episode making unambiguous assertions about gender equality and the wrongs of patriarchal oppression. The days of submissive spouses are over: a woman can and should be “an equal partner in the business of life”, as one character puts it.“
I really don’t much want to see this.