Sunday, 28 September 2008

Mapp and Lucia

E. F. Benson’s delicious series of comic novels, Miss Mapp, Lucia Victrix, and Lucia in London, set in provincial high-society between the wars, are one of the few things that can soothe this particular savage breast when at its most fiery. As Philip Hensher has said, 'E. F. Benson's rather remarkable achievement is to have written a series of books which hardly contain one single generous or kind action, with a cast of characters with hardly one single redeeming quality between them, which are basically stories about revenge, spite and ruthless ambition; books, however, whose unrelentingly negative view of human nature and delight in the most refined cruelty results in an atmosphere of sunny cheerfulness and exuberant amusement.' Quite so. And to think that Benson (1867-1940) was the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

LWT (London Weekend Television) made the second of the novels, Lucia Victrix, into a television series in the early 80s, entitled Mapp and Lucia. It remains one of the most perfect things of its type ever attempted, and it was in this form that I first encountered Benson’s fabulous cast of eccentrics, snobs and provincial social climbers.

The action is centred on the little seaside town of Tilling, a thinly-veiled version of Rye in East Sussex, where Benson was Mayor for three years. (The television series was filmed in Rye itself.) The queen of Tilling’s social circle at the start of the series is Miss Elizabeth Mapp, a middle-aged, bossy, condescending frump, played to perfection by Prunella Scales. She presides over a clique of alternately downtrodden and rebellious eccentrics, hosting an endless series of bridge-parties and dinners.

There is Godiva Plastow, Mapp’s intermittently mutinous ‘friend’, handicapped by her plainness and that dreadful name. Major Benjy, whom Mapp (always so called) eventually marries, is a mustachio’d retired military man, golfer and alcoholic, who, forgetting that he is no longer in India, is prone to bellow ‘QUAI HAI!’ to summon another Scotch from his harried servant. Then come Mr and Mrs Wyse – Susan Wyse being a great galleon of a woman, preposterously rich and attired in sables, who often drops her MBE into conversation. Her husband, Algernon, is a little sparrow who wears a monocle and who constantly bows to everyone he meets. The Vicar (‘the dear Padre’) comes next; a kindly man with a rich Scottish burr, entirely put on, as he in fact hails from Birmingham. Last but not least is Irene Coles, universally known as ‘Quaint’ Irene, a knickerbocker-clad lesbian who paints naked women wrestlers, smokes a sailor’s pipe, and speaks her mind in a fruity bellow.

Into this closed little world, over which Mapp presides, enters Emmeline Lucas (Geraldine McEwan), known to her friends as Lucia. She has been doyenne of the social scene of her home village of Riseholme (‘Rizzum’) until the death of her husband Pepino. Along with her best friend, the effete, be-toupéed Georgie Pillson (Nigel Hawthorne), Lucia arrives in Tilling, first as a visitor, soon as a resident, like a force of nature. Whereas Mapp favours muddy browns and has an unattractive mop of mousey curls, Lucia is exquisitely coiffed and effortlessly elegant. Mapp is like a dowdy owl, but Lucia resembles a gimlet-eyed hawk in a floral smock.

The voices adopted by the two actresses in the series are strokes of brilliance. McEwan gives Lucia a preposterous range, from silvery, trilling laughter, aflutter with amusement, to the most stentorian of baritones when she wishes to impose her iron will. For Mapp, Prunella Scales adopts a version of 'Surrey Received', a ludicrous British accent hardly heard these days except on art-critic Brian Sewell. Its oleaginous, curdled vowels perfectly suit Mapp's bullying condescention. Brilliantly, as Lucia gets more and more worked up, her voice gets deeper, whereas Mapp's gets shriller and shriller.

When Lucia and Georgie visit Tilling for the summer, Mapp humiliatingly curries favour before realising that Lucia is hugely more charistmatic than she is. (She has, for instance, adopted Lucia and Georgie's habit of saying 'Au reservoir!' instead of 'au revoir', and anyone who has a secret jargon of words and phrases shared with friends can appreciate the annoyance of having it co-opted.) Over the course of two series, all-out war is declared, but conducted covertly via the medium of garden parties, recipes, games of bridge, municipal elections and public bequests.

The storytelling is marvellously amoral. Although there is not an ethical whit to choose between Mapp and Lucia, we always side with Lucia, for all that she is a dreadful snob and obscenely self-delighting. Viewers (and readers) feel part of the wicked, cliquey friendship of Lucia and Georgie, and share their delight in each other's company. (Especially fun is the fact that they play duets on the piano in lieu of sex: 'Georgino! We finished together!') Indeed, Georgie and Lucia’s friendship – and eventual lavender marriage – is the emotional heart of Mapp and Lucia. They speak to each other in baby-talk ('Georgie - Oo have had dweffle disappointy') and, brilliantly, in cod-Italian, energetically fostering the rumour that they speak it like natives. In fact, their repertoire in ‘la bella lingua’ is limited to a few oft-ungrammatical phrases, including ‘Georgino mio!’, 'these piccoli disturbi',‘a little divine Mozartino’, and ‘un giardino segreto!’

This affectation not only leads Mapp to start dropping equally awful French into conversations, but nearly proves their social undoing. In one of the most brilliantly realised episodes of the comedy, Lucia and Georgie hear to their horror that Mr Wyse’s sister, the Contessa di’ Faraglione, is coming to stay. Married to an Italian, her command of the language is reputed to be perfect. All Tilling looks forward to hearing the three of them converse, especially Mapp, who rightly suspects that Lucia speaks no more Italian than she does.

Facing imminent social catastrophe, Lucia and Georgie are forced to scheme as never before. Georgie is promptly despatched to a hotel in Eastbourne for the duration of the Contessa’s visit. Lucia is reduced to pleading infectious influenza and shutting herself away. Mapp, in triumph, realises that she has Lucia on the hop, all the more since she knows that she can spy into Lucia’s giardino segreto from the top of the church tower. She climbs, she looks – and espies the supposedly bedridden Lucia performing her speciality ‘callisthenics for those no longer young’ in the garden. Mapp plans to release this incendiary information at the party Mr and Mrs Wyse have arranged for the Contessa.

However, in the interim, Georgie meets a charming lady and her daughter in his Eastbourne hotel. The lady is Italian, but her husband is English and their daughter has been educated in England. Her mother is improving her daughter's Italian by setting her little exercises. Georgie sees his chance, and asks the mother if he might not set a translation for her daughter, to which the mother delightedly assents. ‘Well’, says Georgie to the daughter, ‘why don’t you write a letter apologising to an Italian Countess, whom you’ve never met, for having to miss her musical party, on account of influenza.’ Charmed by the request, the daughter sets to work, and at Georgie’s request, a fair copy, duly corrected by her mother, is presented to Georgie as a keepsake. This copy is sent to Lucia posthaste, who copies it out in her own hand and sends her servant Grovesnor to deliver it personally to the Contessa. Just as Mapp, nearly bursting with glee, is about to reveal Lucia’s underhandedness, the note is delivered – in Lucia’s handwriting, and, as the Contessa remarks, ‘not just in Italian; in perfect Italian.’ Mapp is utterly crushed.

So even though Mapp was absolutely right - Lucia was faking illness, and she and Georgie can't speak Italian - we rejoice at her downfall. 'Georgino! She was malicious!' carols Lucia, self-satisfiedly - 'and that never pays.' As the series progresses, with its twists and turns and petty schemes of revenge, we find that we never pity Lucia, but intermittently feel slightly sorry for Mapp. She is both outflanked and outclassed, yet cannot – must not – accept this state of affairs. To acknowledge the fact that she has lost her position in her own town would be an abject, soul-destroying humiliation for her. As a result, sometimes - just sometimes - we enjoy seeing Lucia get too big for her boots and come a jolly good cropper, usually led to it by her own pretension.

In a surreal sequence of events, extraordinary floods trap both Mapp and Lucia in Lucia's kitchen. (Where, to be precise, Lucia has caught Mapp in the act of attempting to steal her prized recipe for Lobster a la Riseholme.) As the floods rise and the dykes burst, Lucia and Mapp are swept out to sea on the upturned kitchen-table. 'Au reservoir!’ calls Lucia to the aghast onlookers, brilliantly throwing an arm around the hysterical Mapp.

Two days later, the brine-soaked table is found washed up on the beach, with no sign of either of the lamented ladies.

Tilling’s spirit is utterly broken. Quaint Irene, who has been in love with Lucia (‘Queen of my heart!’) from the earliest, breaks down and storms off. To his amazement, Georgie discovers that Lucia has left him her house, and eighty thousand pounds – a vast fortune. Major Benjy finds that Mapp has left him her house, and a much more modest sum. He promptly packs up his tiger skins, golfclubs, and whisky tumblers, and moves in. Georgie, on the other hand, cannot bear to move into Lucia’s much grander house, but keeps it going, and pays the servants, ‘just as if she had gone away on holiday and forgotten to leave a cheque for expenses.’ He commissions a memorial stone for the pair, and by an unfortunate mistake on the part of the stonecutter, ‘Emmeline Lucas’ ends up carved thereon in much bigger letters than ‘Elizabeth Mapp’. (The memorial's marvellously ironic legend: 'In Death They were not Divided.')

Tilling settles into a waste of grief.

But then, months later – two figures clad in oil-skins trudge up the Tilling mudflats, and slop through the churchyard, only to find their own memorial-stone. In one of the most touching scenes in the series, Georgie is sitting listlessly at home, doing his needlework. The telephone rings.

‘Georgie! Georgino mio!’
His heart stood still.
‘What? What?’ he cried.
‘Yes, it’s Lucia,’ said the voice. ‘Me’s tum home, Georgie.’
Eighty thousand pounds (less death duties)…seemed to sweep past him like an avalanche, and fall into the gulf of things that might have been. But it was not the cold blast of that ruin that filled his eyes with tears.

And ours, if watching this scene for the umpteenth time after a few too many. Whereas Lucia finds that Georgie has preserved her house perfectly, even though she had bequeathed him both it and eighty thousand pounds, Mapp goes home to find that the Major has entirely taken over her home, drunk her wine-cellar, 'and eaten a whole row of my beetroot'. And once again, we rejoice with Lucia and Georgie, and laugh at Mapp's fury. As Hensher comments, 'In the end, we love Lucia because she is a radiator, whereas Mapp is a drain.'

But Benson is too skilful an ironist to let Lucia get away with it completely. The table had bumped into a fishing-trawler in the Channel, and she and Mapp have had to spend three months fishing for cod off Newfoundland. But, disastrously, it was an Italian trawler. Lucia's inability to speak Italian was finally proved to Mapp, and she is forced simply to brazen it out. ('I told her the sailors spoke an obscure Neapolitan dialect and that Captain wanted to practice his English', she tells Georgie, ever so faintly abashed.)

So there we have it. Rivalries, at once volcanically magnificent yet small-scale, squabbles and acid put-downs, all set in the kind of society which betcame utterly impossible after about 1930. No one in Mapp and Lucia actually seems to need to work for a living, and all lead lives of luxury in which the passing on of gossip and the stoking of social tensions is the main occupation. I highly recommend the series, now available on DVD, as a source of pure pleasure, and as the origin of some fabulous bon mots. Au reservoir!

* * *

Below there is a collage of some moments from the series: the dumpy character at the beginning is one of Lucia's acquaintances from Riseholme, Daisy Quantock. Notice how Lucia (in deep mourning) bristles at the suggestion that anyone but she might play Elizabeth I in the town's Elizabethan Pageant. Also included is my favourite put-down from the entire series: Diva is shocked that Tilling-newcomers Lucia and Georgie are staying together (in one room, so she thinks) in the local pub, and Mapp brilliantly says: 'Diva dear, old friends though we are, I should be sorry to have a mind like yours.' Genius.

John Tavener: nipson anomemata, me monan opsin

On the subject of music, some witterings are in order now on the subject of the composer John Tavener, whom I mentioned in the post below on Lisa Gerrard. A great hero of mine, this man, and splendidly bonkers in the best English manner. Tavener is probably the most popular British classical composer of our times, although popularity is of course a dubious index of artistic quality. He's often lazily grouped together with Arvo Pärt and Henryk Gorecki, all three being so-called 'Holy Minimalists', which is something of a feeble categorisation, and one which Tavener angrily rejects.

Tavener's goal is to put the Sacred back into music. His work is underpinned by a complex set of theological aesthetics, which require explanation; however the effect of his music is anything but complex, with many pieces having an extraordinary, pellucid beauty that goes straight to the heart.

Tavener's aesthetics grow from the idea of the Primordial. He harks back to the idea of Sacred Tradition - the so-called 'Perennial Philosophy' common the all the world's religions, as understood by such modern thinkers as Réné Guénon and Frithjof Schuon, who are often accused of being dubiously reactionary, with some justification. Tradition here does not mean the exoteric canons of any Church, still less ossified dogma. Rather it indicates an unchanging, mystical understanding of Humanity's relationship with God, the purification of the soul and its eventual reunion with the Divine Source. It is panentheist - seeing God in all things - but not pantheistic, identifying God solely with the Universe. The Sufis, Plato (and Plotinus' Neoplatonism), the Upanishads and Vedas, the insights of Buddhist sages, the extraodinary 'apophatic' theology of the Eastern Church, the wisdom of First Peoples throughout the world: all have their part in the Perennialist point of view.

Tavener is a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, which he joined in 1977. Since then a torrent of liturgical music has poured from him, invariably (in the past) based in the Tradition of Orthodoxy. 'Tradition' is a vital concept in the Eastern Church; the saying goes that Tradition is the life of the Holy Spirit within the Church. In musical form, this consists of an immensely complicated system of church music, organised around tones, or modes. These are difficult to explain, but consist of a body of melodies, with many variations, that have significance in and of themselves, beyond their mere emotional effect. Patterns of melody are themselves meaningful and symbolic, and are used to bind the liturgy together, underpinning the words with their sacred meanings. Byzantine (Orthodox) music is always monotonal, i.e. it has no polyphony, no interweaving of different vocal lines. This is because oneness is seen as the essential attribute of the Divine - not disunity or competition. The melodic line will however be sung over an ison, or 'eternity note' - a vocal drone that represents the unchanging radiance of Heaven glowing behind the music. The background of gold-leaf on an Orthodox ikon signifies the same idea visually. With its strange intervals, rapt introspection, and complex, sinuous spirals of half and quarter-notes, Orthodox Church music sounds extremely unwestern. It is radiantly beautiful without being in the least sensual. Tavener has utterly integrated Byzantine musicology into his work. He tries to rid himself of ego when making music, he says - it is not creativity in the usual Western sense of self-expression. Rather it is an attempt, through a mystical self-emptying, to recapture the primordial music before the Fall.

Recent years have seen Tavener's spiritual perspective deepen and expand. He no longer sees there being one way to God, but rather sees mystical truth in all religions. (This sadly led to a rift between him and his erstwhile librettist, the formidable elderly Orthodox Abbess, Mother Thekla.) Works as yet unrecorded include 'Majnun and Leila', which promises us a female God, and a piece called 'The Beautiful Names', a setting of the ninety-nine mystical names of Allah in Islam. His work is sheerly, rapturously, beautiful. It often features spatially arranged choirs, eastern melismas and semitones, glowing drones and radiant, gauzy strings. he has a particular penchant for the counter-tenor voice, for which he writes exquisitely. Very often he is inspired by a liturgical or mystical text - the Hymns of Ephrem the Syrian, the Akathistos Hymn of the Orthodox Church, or a haiku by Seferis. Or indeed the Byzantine palindrome that heads this post: found on the rim of a fountain, it reads 'clease the sins, not only the face' in both directions.

The thread of the Divine Feminine that runs through his work has come nearer to the fore. It has always been there, even as early as his operas 'Thérèse' (on the deathbed atheism and reconversion of St. Thérèse of Lisieux) and 'Mary of Egypt'. (The latter aspired to be 'an ikon in sound' about the ancient prostitute turned saint and Desert Mother. Profoundly 'feminine', it featured the deep, eastern-inflected voice of Chloe Goodchild placelessly emanating throughout the opera house as the voice of Sophia, Divine Wisdom.) A man who has had passionate relationships with several muses in the past, including - bizarrely - Mia Farrow, Tavener would surely agree with Goethe that 'the Eternal Feminine leads us upwards.' The climax of this tendency was his extraordinary 'Veil of the Temple' - an all-night vigil featuring Hindu, Sufi and Christian texts, ending at dawn.

For me, Tavener is something of an inner guide. I've only met him once in the flesh (very tall) but he has appeared in my dreams several times. I'm not daft enough to think that those dreams were Sir John himself astrally projecting, but nevertheless my unconscious chose to clothe the archetype of the Wise Old Man in his form. For all his eccentricities - the fast cars, the friendship with the Prince of Wales and the Beatles, the wafty 'I had a vision once while lying in the bath' pronouncements - he is someone whom I revere, truly. As the Russians say on birthdays - Mnogaya Leta! Many Years!

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Those of you who have sent me google account addresses will find invitations to view TEBB in the inboxes of the email address you supplied. Thanks!

On the Horizon

My friend, the poet, novelist and critic Jane Holland, has been editing a new literary magazine, Horizon Review, available online here. It is fantastic, and much kudos to Jane for all the hard work she has put in to organising it, and to SALT for publishing it. I'm lucky enough to have got a slot in the first issue: my translation of a newly discovered medieval Welsh text (!) brings up the rear of the magazine.


Guy Davenport, who along with Tony Nuttall has shaped one of my conceptions of what an intellectual should be like, includes a number of delightful aperçus, apophthegmata and observations in his various volumes of criticism. Several of these jottings occupy an ambiguous ground between fiction, poetry and condensed critical writing: each one of them might be the kernel around which one could crystallise a short-story or poem.

Here a a collection of ones which I particularly liked. It includes Davenport's own thoughtful agraphon, literally 'an unwritten thing', denoting a saying or tradition about Christ not recorded in the Gospels. (A particularly beautiful poem in this tradition was written by the Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos in 1941, and has been set to music by John Tavener.)

* * *

From G. Davenport, The Hunter Gracchus, and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington, 1996).

Greek time is in the eye, anxious about transitions (beard, loss of boyish beauty). Hebrew time is in the ear (Hear, O Israel!). What the Greek gods say does not make a body of quotations; they give no laws, no wisdom. But what they look like is of great and constant importance. Yahweh, invisible, is utterly different.

Being ought to have a ground (the earth under our feet) and a source. It seems to have neither. The Big Bang theory is science fiction. It may be that the expanding universe is an illusion born in physics labs in Paris, Copenhagen, and Berkeley. It is all too eerily like Genesis (being in a millisecond) and other creation myths. It is partly medieval, partly Jules Verne. From a human point of view, it has no philosophical or ethical content. It is, as a vision, a devastation, an apocalypse at the wrong end of time. It is a drama in which matter and energy usurp roles that once belonged to gods and angels. It is without life: brutally mechanical. It is without even the seeds of life, or the likelihood.

Je ne veux pas mourir idiot. French student demanding that Greek be put back in the curriculum.

Danish, like Dutch, is English unmarried to French.

Athens (which could not tolerate Socrates) and Jerusalem (which could not tolerate Jesus) come down in history as the poles of the ancient world (for Proust, Arnold, Joyce, Zukofsky). If these two long traditions have fused, they have no genetic line. Judaism is closed, is itself exclusively; Athens is diffused and lost.

In Kafka other people are too close and God is too far off.

Where it was, there must you begin to be. There are no depths, only distances. Memory shuffles, scans, forages. Freud's geological model implies that last year is deeper in memory than last week, which we all know to be untrue. The memories we value are those we have given the quality of dream and narrative, and which we may have invented.

Freudian analysis turned out to be insensitive to the very values that give art its identity, as deconstruction is a hostile cross-examination of a helpless witness.

The emptier a room the smaller it seems. This is true of minds as well.

Country as the satiric unit: Coconino, Bloom, Yoknapatawpha, Raintree, Tolkien's shire, 'the provinces'.
Tragedy: house, castle, room.
Romance: sea and open country.
Comedy: city.

Samuel Palmer. Moss sopped in gold clotted on the thatch of a roof. Mr. Christian trudging by.

The white frost that made the fire feel so good, and the quilt so comfortable, had also reddened the maples and mellowed the persimmons. Cloth shoes stink by the fire. Foxes bark in the deep of the wind.

Hemmingway's prose is like an animal talking. But what animal?

Forty finches in the thistles, in the high summer of time.
  The road, always the road, through groves of olives, through fields yellow with wheat. Figs, melons.
  Their walking made the silence creak. Flap of sandals. Thomas, the twin, talking.
  - Rabbi, this tearing off of the foreskin, is it right?
  Yeshua's answers were always quick, as if he knew what you were going to say. He looked at something else while you were talking, a woman with a jug of water balanced on her shoulder, a sparrow hawk circling, cows in a wadi, and at you when he answered.
  - If the Everlasting had wanted us to have no foreskin, we would be born without one. Nothing should be shorn that does not grow back.
  Thomas looking around Yeshua's hat to study his eyes in the brim's shadow.
  Yeshua's smiling irony.
  - If our bodies were designed by the Everlasting for our souls, what a wonder!
  Yeshua talking, talking with the sweet patience of the fellowship, to Thomas and Simon and John, and to someone else also. They had remarked on this among themselves, that their company sometimes included an unseen other.
  - But if our souls are created for the body's sake, that would be the wonder of wonders. The Egyptians elongate the infant's skull while it is still soft, and there are people you know nothing about who bind their women's feet and picture their skins all over with needles and ink, and file their teeth to a point. Only the subtle Greeks, whose Heraclitus could parse the grammar of creation and whose Pythagoras discovered the harmony of numbers, leave the healthy body intact, as it was created.
  A stonechat dipped and sailed sideways. Yeshua put out his hand and the stonechat came and sat on it, head cocked.
  Yeshua speaking to the stonechat, in its Latin.
  - Is the flesh then good? Thomas asked.
  - Is there, Yeshua asked, perhaps of the stonechat, perhaps of Thomas, Simon, or John, any other way of being? The Everlasting's work is all one creation. Are we to say of the one creation there is that it is nasty?
  Thomas looking at his fingernails, Simon at his feet.

An Execration upon Vulcan

We were woken at 2am by the sound of the house on the other side of the street - literally fifteen paces away - burning down. I heard bangings and crashings as I slept, enjoying a fitful dream, and when I opened my eyes I could dimly see orange flames reflected on the curtains. With the kind of cold instant alertness that possesses one at times like these, I leapt out of bed, ran up the front stairs - ran back, put some clothes on, ran out again - and saw fifteen-foot flames licking the front of the house directly facing ours in our small urban street. A parked car was five feet from the blaze, with its petrol tank already no doubt on a rolling boil. As usual in Britain, people were standing around in quilted dressing gowns drinking mugs of tea - I half expected the genteel old queen who lives next door to be out there cracking open the Harveys Bristol Cream and suggesting a round of community kumbayah-ing.

Fortunately, no one was in the house; it's a student property that was being redecorated. The builders had tossed all the crap from the renovations - rotten plasterboard, card, old planks and so on - into the tiny bit of front garden instead of into a skip. On top of this ziggurat of crud they had placed an old-fashioned 70's foam sofa, with a particularly eye-watering orange paisley cover. No doubt some drunken cretin had thought, as they shambled past with a kebab, that it would be good clean fun to set light to this inflammable appurtenance. The inhabitants of the house had until recently been a band of bastards who had held incredibly noisy late-night parties and who were prone to sticking techno on at 6.30am, making our lives a misery. I found myself hoping that they were merely on holiday and their wretched stereo had been reduced to a plasticy puddle. Alas, I'm fairly sure they'd moved out, and it will doubtless be the poor landlord who has to pick up the tab. (Brand new UPVC windows, incidentally, go up a treat, with lovely ribbony, greasy, black and orange flames.)

The fire engine came, and it took the fire crew twenty minutes or so to get the blaze under control. I went back to bed, and lay awake listening to the pocks and tumbling thuds made by glass breaking and water-saturated plaster collapsing.

Hill and Williams

I've just had the good luck and privilege to attend the opening of the current Geoffrey Hill and his Contexts conference at Keble College, Oxford. The first session was a conversation between Rowan Williams and Hill himself, and this was an opportunity to hear two shockingly good intellects in dialogue and mutual accord.

I've just finished an article on Rowan Williams' 'CELTIA' poetry, so the opportunity to see the man in the flesh was delightful. He has an incredibly deep and resonant voice (as does Hill) and they both speak most beautifully, in strong, lapidary sentences. I came out of the session with the feeling that my own thought had been clarified and deepened simply by listening to the two of them speak.

Both articulated positions and observations about poetry and the world which I had but dimly adumbrated to myself. (One of the marks of a really good teacher, I feel, is the ability to intuit a student's half-formed thoughts, to articulate them clearly and resonantly, to enlarge them, and then to give them back to the student, as theirs by right.) Both were humorous. Williams in particular mocked himself for coming up with an opaque phrase like 'the sentimentality of apophaticism', which he clarified by saying that the assertion in the woollier kind of poetry that some things are inarticulable tends too easily to be a trite cop-out. It is the purpose of poetry to say what cannot be said.

The proceedings may well be published in due course, I am assured, so I don't wish to reproduce too much of what was said here. Nevertheless, some of the insights made me nod in vigorous agreement and pleasure at hearing the very difficult and elusive so well phrased. Hill argued that a lot of contemporary poetry consists merely of pensées (putting his finger squarely on why I dislike Larkin), and that poetry is an annunciation or epiphany, 'not the filtering of one's emotions or opinions into a mellifluous medium'. Difficulty, Hill argued, is a sign of the poet's respect for the reader; he then quoted himself, telling us that 'a banal obviousness is what tyrants desire'. Williams fiercely made the the case that the idea that 'Difficulty = Elitism' is one of our contemporary cultural curses. (I silently cheered.) Hill described himself as a 'hierarchical democrat', saying that this hierachical democracy is also not the same as elitism: a subtle point, with the exciting frisson of the thought-crime about it.

A poet, both men maintained, it one who searches for and makes apparent the 'differentiated depths of things', and both were strong on the importance of poetic technique and formalism. 'Technique' (said Williams) 'is a metaphysical instrument that makes its own discoveries'. He referred to the ferociously complex demands of Welsh strict-metre poetry, in which the very difficulty of the rhymes and consonant-correspondences and vowel-assonance prompts the poet to suppress the unconscious inhibitions upon their imagination. This is precisely what I had meant when I wrote of Dafydd ap Gwilym:

There is constantly a sense of absolute wonder at the multiplicity of the world, and behind that, I sense, a spiritual insight into the profound interconnections and likenesses between things. The very nature of
cynghanedd reflects this: like a kind of Welsh gematria, the shifting of vowels within matrices of consonants inexhaustibly generates new and startling metaphors which betoken the providence of God at work within his Creation.

But I could never have expressed the thought so well as Hill and Williams. Hill drew our attention to a superb definition of poetry by John Berryman, which he told us that he takes as a personal touchstone. Berryman wrote that 'a poem adds to the stock of available reality'. This, Hill argued, is key - when we read a true, successful poem, our very self and our universe rearranges itself slightly, enlarged. (I was reminded of the critic and philosopher Elaine Scarry's dictum that 'How one walks through the world, the endless small adjustments of balance, is affected by the shifting weights of beautiful things.') Too many poems become merely things among other things, objects within the universe rather than things which expand it. Such poems, Hill, only 'add to the stock of available actuality', 'the pile-up plethora of things'.

It was a sober and splendid occasion: the two poets and thinkers together fashioned an abrupt epiphany of their own, a strong palladium against the commodity culture and - the phrase is Hill's - its professionally-opinionated relevance-mongers.


I'm currently reading Barbara Newman's Frauenlob's Song of Songs: A Medieval German Poet and his Masterpiece. (This is for fun: the current non-fun book is German for Reading Knowledge. I've got to the stage where I really have to read German to cut it as a Celticist.)

Frauenlob, or 'Praise of Ladies', (c. 1260-1318) was the stage-name of Heinrich von Meissen, a spectacularly skilled minstrel. His masterpiece is a 500-line poem in 20 stanzas called the Marienleich, a long, ecstatic paean of praise to the Virgin Mary.

Newman - one of the world's most outstanding medieval scholars - has a professional interest in the manifold ways in which feminine imagery was deployed in medieval literature, musical, theology and devotion. Frauenlob's astonishing poem is a superb text for such a scholar to work on; as Newman says in the preface, 'To understand the Marienleich...we must first remember and then forget everything we thought we knew about the medieval cult of the Virgin, for the poem is at once a brilliant consummation of a preexisting genre, the Marienlob (or 'Marian praise'), and a theological and philosophical statement that goes far beyond anything that mainstream devotion, or indeed orthodox theology, had yet conceived.' She provides a text, translation, and a wonderfully lucid commentary, as well as a rich and broad introduction to the poet and his contexts. The book is also accompanied by an hour-long CD of the Marienleich being performed by the Ensemble Sequentia.

The imagery used to praise the Virgin in the poem is drawn from the Sapiential books of the Old Testament, in which God's personified, feminine Wisdom praises herself, but also from the secular lyricism of courtly love, the imagery of 'Natura' in medieval philosophy, the lush, erotic sweetness of Song of Songs and its allegorising commentaries, and the Book of Revelation. It betokens an enormous depth of learning on the part of the poet.

It is also a profoundly perfumed, iridescent work, in which Mary comes for all intents and purposes to be represented as a Christian Goddess, the eternal partner of the Trinity itself. Near the midpoint of the poem, the heavenly Lady declares Ich got, sie got, er got, 'I [am] God, they [are] God, he [is] God', presumably referring to herself, the Trinity, and her son. Later in the poem, she is explicitly said to possess both a human and a divine nature, like Christ. The proclamation of Mary's divinity is wildly heterodox, '[n]o matter how thoroughly divinized the medieval Virgin was in practice', as Newman says. Frauenlob's Marienleich is therefore a fascinating document suggesting how far Marian hyperdulia might stray into latria in the mind of one of her most enraptured devotees at the turn of the 14th century. Below you'll find stanzas 9 and 11 of this wonderful poem; I recommend the book highly.

* * *

I am the great and chosen Lady,
my will is ripe, my desire is mighty.
For fervent love I must unbar
the lattice of my cloister door -
my love all passionate drew near.
His hand caressed me, wet with dew -
O taste of honey through and through!
I ate the comb
and drank the foam
then came back home.
My God, such bliss!
What's the harm in this?

I the weasel bore the ermine
that bit the snake. With moring dew
I split the hard rock of the curse.
My divining rod, unforked,
crushed the heads of hell's black vermin.
When the palm tree of the Cross
saw me, it reddened without dye.
Speak, wise Adam, noble friend,
and tell how I
have come to end
your ancient blight -
I the Maid, by a mother's right.

11. The smith from the high country
hurled his hammer in my womb
and forged seven sacraments.
I carried him who carries earth and sky
and yet am still a maid.
He lay in me and left me without labor.
Most certainly
I slept with Three -
till I grew pregant with God's goodness,
pierced by sweetness upon sweetness.
My ancient lover kissed me,
let this be said:
I gazed at him and made him young -
then all the heavenly hosts were glad.
(The proud Maid's praises must be sung -
let none take it ill!)
He said my breasts were sweeter than wine
and drank his fill -
my Beloved is mine.

How intimate he was with me,
locked in my little room!
Who will lead me to the lily dell
where my courtly lover hid so well?
I am the high court's chamber
where they heard the case of Eva's fall -
I, the echo hall.
Dear friends, remember:
in the music of my dawn, I awoke exalted song;
from ancient night I bring the morn.
I am the Grail
that healed the noble king's great woe.
With my milk I nursed the hero
from the violet vale:
he gave me the antlers of a deer
to drive the curse out of the tent.
I pierced the ancient punishment
with awls, and broke the Fall's
inveterate snare.


On our trip to north-east/mid-Wales over the weekend, Matt and I visited Pistyll Rhaeadr, the hightest waterfall in Britain. At the end of a long valley near Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant ('Waterfallchurch-in-Hogvale') the cataract pours over the rock and plummets for 240 feet, passing through an astonishing natural bridge on the way. At the bottom is a plunge pool, with a deep foaming centre surrounded by a wide area of very shallow water over stones golden with silt. As I approached though the mist, early in the morning, a slim, blonde woman was sitting just by the pool with her feet in the water, wearing a strange, long grey garment, and watching me with calm, ageless eyes. Was this the otherworldly Lady of the Pool, I wondered, and felt very David Jones-ey. (No. She turned out to be Marie, on holiday from Dudley.)

We also visited the rich, melancholy ruins of Valle Crucis, on of the greatest Cisterician abbeys in Wales. Set in a wild valley near Llangollen, the Abbey is eloquent in decay, with some medieval appartments still visitable. At its height, the monks were very successful sheep-farmers, as well as patrons of native Welsh culture, and the place was obviously filthy rich. There was a remarkable selection of gravestones, one commemorating a woman called Dyddgu, 'Dear Day', which was the name of one of Dafydd ap Gwilym's mistresses.

The monastery is called 'Valle Crucis', 'Crossvale', because of the cross that once stood upon the so-called 'Pillar of Eliseg', about 400 yards up the valley. Today, this is a squat column on a little tump or hillock, which was erected in the mid-9th century by Cyngen ap Cadell, the then king of Powys, to honour his great-grandfather Eliseg or Elisedd ap Gwylog. It's in an extremely weathered state - we're missing the bottom half of it, and we only know there was an inscription on it because the great antiquarian Edward Lhuyd copied down what he could make out in 1696. This is vitally useful, because the inscription mentions several people we know about from the Historia Brittonum, written c. 829/30, and tells us a lot about who the kings of Powys at that time thought their ancestors were. (It mentions Magnus Maximus - the Macsen Wledig of Breuddwyt Macsen - and Vortigern, for example.) Looking at it, I would never have guessed it had ever been inscribed.

Geoffrey Hill Reading

On Friday I heard the poet Geoffrey Hill read in the beautiful surroundings of Convocation House, as part of the Oxford Literary Festival. It was a rich experience. Hill’s poetry, which I find by turns both stunning and incomprehensibly crabbed, is remarkable for the sheer impression of mental forcefulness which it conveys. The pressure of mighty thoughts, that kind of thing. It is rooted in the dense intellectualism of the private individual who writes about matters of state, the citizen-thinker, beholden to no one for his opinions. Therefore, it is no wonder that the influence of Milton is strong on Hill, both in titles (Scenes from Comus, A Treatise of Civil Power) and within individual poems.

He was a frail figure – dressed in black, and walking with a stick. He read both from his own work, and from Milton, quite magnificiently. His voice is a thing of wonder: patriarchal sublimity is very out of fashion these days, but it's a rich, sonorous baritone without a hint of over-actorly fruitiness. It's a voice made to read Milton, matching the latter's poetic voice in orotundity. In fact, I always imagine Milton (who, at Cambridge, was know as 'the Lady of Christ's' because of his waifish, feminine good looks) must have had rather a reedy physical voice.

It was splendid stuff, and I reproduce below one of Milton's satirical sonnets, which Hill read with such power. (This one is famously a caudate or 'tailed' sonnet - the standard fourteen lines, then a coda.)

On the New Forcers of Conscience
Under the Long Parliament

BECAUSE you have thrown off your Prelate Lord,
And with stiff vows renounc'd his Liturgy,
To seize the widowed whore Plurality
From them whose sin ye envied, not abhorred,
Dare you for this adjure the civil sword
To force our consciences that Christ set free,
And ride us with a Classic Hierarchy,
Taught ye by mere A.S. and Rutherford?
Men whose life, learning, faith, and pure intent,
Would have been held in high esteem with Paul
Must now be named and printed heretics
By shallow Edwards and Scotch What-d'ye-call.
But we do hope to find out all your tricks,
Your plots and packing, worse than those of Trent,
That so the Parliament
May with their wholesome and preventative shears
Clip your phylacteries, though baulk your ears,
And succor our just fears,
When they shall read this clearly in your charge:
New Presbyter is but old Priest writ large.


Bethan June Phelps

This is the house that years built, dropping soil
from the loose screes. Straddling the hill, the cottage sheds its tiles,
the books begin to corrugate with damp. Home
is the cleft where the earth runs, and a little old thin blood,
home's where the hurt is, white and familiar as a bone.

- Rowan Williams, 'Indoors'

'The Centipede was happy, quite,
until the Toad, in fun,
said: 'Pray, which leg comes after which?',
which put her mind in such a fix,
she lay distracted in a ditch,
considering how to run.'

- June Phelps

I spent most of my teens and early to mid twenties in deep cahoots with a remarkable, difficult woman forty years my senior. It is one of the friendships that has most marked my life, and without it I would be a rather different person. Of all the relationships I've had, this one taught me most about human nature. The lady in question was charismatic and humorous, but also exceptionally manipulative and mendacious; for all that, I'm certainly not innocent in the way things played out.

One of the most important lessons learned with June Phelps (not her real name) was about the terrible pressure human beings who love each other can mutually exert, the pressure of wanting the other person to conform to our idea of what they should be. A wise definition of original sin which I once read (it may be Simone Weil, or Kathleen Raine) is that by our mere existence, without acting and without willing it, we cannot help causing other living beings to suffer dreadfully. Simply by meeting, loving and being loved in return, this woman and I hurt each other badly.

June lived alone in a terraced cottage a hundred yards away from my parents' house in the small, nondescript East Kent village of Downstreet. I met her by accident when I was fourteen and she was in her late fifties. Her wild conversation and exhilarating range of reference were tremendously exciting, and I went over to visit her one afternoon. That was the first of many thousands of usually delightful hours spent with her. June would have been good on the stage, having an innate flair for drama which could be both charming and maddening. Highly intelligent and verbally quick, she had a particularly appealing kind of world-weary wit. ('No good deed goes unpunished', she was fond of saying.) Her speech was characterised by a very large number of circulating catchphrases, which seemed somehow stately and solid to me at first - the mannerism of someone who has worked life out - but eventually seemed hidebound and rickety.

Physically, she was a large, stooped woman who chain-smoked constantly, and she had the collagen-free, parchment-pale skin to prove it. Her hair was a mixture of grey and strawberry blonde, and unusually for a lady of mature years, she kept it long. She had blue, quizzical eyes behind glasses, and always wore a small pair of silver earrings. If I say that she looked rather like Peter O'Toole now does, it would be taken as a lack of chivalry on my part; but she did. She used to tell all listeners that in her youth, she had never 'suffered from the curse of beauty', but that she could do herself up with paint and powder to be 'jaw-droppingly, traffic-stoppingly magnificent.' She once showed me some photos of herself in this blessed estate, and, to be frank, to my eye I'm afraid she looked like Julia Davis playing Fanny Craddock.

The great narrative of June's life was that she was repeatedly the Innocent Victim of Malignant Fate. It didn't seem odd to me in my early teens that she didn't do anything: she sat at home smoking and being a raconteuse. It also didn't strike me how few people she saw: only very rarely, in ten years, did I ever come over the road to visit to find someone else there.

She was the daughter of Welsh parents; her father was a miner. (We had mines in Kent, believe it or not.) Her mother was the local school-teacher, and she still lived in her parents' old house, her childhood home. Her fiancé, an American GI, had been killed in the War; her second partner had been blown up in a tank in Beiruit. Her mother had died two or three years before I met her, having suffered badly from Alzheimer's; caring for her seriously demented parent whilst trying to earn enough to keep both of them had crucified June. After a terrible illness around the time of her mother's eventual death, which she used to hint had been carcinoma of the pancreas, June never worked again and was left partially disabled. She was left in near-poverty, dependent on the State, and suffered dreadfully with M.E./Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

The house, which she rented, was a sight to behold. The sixty-a-day meant that every wall and ceiling was a deep toffee colour, and she used to tell me that she smoked because her multiple allergies meant that she couldn't take any painkillers. Catfood was squashed into the carpets; on every surface an assortment of knick-knacks and sentimental impedimenta hung or stood, deep in dust. (As she used to say, 'Nature abhors a vacuum: - and so do I.') The top bedroom had a hole in the ceiling, and an entire wall was plastered with pictures of boss-eyed kittens cut out of magazines. Justine once found a bowl up there filled with the disarticulated limbs of dozens of dolls. But again, bizarrely, this seems not to have troubled me, and I have difficulty remembering how it appeared.

But June was, above all, a witch and a wisewoman. In my teens I had just read Rae Beth and Marian Green, and lo and behold, here was A Witch Alone, a Hedgewitch, the Solitary who after Thirteen Moons had Mastered Natural Magic. You know the drill: she was wise in the ways of root and stone, listened for the voices of the moon and stars, was sister to dragons and companion to owls, and so following. Attached to the front wall of June's house was a large besom; as you went through her hall there was a little altar on the right at the foot of the stairs. She usually dressed in black, but May would see her breaking into a suitcase of loud, 70s-style kaftans known as the 'summery-mummery'.

June wasn't a pagan witch; she was an odd type of Christian, who appeared mainly to worship St Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. In fact, I think her 'Witchiness' was a concoction of deeply-held faith, loneliness, affectation, and Terry Pratchett. She could be wonderfully theatrical, and this meshed well with her penchant for giving herself occult airs. (Letters were often signed 'The Sibyl of Downstreet'.) She also had a magnificent voice, capable of numerous registers and accents, most amusing. Her alarming ability to become her voices was pressed home to me at a friend's wedding reception, where, upon meeting an elderly Irish gentleman at the bar, she suddenly came the headscarfed Sean Bhean Bhocht and switched into a pitch-perfect Irish accent. It was embarrassing, and left the elderly gentleman nonplussed. Truly, she had missed her calling.

A huge amount of the time I spent with June involved her garden. Originally a thorny, overgrown mess, I slowly transformed it over about five years into a really very pretty cottage garden. It would be normal for me to go over and work in her garden all morning and afternoon, until about three, when she used to get up. (Her sleep pattern was disturbed as a legacy of her illness, so that she would stay up till 5am then sleep in till three or four in the afternoon.) She used to be quite a sight upon waking: dressed in a voluminous, blue baby-doll nightie from which her frail, worryingly thin legs stuck out, her fingernails would occasionally be painted scarlet, and her hair sat skewiff on her head like a stuffed silver tabby.

Some of the happiest moments of my life, and, I suspect, hers, were spent in the garden. I filled it with foxgloves and bluebells, sweet dame's violet and golden hop. There were newts and a frog in the pond I dug. From somewhere, I found her an old iron washtub, which looked perfect as a weed-filled cauldron in the front garden. I particularly remember summer evenings when it would be light until nine, and June would stand, fag on the go as always, pegging out washing while I clipped the honeysuckle or watered the tubs and tin baths filled with morning glory and mimosa. The smell of the honeysuckle mixed with wet summer dust, cut grass and cigarette smoke.

She was always there with tea (bag stewing in the cup, glossy with the fat of gold-top milk), fags, and an offbeat perspective, whatever my divers alarums. For much of my teens, I worked in a New Age shop in Canterbury, and June was persuaded to teach a series of evening classes there on Witchcraft each autumn for about three years. (This all seems so weird now.) This was a massive undertaking, given her unbelievable capacity for inertia and melancholy stasis. Indeed, more than anyone else I have ever met, she was able to embody entropy. But once a week, she used to come into Canterbury, dressed in black and multiply beringed, to instruct a group of women (it usually was women) in 'The Craft'. I was never allowed to attend these, for reasons that will become apparent later. But I could hear her cackling from downstairs, and it's fair to say that she worked hard and produced lots of material. (She used to enjoy lubriciously anointing a candle with essential oil for a spell, explaining that 'the ladies will be familiar with the technique.') Sometimes, of course, her basic absence of knowledge was painfully apparent, and some people who attended those classes were turned off; others, however, were inspired with real and lasting affection. One of the people to come to those erratic classes was Justine, which is how she and I met. Before long, not only Justine but her whole immediate family were regular, and immensely kind, visitors to June Towers.

I need to stress here that there was genuine delight in each other's existence between June and me. It was all a bit Harold and Maude, but from the inside it felt more like Simon Callow's Love is Where it Falls, his memoir of the theatrical agent Peggy Ramsay. (A book which I contemplated giving her, but never did: to have drawn attention to the parallels would have been presumptuous.) In thousands of hours of conversation, and occasional arthritic adventures to London or Faversham, there were certainly dull moments, when I was self-obsessed and mournful, or she repetitive and reactionary. However, many, many times her Leo moon came to the fore, and she was able to pull off a magnificent performance, whether tottering around the (ghastly) Witchfest in Croydon, flirting with an elderly Odinist, or once destroying a wailing fire-alarm simply by smashing it from the ceiling with her walking stick. Over a decade, we exchanged hundreds of letters, which I have in a yellowing sheaf at home.

June was, however, an extremely dirigiste friend. She regarded her role, always, as the dispenser of advice, not to be suggested, but imposed. Often it was valuable, but equally often it was utter rubbish. (She would be bitterly jealous whenever I was in a relationship; once in a letter I sent her a snap of a cute Californian I was seeing, and she wrote on the back 'Pretty - but not for you.') This became very irritating: she was unable to adapt to the fact that I'd grown up and was an intelligent adult in my own right, and didn't need counsel in the way she provided it. I was very useful: I ran errands, did her garden, and eventually - along with friends - redecorated three quarters of that terrible house. Between us, we provided a colour telly, washing machine, VCR, and freezer. She'd been doing all her laundry by hand before this.

She would never ask for any of these things; it would always be expressed something like this - 'Oh. If only I had a colour television, I could watch all those wonderful gardening programmes - there's no point watching them when you can't see the colours.' For about a year, from say 2002-3, her house looked great. The hall, which had had black bags for carpeting, had crisp black and white lino tiles. June chose a marvellously tasteful shade called 'antique white' for the walls and ceiling, which looked very well. The dining room floor was stripped, sanded, and stained mahogany; a friend provided a fine Persian rug for nothing. For the walls she chose an apricot colour, with white woodwork. Everything was carefully cleaned. In the hearth, there was a defunct but handsome iron stove, on which sat a black pottery cauldron I'd made for her (originally for me) in GCSE Art. Above it there hung a wand, made for her by a local witch to whom I had introduced her. It had a crystal at the end and was made out of an old walking stick. Not my taste, but she treasured it. Briefly, things seemed to be coming together, and there were happy days when June's persistent tendency to pessimism and gloom lifted, and the house seemed light and airy, and the garden filled with flowers. In retrospect, those brief two years were the highpoint, never reattained.

Stories were always June's metier. But before we go all Jeanette Winterson and start talking about the liberating reality of fictions, let me say that the beginning of the end was the realisation that June - far from being a wisewoman witch of rich experience and wisdom - was in fact a fantasist of the first order. This became apparent only gradually. She spoke of a huge range of friends: Michael and Derek, a gay couple of her age who lived in French château with a menagerie of animals, for example; or Norma, who was a figure rather like June squared, her own wisewoman and elder 'Sister in the Craft', who would ring her every day to dispense advice and psychic comfort.

One day, it suddenly became apparent to Justine and me that none of these people actually existed. Lest you think us very naive indeed, June was adept at giving such long, blow-by-blow descriptions of these people, their houses, relations and lives - even their furniture - that one simply assumed their existence. After a bout of (self-induced) illness in 2003, it was impossible to conceal that none of these 'dear friends' rushed to her hospital bedside, nor did she ask for them to be contacted.

At this point, it all began to unravel. I went through everything June had said in the previous ten years, reweighing it sceptically. Most of it was possible; much was unlikely. The really horrible thing was the realisation that lots of her experiences fell into 'types' - Meeting the Famous Person, for example (Liz Taylor, Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi); Being Recognised as a Witch in Public by a Sister in the Craft; the Peculiar Journey (being driven through Victoria Station on one of the luggage trolleys, being trapped with a High Court Judge drunk in a rowboat on the Thames); and so on. Elements of the plots of films she had just seen would appear as events in her past. Many of these tall tales were in rather poor taste: her regular rushes up to London to tend at the bedsides of dying AIDS patients at The Lighthouse, telling people that my friends from University rang her for advice every weekend, for example. What had seemed like endless variety and incident suddenly seemed very flat and rather tragic. Again it must be stressed that she wasn't demented: she always remained highly articulate and able to stay more or less on top of hundreds of details of an entire fictional life. It was all, she would say, with heavy irony, 'part of Life's rich pageant.'

The cruellest thing I did to her was the most unintentional, which was to take her confabulations for the truth, and introduce her to people with the burden of those expectations placed upon her. The classes must have been a huge strain, as she knew that she was no expert, and yet had to live up to her own hype as the magical wisewoman before a roomful of paying strangers. It was also less than helpful in the long run to have redecorated her house, as it confirmed her unconscious predisposition to believe that she could get anything she wanted by playing the plucky old lady laid low by the 'Fickle Finger of Fate'. Much of my time was spent talking her down from whichever high-point of hysteria she had worked herself up into.

Story after story unravelled silently as I sat listening to her. My grandmother, who had known June for twenty-five years, revealed that her mother had in fact not had Alzheimer's (it was actually shingles). June's own 'pancreatic cancer' was unlikely, as the remission rate is less than 2%. The original spell in hospital c. 1990 seemed more likely to have been some kind of nervous breakdown, perhaps induced by heavy drinking and depression. As for the American GI fiancé, my grandmother pointed out that June had in fact been aged nine at the end of WWII. June had often mentioned her career spent 'defending people in court', and that had led me to assume that she had been a lawyer or a paralegal. It turned out that she had been a legal secretary in a firm of solicitors in Canterbury, but she lost her job because a sum of money mysteriously went missing, and she was lucky to avoid prosecution. Further, my mother (a retired doctor) visited June during her brief stay in hospital in 2002, and said it was absolutely clear from basic observation that most of her statements about her disabilities, allergies and frail health were poppycock, and largely the result of smoking sixty a day and eating badly. She tolerated certain drugs perfectly well which she had told people endlessly would kill her, so violently allergic was she. As a result of all this, I am deeply sceptical about M.E. as a supposed illness - I know that there is some medical evidence that it's a biological disease, and not just an all-too-easy pose struck by malingering hysterics; but June was, in fact, a malingering hysteric, and she certainly found her 'illness' highly convenient at times.

Gradually, this woman who had based her character on the ability to be restlessly inventive and infintely experienced lost the ability to create new material. Talking to her became like wandering though a lumber-room of masks, which we all knew to be fictive but which she presented as merely discarded. The jeweller, the cordon-bleu chef, the professional tailor, the drug-and-alcohol counsellor, the dancer, the director, the pilot (!), the WI chairwoman, the mistress, the wisewoman-witch and the cancer-survivor - all were revealed as hollow. As I grew up, June's faux-naive mannerisms became more and more painful, as I began to understand that she essentially had (according to the psychiatric jargon) Hysterical Personality Disorder. It was as though behind her speech one could always hear the rhythms of a nursery-rhyme, the neglected little girl craving attention through fantastic dramas and feigned illnesses. I couldn't bear to go and see her regulary for over a year, as I adjusted, often expressing extremes of resentment and anger to friends. I felt that I'd been manipulated, lied to and taken for granted, used for my hard-work and what my wages could buy. Eventually, in 2005, I sent her a letter saying that I couldn't see her again, but not spelling out the reasons why. Self-marooned, and having no choice but to stick with her lifelong confabulations, she would not have been able to understand.

It was, for all that, a love affair of epic proportions for both of us. I know I've written as though she is dead; she isn't. We have not spoken in three years (although last year I received a completely blank birthday card from her). My feelings have softened into something sadder and less angry. I must be one of any number of lost friends that June has littered around the place; certainly, hardly anyone in the village speaks to her. After the split had become generally known, one of my grandmother's friends said to me: 'We didn't want to force you to hear something you didn't want to. We knew you had to find out for yourself what she's like.' I know she will never forgive me, but I've forgiven her, and can look at her with more compassion now. Tragically, she would refer to unfortunate individuals as 'one of those people with whom you have to take a world of trouble: and then wonder why you bothered.' She never realised she was describing herself.

She was fond of saying that she wanted to get her French back up to scratch, just to go across the Channel, as, after all, she wasn't 'going to be reading Colette in the original.' And a quotation from Pierre Trahard on Colette (see photo above) will serve to sum up June's ultimately life-enhancing influence on me. She taught me that fictions and fantastic scenarios can often bring us closer to ourselves and who we might be than the simple truth; one of her favourite phrases was 'judge not', and Trahard's words, then, must serve as a sad, salutary envoi.

The day will come when people will 'psychoanalyse' Colette. May it not bring us truths with are too disappointing, along with over-pretentious mistakes! In the meantime, let us be content with the outside. It is full of sap and savour; it does not lie. Mistrustful sceptics will ask: Is this a true portrait? The answer will be: Ask Colette; and she may not know. In any case, it is in harmony with her work. Even if it offers us a half-legendary Colette, let us console ourselves; it is the Colette that will endure, and therefore it is the real one.

Pasolini's Medea

Some kind individual has put up a few sections from Pier Paolo Pasolini's magnificent 1969 film Medea on YouTube. It's one of my favourite films, with its anthropologically-rich design and eerie, oneiric atmosphere. And, of course, the stupendous Maria Callas playing Medea, here represented as the charismatic priestess of some Anatolian mother-cult straight out of The Golden Bough. It's one of cinema's most interesting responses to the classical world and its literature, lifting great chunks of dialogue straight from Euripides' Medea.

Above are two sections. The first is the opening scene in Colchis, in which Medea, as the community's high priestess, sacrifices a young man as an offering to the harvest-gods. The people, including little children, hold out wooden bowls in which to receive gobbets of his bleeding flesh to smear on their growing crops. The second shows the arrival of Jason and the Argonauts into this unearthly Cappadocian landscape of pointy stone hills honeycombed with caves. About halfway though, we see the everyday life of the community - the spinning of wool, pressing of wine and the preparing of food, all the rituals of 'womens' religion'; finally, Medea is ceremonially dressed by her women and must walk through fire with bound hands, as a ritual expiation of the yearly human sacrifice which she has overseen.

If you watch nothing else, look at the second half of the second excerpt. The depiction of a hieratic, unsettling paganism is extraordinary; I especially love the costumes, with their bead-encrusted lapis-lazuli vestments, golden necklaces and filmy veils. The soundtrack, with its mixture of Bulgarian women's folksong, Tibetan bangs and growls and sizzling cicadas, contributes greatly to the disturbing, hallucinatory defamiliarisation that the film brings about. Forget the campiness of The Wicker Man - a film inexplicably loved by a lot of modern Pagans - this is the real thing.

* * *

There is a useful essay here by Molly Haskell on the film. She writes, most lucidly: 'In reconstructing the world of Colchis, with its cave dwellings in tiers of stone, its ritual of human sacrifice, dismemberment, and "re-cycling of limbs and organs," its magic and incantations, Pasolini attempts to recapture a sense of the strangeness and wholeness of nature before it was called "natural." The world of Colchis is not so much prehistoric as preconceptual, its houses and vegetation and animals and human beings forming an unbroken chain of life and death.

A link in this chain and its crowning glory is Medea. To the role Maria Callas brings the magnificence not of an actress seeking modulation and motivation, but of an image, emblazoned across the film like a medallion. For Pasolini, Medea is not an individual woman with inner conflicts and complexes, but the quintessence of a primeval civilization which, even as she betrays and abandons it, hacking her own brother to pieces to delay the pursuers, she most clearly embodies, and which clings to her tragically in her new home.'

The Beeb

The Beeb (BBC for American readers) came to do some filming at Jesus College Oxford the other day, and to interview yours truly about the career of Edward Lhuyd, the father of Celtic Philology, and one of the greatest scholars and antiquarians of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. (He died in 1707). Lhuyd was a student in law at Jesus, before becoming assistant to Dr Plot, the first Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum.

It was a very odd experience, and all in Welsh. It's for a documentary which will be broadcast in May called 'O Flaen dy Lygaid' (In Front of Your Eyes), and which was essentially a 'Who Do you Think You Are?' show about what makes someone a Celt.

The crew were absolutely charming - I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, although - Welsh readers be warned - my responses weren't as fluent as I would have liked. Still, it'll more or less be comprehensible I hope. I was described as an 'arbennigwr mewn ieithoedd Celtaidd', 'an expert in Celtic languages', which is probably pushing it a bit far.

We sat in the gorgeous Jesus College Fellows' Library, full of centuries-old leatherbound books, while I was asked questions about p and q Celtic, the idea that the Celts are a myth, Celtic languages, and so on. The results will be faintly comic.

As my partner commented, 'The camera adds ten pounds.'

Sheila Chandra

This is the music video for Sheila Chandra's version of the Scottish folksong, McCrimmon's Lament. (Chandra is most famous for her single 'Ever So Lonely' back in the 1980s, with Asian-Fusion band Monsoon. As her website's biography says of her current popularity, rather starkly: 'Not much interest in the UK now or formerly except with singles. None at all in India.')

But I love the song, partly because its musical fusion of east and west illustrates the idea that Gaelic and Indian traditions have much in common, which was very popular in Academe fifty or so years ago. (As a concept, it's a great deal less fashionable these days, and is basically agreed now to have been misguided.) But in musical terms, the shared technique of using drones and half or quarter notes is immediately clear and makes for a beautiful cross-cultural encounter. Chandra, who is from London, adopts a very wierd Scottish accent. She wanders around by a loch, half the time decked out in a fetching turquoise sari, and the other half of the time wafting around in white and leaning down on the moss to do something vaguely pantheistic and pre-Raphaelite by a foaming burn.

I also like it because the wistful, campy mixture of Ganges Dawn and Celtic Twilight would have been instantly familiar to my hero, Yeats' friend George Russell, also known as AE. Russell was a genuine visionary who wrote the most awful tripe about Irish mythology in the 1890's, after overdosing on Theosophy under Mme Blavatsky. (His attempts to find analogues to the third eye, Yoga, and the Upanishads in Irish medieval tales are hilarious in their misplaced sobriety.) But he had a huge heart, great practicality, and tremendous kindness. So this one's for AE.

Round Cuillin's peak the mist is sailing
The banshee croons her note of wailing
But my blue e'en wi' sorrow are streaming
For him that will never return - McCrimmon

No more, no more, no more forever
In war or peace shall return McCrimmon
No more, no more, no more forever
Shall love or gold bring back McCrimmon

The breezes on the braes are mournfully moaning
The brook in the hollow is plaintively mourning
But my blue e'en wi' sorrow are streaming
For him that will never return - McCrimmon

No more, no more, no more forever
In war or peace shall return McCrimmon
No more, no more, no more forever
Shall love or gold bring back McCrimmon

Hath the Rain a Father..?

I was staying in Cambridge the night before last for an interview, enjoying the excellent hospitality and kindness of a good friend of a good friend. My learned host and I were discussing books that had formed us late that night, and he mentioned Mary Midgley's Beast and Man. He read out the final, powerful paragraphs to me, which included the most wonderful quotation from the Book of Job. Job made little impact upon the early medieval mind (except for Gregory the Great's massive Moralia in Iob), so I'm not familiar with it; but I was stunned by its wierd, uncanny brilliance and beauty. And so here it is, in the King James Version.

38:22 Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow? or hast thou seen the treasures of the hail, 38:23 Which I have reserved against the time of trouble, against the day of battle and war? 38:24 By what way is the light parted, which scattereth the east wind upon the earth? 38:25 Who hath divided a watercourse for the overflowing of waters, or a way for the lightning of thunder; 38:26 To cause it to rain on the earth, where no man is; on the wilderness, wherein there is no man; 38:27 To satisfy the desolate and waste ground; and to cause the bud of the tender herb to spring forth? 38:28 Hath the rain a father? or who hath begotten the drops of dew? 38:29 Out of whose womb came the ice? and the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it? 38:30 The waters are hid as with a stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.

38:31 Canst thou bind the sweet influences of the Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion? 38:32 Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth* in his season? or canst thou guide Arcturus with his sons? 38:33 Knowest thou the ordinances of heaven? canst thou set the dominion thereof in the earth? 38:34 Canst thou lift up thy voice to the clouds, that abundance of waters may cover thee? 38:35 Canst thou send lightnings, that they may go and say unto thee, Here we are? 38:36 Who hath put wisdom in the inward parts? or who hath given understanding to the heart? 38:37 Who can number the clouds in wisdom? or who can stay the bottles of heaven, 38:38 When the dust groweth into hardness, and the clods cleave fast together? 38:39 Wilt thou hunt the prey for the lion? or fill the appetite of the young lions, 38:40 When they couch in their dens, and abide in the covert to lie in wait? 38:41 Who provideth for the raven his food? when his young ones cry unto God, they wander for lack of meat....41:1 Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook?

* What Mazzaroth is or are is subject to dispute - possibly a constellation, or a planet, or the twelve signs of the zodiac itself.

The Welsh equivalent - the majestic and sonorous 1588 Morgan Bible - can be viewed through the National Library of Wales website, and this passage is most beautifully rendered. 'A aethost ti i dryssorau'r eira : neu a weli di dryssorau y cenllysc?...A oes dad i'r glaw : neu phwy a genhedlodd defnynnau'r gwlith? O groth pwy daeth yr ia allan?'

Love Resurection

More brilliant trash. (I see now why this blog gets termed 'eclectic' and 'eccentric'!). This is the video for Alison Moyet's Love Resurrection, and what a bit of desert-bound, Orientalist tat it is. I always get it mixed up mentally with a terribly camp 1984 ad for Fry's Turkish Delight - 'full of eastern promise' - in which a big scimitar comes down, slicing open the gooey pink fondant.

Alison Moyet, big of voice and bone, emerges from a Bedouin tent looking rather like Gary Barlow in a burqa. She then proceeds to wander around the dunes performing everyday, homely Bedouin tasks - carrying water, sitting about, that kind of thing - whilst singing the most trashily filthy lyrics. She needs a 'warm injection' and 'for you to grow in my hand', etc etc.

Now, were I Camille Paglia*, I might go on about how this video clearly draws on the ancient fertility traditions of the pre-Islamic Middle-East, evoking the sumptuous world of Sumerian poetry, in which fertility and sexuality are sensuously enwoven, casting Moyet as full-figured Canaanite Ishtar. ('What seed must I sow / To replenish this barren land?')

According to this tongue-in-cheek reading, the 'Love Resurrection' of the title would of course be the resurrection of Adonis/Dummuzi/Tammuz, the dying-and-rising lover of Aphrodite-Inanna-Ishtar. I might add that the lyrics' blurring of ejaculation, falling rain, and the restoration of cosmic fecundity recalls Zeus and Hera's lovemaking-scene in Iliad 14**, and Paglia would no doubt opine that the complex polyrhythms of disco have their origins in primitive earth-cult. Tammuz is of course a shepherd, and the mysterious image of a goat's face reflected onto the rocks appears repeatedly during the video. This seems to be linked to the little clay goat's head which Moyet fashions, whilst looking towards the menfolk of the tribe with an unreadable expression. She then crumbles it into dust. Is she perhaps performing a spell, drawing on women's mysterious ability to control fertility, and thus taking arms against a sea of patriarchy, hitting them where it hurts?

Moyet trudges through the Yemen in a veil looking like a dispirited black stingray. Her 'little, snow-white feet' look comically tiny beneath her top-heavy bulk. Paglia might also notice the clever way in which Moyet lolls on a carpet (probably knackered after all that collecting firewood and carding wool) looking exactly like the prehistoric 'Sleeping Priestess of Malta', from c. 4000BC, pictured above. This little statuette is often adopted by adherents of feminist spirituality as a symbol of women's sacral power and closeness to the unconscious during the Neolithic. The video ends with an image of a man praying towards Mecca, followed by Moyet wandering out into the desert and raising her veil to the moon and evening sky: ancient feminine mysteries trumping male monotheism. (Or something.)

* * *

* And thank God I'm not, because, in the words of Victoria Wood's magnificent Kitty, 'I should never get any rummy played.'

** 'Therewith the son of Cronos clasped his wife in his arms, and beneath them the divine earth made fresh-sprung grass to grow, and dewy lotus, and crocus, and hyacinth, thick and soft, that upbare them from the ground. Therein lay the twain, and were clothed about with a cloud, fair and golden, wherefrom fell drops of glistering dew.'


This is one of those blogposts which I dithered about writing. Not to put too fine a point on it, a few years ago I became very interested in one of J. R. R. Tolkien’s invented languages, which I still find by far the most gripping aspect of his legendarium. (Fantasy! Elves! Oh Christ - readers who would rather I said something about Early Byzantine art, or offered a Freudian reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or wittered about Kant, had just better switch off now.)

Being the kind of child who always wanted to know what things mean and where they come from, and thus having a very male fondness for structure, pattern and systematisation, Tolkien’s uncannily realistic artificial languages captured my imagination. (Considering my life for a second – strong friendships, a sense of proportion, and a commitment to humanistic education – I reassure myself that I’m probably not anywhere on the Asperger’s spectrum, despite my rampant obsessionalism.*) So let’s press on.

Tolkien, who was a philologist of astounding skill, made up languages throughout his life. (As his friend C. S. Lewis said, ‘it was as if he had been inside language’.) By the time he had written The Lord of the Rings, two of these languages had reached a vast level of order and complexity, easily enough for him to compose texts in them. As he repeatedly explained to incredulous correspondents, the languages were the reason for the stories, not the other way round. The languages came first.

The two most complex of his languages are called ‘Quenya’ and ‘Sindarin’, and form part of a family of languages descending from ancestral language, ‘Primitive Quendian’, or what we might call Proto-Elvish. Though Tolkien devised Dwarfish and Mannish languages too, it was the languages of his immortal, beautiful elves which clearly most preoccupied him. Quenya and Sindarin are thus related, but distantly, having developed among two very widely separated groups of Elves, according to the backstory of the mythos. Tolkien carefully elaborated their vocabulary, tracing the two languages’ descent from the proto-language from a system of ‘roots’. He did this – and this is the point – with such skill and verisimilitude that his languages are analysable with the tools of historical linguistics.

Both languages are designed – as Tolkien specifically said – to be ‘distinctively European in style and structure (not in detail.)’ Quenya resembles Finnish in phonological and grammatical ‘style’, whereas Sindarin resembles Welsh. Ah, there, you see – Welsh. My absolute linguistic first love. Tolkien knew (medieval) Welsh very well, purchasing John Morris-Jones’s A Welsh Grammar when he was an undergraduate at Exeter College, Oxford. Welsh ‘pierced my linguistic heart’, as he wrote, and I had exactly the same experience at a similar age. Sindarin, by far my favourite of the two main Elvish languages, is, in part, a wonderfully complex, lifelong homage to the Welsh language.

The most important thing to get across about Sindarin is the phonaesthetic element behind its creation. It, like Quenya, is designed to be supremely beautiful to the ear. Tolkien found Welsh extraordinarily lovely, a judgement which I share wholeheartedly, and his artificial language has the ‘feel’ of Welsh, as well as its own distinctive quality. (It’s noticeable that the sound –ll-, the famous raspy Welsh double –l, is very much rarer in Sindarin than Welsh. He also specified that the vowel –i- had a slightly longer value than in Welsh, always being more like English –ee-.) The overall effect is of an exquisite fusion of Welsh and Italian.

But Sindarin isn’t cod-Welsh or any kind of knock-off. Almost no words are the same in the two languages, though because the phonologies are almost identical there are numerous words that look identical, but which have different meanings. (For example, nîdh, ‘honeycomb’ (S), is pronounced identically to W Nudd, the father of the mythological character Gwynn ap Nudd. A few are reminiscent: o means ‘from’ in both languages; a means ‘and’ in both; S nand, ‘valley’, resembles W nant of the same meaning. But these are uncommon.) The level of design is astonishingly intricate. Tolkien seems to have worked, as it were, from both ends simultaneously. He made a list of roots, usually of the form consonant-vowel-consonant, which he added to continually. These roots could then be elaborated into words using a number of suffixes, prefixes, and so on, just as historical linguists analyse words in Indo-European, but in reverse. These roots reflect the very ancient words coined by the first elves, but are not quite themselves words. Tolkien then applied a massively complex sequence of sound-changes to these ‘proto-words’, tracing their imagined development through Old Sindarin and Middle Sindarin, until he was satisfied that he had the ‘real’ Sindarin word.

For example, the primitive Elvish root √G-LIB, ‘slippery substance’ gave Sindarin glaew, ‘salve’ (from OS glaibe) and glûdh, ‘soap’ (from OS glūdā, then in turn from gljūdā, older gliudā, back to *glibdā). The latter shows a primitive noun-suffix –dā added to the root; the former doesn’t, giving two different looking words of different meanings. This is exactly how ‘real’ languages work. For a sample of selected vocabulary, go here, which is a slightly out of date discussion of the language.

By his death, Tolkien had elaborated more than twelve thousand words. (Twelve thousand!)

Sometimes he seems to have worked the other way round, ‘hearing’ a fully-formed word and than having to chase it backwards to get to its ancestral root. The whole process is about as far from ‘just making words up’ as can be imagined, and Sindarin has to be called, not an ‘artificial’ language, but a simulated one. In the amazing array of words he devised, Tolkien came up with terms for ‘sudden move’ (rinc), ‘stunted’ (naug), ‘the sound of bells’ (nellad), ‘kingfisher’ (heledirn, literally ‘fish-watcher’) and ‘virginity’ (gweneth).

Indeed, Sindarin and Elvish in general is particularly full of words which somehow feel appropriate, that taste in the mind like the thing they denote. (Go here for a taster of the lexicon of both languages.) I especially like gorgoroth, 'extreme horror', and rhîw, 'winter'. (Reminiscent of Welsh rhew, 'frost'.) Glawar is a wonderful word for 'sunlight', and naneth is just right for 'mother'. (Presumably elf-children called their mothers nana, 'mum'.) Pethron strikes my ear as spot on for 'narrator', and mithren is perfect for 'grey'. Gannada- ,'to play a harp' is lovely, but not as lovely as tinúviel, 'nightingale', literally 'daughter of twilight'. Bizarrely, toloth sounds so right to me for 'the number eight' that I've caught myself accidentally saying it instead of wyth when speaking Welsh. Other favourites are alagos, 'storm of wind', daedelu, 'canopy', and the exquisite gwilwileth, 'butterfly'.

Tolkien closely echoed the Welsh system of consonant mutations, fitting his language out with soft mutation, nasal mutation, stop mutation, liquid mutation and (perhaps) a mixed mutation, each with its intricate ‘historical’ justification. He devised prepositions, several hundred verbs, adjectives, adverbs, exclamations and conjunctions. Forms in his papers are carefully, donnishly marked as ‘poetic’, ‘archaic’, ‘dialectical’, and so on. There are irregular verbs and analogical forms. There are lexical borrowings and a handful of mysterious, unanalysable words.

So can one actually speak it?

Here lies the rub. It seems never to have occurred to Tolkien that other people might take an interest in his private hobby (he went to far as to call it a ‘vice’) after his death. Thus he never put the grammar of any of his languages into a final form, and continued to vacillate and tinker with quite important aspects of the grammar and vocabulary right into the last weeks of his life. He also seems to have written surprisingly little in it - the entire known corpus of texts in Sindarin would fit on two pages of A4. It’s thus important to state that, in a sense, not even Tolkien could speak Sindarin, because it was never finished.

This hasn’t stopped people, and a young linguist named David Salo has published A Gateway to Sindarin, which is a charmingly bizarre, and very learned, grammar of the language, complete with historical phonology, very much like Morris-Jones’ Welsh Grammar which the young Tolkien read with such delight. (A well-informed review is available here.) Salo was responsible for the Elvish dialogues in the Lord of the Rings films, which added so much to the atmosphere of Peter Jackson’s trilogy. People regularly attempt to compose poetry and prose in Sindarin, and I’ve tried my hand at it myself, inspired by that wonderful line in Ulysses, 'the heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit':

A menel-‘aladh elenath
‘lingannen sí an adanath
na if luin a fuinui,
dannar lemmaid velthin vîdhui,
uin ylf chaer chelegremmin,
taethol nerdh im in elin.

O heaven-tree of stars
(hung now for men
with fruit blue and night-dark)
golden dewy voices are falling
from your distant ice-enwoven branches,
threading knots between the stars.

Ain't it twee.

However, there are massive problems with this kind of thing. The first is vocabulary. Tolkien’s papers, including most of his writings on his languages, remain unpublished, and only emerge into the light of day at a tormentingly slow rate. Very often, one lacks a perfectly ordinary word, such as ‘strange’ or ‘beginning’, or even 'before' or 'after'. We have, for example, almost no numbers above ten. Often, historical linguistics can ride to the rescue, and one can use Tolkien’s own system of roots, and equivalent words in his other Elvish languages, to come up with a logical Sindarin equivalent. For example, we know the Quenya word for ‘therefore’ was etta; the Sindarin one should be *eth, but that is completely unattested. We know that the word for 'leg' in Quenya was telco; it should be telch in Sindarin, but there is no reason why a resurrected Tolkien might not look at our use of telch as 'leg' in disgust and say: ‘Telch, indeed the cognate of Quenya telco, was used only for the downstroke in a letter when writing with a pen, the 'leg' of the character, as it were. The word for a bodily leg was tudh.’ (Or rhasal. Or elmath. Or whatever he liked.) In other words, though we can reconstruct entirely logical new words based on the extant roots and cognates, we are instantly thereby writing 'Neo-Sindarin' or even 'pseudo-Sindarin', because the only person who could tell us whether such a word were valid or not has been dead for thirty years.

Further, the grammar has huge gaps in it. We have hardly any of the verb 'to be'. Until this year, no one knew what the 2nd singular person verbal ending was. People had hypothesised –ch, -g, or –l (-ch was used in the films). Then a new tranche of Tolkien’s papers was edited and made available, and it turned out that there were two: a polite form, ending –g, and an informal form, ending in –dh. The ending –ch did in fact exist; but it turned out that it was the 2nd person dual formal form, ‘you two…’ The verbal system was both much more complicated and rather different from what we had thought, on the basis of the pitifully small number of examples which were attested before last year. The Sindarin verb, it was revealed, had dual as well as singular and plural inflections, and there were at least four ways in which the past tense could be formed, depending on the verbal class, and whether the verb in question was transitive or intransitive. Also in this new bundle of material, we learned of a whole slew of hitherto unknown words, including a verb ‘to have’, at long last. (It was sevin.) The lack of a word for ‘if’ is particularly annoying.

Further, we remain very short on pronouns, and could do with more explicit material about the forms of adverbs and the comparison of adjectives, as, at present, we don’t know how to do ‘good, better, best’. In this area, a form occuring in LOTR led us up the garden-path: Elrond refers to Tom Bombadil - Tolkien's most irritating creation - as Iarwain ben-adar, 'oldest and fatherless'. We know that pen-adar must mean 'without father', and Iarwain contains a reduced form of the adjective iaur, 'old'. But the -wain was mysterious, and given Elrond's gloss, many took it to be a superlative suffix equivalent to English -est. So people started creating forms like celegwain, 'swiftest', from celeg, 'swift'. The trouble is, -wain looks very odd, and it was suggested by some bright spark that it might in fact be the adjective (g)wain, 'new, young'; hence Iarwain would literally be 'Old-young', 'One who is ancient yet has not aged', hence Elrond's not-very-accurate translation, 'oldest'. An unpublished letter of Tolkien's from 1968 showed this surmise to be absolutely correct, and the useful superlative suffix -wain had to be consigned to the bin. Quenya suggests that there would be one intensive form made by prefixing an intensifier an- to an adjective; used attributively this would be the comparative, and used with a following genitive it would be the superlative; e.g., adan geleg, 'a swift man', adan angeleg, 'a swifter man', angeleg in edain, 'the swiftest of the men, the fastest man'. This is vaguely similar to the way the Gaelic languages do the comparison of adjectives, incidentally. But even so, judging by the Indo-European tongues, the intensified forms of adjectives like 'good', 'bad', 'big', little' etc. are unlikely to be regular: compare Latin bonus, melior, optimus, Welsh da, gwell, gorau, 'good, better, best'.

As in all communities of tiny specialisms, there are nasty spats. As Gore Vidal said of student politics, the arguments are so vicious only because the stakes are so small. It’s much resented that the Tolkien estate will release the linguistic papers only to the small group who publish the journal Parma Eldalamberon, who seem to look down rather on people who attempt to compose in Tolkien’s languages. (Often with some logic.) Their leisurely pace of editing is a notorious frustration, especially as the material they possess can, as shown above, utterly transform our understanding of the language(s) overnight. Around the time when David Salo was working on his grammar, the editors of Parma Eldalamberon chose to release, for example, a delightful bit of lore about the nicknames Elf-children used for the fingers and thumb. Charming, of course, but at the same time, they were sitting on a much fuller account of the verb system than any in the public domain, which they chose not to edit for another couple of years.

So. A harmless hobby for a harmless drudge; and I tend to think of it as a homeopathic dose of philology - a drop of made-up grammar steels the mental immune system to cope with the grammar and phonology of Middle Welsh and Old Irish. It’s like sudoku for the linguist – totally non-functional, but terribly involving if you have that kind of mind. What I like about it is the idea that the hidden texture of language itself - grammar, syntax, phonology - can be an art-medium, quite abstracted from anything actually written in that language. 'Philological Beauty' - the Greeks should have had a muse for it. What is remarkable is that one only has to lay down a fairly small number of 'rules' before the inherent forces of linguistics start generating ever more beautiful and ever more complex matter. So it becomes like discovering, rather than inventing, a language. Something rather similar occurs with people who try to revive Cornish; they have to invent new words, for concepts and objects which didn't exist in 1776 when the last speaker expired, but they also have to supply words which must have existed but which haven't happened to have been preserved in the corpus. From Welsh rhath and Breton razh we know with certainty that the Cornish word for 'rat' was rath - but it doesn't survive anywhere. Similarly, it's very likely that 'to praise' was *daetha in Sindarin, because that would be the philologically-justified cognate of Quenya laita, both from Proto-Elvish *daitā and assuming that the stem is Sindarin was augmented with a common verbal suffix -ta.

And, of course, as Tolkien intended, Sindarin can often be hauntingly beautiful. In this, its creator admirably succeeded in his avowed aim. For a little piece of evidence for this assertion, here's a clip from the soundtrack to The Fellowship of the Ring; it’s a hymn in honour of Elbereth, the ‘goddess’ of the stars in Tolkien’s mythology. In the novel, Tolkien gave an English version – ‘Snow white! Snow white! O Lady Clear!’ – which David Salo translated into Sindarin, miraculously keeping the metre and rhyme scheme of Tolkien’s original.

* All my books – about 800 in a small flat – have to go on the shelves horizontally. I like looking at the calming beige of the ends of the books rather than all those different-coloured, clashing spines. Of course, I can never find anything.
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