Sunday, 20 March 2022

Skylon: British Maypole for a Brave New World?

I haven’t thought about the Skylon for decades. That is until a picture postcard depicting the Sussex village of my infancy fell from a stack of books I was on the point of clearing from the loft.

The photo depicts infant maypole dancers on the village green and I suddenly remembered the last time I too danced there with ribbons on my shoes: the Festival of Britain, May 1951.

Of course, many now will have forgotten the austere centre piece and symbol of this Centennial Festival: the Constructivist ‘floating’ column that was raised on cables at its base nearly 15 metres (50 feet) from the ground, with its highest point nearly 90 metres (300 feet) high. With its cladding of aluminium louvres, its frame was lit from within at night, a towering shaft of light reflected in the Thames between Westminster Bridge and Hungerford Bridge on London’s South Bank

Symbol of Peace or Passivism?

Was it due to the Skylon’s retaining cables – held taut and radiating from this festive totem – that the ‘maypole’ metaphor at once sprang to mind or, when viewed at night, did its pillar of light denote the birth of a new Zion from which a battle-scarred nation would re-proclaim her Pax Brittanica?

No. This insight of mine has a different animus so blindingly obvious that I can only assume that the glare of its truth must have struck me blind. Until now.

Consider this:  

May 1st 1707. The Act of Union came into effect, joining the kingdoms of England and Scotland and the principality of Wales to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

May 1st 1851. The Great Exhibition is launched in London as an imperial celebration of modern industrial technology and design, under the patronage of Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of the British Empire.

May 1st 1951. Under a Labour government, the Festival of Britain opens on the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851, and opens on a date recognised since 1891 as  International Workers’ Day, also known as Labour Day in most countries . . . and celebrated by all of them as May Day.

How ironic, then, that the propagandistic ethos that underpinned Soviet Constructivism – the Constructivist Movement, after all, was conceived as an extension of Russian Futurism to ideologically promote communist social purpose – would be seen to support the short-lived legacy of a socialist government about to topple, because the dismantling of the Skylon was swiftly to follow the election in 1951 of a Conservative and Unionist government with Winston Churchill as Prime Minister, the prophet of the Cold War and Coiner-of-the-Phrase, ‘The Iron Curtain’.

As it was, the Skylon was demolished on the orders of  Churchill, who saw this Futurist spire as a symbol of the previous Labour Government’s vision of a new socialist Britain. It would be an understatement to declare here he had an axe to grind.

Unforgotten: the Virtue of Bearing a Grudge

The very configuration of the Skylon must have been a personal affront to Churchill. In the heart of London, the target of V-2 rockets that – barely five years earlier – had killed and maimed over 9,000 Londoners, was erected a mockery of a ballistic missile, since surely the Skylon was a sly counter-cultural spoof of an intercontinental rocket with nose-cones fore and aft, held in equipoise with no visible means of support nor visible thrust chamber for lift-off. In short, a transfigured V-2 as token of World Peace.
In the 1950s, the Soviet R-7 long-range
intercontinental ballistic missile research was derived
from captured German missiles such as the V-2.
Let us remember the words of Churchill from May 1936: ‘The use of recriminating about the past is to enforce effective action at the present.’  These words were prominently quoted as the epigraph to Guilty Men (1940), the notorious exposé of Britain’s ineffectual rearmament policies and attempted appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, the policies of ‘Ostrichism’ the guilt for which the book laid in greater part at the door of Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald.
While we, the British in the 1930s had succumbed to ‘Ostrichism, Hitler’s Germany had its own Operation Österreich in pursuit of a martial dream to see the annexation of an Eastern Realm

Of course, ambiguities abound: Michael Foot, Labour Party leader in the early 1980s, was co-author – under a pseudonym, Catoof this polemic against his own party’s inaction in the face of Hitler’s transformation of ‘all Germany into one gigantic arsenal’ while Great Britain dozed. Michael Foot would later become (in 1957) a founder member of CND, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
My grandfather’s copy of Guilty Men (1940) with its epigraph
a quotation from Churchill, 1936. (The flyleaf is dated
August 21st 1940, ‘His Book’, and records with signatures
that the book had been passed for reading to four friends.)
In the echo chamber of history, last March (2021), the UK’s Five-Year Defence Review announced that Britain’s army, navy and air force would all be cut back, with the size of the Army set to be its smallest since 1714 .
So, are we any clearer in choosing the truest defensive positions when today, from each side of the Iron Curtain, ideologies are in disarray and corruption and mendacity eat away at the certainties of rival world powers?

A New Ostrichism?

Only this week (March 2022), political scientist Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History and the Last Man (1992) stated on a British radio newscast: ‘I’ve believed right from the beginning there is no automatic mechanism that produces good stable prosperous democracy . . .’
September 11th Memorial Tribute in
New York City. (Anthony Quintano.)
Well, never mind Liberal Democracy, equally, it appears, the Constructivists failed to leave a convincing memorial to the Great Illusion of a Workers’ Utopia they envisioned in their futurist blueprints of the 1920s. Somehow, unless we’re kidding ourselves as victims of a New Ostrichism, one hundred years later we must prepare for our tenuous grasp on peace and freedom to be fittingly represented by Conceptual Art, a despairing evanescence reflective of the moral relativity that recognises only the Great Uncertainty stretched out before us and its product, Solipsistic Materialism.

The Skylon . . . Forgotten, Dust-coated and Dumped in the Yard.

On May 1st 1951 there was erected on our village green not only a maypole but also a marvellous Skylon to call our own (on a somewhat reduced scale) fashioned from a telegraph pole, reshaped and coated in shiny metallic paint. A week later our Skylon reappeared, cast aside in the local coal yard. There it remained for some years, half-buried in one of the loading bays, gathering dust.
Now nothing remains of that colossal wreck but my memory of it and my own remorse.
Our local coal merchant was named Scutt. A scut is the hindmost extremity of a frightened rabbit seen when it runs away. 
Halcyon days. Village maypole 1934.
(Francis Poirier)

Peace . . .  a Polemical Rose.

Nor, in our brooding on imponderables, should we forget the polemical rose. A hybrid cultivar bred in Vichy France, the celebrated ‘Peace Rose’ has all the makings of a pathetic fallacy forestalled.
The defining features of this ephemeral symbol? Rather rhetorically overblown and slightly flushed at the edges. 
The polemical Peace Rose. ‘Rather rhetorically
overblown and slightly flushed at the edges.’
Field Marshal Alan Brooke – the British Army’s Inspector of Artillery in the mid-1930s and Chief of the Imperial General Staff during WW2 – was invited to have this symbol named after him. An officer no stranger to illusions that had been early bred out of him, he politely declined this supposed honour.

Skylon . . .  threatening to export the nationalisation of assets overseas?

‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’, or other correspondents of that ilk on the letters pages of our national newspapers, blamed the Skylon for a contagion of hostile nationalisation infecting Britain’s former overseas assets . . . in particular, it seems, the nationalisation of the BP controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) and the expulsion of Western companies from oil refineries in the city of Abadan, Iran. See this news item in the Croydon Advertiser, circa 1951:
The Abadan crisis was caused by the Festival of Britain, claimed Sir Herbert Williams, Conservative candidate for Croydon East. (This England 1952, published by The New Statesman and Nation, 1952.)

Saturday, 11 December 2021

My Lady Midday

                  Bathwater drawn, her hair in disarray,

                  glass slipper worn, she sighs with no reproach. 

                  Noon is her dawn, my Lady of Midday.

                  ‘I was not born to ride the pumpkin coach.’

Catherine Eisner                              
An original pen drawing by Vogue artist Benito,
commissioned by my grandfather in the 1920s,
which remains in my private collection.

Catherine Eisner believes passionately in plot-driven suspense fiction, a devotion to literary craft that draws on studies in psychoanalytical criminology and psychoactive pharmacology to explore the dark side of motivation, and ignite plot twists with unexpected outcomes. Within these disciplines Eisner’s fictions seek to explore variant literary forms derived from psychotherapy and criminology to trace the traumas of characters in extremis. Compulsive recurring sub-themes in her narratives examine sibling rivalry, rivalrous cousinhood, pathological imposture, financial chicanery, and the effects of non-familial male pheromones on pubescence, 
and Listen Close to Me (2011)
and A Bad Case (2014)


Sunday, 28 November 2021

Street Cry

                    The tree yet fettered though irons break free

                    grows, cage embedded in the living bark.

                    May uncaged birds then sing more prettily 

                    where false incarceration leaves its mark.

Chelsea, London.

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Wm Blake takes a compass to credulity

(In Praise of William Blake 
despite the odd detractor.) 

For he’s a jolly good fellow 

and so say all of us

which Nobodaddy can deny.


The Ancient of Days
by William Blake (1794)


Thursday, 12 August 2021

That Cry in the Night

                                 That cry in the night

                                 can be a train whistle,

                                 an owl,

                                 or curlew

                                 flying inland in the evening –

                                 the meaning is always the same;

                                 a door swings open

                                 and lets the cold wind in.

Found poem                  
from prose (page 17)                  
The Waiting Game                  
a perfect novel by                  
Kate Christie (1962)                  

For more found poems see: 

Sunday, 2 May 2021

Dover Strait Doubts ; Samuel Palmer.

Bullion Dross
Since Death these days is on everyone’s lips,
we pledge ourselves to His buyers’ market;
a mortal spark will trade a loss, perhaps,
for the spoils of everlasting darkness.
Samuel Palmer: 
The Lonely Tower
Etching, 1878-79.

You’ll see that, like Samuel Palmer, I’ve stolen a snippet of John Milton for my own ends . . . indeed, when isolated, it’s a powerful oxymoron. Since my schooldays, aged fourteen, the bullion dross of Paradise Lost has never ceased to exemplify a crisp declamatory end-stopped line, hammered into the mind like a coffin nail.

Palmer’s image of spiritual loneliness – fear of abandonment by a deity – was inspired by Milton’s lines in Il Penseroso :

Or let my lamp at midnight hour,
Be seen in some high lonely tow’r,

Palmer’s comments on the dark night of the soul summoned up by The Lonely Tower may be read in this fragment, tentatively identifying the source of his etching :

Here poetic loneliness has been attempted; not the loneliness of a desert, but a secluded spot in a genial, pastoral country, enriched also by antique relics, such as those so-called ‘Druidic stones’. The constellation of the ‘Bear’ may help to explain that the building is the tower of Il Penseroso. Two shepherds, watching their flocks, speak together of the mysterious light above them.

However, we can never be certain that Palmer was not also conversant with Matthew Arnold’s own long dark night of the soul, Dover Beach (1867), when published a decade earlier. (Dover Beach, of course, was published less than a decade after Origin of Species, 1859.)

The Monuments of Art are easily outdone by Spirits reprobate.                             To my mind, spiritual doubt is graphically symbolised by the ‘druidic stones’ distant on a ‘darkling plain’ bathed in a ‘mysterious light’ whose witnesses are ‘shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.’

Challenged in their lifetime by post-Darwinism’s retreating ‘Sea of Faith’, both Palmer-the-mystic and Arnold-the-doubter in these figurations attempted through their art each an allegorical exegesis of their Victorian generation’s conflicts of doubt as Science warred with Church for supremacy in the race to have the last word on defining the human condition . . . predestined versus evolved by natural selection.

Both worshippers at the altar of Milton (author of Eikonoklastes), they saw the contradictions thrown up by the Spirit of the Age resolved, I believe, by Milton’s own astonishing iconoclasm in characterising the sardonic Arch Fiend as altogether more appealing than the Great Architect. 

After all, to the true artist, the irresolution of a paradox is the power of its mystery. One never solves a mystery or it would no longer remain a mystery. One enters a mystery.

For Milton to challenge his faith by daring to banish Jove’s ‘Architect’ from Paradise – the fallen angel who had ‘built in Heaven high Towers’ – then send him ‘headlong’ to the mines of the Underworld to the dig out ‘ribs of gold’ and, with ‘his industrious crew’, to cast in foundries the ‘massy Ore’, scum the ‘bullion dross’, and thence to ‘build in Hell’ a palace of ‘fretted Gold’, as a tribute to the Great Adversary to outrival the Kingdom of the Creator, was beyond audacious.

For those of us whose creed is no more and no less than belief in the unbearable reality of being, which existentialists call enargeia, the contrarian impulse to ‘make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven’ is a casuistic paradox that, sophistry notwithstanding, endorses that more modest thing, the audacity of Art. 

See also

Miss Emily Dickinson Communes with the Great Dictator Mr John Milton . . .

That space the Evil One abstracted . . .

Ignoble Retreat at the Edge where Earth and Firmament meet . . .

Catherine Eisner believes passionately in plot-driven suspense fiction, a devotion to literary craft that draws on studies in psychoanalytical criminology and psychoactive pharmacology to explore the dark side of motivation, and ignite plot twists with unexpected outcomes. Within these disciplines Eisner’s fictions seek to explore variant literary forms derived from psychotherapy and criminology to trace the traumas of characters in extremis. Compulsive recurring sub-themes in her narratives examine sibling rivalry, rivalrous cousinhood, pathological imposture, financial chicanery, and the effects of non-familial male pheromones on pubescence, 
and Listen Close to Me (2011)
and A Bad Case (2014)

Thursday, 4 March 2021

Capital Murder: Emily Dickinson and the Case of the Missing Metonyms

Capital murder? Yes. In two senses. 

I refer to the notorious forgery of an Emily Dickinson poem fabricated by the homicidal fraudster and Mormon iconoclast, Mark Hofmann, whose inspired fakery – conceived to dupe academia – first surfaced in a catalogue of Fine Books and Manuscripts mailed to collectors by a major international auction house in 1997. Reportedly, the manuscript was sold for $21,000.

Left: Emily’s true pencilled script. (Circa her final decade.)
Right: Mark Hofmann’s forgery with line-breaks defined by
width of Emily Dickinson’s folded, lined, fascicle-style paper.
(Facing page, a graphologist belatedly denounces Forgery.) 

Commendable reverse-engineering? 

While commending the ‘reverse-engineered’ invention of a fellow fictionist, I find, however, I am compelled to take issue with at least three shortcomings in Hoffman’s criminal act of poetic personation. Since I am well-known as a fixated completist, I trust you’ll understand why these deficiencies in Hofmann’s attempts to replicate a venerated canonical style continue to rankle with me.
But first the verses. Can you spot the howlers?
                                        That God cannot be understood

                                        Everyone agrees

                                        We do not know His motives nor

                                        Comprehend his Deeds –

                                        Then why should I seek solace in

                                        What I cannot know?

                                        Better to play in winters sun
                                        Than to fear the Snow.

Surely everyone agreesa defining characteristic of Dickinson’s verse is the metonymic capitalisation of her motifs . . . they are the signature feature of her rhetorical devices.

So . . .  hang on! 

Blooper 1: Where’s the capitalised H’ for His deeds?Reverential capitalisation’ is a scriptural convention no devout 19th Century versifier would be without.

Blooper 2: As to the familiar capitalised Dickinsonian metonyms, where is the consistency that would balance the figuration of Life and Death as Sun and Snow?

Blooper 3: Conversely, it’s evident to me that Hofmann was naïvely overeager in his assumption that line-breaks in Emily’s manuscripts necessarily indicate capitalisation of the next line . (You can see in the example of her true hand, Left, the constraint of her notepaper width does NOT determine the capitalisation of her verses: Though the great Waters sleep, / That they are still the Deep, / We cannot doubt —

I suspect that Emily lived through a period of reappraisal as to personified nouns. I have always considered it curious that the four seasons in our language remain uncapitalised. Surely spring, when personified, takes a capital? And is feminine? (Emily sees Grass as Nature deserving of a feminine possessive determiner and pronoun . . . the Wind is a capitalised male, a metonym for God: The Wind does not require the Grass / To answer—Wherefore when He pass / She cannot keep Her place.)

By the late 19th Century, discriminatory capitalisation was a subject of fickle debate. As a certain flippant connoisseur pronounced in 1896, ‘Many are ready to talk of some crafts under the name of art, which must now be spelt with a capital letter – why it written with the capitalest of letters, I know no more than the artists.’

A criminal act of poetic personation.

With hindsight, it’s glib to claim special insights into this shabby affair of literary forgery BUT I do profoundly believe greater vigilance could have been observed on the purely textual details I’ve identified. 

Yes, the forger’s writing-paper was manufactured in Boston most probably in 1871, when Emily was in her forties. 

Yes, Emily often wrote in pencil (and, fortunately for forgers, pencil lead cannot be forensically dated).

Yes, the forger’s script replicated the hand of a poetess no longer cursive in her febrile latter years whose decline saw each character printed separately like that of a child. Nevertheless, there is a crudity in the hesitant execution that betrays the faker’s ineptitude.  (As an apparent holograph – especially the stumbled signing of her given name – the whole thing seems insincere.)

Yes and Yes, the verse itself  is an inspired enviable pastiche, despite its vague provenance.. 
(In fact, may I recommend the brilliant prize-winning short story, Fascicle 41 by Anna McGrail, published in 2016 in The London Magazine, which most ingeniously questions the provenance of Dickinsonian forgeries up to the point of casting doubt on the provenance of the story’s protagonists themselves.                                                          See:               May I presume to recommend the reader should memorise Hofmann’s verse then read Fascicle 41, which was maybe Anna’s intention in her artful game. Unlike Hofmann’s skullduggery, her plot line is unbeatable.)

Em Dash. Separatrices where she drew breath.

That my immersion in Dickinsonian speculations began many, many years ago is manifest in my writing of A Room to the End of Fall (composed in my late 20s and finally published in A Bad Case, 2014, by Salt). I quote an extract to demonstrate how period diction – as Hofmann’s pastiche exemplifies – can add colour and tone to sustain a momentary verisimilitude . . . momentary, that is, until the Deconstructionists start tearing it apart.

Here is an extract from the fictional Theresa Ollivante’s fictional novel, An Auroral Stain. . . 

An Auroral Stain was conceived as a postbellum detective story and built on the fictitious premise of a private investigation by a housebound Emily Dickinson intent to solve the mystery of a serving-woman’s suspicious death, ably assisted by Maggie, her faithful Irish maid; my central conceit has the young colleen and her phobic mistress sleuthing as a sort of composite Massachusite Nancy Drew.
          In those early months, I wrote most of the core passages of An Auroral Stain.
          Was it the muffled chiming of the bells from those Irishtown churches on each street corner or the sheer drudgery of my austere day-to-day routines that I found conducive to the mapping of the febrile psyche of the Belle of Amherst and the quaint notions of her resourceful Irish maid?
          Sometimes I would hear the faint strains of a fiddle diddlydeeing and it was as if the once-hidden roots of a deep-set tree were exposed raw above ground.
          Anyhow, the brogue of those Irishtown denizens must have still been ringing in my ears when I wrote:

“A sneeze as long as Nebuchadnezzar!” Maggie scolded as she took her mistress’s wet cape and hat.                                                                                        The maid had been kneeling on the homestead veranda, whitewashing a garden bench in a curious atavistic ritual, as if to welcome a long-lost relation to a hooley.                                                                                                      She took Emily by the elbow and led her, half-fainting, to her room.            That night she attended her mistress in her delirium, hearing her call out strange imprecations: “Refuse the mediciners, damn you! Why are our people backslidden!”                                                                                              So wild and convulsed was her expression she was raving a jeremiad.         “There is no medicine against death!” she gasped. “Take heed, girl, of the promise of a man, for it will run like a crab!”                                                   “By the cross,” Maggie exclaimed, “there is fey blood i’ ye’re head! The poor darlin’s brain’s on fire and full of proclamations!”

         In my notes to my novel I encoded “Emily” as “Em Dash,” both on account of her mercurial nature and of her all-pervasive typographical separatrices that signal the places where you should catch your breath before resuming her spare end-stopped verses.

See also:  
Miss Emily Dickinson Communes with the Great Dictator Mr John Milton . . .

Hanged by a comma. 

See also: Oscar Wilde, apostrophiser of boys but not punctuation . . .
David’s Lyre Music
for Jonathan

The greatest beauty is unenjoyed.
On fruit ungarnered from the stem
falls dew from dawns as unalloyed
as lips unkissed whose savage charm
is stainlessly uncharactered
by the corruptibility of self regard.

Notes: Visual/tactile evidence. Printed letterhead (Cobalt Blue): Cadogan
Hotel, Sloane Street. (Twice folded from size 22cm width x 17.6cm height.)
Holograph letter superscribed above left margin with: Saturday April 6/
For Charles Matthews/Ah! Lest I speak it’s
[sic] name! [Presumed date: April 1895.]
Verse: David’s Lyre Music for Jonathan. Signature: Truly yours/Oscar
[Note: Charles Mathews, with one ‘t’, was the third member of
Wilde’s defence counsel.] The two minor errors are plausible failings of a
cavalier orthographer. The type of urgent, flying cursive handwriting of
Wilde’s letters at the time of his trials, beseeching loans from friends, is
absent in the Cadogan Hotel Letter, suggesting that at the time of his
arrest (April 6 1895), Wilde had composed himself in contemplation of his fate.

Catherine Eisner believes passionately in plot-driven suspense fiction, a devotion to literary craft that draws on studies in psychoanalytical criminology and psychoactive pharmacology to explore the dark side of motivation, and ignite plot twists with unexpected outcomes. Within these disciplines Eisner’s fictions seek to explore variant literary forms derived from psychotherapy and criminology to trace the traumas of characters in extremis. Compulsive recurring sub-themes in her narratives examine sibling rivalry, rivalrous cousinhood, pathological imposture, financial chicanery, and the effects of non-familial male pheromones on pubescence, 

. . .