Sunday, 16th June, 2013

dogI first came across the Swiss naturalist Charles Bonnet a few years back, whilst working on Crabbe’s botanical predecessors. His extraordinary description of the sensitive plant in The Contemplation of Nature (trans. 1766) is what first grabbed me; a near supernatural account of a section of the plant growing leg-like protuberances to walk away. Looking through the rest of the text this morning, I came upon this, which seems equally remarkable considering it is written by a devout Christian in 1764:

By what degrees does nature raise herself up to man? How will she rectify this head that is always inclined towards the earth? How change these paws into flexible arms? What method will she make use of to transform these crooked feet into supple and skilful hands? Or how will she widen and extend this contracted stomach? In what manner will she there place the breasts, and give them a roundness suitable to them?

The ape is this rough draught of man; this rude sketch; an imperfect representation, which nevertheless bears a resemblance to him, and is the last creature that serves to display the admirable progression of the works of God!

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Friday, 14th June, 2013

A little more from Dawson Jackson, writing as Thomas Brackley in From this Foundation:

What happens to people does not matter, but how they take it, the returning shoots of spring; answering in love, as quick to quick and the birds’ voices in the air. This universal bear-garden we live in is to teach us this: to love the whole of it. There is room in each nature to manœuvre against every trick played on us: poverty, suffering, death drive us deeper into our resources, so that we sprout again from more profound, triumphant root: a new man, free as air, swinging the world in his hand, like an apple by its stalk. He knows, as an ally of affection lights in every camp, that being is indestructible: its double principle that the whole is contained in every part of it, and bound by love. That word made indecent, not by the American films but by memories of a dead church as the light goes on Sunday afternoon. There too a frost is needed, before words are clean to use again.

Thomas Brackley, From this Foundation (London: Harvill, 1949) p.187.

Wednesday, 12th June, 2013

While working through Dawson Jackson’s papers last year I came upon a draft of, and correspondence relating to, a book which he published under an assumed name in 1949. As assumed names feature quite prominently in my research on Jackson’s close friend A.S.J. Tessimond, I made a note to look this book out. I managed to buy a copy (they are rare, though not unobtainable), but it is only now that I have got round to reading it.

The book – From This Foundation under his pseudonym ‘Thomas Brackley’ (London: Harvill, 1949) – is a long narrative description of an medium-sized English town. It has echoes of Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier in its attempts to document the lives and living conditions of everyday people, but resonates also with Coming Up For Air, or William Golding’s The Pyramid, in the rapid sense of change affecting the lives of the town’s inhabitants. It is, as the author describes it in the opening chapter, ‘not a novel and has no plot or main character’ but, much like George Crabbe’s The Borough, each chapter relates the lives of a different group of inhabitants – and this within the broader framework of the seasonal shifts throughout a year.

As with most of Jackson’s writing, there is tremendous warmth here; it is a kind of sociology born out of love. Here, towards the end of the book, in a chapter that ostensibly is written to consider how the elderly are taken care of, is a wonderful (though not uncritical) portrait of a woman reaching the end of her life:

A moss of small objects grows over everything. Wraps, sewing baskets, small piles of books and letters, glasses of water, medicine tins. If anyone sets them in order they will grow back as they were again. It is the same inside the drawers. Mrs Forrester is a maker of mouse’s nests. No particular type of thing is kept in any particular drawer. Everything is kept in every drawer: clothes, valuable silver sugar castors, pills, shoes and hair-pins, and dozens of packs of patience cards. She never has a pack of cards, and when she needs one she goes out and buys; putting it away in a drawer. As this may be any drawer it is usually not found again. It is the same with stockings. Her daughter, when appealed to, brings coupons to buy her mother some, and finds twenty pairs, mostly in a bottom drawer never opened, and all quite whole, since the lady never much moves her feet. The forgetting is partly but not wholly due to age. In the old days sixty jugs were once found in the house, and none of them might be used for milk. She hoards instinctively to withstand the siege of life—and the relation between her and it is one of siege, for she never gives anything back. Occasionally her memory is retentive. She will remember and describe exactly where so-and-so’s photograph is, at the back of the third drawer down on the right in the old oak bureau, where she put it in her house before last. Drawers for her are permanent shelves in the universe, never moved or sorted, like the larder passages in a rodent’s burrow underground. They are part of her own inner life, which is her reality, and all she believes in, for she is just tolerant towards, amused, frightened and indignant at the rest.

This attention to detail is striking and typical of the book, but it is also the utter seriousness with which Jackson locates this woman’s obscure act, and deems it as worthy of consideration as any other. Hoarding as a way of understanding the self – of understanding the universe – is no less important than the sincerest philosophy.

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