Tuesday, 28th May, 2013

pearls

I wasn’t called up until the second, third or fourth year of the war. When my call-up came I ignored it. I argued that a neurotic coward like me would be more a hindrance than help to the armed forces. And a life without privacy would be like going back to a public school.

I lay low, became a deserter. I changed my name, became Peter Black. But to the Gas Board I was J. Emersley, which might pass for J. Amberley written illegibly. (When I pay my gas bills I’m still J. Emersley so I pay it in cash.) And these were the days of Identity Cards, and on your Identity Card your name was your name, yes a name: unalterable.

The quote above is taken from the unpublished journal of A.S.J. Tessimond. I’ve written about the poet’s use of pseudonyms elsewhere, but there is another aspect of this anecdote that I feel needs further exploration, and that (surprisingly) is the poet’s relationship with the Gas Board.

Bear with me.

You see, it appears (I’m fairly sure of this) that at some point during the 1950s, Tessimond’s gas fire in some way broke. It was certainly old – a friend refers to it as ‘obsolete’ – and the above quotation makes clear a somewhat unusual relationship with a utility company. From what I can tell, Tessimond found himself unable to have the appliance fixed, or repaired, owing to his deception. By the time that section of the journal was written, the war had been over for around fifteen years, and it strikes me that it wouldn’t have been impossible for him to amend the name on the bill.

But I think the decision not to rectify the issue represents something else, and that is the role that the Gas Board played in his life – and perhaps more broadly speaking, the role that gas-fires played in altering the lives of people in the twentieth century. If I wished to make a grand statement about this (and to be honest, I don’t – I’m just kicking around a couple of half thought through ideas here) I would say that in the early twentieth century, the gas-fire directly led to an increase in social deviance, particularly amongst upper-working, and lower-middle class, urban, single males.

That’s a view just waiting to be shot to pieces, but my (flimsy) argument is this – gas-fires seem to have been taken up particularly in tenement accommodation and other multiple-occupancy buildings. The great advantage that the gas-fire had was its cleanliness; for this group of people it meant that there was no longer the need for the daily visit of the charwoman, meaning that flats could for the first time become completely private spaces in which arcane pleasures could freely be explored: the collection of erotic postcards, for instance, or homosexual desires, or murder – to name but a few.

The gas-fire became a means of solitary life, and as such, became an emblem of this in the literature of the early twentieth century. The only intrusion into this private space, might be the unrequested intervention of the Gas Board. In Tessimond’s poem ‘Letter from Luton’, the Gasworks almost seems like the hand of God, gripping him in a strangle-hold. It is upon ‘the breezes | From Luton Gasworks comes a stench that closes | Like a damp frigid hand on my neurosis’. The Gasworks is the ultimate fear over all – worse even than the neurotic fear of ‘red-eyed necrophiles’ in the poem. A similar view is put forward in John Rodker’s poem ‘Gas Fire’ (1920):

The sparse blue flame
pulses and pours
through salamander asbestos,
annulated like arteries—
Like a seraph’s blood
…..[when he sees the sylph]
rushes fast and faster
and whelms in white fire.

Or—like an earthworm
pulsing a thin lymph.

Or like a message
through nerves hid in vertebræ.

The sparse blue flame purrs,
hastens—pauses again—
purrs loudly, gently… hissing
forced from what outer spheres;
god         the gasometer.

But elsewhere in the literature of the period, the everyday appliance of the gas-fire forms an near alter-like form upon which the lonely may worship. It is a much-used image for Patrick Hamilton, who uses it to mark Julia’s solitude in Twopence Coloured (1928) and in Hangover Square (1941) refers to ‘the altar of a gas-fire in Earl’s Court’, elsewhere in the novel writing:

On countless occasions he had seen her like this, staring into her gas-fire at seven o’clock, waiting to go out and get lit up again. That gas-fire – what sinister bleak misery emanated from its sighing throat and red, glowing asbestos cells! To those whom God has forsaken, is given a gas fire in Earl’s Court.

God, the gasometer, bestows the gas-fire to those he has foresaken. This idea is similarly to be found in Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) where, before the gas-fire, foresaken and lonely Julia sits sewing by night, or lighting it only for her visiting brother:

There was a divan bed that could very nearly be mistaken for a sofa, and a little round fumed oak table, and two ‘antique’ hardwood chairs, and an ornamental footstool and a chintz-covered armchair — Drage’s: thirteen monthly payments — in front of the tiny gas-fire; and there were various brackets with framed photos of father and mother and Gordon and Aunt Angela, and a birchwood calendar — somebody’s Christmas present — with ‘It’s a long lane that has no turning’ done on it in pokerwork. Julia depressed Gordon horribly. He was always telling himself that he ought to go and see her oftener; but in practice he never went near her except to ‘borrow’ money.

This connection between the gas-fire and loneliness recurs through a number of texts of the period, and I think it’s fair to say that it is a literary association rather than the view of the average home-owner. Few can have looked at the ‘sparse blue flame’ pulsing through the asbestos grate and considered it to be the cause of their loneliness, robbing them of the visit from coal-man and charwoman – providing them with just enough heat for a visiting brother, but no more – and this, I think crucially: measuring out the supply of heat, allowing it to be turned off completely, meant that the hearth was no longer the image of constant warmth (the heart, as it is often rendered in nineteenth century literature) in the home.

Yet here, in a 1943 Mass Observation report into psychological factors in home-building, it is the independent means provided by such a device which one anonymous respondent identifies when asked ‘What does HOME mean to you?’

It must be comfortable, particularly as regards warmth in the winter and facilities for cooking. A bed-sitting room with a gas fire that will also cook, a divan, a chair and a few books make a perfectly good home for one.

The description here is practical, but love and familial warmth is not supposed to be practical. This inventory is not much different to the contents of Tessimond’s own room, and it is marked that the fire renders ‘a perfectly good home for one’ but no more. However the gas-fire is not without romance, as demonstrated here in Stevie Smith’s poem ‘The Persian’:

The gas fire
Seemed quite a friend
Such a funny little humming noise it made
And it had a name, too, carved on it you know,
‘The Persian’. The Persian!
Ha ha ha; ha ha.

Now Agnes, pull yourself together.
You and your friends.

Here, the appliance takes the form of a Romantic hero who is ‘quite a friend’ to Agnes, but descends into the hysteria of laughing gas. It perhaps seems less lonely than the other representations of gas-fires; the narrator reprimands Agnes and ‘your friends’ in the final line, suggesting that she is perhaps not alone, but there is also the suggestion that if the gas fire ‘seemed quite a friend’ then perhaps all these others may be inanimate objects as well. The advertisement for ‘The Persian’ gas-fire, whilst promoting an application in the social setting of nurseries, also makes clear its means for independent living, with its ‘side boiling burner’ – ‘a gas fire that will also cook […] make a perfectly good home for one’:

Advertisement including 'The New Persian Gas Fire' from The Times, Wednesday, 31st October, 1923

Advertisement including ‘The New Persian Gas Fire’ from The Times, Wednesday, 31st October, 1923

For Tessimond, though, the fire became an obstacle (as indeed love became an obstacle for him) – unfixable without the outside world penetrating his inner-space. It needn’t have been this way. As he wrote about his broken fire, elsewhere in Joubert Mansions where he lived – possibly in the flat directly above Tessimond’s own – the cookery writer Magda Joicey was penning her book Cookery without a Kitchen (1958) instructing single-occupancy dwellers in how to ‘throw a party in the limited space at your command’. The Stuffed Prunes and Cocktail Savoury, had the advantage that you didn’t even need the gas to be connected.

Advertisements

Thursday, 5th January, 2012

I have arrived at Dawson Jackson by what seems the wrong branch line. This is not an uncommon situation; often in reading, things that first appear to be footnotes emerge as subjects in their own right. Walter Scott had the right idea about this – ever-expanding volumes – Richardson, too. I suspect that both would have revelled in the digital age.

In any case: the poet Dawson Jackson.

The route by which I have reached him is this: in writing the biography of A.S.J. Tessimond, I have come across Jackson as someone that Tessimond knew. Mainly he knew Jackson’s wife, Joan Hart, a recording artist for the BBC. Shortly before he died he entrusted carbon copies of his diary with Joan before destroying the original manuscript. All this will out in the book.

Jackson was a poet in his own right. In some ways, during his lifetime, he was not a particularly well-regarded poet – Stephen Spender, whilst sympathetic, wrote to him of his verse that whilst ‘very readable and amusing. I suppose it is difficult to get a publisher to regard this as “poetry”, because the matter and form are not very poetic.’ But in many ways, I think Jackson was slightly ahead of the game. That said, he was not to Tessimond’s taste either. My edition of his collection Darkness and Spring (1971) is inscribed by Jackson to Jean Cooper (another name in Tessimond’s life story); there he writes: ‘on account of John Tessimond / who / for all his enthusiasm and politeness / could never quite see / why / I stopped my lines where I did!’

The two poets probably stand at opposite ends of a spectrum (if such a thing could be imagined) of twentieth century English poetry. They were both born in the Liverpool region, Tessimond in Birkenhead in 1902, Jackson in Wallasey in 1910. Jackson, I am certain, cared a lot for Tessimond and after his death attempted to make sense of the journal manuscripts (no mean feat, as I have discovered) and aided Hubert Nicholson in handling the poet’s affairs in the years after 1962.

But Jackson needs examining in his own right – Carcanet have a Selected Poems in print; it is worth looking out. Stylistically he is nothing like Tessimond, though there is a shared warmth and humanity in their writing.

Every year I rather forlornly suggest to my undergraduate classes that one of them might attempt some kind of survey of cultural representations of Underground rail travel. Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Paris Metro’ through to Geoff Ryman’s 253 calling at Henry Moore, Iris Murdoch, Patrick Hamilton, Julian Barnes and The Bed Sitting Room (amongst others). Nobody has ever taken me up on the offer.

But here is a wonderful poem by Dawson Jackson that I have quite fallen in love with and should be part of such a study. It is from Darkness and the Spring. It is called ‘Fifty Years Between’:

1

They are, together, as

Pretty as two primroses: bicker

…………..

Like two squabbling

Small birds, in a

Private language: he curving

…………..

Himself round her like

An enjoying

Tongue; and she sparkling

Back at him – dark water that

…………..

The sun strikes.

…………..

2

Coming up

The escalator of the Tube

Were a man and woman, in their

Seventies at least. She,

…………..

Unaccustomed to them, did not

Like the stairs. Perhaps, too, he

Did not: erect, slight, military,

With a neat moustache. However,

…………..

He stood before her and – uncertain on his

Own feet – helped

Her, with an arm, step

Off. He could not have been

…………..

More courteous had he been

A young boy, well brought up, with

His first – Edwardian –

Young woman. And she –

…………..

Thanking him, accepting the

Attention – was everything that is

Delicate, spiritedly

Compliant, feminine. They must have

…………..

Been married

Fifty years. Sex

…………..

In old age is

Sex – as it has been

From the cradle:

Delightful. Paper thin

…………..

Like petals – they were, together, that

Flower still: which

Does not die

…………..

Till we do.

There is a great deal I could say about that poem, but the main thing is: I love it. Though Tessimond mistrusted the enjambement in Jackson’s poetry, the line endings are crucial; the weight given to ‘Sex’ as it hangs before the break, seemingly at odds with the ‘Fifty years’ of marriage (though, as we discover, not so) makes the thing work.

In the woman’s ‘unaccustomed’ response to the stairs, I am reminded of the delightful anecdote in David Kynaston’s Family Britain that Winston Churchill’s favourite item in the Festival of Britain was the escalator up to the planetarium, which he insisted on riding over and over. The rest of London having grown used to escalators through the Tube, Churchill, who tended to use taxis, was entirely new to the concept.

The poem is amazingly sensual; the ‘enjoying tongue’ is both tenderly protective ‘curving […] round her’ but also immediately erotic. Eroticism is commonplace; the flower that does not die until we do. There is something of Hardy’s ‘Darkling Thrush’ here too, though it’s too late at night for me to explore that now, and before I close I want to draw Tessimond back into this post with his poem ‘Tube Station’. An early piece, it’s not his best work – heavily influenced by Pound and Imagism in general – but it’s a good little thing, with a very different erotic quality in its own right:

 The tube lift mounts,

…………..sap in a stem,

and blossoms its load,

…………..a black, untidy rose.

 …………..

…………..

The fountain of the escalator

…………..curls at the crest,

……………………….breaks and scatters

A winnow of men,

…………..a sickle of dark spray.

%d bloggers like this: