Chongqing in She, A Chinese

By a coincidence that some would call synchronicity I watched  Guo Xiaolu’s fine film She, A Chinese  (winner of the Locarno Golden Leopard in 2009)  just after reading this passage from the second volume (Birdless Summer, 1968) of Han Suyin’s autobiography:

Chungking {Now:  Chongqing} was phantasmagoria, a monster, brusque chimera, an unreal and thorough freak; a fortress where trees could not grow on the inch-thin soil covering the rock.  A city of squalor and filth, and with one of the most impossible climates on earth; a furnace in summer, in winter swallowed by unrelenting fog; and yet, for all its squalor, its rats, its misery, its desolation, its impossible cruelties, it was also magnificetly, raucously alive, palpitating with the solid triumph of its million people, whose sufferings seemed endless, whose courage, determination and forbearance towards gross injustice was the cindery mask over the flame that would one day devour all this structure of evil. (72-3)

In She, A Chinese Chonqing  plays a very different role. The film’s the story of the quest of a Mei, an unsentimentalized rural Chinese everywoman, for the consumer goods she reads about but can never hope to acquire in a village in Sichuan Province, where the film’s first section is set.

In the second ‘movement’  Mei goes to Chongqing, a gigantic city that was once part of Sichuan but is now an independent administrative entity – as the municipality has a population of just under 29, million, the Mayor is more important than some heads of state. Here the film pulls a sleight of hand: Mei falls in love with Spikey, a gangster, who like her dreams of migrating to the West, specifically to London, and his sudden violent death leaves her grieving but with the money to fulfil that dream.  When Mei first arrives in Chongqing the camera travels across a huge expanse of skyscrapers – the message is that this city is very different from the village where Mei grew up, that it is a key player in the rapid Chinese economic development that we read about so much in the newspapers!

View of Chaotianmen Docks on the Yangzi River

Night view from Jialing River cable Car

Indeed it is, and that’s where the film needs to trick us: no Chinese girl lucky enough to have inherited the huge trawl of ill-gotten gains acquired by her deceased gangster boyfriend needs to leave Chongqing to be able to buy any consumer item she chooses.

The people behind me aren’t just out taking the night air – they’re here to SHOP!

We were there late in the year – the Chinese Christmas is like the English  one, but without our beautiful old tradition of a Times article in late November in which an earnest cleric wonders if perhaps we haven’t sacrificed the true meaning of Christmas to a frenetic pursuit of consumption.

And interestingly Guo Xiaolu’s representation of Chongqing leaves out something that strikes most visitors, certainly foreign ones and I have reason to believe Chinese ones too: it’s a hilly city, and this has led to the growth of a profession I’ve never seen in any other Chinese urban centre:

My guess is that the film leaves them out because theirs is too much like the rural work of its first location.

And naturally it leaves out the tourist stuff:  

Huguang Guild Building

 Anyway, the ( thin) justification for Mei’s boyfriend’s refusal to buy any of the goods available in his city is that he’s saving avidly for that ticket to London – for a gangster he shows a truly middle-class talent for self-denial, not possessing even the mobile phone that almost all young Chinese buy as soon as they have any spare cash at all and which he in particular needs in his nefarious line of business as an enforcer.

The other thing about  the representation of Chongqing only becomes clear when Mei signs up for a tour group visiting the city of her dreams and jumps ship at Greenwich: it’s shown as monocultural, entirely Han Chinese. There certainly aren’t many obvious Westerners there, but given it’s location in the south west there must be some at least of what in China are called ‘minorities’.

 It’s when we get to the film’s third location we see that Guo Xiaolu wants to point a contrast, and I like the way it handles what is portrayed as London’s all-pervading multiculturalism.

 But before I discuss that a word about the passage from Han Suyin I quoted earlier: by 1968 she’d turned against the Nationalists – partly because of the bigoted Nationalist army officer she’d married – and seems to be best described as a critical (sometimes very critical) supporter of the Communists. Chongqing was the wartime capital of the Nationalist Government, so she’s keen to bring out all that’s worst in it, while paying a tribute to the Chinese people’s resistance to the Japanese and looking forward (in both senses) to the Revolution. Of course, things did change dramatically between the late 1930s and the late 1990s, but that’s not the whole story. It never is; no representation ever gives us ‘things as they are’.

After a brief marriage to a decent (but aging) English ‘white’, Mei moves in with  a slightly oppressive (but decent) Indian Muslim, and is told by an African-Caribbean doctor she’s pregnant just as that relationship is breaking up.

 The final scene carries much of the film’s meaning: Mei returns to the (presumably) Essex seaside, where her husband took her to introduce her to his past – and to a place that stands as a symbol of traditional Englishness. She’s been contemplating a return to China, and the sea is one way of getting there, but she opts not to take it. Instead, with a Chinese-Indian ‘seed’ inside her, she decides to try to make it in London. She hasn’t found it to be the place of riches she’d expected, but she has found it’s a city where an Asian woman might make a go of it and while doing so bring into the world a baby whose ethnicity, she can reasonably believe, won’t be a bar to acceptance and achievement. And the seaside setting reminds us that both mother and child have the traditions of England at their disposal, as well as those of China and India.

 The film’s message is much more upbeat than some have suggested, and I hope it’s correct.

( For a gloomier reading see

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Christianity and Literature: The Case Of Dylan Thomas

I blogged about Dylan Thomas earlier this year[1], and I really should have mentioned him in my post on the collapse of the Christian literary tradition in the twentieth century.[2] The trouble (for me) is that the Thomas who I remember, think about and re-read isn’t a Christian.

I think he’s a great poet for two reasons: firstly, he can suddenly produce truly breathtaking lines in otherwise poor poems, and secondly (and more importantly) he wrote a handful of poems that are great by almost any standards; these make up my personal Dylan Thomas ‘anthology’ and they’re not Christian works: The Ballad of the Long-legged Bait is about adolescent sex, The Force That Through The Green Fuse Drives The Flower is about the horrors of time and decay seen from a  purely naturalistic perspective, and Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, a poem to his dying father, tells his father to ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’ – death is seen as simply the end of life. Now, the usual comment on the lack of any reference to the after-life in this last poem is that Thomas was simply respecting the beliefs of his atheist father; this is no doubt true, but if I thought that someone I loved was about to face a judgement that would consign them to eternal pain or bliss and felt that I could make no comment on this issue I wouldn’t bother to write a poem on the trivial matter of how resigned they were to the natural process of dying. This is a poem on death without a trace of Christian sentiment (and reading it at Thomas’s grave was among my most moving experiences as a literary pilgrim).

 One of the works that feature in my personal Thomas anthology makes a neat transition to the almost definitely Christian poems, Refusal To Mourn The Death, by Fire, Of A Child In London (it can be heard read magisterially by Thomas at this site:

 This poem ends with the resonant line:

 After the first death, there is no other.

The sentiment here might be Christian (the child will live forever in heaven), anti-Christian (there is no second death of hell and therefore probably no heaven either), or not related to religion at all (in human history and/or in war only the first death counts as a painfully new experience – after that we have a different kind of entity although we still call it ‘death’) – and there are many other interpretations. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Thomas had the line pop into his head, thought it was tremendous (it is) and didn’t give a second thought as to what it might or might not be thought to mean by later commentators.

 The most important of Thomas’s Christian poems are those in the sequence Altarwise by Owl-Light. One critic has suggested these poems are ‘unreadable’ – in the sense that they are too complex and obscure to be open to interpretation. That sounds right to me:

 Altarwise by owl-light in the half-way house
The gentleman lay graveward with his furies;
Abaddon in the hangnail cracked from Adam,
And, from his fork, a dog among the fairies,
The atlas-eater with a jaw for news,
Bit out the mandrake with to-morrows scream

 Actually I don’t care what this means; only a fine poet could have thought up lines like these, only one with very confused ideas about poetry could have published them in that form. The sequence probably is Christian,[3] but, in my view, when Thomas divides himself between his atheist father and his pious mother, it’s dad who gets the best of the deal. I’m aware that this might be my own bias, and that my choice of  ‘best poems’ might be too strongly influenced by my own atheism, so I’ve no real argument with those who take a different view, but I shall never read Altarwise by Owl-Light again, unless I have to.

 Anyway, leaving the poems themselves aside, what did the man himself say about his religious beliefs?


 (These are) poems in praise of God’s world by a man who doesn’t believe in God.

 And this:

These poems, with all their crudities, doubts, and confusions, are written for the love of Man and in praise of God, and I’d be a damn’ fool if they weren’t.

 That was helpful. I think, bearing all this in mind, that although I should have mentioned him in my original post, the case of Dylan Thomas does bear out the general thesis: Christianity up until about 1900 was capable of producing great literary talents; in the first half of the twentieth century it could only do so if the writer was a convert, partly created by another type of culture – or, I might now add, represents an ongoing duality in his own person, being part Christian, part Freudian/Surrealist/Sceptic. And today, the game is over. There will never be great Christian literature produced in these islands again.

[3] But even this can be doubted:

At one end of the scale, critics do not dispute that Thomas used religious imagery in his poetry; at the other end, critics generally agree that, at least during certain periods of his creative life, Thomas’s vision was not that of any orthodox religious system. The range of interpretations was summarized by R. B. Kershner, Jr., in Dylan Thomas: The Poet and His Critics: “He has been called a pagan, a mystic, and a humanistic agnostic; his God has been identified with Nature, Sex, Love, Process, the Life Force, and with Thomas himself.”



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Get Back: With The Beatles in Liverpool and Somerset

Strangely enough I found myself thinking about the Beatles while in East Coker. Not so strange perhaps: the poem’s starting point is the fact that the Eliot  family’s presence in the United States is due to the emigration in the late 1660s of two Andrew Eliots (father and son)  from East Coker. Eliot proclaims that ‘in my end is my beginning’, making of his return an event of huge symbolic importance, and the Beatles’ song I was thinking about was the 1969 classic Get Back. I’d thought about this song earlier this year when, on a trip to Manchester and Liverpool, we visited the birthplaces of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, now both owned by the National Trust.

Lennon’s Menlove Avenue residence has been much discussed in terms of  ‘was he or wasn’t he a Working Class Hero?’, a ‘debate’ that doesn’t interest me. But I was struck when the custodian told us that she’d shown Paul McCartney and his latest partner round one of the few council houses in the possession of a major ‘heritage’ organisation:

What, I wondered, did Paul mean by ‘get back’?  What or where did he suggest we got back to? Hardly the literal return to his childhood home that was being described!

I’ve taught the song a few times on courses about the sixties, and related it to the common feeling towards the end of the decade that everything was going wrong:  America had seen the Manson murders, the degeneration of  hippy strongholds like Haight-Ashbury into addiction and disease haunted nightmares, the continuing failure to stop the war in Vietnam, and so on; while in Europe the defeat of the French students in May 68 and the rapid movement of French opinion to the right that followed had intensified a general  sense of defeatism. We were moreover, about to experience the break-up of the Beatles themseves, soundtrack and symbol of ‘the sixties’!

I still think that kind of account is valid but for some reason I felt at East Coker, contemplating Eliot’s own attempt to ‘get back’ to the village of his ancestors, the starting place of the great journey of his distinguished family in a new continent, that I understood something else about the song for the first time.

File:Beatles Get Back.jpg

Image: Wikimedia

The first section deals with a common enough trajectory in the sixties: the move from the periphery to the centre, from a sense of ‘no-one but me thinks and feels like I do’, to an experience of generational community based partly on drug use:

Jojo was a man who thought he was a loner
But he knew it couldn’t last
Jojo left his home in Tucson, Arizona
For some California grass.

The second section is less clear and there are varying interpetations – some people think Sweet Loretta’s a transvestite, others that the second line means that she, like many other women at the time, adopted sexual behaviours traditionally associated with men, and so on. That’s not important to my suggestion: no-one doubts that having kicked off with two of the great 60’s themes, getting out and getting high, we’re now on to a third, getting laid:

Sweet Loretta Martin thought she was a woman
But she was another man
All the girls around her say she’s got it coming
But she gets it while she can….

So was Paul (and also John, as the song is sometimes credited as a joint composition) really saying that after everything that they and their generation had been through it was time to get back to the values of one or other of the Liverpool suburbs?

Well, there are all sorts of interpretations of the song – John Lennon, for example, seemed to think that Paul wrote it as an admonition to him to leave Yoko Ono, while the origin of the ‘get back’ theme in McCartney’s opposition to Enoch Powell’s racist attack on immigrants further complicates matters. (see e.g.

But what I did at East Coker was forget all such questions and the many others that have been raised (are Jojo and Loretta the same person? are they lovers? etc. etc.) and follow Frederick Jameson’s advice: always historicize. Suddenly something became clear and I felt a lump in my throat. To anyone in 1969 who’d been following the Beatles since the early 60s and had been involved in ‘the movement’ (as every young person had, even those like me who never went far from home) this was a song about an impossibility and a challenge.

Getting back was one thing we could never do; things had gone way too far for that. A gulf of experiences and new ideas separated us not just from our parents – we’d been trying consciously to bring that about – but from the selves we’d once been.  Only the least fortunate of us had never known a place where we felt we belonged, but by 1969 we’d left that behind for good. The past was, indeed, another country, and in 1969 the past began about 6 years ago.

But this strange period from the last stage of the (chronological) sixties through the early seventies was one not just of disillusion but of continuing optimism too, so I’ve come to think that the song is about something more than nostalgia for an abandoned belonging. It was putting on the generational agenda the challenge of finding in the future a sense of home that had been lost in all the hatreds and upheavals of the decade. The only way back was forward. Could we find a new ‘place’ that was free of all that was wrong with the sixties and in that place rediscover all that was right with what had gone before?

Nobody ever did, and that failure – which was of course also a success because any solution would have been premature- sets the scene for our current tasks.

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East Coker: A Footnote

I’ve written twice about Eliot’s poem East Coker in recent months: Little Gidding, the Vicar of Dibley…. (Previous post) and Culture and Revolution in Ningxia Province (May 11)

East Coker’s not too far from here, so I’ve paid my respects to Eliot’s ashes a number of times, but never before with a camera at hand.  Here are some photos from last week’s visit:

St Michael’s Church

The Eliot corner contains the poet’s ashes:

The poem takes us outside the church, down the lane…

And the deep lane insists on the direction/Into the village

….and into the fields, where Eliot describes  a historical vision of the villagers:

In that open field
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,
On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire…

I discussed this rather surprising ‘vision’ in my last post. It starts off as an apparent affirmation of continuity, the importance of ritual and the sacrament of marriage, but suddenly morphs into a picture of the rural life as symbolic of a doomed life without Christian grace (‘dung and death’).

I couldn’t disagree more with Eliot ideologically, but every time I engage with him I’m left echoing the words of William Empson: I don’t know how much of my mind he invented.



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Little Gidding, the Vicar of Dibley and the End of Christian Literature In England

Christian  English  literature is one of the glories of humanity. The tradition goes back to Caedmon’s celebratory poem reported and translated into Latin by Bede, snakes through distinguished Anglo-Saxon work like The Wanderer and The Seafarer, reaches brilliant maturity in the late fourteenth century (Langland, Chaucer and the unknown poet of  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), migrates to Scotland in the fifteenth century, returns in its greatest flowering to the England of Shakespeare, Donne and Milton, exists for the first time alongside a growing body of non- or anti-Christian writing from the late eighteenth century onwards – and now is  more or less dead.

There was a continuing stream of minor but distinguished writers throughout the century – G. K. Chesterton, Walter de la Mare,  Barbara Pym,  Beryl Bainbridge, John Betjeman, R.S. Thomas (if we may consider him part of English literature)…. But the greatness in English writing was elsewhere, and even this lesser stream seems to have largely dried up. Hilary Mantel is said to be a Catholic (although the one book of hers I’ve read all the way through, Fludd, is, to say the least, ambivalent about the Church), and there’s A. N. Wilson – but his is a minute literary talent and he’s impossible  to take seriously as a  thinker of any kind. As for poetry, the current Oxford Professor of Poetry Geoffrey Hill is an Anglican but – in spite of the hype from critics like Ricks and Bloom – he’s just as minor as Wilson and far less readable.

Just before the end there came – well, to use Eliot’s own words, a midwinter spring, a final defiant flourish before the lights went out. I’m referring to the work of Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden.  In 1925 there was – unless I’m missing someone – no major Christian writer except the ageing Kipling. Things were very different amongst the agnostics, proto-New Agers, and unclassifiably non-Christian: although  smaller in number than the orthodox in the population as a whole they account for all the great living writers, with the exception just  noted: Joyce, Lawrence, Woolf, Forster, Yeats, Hardy, and Eliot himself. The percipient observer might well have thought that Christian literature was essentially over.

But in the next two decades this situation was transformed by the emergence of some major religiously committed talents. It’s no accident, I think, that all were converts: Graham Greene became a Roman Catholic  in 1926, as a result of an interest created by the woman he was to marry, Eliot was baptised in 1927, and Evelyn Waugh converted in 1930 after the break-up of his marriage. Auden’s return to the religion he’d been taught as a child was a more drawn out process, but 1940 is probably the key date. It seems that Christian culture in the twentieth century could  no longer on its own  nurture a major artist.

Although after his conversion Auden never produced anything nearly as good as the work of the late twenties and the thirties, I suspect that one of his pieces – perhaps ”In Praise of Limestone’  or ‘The Shield of Achilles’ – will one day have the honour of being considered the last important poem by a Christian English writer, which makes it completely appropriate that it will have been written in the United States.

But, thinking in terms of works more substantial than individual poems, the two masterpieces of this group of belated converts are Brideshead Revisited and The Four Quartets. I’m going to describe two trips, one to Cambridge in 2007 to read the poem Little Gidding at the community church and, in a future post, a 2010 return to the Oxford of Brideshead Revisited.

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same…

Eliot was driven from Cambridge to Little Gidding in May 1936. The village was the site of a seventeenth century Anglican community founded by Nicolas Ferrar. It had been praised by Ferrar’s friend, the poet George Herbert, and visited by King Charles shortly before his arrest. Ferrar was influenced by both Protestant and Catholic traditions, something that would have appealed to the Anglo-Catholic Eliot.

The church at Little Gidding: A ‘virtual tour’ is available at

The Victorian House

Little Gidding is set against the background of WWII and in particular the London Blitz, during which Eliot served as  a fire warden.

I suspect that part of the appeal of Four Quartets is what it shares with the Vicar of Dibley: an opportunity for sweet Anglican sentimentality in a charming English village setting. Take, for example this passage from the second poem, East Coker. Eliot has returned to the eponymous Somerset village from which his ancestors set out for the USA, and he imagines what looks like a rural idyll, centuries of villagers dancing in the fields, not yet facing the modern situation of urban estrangement from the rhythms of nature

 Round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,
Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter
Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long since under earth
Nourishing the corn.  

Ah – nourishing the corn indeed, isn’t that a lovely way to think about death and putrefaction? These people are just uneducated farm labourers (‘heavy feet in clumsy shoes/Earth feet loam feet’) but they know how to be both light-hearted and serious. What a nice tribute! Just as the Vicar of Dibley teaches us to respect the good-hearted buffoons who make up the village congregation Eliot is showing us that these simple country folk knew a thing or two we well-read poetry lovers have forgotten.

The passage continues, apparently in the same vein:

Keeping time,
Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons
The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest…

But suddenly….

The time of the coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.
Eating and drinking. Dung and death.

 Oh shit! Literally and metaphorically. It turns out that these rural revellers are stuck in the realm of nature, and unless they accept the Divine Grace that offers us a chance to rise above the animals then their sex acts, whether or not sanctioned by the marriage celebrated earlier in the poem, are mere copulation, brief amusement stops on their journey to the eternal ‘death’ of hell.

 That’s one reason, I think, why Christian literature has almost disappeared. Modern sensibilities, quite rightly, won’t bear any talk of eternal punishment. The process of refinement began, like so much else that’s good in our culture, in the seventeenth century, and within a hundred years or so the Catholic poet Alexander Pope was mocking preachers who wouldn’t mention ‘hell to ears polite’– in other words, who refused to upset their gentry patrons with talk of everlasting flames.  (See Pope’s Moral Essays, Epistle IV.) Now things have gone a lot further than that.

The Vicar of Dibley is broadly Christian in intention – it tries to suggest that if only the church got thoroughly with-it and had lots of unstuffy women vicars and the occasional service for animals then those empty pews would quickly start to fill up again. But imagine my favourite post-Cleesian sitcom devoting an episode to Jim, Alice, Hugo and the gang facing up to the possibility of eternal torture. Or Geraldine Granger, whose congregation hardly consists of the ‘polite’ in the Popeian sense, devoting a sermon to hell. In fact, her just-dropped into-the-church-from the-pub-and-thought-I’d-say-a-few-words-while-I’m-here style is hardly conducive to any message that might upset the tiny band of churchgoers who, for some strange reason profess a faith that has such little influence on the way they live.

Eliot was obsessed with hell, claiming to feel its existence ‘in his bones’ and quite correctly drew important conclusions from this belief (and also, of course, from his hopes for heaven, although human nature being what it is, I doubt if that’s ever as compelling as the fear of eternal pain). The Four Quartets are, like almost all genuinely Christian writing, about how to avoid hell and win heaven.

  There are other places
Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city—
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England

 Little Gidding brings the Four Quartets to an end by placing before the reader  a number of symbols, one of which is the village itself, home to the Christian community, and emblematic of nature transformed by grace. Of course, nothing guarantees salvation – at least it doesn’t in the Christian traditions Eliot identifies with – so the poem has much to say about repentance and the acceptance of suffering – in a daring trope the German planes attacking London during the Blitz are transformed into doves, symbols of the Holy Spirit, because they offer the chance to burn away sin through the fiery agony of awareness, repentance and restitution. (Who then devised the torment? Love  Section IV). And as the pig sties remind us, unregenerate human nature is never far away and never ceases to be a threat:

If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty…

The pig sties were and are real, but they also serve as a symbol of unredeemed human nature, and a reminder that communities and individuals who receive and accept Divine grace are still under threat 

 So why did Christian literature, after this brief flourishing, finally collapse? The answers, of course, lie in the development of European history and ideology since the eighteenth century, and are complex and manifold, but I’d like to risk a few suggestions.

 Since the eighteenth century Christian support has been crumbling, so the ‘pool’ of possibly first rate Christian writers gets smaller, if not year on year, then at least decade on decade, with perhaps a few exceptions (there seems to have been a ‘turn’ back to religion amongst some intellectuals during the Napoleonic Wars, for example). Further, there seems suggestive (although not yet conclusive) evidence that in the West at least Christians tend to be less intelligent than secularists, and if this really is so, it makes the emergence of Christian writers with something interesting to say even less likely.  But I think there’s a more subtle reason too.

At the end of his essay Thoughts after Lambeth, Eliot wrote:

 The World[1] is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian morality. The experiment will fail….[2]

 The trouble, for Eliot, was that it succeeded, and this ‘Worldly’ morality is, to an increasingly large majority, infinitely more ‘civilized’ than its Christian rival: the World regards homophobia as wrong, not private consensual adult sex acts, and, more broadly, rejects the obsession with sexual behaviour that characterises the Christian tradition. And, however tragic the outcomes of sexual freedom sometimes may be, you’d have to go a long way to convince me that contemporary sexual mores produce as much harm as the rigid injunctions of the Christian era – which amounted to ‘have sex with one person only of the opposite gender after marrying them’.

 ‘Worldly’ morality today has no truck with anti-Semitism or any other form of racism – to put it no more strongly than this, the World today takes much more seriously than the converted Eliot seemed to do the apparent incitements to anti-Semitism that litter his poetry in the twenties.[3]  .’ Furthermore,…well, I could continue but the point’s clear enough – ‘Worldly’ morality is obviously more civilised than Christian morality, and that’s one reason for the collapse of Christian literature: those Christians who do write have to express moral ideas so much worse than those held by the secular majority that it’s impossible for them to find either a large, general audience or a small but elite one – and either or both are necessary to inspire high achievement.

Of course, most Christians I know are decent people, and in no way worse than secularists. This is because – in theory or practice or both – they’ve ditched specifically Christian moral precepts. Surveys seem to show that even English Catholics tend to disregard the Pope’s ‘teachings’ on contraception and to find his crude homophobia bizarre.  So Christian writers today do have the option of going over to the ‘World’ and refraining from developing a religious morality.

 Hence The Vicar of Dibley : the Reverend Geraldine Granger’s moral ideas are not obviously different from my ‘Worldly’ ones: fuzzy liberalism, ‘tolerance’ of most forms of sexual behaviour, support of charities and other worthy causes, a preference for kindly actions over nasty ones, and so boringly on. No homophobia and no obsessional meddling with other people’s sex lives (nor, as I mentioned earlier, consignment of those who disregard  her ethical precepts to the agonies of hell) –  none of the stuff, in other words, of traditional Christianity.  Eliot’s emphasis on the purely natural life as one consigned to ‘dung and death’ is unlikely to attract satisfactory audience ratings. But the values of The Vicar of Dibley are equally unlikely to ever be embodied in first-rate religious literature.

So I went to Little Gidding to celebrate the greatness of a past, to honour and enjoy a fine flowering of  a literary tradition that, I am almost certain, has come to an end.

The ‘dull facade’ – a reminder that true religion is internal not external

[1] My note: as in ‘the flesh and the devil’; not the countries that now make up the UN.

[2] Selected Essays, 1969, 387.

[3] Eliot has his defenders, but I find them unconvincing. For a measured account see Anthony Julius, T.S. Eliot: Anti-Semitism and Poetic Form.



Filed under Christianity, T. S. Eliot, The Four Quartets, Travel- England, Uncategorized, Writers

Van Gogh at Ramsgate

In April, 1876 the young Vincent Van Gogh went to Ramsgate to teach in a small school in Royal Road, living in nearby Spencer Square.  We went to visit this area after spending time with T. S. Eliot in Margate (see previous post).  Below are some translated extracts from his letters to his brother Theo. They give an interesting picture of his life and work in the town.

The full letters can be read at

Ramsgate, 17 April 1876.

My dear Theo, I arrived here safe and sound yesterday afternoon at 1 o’clock, and one of my first impressions was that the window of the not-very-large school….

…. looks out over the sea.

(Note: not today- there’s  a solid row of houses opposite!)


It’s a boarding school and there are 24 boys between  the ages of 10 and 14….
There’s a harbour full of all kinds of ships, closed in by stone jetties running into the sea on which one can walk. And further out one sees the sea in its natural state, and that’s beautiful. Yesterday everything was grey….
The assistant teacher, 4 boys and I sleep in another house close by.
Ramsgate, 21 April 1876
We go to the beach often; this morning I helped the boys build a sand-castle like those we made in the garden at Zundert.
How much I’d like you to be able to look through the school window. The house stands on a square (all the houses around it are the same, which is often the case here). In the middle of the square a  large green, closed in by an iron fence and surrounded by lilac bushes. The boys play there during the midday break. The house where I have my room is on the same square.
Ramsgate, 28 April 1876
Now let me tell you about a walk we took yesterday. It was to an inlet of the sea, and the road to it led through the fields of young wheat and along hedgerows of hawthorn etc. When we got there we had on our left a high, steep wall of sand and stone, as high as a two-storey house, on top of which stood old, gnarled hawthorn bushes. Their black or grey, lichen-covered stems and branches had all been bent to the same side by the wind, also a few elder bushes.
The ground we walked on was completely covered with large grey stones, chalk and shells.
To the right the sea, as calm as a pond, reflecting the delicate grey sky where the sun was setting. It was ebb tide and the water was very low.

Ramsgate, 1 May 1876
 And now you ask what I have to teach the boys; chiefly French, fundamentals, one boy has started to learn German, and also a variety of things like sums, hearing them their lessons, giving dictations &c. For the time being, then, giving the lessons isn’t so difficult, but it’ll be more difficult to make the boys learn them….
Outside school hours, of course, the boys are pretty much under my supervision, and that takes up quite a lot of my time and will probably do so more and more. Last Saturday night I washed 6 or so of the young gentlemen; I did this for fun, though, and because it helped us to finish on time, not because I had to do it. I’ve also tried to get them to read, I have quite a few things that would be suitable for them….
Ramsgate, 6 May 1876
It’s already Saturday evening again; the weather’s beautiful today: the sea is very calm and it’s low tide at the moment, the sky is a delicate whitish blue with a haze in the distance. Early this morning it was also beautiful, everything was clear, where now it’s more or less hazy.
This town has something very singular, one notices the sea in everything….
These are really happy days, the ones I’m spending here, day after day, and yet it’s a happiness and peacefulness that I don’t trust entirely, though one thing can lead to another.

A person isn’t easily satisfied, one moment he finds things far too good and the next he’s not satisfied enough. But I’m saying this by the by, we would do better not to talk about it, but rather continue quietly on our way….
Ramsgate, 31 May 1876
My dear Theo,
Bully for you, being in Etten on 21 May, happily there were 4 of the 6 at home.  Pa wrote to me in detail about everything that happened that day. Thanks, too, for your last letter.
Have I already written to you about the storm I saw recently? The sea was yellowish, especially close to the beach; a streak of light on the horizon and, above this, tremendously huge dark grey clouds from which one saw the rain coming down in slanting streaks. The wind blew the dust from the small white path on the rocks into the sea and tossed the blossoming hawthorn bushes and wallflowers that grow on the rocks.
On the right, fields of young green wheat, and, in the distance, the town with its towers, mills, slate roofs and houses built in Gothic style, and, below, the harbour between the 2 jetties running out into the sea….
…I also saw the sea last Sunday night, everything was dark grey, but day was beginning to break on the horizon. It was still very early,  and yet a lark was already singing. And the nightingales in the gardens on the sea-front. In the distance the light of the lighthouse, the guard-ship &c.
That same night I looked out of the window of my room onto the roofs of the houses one sees from there and the tops of the elms, dark against the night sky. Above those roofs, one single star, but a nice, big friendly one. And I thought of us all, and I thought of the years of my life that had already passed, and of our home, and the words and feeling came to me, ‘Keep me from being a son that causeth shame,  give me Your blessing, not because I deserve it, but for my Mother’s sake. Thou art Love, beareth all things.Without your constant blessing we can do nothing.’
Herewith a little drawing of the view from the school window where the boys stand and watch their parents going back to the station after a visit. Many a boy will never forget the view from that window…
View of Royal Road, Ramsgate - Vincent van Gogh
You should have seen it this week when we had rainy days, especially in the twilight when the  street-lamps are being lit and their light is reflected in the wet street.
Mr.  Stokes was sometimes moody during those days, and when the boys were too boisterous for him it sometimes happened that they didn’t get their bread and tea in the evening. You should have seen them then, standing at the window looking out, it was really rather sad. They have so little apart from their food and drink to look forward to and to get them through the day. I’d also like you to see them going down the dark stairs and small corridor to table. On that, however, the friendly sun shines.
Another extraordinary place is the room with the rotten floor where there are 6 basins at which they wash themselves, with only a feeble light falling onto the washstand through a window with broken panes. It’s quite a melancholy sight, to be sure. How I’d like to spend or to have spent a winter with them, to know what it’s like.
The youngsters are making an oil stain on your little drawing, forgive them….


Filed under Art, Travel- England

Sex and Despair at the seaside: T. S. Eliot On Margate Sands

In September, 1921, T. S. Eliot was having what his wife Vivien described as a ‘nervous –or so called – breakdown’.[1] The month began with severe headaches and as it progressed he found himself feeling ‘nervous and shaky (with) very little self-control’,[2] liable to feelings of intense and unfocused anxiety when worried or exhausted.[3]

Exhaustion could never have been far away: he had been carrying a superhuman work load. His day job was demanding enough: he worked for Lloyds Bank as an analyst of financial conditions in post-war Europe. He was at his desk 9.30 to 5.30 every weekday, as well as working one Saturday in four. In the evenings and weekends when he wasn’t working he had a round of article and review writing to complete, and the composition of a long poem (The Waste Land) that was to have a major impact on English poetry, a poetry he had been in the process of transforming since his adoption of a new way of writing in 1909.[4] And he still found time to conduct a voluminous correspondence, engage in negotiations about a journal he was eventually to edit (The Criterion) and to carry out the kind of reading programme necessary to sustain his poetic and intellectual activities. Add to that the difficulties with his wife Vivien that most people believe can be seen reflected in Part 11 of The Waste Land (‘A Game At Chess’)[5], the massive European tragedy of the Great War, which lies behind the first section of that poem (‘The Burial of the Dead’), and it becomes obvious why Eliot was feeling a tad shaky.

At his wife’s insistence, Eliot took advice, and was prescribed an absolute break. He decided to head for the sea, planning first to go to Eastbourne,[6] but ending up at Margate, staying in the Albemarle Hotel in the then fashionable Cliftonville district.  The Albermarle – ‘a very nice tiny hotel, marvellously comfortable and inexpensive’[7] – has long since disappeared under redevelopment.

Cliftonville, August 2011

Little remains from Cliftonville’s glory days, celebrated in an execrable poem by John Betjeman, who writes of hotels with generously furnished tables…

Oh! then what a pleasure to see the ground floor
With tables for two laid as tables for four,
And bottles of sauce and Kia-Ora and squash
Awaiting their owners who’d gone up to wash –

It’s 1940, and Betjeman concludes:

And I think, as the fairy-lit sights I recall,
It is those we are fighting for, foremost of all.

A better idea of the area that Eliot experienced can be got from this 1918 photo and the others on the website:,kent/photos/the-bungalow-tea-rooms-1918_68437/

Once at Margate, Eliot took stock and decided that the causes of his condition lay deeper than the demands of the present and the events of the recent past. Writing to the American poet Richard Aldington he claimed:

I am satisfied since being here, that my ‘nerves’ are a very mild affair, due, not to overwork, but to an aboulie[8] and emotional derangement which has been a lifelong affliction.[9]

Nevertheless, on many days he managed to walk into Margate proper, past the Winter Gardens…

  …and sit himself down in Nayland Rock Promenade Shelter, now a listed building, largely because of Eliot’s presence there:


To Sidney Schiff he wrote:

I have done a rough draft of part of part 111 {of The Waste Land}, but do not know whether it will do, and must wait for Vivien’s opinion as to whether it was printable. I have done this while sitting in a shelter on the front – as I am out all day except when taking rest. But I have written only some fifty lines, and have read nothing, literally – I sketch the people, after a fashion, and practice scales on the mandoline (sic)

A deep inner certainty guided me to the exact spot on which Eliot sat sketching and composing poetry

Eliot continued:

I rather dread being in town at all – one becomes dependent, too, on sea or mountains, which give some sense of security in which one relaxes.[10]

Relaxing sea views of the kind enjoyed by the future Nobel laureate

Ackroyd plausibly suggests that the section Eliot wrote is the fifty or so pencil lines in the manuscript beginning

The river sweats

Oil and tar….

Valerie Eliot’s facsimile edition of the manuscript shows that the famous lines

“On Margate Sands.

I can connect

Nothing with nothing…

…didn’t come all at once. Originally there stood:

I was to be grateful. On Margate sands

There were many others. I can connect

Nothing with nothing. He had

I still feel the pressure of dirty hand[11]

Eliot seems to have crossed out the phrases in (my) italics first, then put a wavy line through the whole passage having first underlined, as I’ve done, certain words, which were preserved in the final version.

Untidily dressed, overweight man contemplating the greatness of others

The draft continues:

The broken finger nails of dirty hands.

My people are plain (substitute: humble) people, who expect


The poet contemplates either his own finger nails or those of the ‘many others’ – or even, given the deleted ‘pressure of dirty hand’ of a particular person who’s touched him – and finds nothing but dirt and decay, and a mind that reduces reality to meaningless fragments. Then the fine ending to this part of the poem:

la la

To Carthage then I came

Burning burning burning burning

O Lord thou pluckest me out

O Lord thou pluckest


It was St Augustine who came to Carthage (‘to Carthage then I came, where a cauldron of unholy loves sang all about mine ears’) and was later plucked out of his sinful life. The ‘burning burning’ is from Buddha’s Fire Sermon – Eliot was deeply interested in Buddhism at this time, and, as he puts it in a note, ‘The collocation of these two representatives of eastern and western asceticism, as the culmination of this part of the poem, is not an accident.’

Quite. Buddha’s fire is of human desire, although some translations have it more narrowly as ‘lust’, which is what I think Eliot had mainly in mind.

In other words, part of the poet’s mental disturbance is taking the form of disgust with sex – the speaker of the line ‘My people humble people, who expect/Nothing’ is a woman (a Thames Maiden) who has succumbed to temptation in a canoe at Richmond.

Now, many people have noted this ‘sex disgust’ in The Waste Land, and in particular in Part 111, ‘The Fire Sermon’, which includes the lines written at Margate, but Old Possum has a surprise in store:

My friend, blood shaking my heart,

The awful daring of a moment’s surrender

Which an age of prudence can never retract

By this, and this only, we have existed,

Which is not to be found in our obituaries…[12]

Aha! So in the waste land it’s only the brief excitement of (probably illicit) sex that makes life worth living, and what a well-kept secret that is! So much for the distaste for sex expressed in the Margate shelter lines – unlikely to have been fuelled by goings-on around him, by the way, as people were more sedate on beaches in those days, and there are plenty of other sections of the poem, written elsewhere, that show the same attitude.

I don’t think that the poem is quite as despairing as some people have made out either. It’s structured around a quest for two things: rain and a resurrected god, symbols of the return of life to the personal, national and continental waste land. In the final section, ‘What the Thunder Said’, we get the arrival of the first:

Then a damp gust

Bringing rain.[13]

Of course, there are a number of images of drought even after the rain arrives – this is a modernist poem, and nothing is going to be unambiguous, least of all hope. In a similar way, we are left uncertain as to the presence of the resurrected god, the one we’ve been searching for since the first part, ‘The Burial of the Dead’, in which Madame Sosostris failed to find the Hanged Man (54-55):

Who is the third who walks always beside you?

When I count, there are only you and I together

But when I look ahead up the white road

There is always another one walking beside you

Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded

I do not know whether a man or a woman

– But who is that on the other side of you?

(‘What the Thunder Said’, 359-365)

This is based on an optical/mental illusion experienced on Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-17 polar expedition, and it could be that the idea of resurrection is also just a chimera – Eliot’s note tells us that the journey to Emmaus, where Jesus is described as appearing to two disciples, is one of the things behind part V of the poem. Or it could be that the illusion, in true modernist fashion, points to a reality: not the Christian resurrection, as Eliot’s conversion is still five or so years in the future, but some hope of regeneration that can only be articulated in symbols.

And even after these two pieces of tentative and uncertain hope, we see European culture collapsing in the mind of the poem’s protagonist: The Waste Land ends with a multilingual splurge of seemingly disconnected quotations, and the cry:

These fragments I have shored against my ruins (430).

Not quite ends, though, as the final line is the three times repeated Hindu invocation to complete peace:

Shantih shantih shantih (433)

One commentator claims to hear the sound of fertilizing rain falling on the waste land in the sound of this line, which strikes me as a bit optimistic: irony, or the usual modernist ambiguity seems to me much more likely.

In any case, I was in a good mood when we visited Margate…

‘On Margate sands’… I felt not too bad, thank you for asking

…and, as someone from a milieu that’s been through post-structuralism I wouldn’t expect European culture to yield anything but fragments, and I’m just glad they’re such exhilarating ones. And I know that there are no ‘fragments’ – at least in the case of immaterial things like ‘culture’ – just ways of seeing things as fragments.

And however sad and exhausted he felt there Eliot ended up ‘very sorry to leave’ Margate.[14] If Vivien was right, his stay, as well as producing some fine poetry, did him good:

It is not quite a fortnight yet, but he looks already younger, and fatter and nicer. He is quite good and not unhappy, keeping regular hours and being out in this wonderful air nearly every day.[15]

Margate the August day I went was a pretty gloomy place: Margate Sands did not have Eliot’s ‘many others’ –there was hardly anyone there in what should have been peak season, most of the seafront shops were empty, and the Turner Contemporary is closed on Mondays. It seems, moreover, to have had something of a reputation for gloom even in 1921, as Vivien Eliot wrote to Bertrand Russell, ‘Tom…is at present at Margate, of all cheerful spots! But he seems to like it!’.[16]

So my good mood had a lot to do with the events of October 1921, with the presence and activity of  T. S. Eliot. Margate or almost anywhere without the great writers who have left their ghosts behind – what cauchemar! [17]

Note: there’s an excellent online annotated text of the poem:

[1] The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume 1, 482.

[2] Letters, 471.

[3] Peter Ackroyd, T. S. Eliot, 113.

[4] Of course, nothing’s ever absolutely new, and Eliot’s complex, tough, despairing, urban writing has plenty of precedent, not just among French poets like Baudelaire and Laforgue, but in British ones like William Henley and John Davidson. Nevertheless, Eliot’s intellectual and poetic force was so much greater than any of his English language precursors that I feel that this is one of those rare occasions when the overworked idea of a  poetic ‘revolution’ is appropriate.

[5] Ackroyd, -114 – claims that the relationship was still good at this stage, but his only evidence is the fact that Eliot still relied on his wife, both practically and as judge of his poetry, which hardly seems to rule out serious emotional difficulties.

[6] Letters, 471.

[7] Vivien Eliot in Letters, 481.

[8] Pathological lack of will power.

[9] Letters, 486

[10] Letters, 485.

[11] T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript, 53

[12] Section V, 402-406.

[13] Section V, 393-4.

[14] Letters, 487.

[15] Letters, 479

[16] Letters, 482.

[17] ‘Nightmare’ – see Eliot’s poem ‘Portrait of a Lady’.

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Filed under 'Mental Illness', Modernity, T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, Travel- England, Writers