It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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I love the smell of old paper in the morning

Inspired by Pornokitsch’s book porn post earlier today, I have decided to share some of the older, and perhaps less obviously the sort of books I would buy, books in my collection. And here they are…

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I bought The Life and Works of Jahiz on abebooks after reading and enjoying Robert Irwin’s The Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, but I’ve, er, never got around to reading it. It was published in 1969, so it’s not especially old – in fact, it’s younger than me. But I suspect very few people I know also possess a copy. (I see there’s a single copy for sale on Amazon… for £129.99.)

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I’ve tried my hand at poetry, and a few of my attempts have been published, but I’ve found the poetry that appeals to me most is that of the 1930s and 1940s, such as by the Cairo poets. Here I have three collections by Terence Tiller: Reading a Medal (1957), Poems (1941) and The Inward Animal (1943); Richard Spender’s Collected Poems (1944); and John Jarmain’s Poems (1945). They were bought at antique fairs, on eBay, or from Abebooks.

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And here are two poetry anthologies from that period. New Verse (1939) features photographs of the contributors at the end and appears to have been annotated in pencil by a previous owner. Poetry of the Present (1949) has a review slip in it, giving the exact publication date as April 28th 1949 and price as 10/6.

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My favourite poet is probably Bernard Spencer, and here are a couple of hard-to-find chapbooks: The Twist in the Plotting (1960) and With Luck Lasting (1963).

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I first came across the Cairo poets via the Lawrence Durrell connection. During WWII, there were two groups of poets and writers in Egypt – both serving in the armed forces and civilians. Durrell and Spencer were in the Personal Landscape group, centred around a journal with that title. The other group was called Salamander after its magazine, and later published three collections of poetry by armed forces personnel: Oasis (1943), Return to Oasis (1980) and From Oasis into Italy (1983). (I can’t find any copies of Oasis online to link to, unfortunately.)

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Middle East Anthology of Prose and Verse (1946) is, er, exactly that. It includes Lawrence Durrell, John Jarmain, Bernard Spencer, Keith Douglas and Olivia Manning, among others. The book lacking a dustjacket is Personal Landscape (1945), like Oasis above, an anthology drawn from the pages of the magazine of the same name, which includes, er, Lawrence Durrell, John Jarmain, Bernard Spencer, Keith Douglas and Olivia Manning, among others.

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From verse to prose – three novels from the 1930s and 1940s. Priddy Barrows (1944) is Jarmain’s only novel – he was killed in WWII. I wrote about it here. Copies of both Priddy Barrows and his poetry collection are, it seems, now impossible to find. At First Sight (1935) is Nicholas Monsarrat’s second novel, and This Is The Schoolroom (1939) is his fourth (but my copy is a 1947 reprint).

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Finally, a couple of books about bathyscaphes. Seven Miles Down (1961) is the only book written specifically about the voyage of the Trieste to the floor of Challenger Deep in 1960. I wrote about it here. 2000 Fathoms Down covers descents in a bathyscaphe by the two authors during the 1940s and 1950s.


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Forgotten Classic… or Just Forgotten?

After reading some poems by John Jarmain in Return to Oasis: War Poems and Recollections from the Middle East 1940 – 1946 (see here), I wanted to read more. I hunted down a copy of his book of poems – titled, of course, Poems – on Advanced Book Exchange, and purchased it. I also learnt he had written a novel, Priddy Barrows, published the year before his death. This proved even rarer than Poems, with only two copies available on Advanced Book Exchange… and all the other hits on the Web leading back to one or the other of those two.

Anyway, I bought one of the copies.

And now I’ve read it.

The title, Priddy Barrows, refers to a school for handicapped boys located on the edge of the Mendips and run by a Napoleonesque headmaster called Captain Nelson Hayes. The novel recounts the events of a year in the lives of the people connected with, or living near, the school. Gerald Trested is one such. He sold his bookshop in London to come and teach at Priddy Barrows is set in the late 1930s – Nelson Hayes fought in the Great War – but there is something about the story which makes it feel as though it were set earlier. The novel is not a typical beginning – middle – end sort of story. Trested’s arrival at the school is not the start, nor is his eventual breaking of his engagement with Linda Ysaye the end. Having said that, nearly every character in the novel does undergo some form of story-arc, each of which intersects as the characters’ lives intersect. (The exceptions are the Turls, who end the book pretty much as they began it.)

I wanted to read Priddy Barrows after reading Jarmain’s poetry. So it was Jarmain’s use of language which had attracted me – was his prose as good as his poetry? And the answer is… yes and no. In parts, Priddy Barrows prose is very good indeed. Unfortunately, the whole book has been presented in a weirdly old-fashioned style, with paragraphs comprising single sentences, punctuated by semicolons and colons rather than full stops. It makes for an odd reading experience. Here’s a good example of the prose – it shows both the odd punctuation, and Jarmain’s strength as a descriptive writer:

They were the skaters who came up from Wells and the vale to this frozen pond in the old mine working: they played the headlights of their cars on the ice, white upon the black, and waltzed and laughed and cut patterns in their little ring in the saucer of the black frozen abandoned hills. Their lights cross-crossed closely over the circle of ice, and spreading beyond it were swallowed in the huge blackness which they could not penetrate; their cries and their gliding movement were to Luke, looking down on them from the distant barrow, like the brief hectic activity of human life as a god might see it: their fixed swift motion within the little lit compass of the ice was perfectly self-centred; nothing existed for them of the grave-strewn dark immensity of the hills beyond the beam of their lights.

Another aspect of the novel which impresses is the handling of the central relationship between Gerald Trested and Linda Ysaye. Linda dominates the relationship inasmuch as she is certain of what she wants. But the tentativeness Trested initially displays is later revealed to be apathy. He is handled sympathetically, although his story leaves him in an unsympathetic position of his own making. I suspect the journeys taken by the characters in Priddy Barrows may in themselves be classical allusions, but if so they were beyond me. The novel’s dénouement, however, throws all that has gone before on its head. Which sort of reminds me of Lawrence Durrell’s The Avignon Quintet.

Coincidentally, Durrell is a writer I very much admire for his descriptive prose and use of language. For example, the two images described below I find very striking:

A white sailing boat lay like a breathing butterfly against the white mole.
(from The Dark Labyrinth, Lawrence Durrell)

and

In that clear hard enamel air the human voice carried so far that it was possible to call and wave to her from the top while she walked the Plaka streets below.

(from Tunc, Lawrence Durrell)

So, is Priddy Barrows a forgotten classic? Sadly, no.

Even for its time, it’s written in a strangely old-fashioned style. And the plot, comprising as it does a knot of character stories – each of which seems to flit between Brontë, Austen and Dickens – only makes the novel feel more old-fashioned still. Jarmain has a fine eye for landscape, he draws his characters with skill and economy (although rendering Vowles’ Somerset accent phonetically is a bit annoying), and at times his prose displays a wonderful turn of phrase. But Priddy Barrows is a debut novel, and it promises more than, sadly, Jarmain ever had the chance to deliver.

Yes, I will read the book again one day. And I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that I like and appreciate it more after that reread.


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They went with songs to the battle…

Today is Remembrance Day, so it seems entirely appropriate that I post a poem by John Jarmain.

Tel-el-Eisa
Tel-el-Eisa is Jesus’ hill,
Or so they say:
There the bitter guns were never still,
Throwing up yellow plumes of sand by day
And piercing the night across.
There the desert telephone’s long lonely line expires,
Ends with a tangle of looping wires
And one last leaning cross.

Jarmain, a World War II poet, was killed by a mortar round in Normandy in 1944. His collection, Poems, was published posthumously in 1945. I now have a copy – bought from a seller on abebooks.com. The collection’s back cover blurb describes Jarmain as having “an original vision and a lyric voice”, and I’d very much agree with that. There are some wonderful poems in the book and they deserve to be much better known.


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War, and the Pity of War…

At the beginning of this year, I bought an anthology of World War II poetry on eBay, Return to Oasis: War Poems and Recollections from the Middle East 1940 – 1946, edited by Victor Selwyn, Erik de Mauny, Ian Fletcher, GS Fraser and John Waller, and published in 1980. Unfortunately, I’d misread the description of the book on eBay and thought it contained poetry by Lawrence Durrell, but in fact he only provided the introduction. Return to Oasis was based on Oasis, an anthology published in Cairo during World War II, and used the same criteria for inclusion: “the poet must have served in the Forces in the Middle East theatre of war in the 1940s and have written his or her poems at that time.”

So I received the book, flicked through it, realised I’d made a mistake, and stuck it up on my book-shelves. Where it languished unread until today.

There is a poetry forum moderated by Marion Arnott on Interaction, the T3A Publications board. One of its threads is about war poetry and, being an admirer of Wilfred Owen‘s poetry, I’ve posted to the thread. But everyone knows Owen’s poems, so today I decided to contribute something a little different to the discussion. Remembering the copy of Return to Oasis on my book-shelves, I got it down, opened it at random… and discovered John Jarmain.

Like Wilfred Owen, Jarmain did not survive the war which formed the subject of his poetry. Unlike Owen, he seems to have been completely, and criminally, forgotten – a single collection published posthumously in 1945, and a single small press reissue of that collection in 1998. On the strength of the four poems by John Jarmain published in Return to Oasis, he certainly deserves to be remembered. Here is one of those poems:

At a War Grave
No grave is rich, the dust that herein lies
Beneath this white cross mixing with the sand
Was vital once, with skill of eye and hand
And speed of brain. These will not re-arise
These riches, nor will they be replaced;
They are lost and nothing now, and here is left
Only a worthless corpse of sense bereft,
Symbol of death, and sacrifice and waste.

So there you go. I’m now glad I “accidentally” bought Return to Oasis. And I think I might try and find myself a copy of Jarmain’s Poems from 1945. He also wrote a novel, Priddy Barrows, described as “with a Brontë-like atmosphere and a cast of vivid characters”. That sounds like it might be an interesting read, too…

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