February 15, 2022

FOUR ENGLISH POETS . . . A personal choice (2)

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Screen Shot 2022-02-11 at 19.18.31Was there ever such a yawning gulf between a man and his words as with AE Housman? By all accounts he was prissy, pedantic and and vindictive towards Cambridge undergraduate pupils who failed to meet his expectations in their studies of the classics. He was memorably described as “descended for a long line of maiden aunts”. He never knew reciprocated love. His homosexual yearning for one or two men of his acquaintance was never returned, given the grim frown society bestowed on such things at the time. And yet he wrote some of the most passionate, evocative and memorable poems in the English language, poems which spoke of love, death and grief – all set against a haunted – and haunting – English landscape.

I speak, of course, about A Shropshire Lad, a collection of sixty three poems published, initially at his own expense, in 1896. If we are looking for irony and contradictions here, perhaps the most startling is that the poems were written in his house in Highgate, London – some 150 miles from the hills and valleys where the poems were set. There is little evidence that Housman even knew – first hand – Shropshire well at all. He was born in a village near Bromsgrove, and although Worcestershire shares a border with Shropshire, there is no line of sight between the two locations. Bredon Hill, however – which he immortalised in one of his most celebrated poems – is in Worcestershire, and is perhaps one of his “blue remembered hills.”

Housman was a classical scholar, and his day job was that of a university lecturer, first in London and then in Cambridge. Although his ashes (he died in 1936) are buried in Ludlow churchyard, there is little to connect – physically – Housman with Shropshire. So what prompted him to immortalise such places as Bredon, Clun, Ludlow and Wenlock Edge? Better scholars than I have discussed this without providing a definitive answer, but for what it’s worth, I think the answer may be that the poems are an extended metaphor involving Housman’s homosexuality.

MJJIt is a matter of record that the love of Housman’s life was a fellow Oxford student, Moses John Jackson (right). The passion was in one direction only, and Jackson later placed some geographical distance between himself and Housman. So what has this to do with the poetry? The pervading theme in A Shropshire Lad is a longing, a yearning for something that can never come again, places and people irretrievably lost, a memory of earlier years. Housman never courted a lass In Summertime On Bredon, and although Jackson died at a respectable old age, just months before Housman, there is a palpable sense of longing in the words “by brooks too broad for leaping, the light-foot lads are laid”. It is hard to ignore that the central characters in many of the poems are young men who died early. Take the two young men who speak in “Is My Team Ploughing?” One is dead and buried, but longs for information about his old life. The other speaks to him kindly, but is sleeping with the dead man’s former girlfriend.

“Is my friend hearty,
Now I am thin and pine?
And has he found to sleep in
A better bed than mine?”

“Yes lad I lie easy,
I lie as lads would choose.
I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart,
Never ask me whose.”

Moses John Jackson didn’t die early, but he may as well have done in terms of his relationship with Housman. The love that Housman felt was inexpressible in those days, at least in public. Instead, he constructed a beautiful metaphor (best summed up in his words below) which has entranced readers – while they may not fully comprehend it – ever since.

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

One of the most striking things about the poems in A Shropshire Lad is how natural they are as musical lyrics. Rather in the same way the words of Goethe and Schiller captivated Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann, Housman’s poems proved irresistible to a generation of English composers. in the early twentieth century. Most of these were hardly names to rival the great Germans, but one was a giant. Perhaps the most English of composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams, set six of the poems in a song cycle called On Wenlock Edge. I will put a case for onother composer, George Butterworth. Had he survived The Great War, he would now stand alongside Purcell, Elgar and RVW as giants of English music. His setting of Is My Team Ploughing? is as poignant and heartbreaking as anything penned by Schubert. You can listen to the song by clicking the video below.


TRUE CRIME STORY . . . Between the covers

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If crime writers could win bravery awards, then Joseph Knox would certainly awarded the Military Medal, if not DSO or higher. Having written three well-received novel featuring flawed Manchester copper Aidan Waits (click for reviews), he killed him off, albeit ambiguously, and has now written a novel called True Crime Story. First up, a kind of spoiler, but it has to be done. The key is in the third word of the title. The people who are central to this book never existed. The victim, a university student called Zoe Nolan exists only in Joseph Knox’s head. Such is the authentic tone of the writing, I had to do a quick internet search, but Zoe Nolan never lived. She never disappeared, and those who make up the narrative – her family and friends – are equally imaginary.

Screen Shot 2022-02-15 at 19.29.28If you can get your head around the idea, Knox (left) plays himself here and the book is a series of statements, made to a fellow author by a cast of characters who were part of Zoe’s life. Initially, we have her parents, her twin sister, and an array of other young people who were part of her life prior to her disappearance after a night clubbing in Manchester, but as Zoe Nolan is gradually transformed into someone with a huge bag of secrets slung over her shoulder, more voices are added to the account.

The beauty of this narrative device is that we have no idea who is telling the truth, or whose words are reliable. We may even be reading a clever defensive account from the person responsible for her demise. The skill, of course, is making each statement equally plausible, even though some of the statements are contradictory. Knox sets us a challenge. We are judge and jury. Who is credible? Who has invented a tale to cover up their own complicity in events? Or, even more extreme, is there someone talking who isn’t the person they claim to be?

As clever as this is, Knox has to make the most of it, as it will only work once. It makes the reader do the work in a way that a standard crime mystery does not. In a regulation police procedural, the investigating officer takes in information, and he or she makes judgments on our behalf. We follow their reasoning and, although they sometimes make mistakes, we rarely see the error before they do.

tcs013 copyThe statements made by the ‘witnesses’ give us an overview – albeit imperfect, given that we don’t know who to trust – of the hours leading up to Zoe’s disappearance, and the months and years which led up to a promising young singer being rejected by the Royal Northern Collegee of Music and having to settle for a less prestigious place at Manchester University.

Just when you think things couldn’t become more complicated, they do. Having got used to the concept that the Joseph Knox in the book isn’t the real Joseph Knox ( a kind of Schrödinger’s Author, if you will), and there never was an Evelyn Mitchell with whom he corresponds, the flesh and blood Joseph Knox, who I have met and spoken to, has his alter ego throw more spanners into the narrative, by way of a ‘Publisher’s Note’ saying that as this (the paperback copy) is the second edition of the book, since the first edition ‘new information’ unavailable at the time the first book went to the printers, has been added ‘for clarity’.

So what happens in the end? Of course I am not going to tell you, but unless they cheat and read the book from the back, I think it will be a clever person  who predicts the outcome. This uses one of the cleverest narrative devices I have ever come across, and is an intriguing read. The problem is that anyone with an ounce of curiosity is going to Google Zoe Nolan and will, within seconds, the conjuror’s rabbit has not so much escaped from the hat, but been skinned, jointed and put in the pot for dinner.

True Crime Story came out in hardback and Kindle in June 2021 and this paperback version will be out in March. It is published by Penguin.

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