Friday, 5 February 2016

I Carry an Owl to Athens.

by Wolfgang Hildesheimer.
(translated by Joachim Neugroschel)

      One evening a year ago, I stood on the Acropolis and, with a sense of deep fulfillment, I released an owl that I had carried to Athens.
   My decision to do so had taken shape one night when I couldn't sleep. In such dark hours, I make decisions that I then immediately carry out, circumstances at all permitting. This new and so far perhaps boldest decision could not be put into effect all that easily, but its realization could be prepared right away. I dressed and went off to see my bird dealer. His shop is closed at night, needless to say; regular patrons use a concealed night bell. I rang and was soon standing among cloth-draped cages in the nocturnal dimness of the bird shop. The owner asked me what I would like.
   "An owl, please," I said.
   "Aha," he said, winking, as if relishing the shrewd expertise of his client. "You're a connoisseur. Most customers make the mistake of selecting an owl in daylight. Should I gift-wrap it?"
   "No. It's for me. I'd like to carry it to Athens."
   "To Athens---aha!" The bird dealer slowly rubbed his chin with his thumb and forefinger, making the stubble crunch. He said, "Well, then I'd recommend a little owlet. I'm afraid that long-eared owls or barn owls would not be up to the vicissitudes of a lengthy journey. A little owlet, on the other hand, is tough, and its size is more than manageable---"
   "Carry an owlet to Athens?" I said slowly, testing the idea with quiet skepticism. The very rhythm did not appeal to me.
   "The same family," the owner said. I held my tongue. "Nocturnal birds of prey," he added, spurred by the stubbornness of my silence. He was obviously unfamiliar with the nature of my qualms.
   Some of my readers may have possibly experienced a similar dilemma and therefore understand my doubts. In any case, I must confess, common sense won out over philological nit-picking: I bought the owlet. It did not seem worth running the risk of having an owl die shortly before I reached my destination, merely for the sake of all too pedantically refuting an ancient and utterly absurd presumption. Above all, I did not wish to violate the owl's soul by making its bearer the victim of classical associations. Man knows that God created him in His image, and he often has a hard time bearing this burden. But simile and similitude are alien to an animal, and, in my opinion, its animal dignity is enhanced by its ignorance of even the simplest fable about itself. Such were my musings as I walked home through the silent streets, loaded down with the owlet in a brass cgae and a large package of Hartz's owl seed. For my thoughts about essence and being, about man and animals, come to me---if at all---within that dark, suggestive boundary between night and morning, at which hour even a little owlet transcends its earthly shape. I was carrying a symbol in my cage, as it were: the Animal an sich.
   On the other hand, my sense of philological responsibility aroused a malaise, which I vainly tried to escape. What I was carrying in the cage was and would always be an owlet, a bird evoking entirely different images than an owl. While any nonzoologist might mistake it for a real owl, I would know until my dying day that I had carried a little owlet to Athens. In the gray of dawn, I peered at the sleeping bird, which had no inkling of my qualms or its legendary aura; why, the good, harmless creature didn't even sense that it was a little owlet and not an owl. i don't know why I was touched by this latter thought---perhaps, in such hours, I feel more tender stirrings, which bring me closer to creation. In any even, I resolved, come what may to carry this creature to Athens.
   And my resolve was rewarded. Upon consulting The Encyclopedia of Zoology in the morning, I learned that I had, in spite of myself, made the right choice with the little owlet. For, while the barn owl answers to the zoological name of Strix flammea, and the long-eared owl is called Otis vulgaris (which latter adjective is, I am convinced, unfairly borne by this attractive bird), the owlet is known as Athene noctua; and, in viewing the illustration, I realized that this was indeed the bird of the ancient image. here I had it, in black and white, and I need have no qualms about carrying its living likeness to Athens.
   A few days later, I boarded the Orient Express. Sharing my compartment was a gentleman whose exterior bespoke the scholar. He was evidently traveling to Athens, albeit, of course, on a different mission. With restrained curiosity, he watched me stowing the cage on the baggage rack; and while I sat down and pulled my Pausanias from my pocket, his eyes remained glued to the bird, which slept quietly on its perch.
   "An owl," I confirmed, without looking up from my book, feeling a profound peace of mind, a release from all doubts.
  "A little owlet," he said.
  "As you like," I said, looking up from my book after all. "In any case, this bird suits my purpose to a T."
   "Are you by any chance," the gentleman asked with a lurking expression, "carrying this bird to Athens?"
   "That is indeed my intention."
   Now, the gentleman smiled. Inserting a mark into his book, he closed it, put it aside, and made himself comfortable in his corner, as if preparing for a long discussion of an interesting issue.
   "My young friend," he commenced, "you have failed to read your Aristophanes carefully or else you have misunderstood him!" At this point, he paused as if to leave his demolished victim a choice between those two alternatives. But I did not choose---the charges were false; instead, i casually replied before he had a chance to continue: "I know, I know. It is considered the epitome of superfluousness to carry owls to Athens. I am familiar with this attitude. nevertheless, as you can see, I am carrying such a bird to Athens."
   "You mean a little owlet," the scholar said, a bit sharply, it seemed, as though personally resenting my departure from the custom of taking Athena's bird, whether a little owlet or a real owl, to Athens.
   Casually, almost indolently, i played my trump: "Athena's owl, as we know, was a little owlet. The translation of the word glaukoopis as "owl-eyed" is a philological inaccuracy, which I feel called upon to eradicate." I thereby deprived him of any possibility of retorting.
   Nor did the gentleman retort. he was clearly a philologist, and his share of the traditional guilt left him speechless. He resumed reading, and from that point on (we were already passing the train station at Grosshesselohe), he acted as if the little owlet did not exist. He did not vouchsafe it a word, or even a glance, and I must be grateful to him for that, since the bird did a few things that, retrospectively, may not be worth mentioning, but that may have been viewed as troublesome if not unsuitable in the presence of so many travelers.
   Now for some brief advice for those who, inspired by my example, have made up their minds to follow it: owls not being included in the list of declarable objects, one can resolutely challenge any duty demands made by customs-officials. cages, in contrast, are not duty-free, if they come fresh from the factory; however, a cage tenanted by a little owlet is soon no longer new. Gratuities are recommended, But do not count on sympathy from the train personnel, which is always changing; so if you do not know the tongue and body language of the countries you travel through, you will be unable to defend yourself effectively. On the whole, transporting an owl to Athens, admittedly, involves minor trouble, but it would be mendacious of me to deny that it is worth this trouble. Anyone who hopes for similar fulfillment from such actions as pouring water into the Thames or locking the stable door after the horse has been stolen will, I fear, be bitterly disappointed. Granted, the lack of ideal and material expenditures for these last-mentioned actions is attractive, and one is tempted to perform them, but the slight advantage of their simplicity is profusely made up for by the deep satisfaction one feels upon truly achieving one's goal.
   For when I began climbing towards the Acropolis with my owl cages on the evening of my first day in Athens, i was overcome by a feeling of fervent contentment. I was performing an action that, unlike so many of today's experiments, was not aimed at refuting the theses of yesterday's teachers and do-gooders; rather, the point was to confirm their theses. I was convincing myself how useless it is to carry owls to Athens, not because there are so many there---neither I nor any Athenian I know of has ever seen a single owl in that city! No, the action was useless because owls are as useless there as they ultimately are here. Thus, my bliss will be understood by anyone who, like me, prefers doing things whose conception reveals from the very start that they will lead to nothing, so that seeing them through is a pure and blissful end in itself.
   I bought my ticket, walked through the Propylaea, and halted in front of the Parthenon. With trembling fingers, I opened the cage. It was a grand moment. the owl rose into the air and fluttered away, to the pediment of the temple, where it perched for a while.
   A classical sight! Against the blue night of the Attic sky, which brought out the white of the marble, making it look spectrally beautiful, like porous velvet, my little owlet loomed forth, both a living creature and a symbol. I an no one else had carried it to Athens!
   "Look, Selma," I heard a man next to me say, "that confirms the old saying that it's no use carrying owls to Athens. They even perch on the Parthenon."
   "It's a little owlet," the woman replied.
   The man held his tongue, probably embarrassed. He was most likely a humanist too, and his humanism, as is often the case, had developed at the expense of his zoology. However, the man could be helped. i turned to the two of them, easily recognizing a pair of honeymooners, and said, "It is a little owlet, the true bird of the goddess Pallas Athena. Today, most people still do not know this. But they soon will!"
   With these self-confident words, i walked away, certain of their effect. i had helped the newlywed couple attain a more perfect image of classical reality or at least planted the seed of a correction.
   I sold the cage to a scrap-metal dealer and began my trip home the next day. i am a very busy man and must budget my time very carefully. Self-discipline prohibits my extending at will such escapades from my everyday routine.
   A few weeks later, the little owlet returned to my bird dealer. When a nocturnal bird of prey is tamed, it becomes deeply devoted to its master, a peculiarity that must certainly be counted among the zoological oddities. Nature is full of marvelous mysteries, and it frequently takes only a fluke to fathom one of them.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

David Bomberg's book, 'Russian Ballet', accompanied by 'Les Acrobates' from the ballet 'Parade' (first performed by Ballets Russe in 1917). Music by Erik Satie, performed by Georges Auric and Francis Poulenc on piano (1937).

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Pretty much my favorite video on youtube.

 Czesław Niemen/Akwarele/Marek Piwowski - "Success" (1968).

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

'Where you thinke there is bacon, there is no Chimney.' My Selections from George Herbert's 'Outlandish Proverbs'¹ (1640).

¹⋅ Outlandish here means foreign.

George Herbert (3 April 1593 – 1 March 1633) was a celebrated Public Orator, with the favour of King James I (the Second Solomon), at Cambridge in the 1600s who quit court and public life in order to become a rector in the village of Bemerton. On his deathbed he gave permission for the poetry he had written throughout his life to be published, if it "may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul". He has since been recognised as one of the finest poets Britain has ever produced. Alongside the callings of literature and religion, Herbert was also a collector of proverbs and whilst they may not carry the same degree of insight as his poetry I found myself jotting down many of them as I read through his collections, included in Herbert's complete works. I have typed them up here for no good reason...

2. Hee begins to die, that quits his desires.

12. A good bargaine is a pick-purse.

25. Hee puls with a long rope, that waits for anothers death.

27. A Cake and an ill custome must be broken.

33. God sends cold according to Cloathes.

41. All came from, and will goe to others.

45. A crooked log makes a strait fire.

49. Love and a Cough cannot be hid.

50. A Dwarfe on a Gyants shoulder sees further of the two.

62. A cherefull looke makes a dish a feast.

65. Evening words are not like to morning.

69. Were there no hearers, there would be no backbiters.

99. Where you thinke there is bacon, there is no Chimney.

100. Mend your cloathes, and you may hold out this yeare.

103. A faire wife and a frontire Castle breede quarrels.

111. Give a clowne your finger, and he will take your hand.

120. Keepe good men company, and you shall be of the number.

123. To a boyling pot flies come not.

125. A snow yeare, a rich yeare.

128. Who hath no more bread then neede, must not keepe a dog.

137. Happie is hee that chastens himselfe.

140. Welcome evill, if thou commest alone.

141. Love your neighbour, yet pull not downe your hedge.

143. A drunkards purse is a bottle.

147. Every one stretcheth his legges according to his coverlet.

148. Autumnall agues are long, or mortall.

150. Dally not with mony or women.

152. The best remedy against an ill man is much ground betweene both.

159. Without favour none will know you, and with it you will not know your selfe.

161. Cover your selfe with your shield, and care not for cryes.

162. A wicked mans gift hath a touch of his master.

164. From a chollerick man withdraw a little; from him that saies nothing, for ever.

168. Ever since we weare cloathes, we know not one another.

172. After the house is finisht, leave it.

217. Send a wise man on an errand, and say nothing unto him.

218. In life you lov'd me not, in death you bewaile me.

219. Into a mouth shut flies flie not.

225. Working and making a fire doth discretion require.

230. Honour without profit is a ring on the finger.

232. Honour and profit lie not in one sacke.

235. He that riseth betimes hath some thing in his head.

236. Advise none to marry or to goe to warre.

243. Fine dressing is a foule house swept before the doores.

274. A mountaine and a river are good neighbours.

286. Chuse not an house neere an Inne (viz. for noise) or in a corner (for filth).

287. Hee is a foole that thinks not that another thinks.

288. Neither eyes on letters, nor hands in coffers.

290. Goe not for every griefe to the Physitian, nor for every quarrell to the Lawyer, nor for every thirst to the pot.

291. Good service is a great inchantment.

293. It's no sure rule to fish with a cros-bow.

296. The best mirrour is an old friend.

301. Call me not an olive, till thou see me gathered.

303. Hee that burnes his house warmes himselfe for once.

311. Hee wrongs not an old man that steales his supper from him.

312. The tongue talkes at the heads cost.

319. Peace, and Patience, and death with repentance.

322. Aske much to have a little.

327. A little with quiet is the onely dyet.

328. In vaine is the mill-clacke, if the Miller his hearing lack.

331. Stay till the lame messenger come, if you will know the truth of the thing.

333. Though you rise early, yet the day comes at his time, and not till then.

336. Since you know all, and I nothing, tell me what I dreamed last night.

338. When you are an Anvill, hold you still ; when you are a hammer, strike your ill.

339.Poore and liberall, rich and coveteous.

348. Who eates his cock alone must saddle his horse alone.

349. He that is not handsome at 20, nor strong at 30, nor rich at 40, nor wise at 50, will never bee handsome, strong, rich, or wise.

353. He that hath a mouth of his owne, must not say to another; blow.

358. He that hath no ill fortune is troubled with good.

362. He that owes nothing, if he makes not mouthes at us, is courteous.

366. A married man turns his staffe into a stake.

367. If you would know secrets, looke them in griefe or pleasure.

371. Hee that would bee well old, must bee old betimes.

423. He that hath children, all his morsels are not his owne.

431. Never was strumpet faire.

459. Building is a sweet impoverishing.

471. Warre makes theeves, and peace hangs them.

475. Wealth is like rheume, it falles on the weakest parts.

495. The filth under the white snow, the sunne discovers.

501. Little wealth, little care.

522. A faire death honours the whole life.

574. A gift much expected is paid, not given.

580. Good & quickly seldome meete.

588. A flatterers throat is an open Sepulcher.

656. None is offended but by himselfe.

662. A wise man cares not for what he cannot have.

707. He is onely bright that shines by himselfe.

724. Be what thou wouldst seeme to be.

756. Good workemen are seldome rich.

819. Hunger makes dinners, pastime suppers.

840. They talke of Christmas so long, that it comes.

844. Poverty is no sinne.

897. Hee hath no leisure who useth it not.

913. The first blow is as much as two.

914. The life of man is a winter way.

919. The body is more drest then the soule.

951. Lawyers houses are built on the heads of fooles.

973. With customes wee live well, but Lawes undoe us.

1002. He that hath lands hath quarrells.

1006. Hee that lives in hope danceth without musick.

The following are from the extended 'Jacula Prudentum' edition of 1652:

1035. To go upon the Franciscans Hackney (i.e. on foot).

1048. Whatsoever was the father of a disease, an ill dyet was the mother.

1051. The War is not don so long as my Enemy lives.

1054. Danger it selfe the best remedy for danger.

1055. Favour will as surely perish as life.

1061. They favour learning whose actions are worthy of a learned pen.

1063. No naked man is sought after to be rifled.

1097. A City that parlies is half gotten.

1108. Such a Saint, such an offering.

1128. It is very hard to shave an egge.

1146. Wo be to him that reads but one book.

1159. A man is known to be mortal by two things, Sleep and Lust.

1168. The love of money and the love of learning rarely meet.

1183. Your thoughts close, and your countenance loose.

1184. Whatever is made by the hand of man, by the hand of man may be overturned.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

'...what more does one want but a room, materials, and the National Gallery?
On the whole I am awfully pleased with my existence. I live almost spiritually, looking down with a cynical smile at all the petty little worries of mankind, for I feel that I gracefully float above all these, touching only what is beautiful and worthy. When I look at other men and see what are their worries, their ambitions, their outlooks, I feel that they have in life got hold of the "wrong end of the stick" and that I am really in a way a superman, for in order to be happy they seek unworthy and impossible things whilst I can go out and thrill with happiness over a tree, a blade of grass, a cloud, a child, an onion, any part of nature's innocent work. Have I not the advantage?'

- from a letter by Mark Gertler to William Rothstein (c.1910).

Picture: 'Still Life with Self Portrait' by Mark Gertler (1918).

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Bach's Fantasia in A Minor (BWV 922) played by Robert Hill.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Nothing is more mysterious than the 'seizure' of a personality by a work of art. A work of any of the arts, which may have been familiar for years, suddenly, like an act of focusing, falls into place. Becoming lucent, intelligible - extra dimensional? Whatever phrase you like, but the person to whom it happens is in a state of enlarged being; at the top of their powers, but in tranquility. An experience not of strangeness but of intimacy. 'At that instant her mind was ennobled in Islam' as it was said of the woman in the Arabian Nights.

- Mary Butts (The Crystal Cabinet: My Childhood at Salterns, 1937).

Picture: 'In the Hold' by David Bomberg (1913-14).

Friday, 26 July 2013

In Search of Spencer's Cookham.

I took a trip to find the some of the places, in his beloved Cookham, that Sir Stanley Spencer included in his paintings.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Thursday, 18 July 2013

By what chance, or worse what law of the universe was she set there in the road to power and success, unbreakable yet tormenting with the need to conquer and break? ... Those nights of imagined copulation, when one thought not of love nor sensation nor comfort nor triumph, but of torture rather, the very rhythm of the body reinforced by hissed ejaculations - take that and that! That for your pursed mouth and that for your pink patches, your closed knees, your impregnable balance on the high, female shoes - and that if it kills you for your magic and your isled virtue!

- William Golding (Pincher Martin, 1956).

Picture: 'Homme et Femme' by Félix Vallotton (1913).

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

'There was more life about the place, and less.'

- Mary Butts (The Crystal Cabinet: My Childhood at Salterns, 1937).

Picture: 'La Baiser en Pincettes' by Charles Maurin (c.1910).

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

'The crown of petals is the flower's panties. Rip them off and you will have public indecency. They were the pre-adamic fig leaf of nature before the first Eve wore that leaf as her own crown of petals.'

- Malcolm de Chazal (Sens-Plastique, 1948).

Picture: Azorina vidalii (Glockenblume/Bell-flower) with and without petals by Karl Blossfeldt from the second series of 'Art Forms in Nature' (1932).

Monday, 24 June 2013

Tuesday, 18 June 2013


"Teacher, I saw Mirrinia crying in the neighbouring grove today. She was beating her breast and swearing that there was no man on earth more unbending than you... She even threatened to commit suicide, like Teleboia... Why do you drive them away?"
"You desire to know, Haemonian, why I rejected the love of blue-eyed Mirrinia, why I chased away white-handed Teleboia when she came to me in a black cloak? My dear, can you really not have noticed that all women in the world are as nothing for me?"
O thrice-great Orpheus, O my teacher, so many years have passed since you lost Eurydice. Can it be that even now your inconsolable heart still yearns for her?"
"No, my boy, I do not long for the wife I left behind in Tartarus. And if the god who rules the underworld were to release her once again to the surface of the earth and she were to come to me in Haemonia - believe me - I would only turn away from her in silence."
"Teacher, but didn't you love her? Or is the talk of how you descended to the depths of Hades for the sake of your wife just idle gossip? I have heard that terrible Pluto himself was touched by the music of your lyre and your sad song. I have heard that he allowed you to take Eurydice away, to the bright expanse under the curve of the azure sky. And only because you failed to heed his injunction not to look at her until you were completely out of Tartarus did the winged god Hermes draw her back down to black Hades... Isn't this true, son of the sweet-sounding Muse? ... But forgive me, you are frowning, no doubt I've touched on an unhealed wound in your anguished heart."
For a time there was silence on the crown of the cypress-covered hill. Orpheus sat on the gentle slope. A large black panther lay near him amongst the motley flowers; purring, she arched her back against the singer's caressing hand. The twitching end of the bloodthirsty animal's tail beat playfully on the green grass. On the lower branches of a cypress hung the lyre of glorious renown. Hushed birds sat in the trees all around. They had come from afar to listen to Orpheus.
The Thracian now stopped caressing the animal, and fixing his gaze in the direction of the distant ravines, he spoke in a thoughtful tone, "You have been told the truth, O Antimachus, but not the whole truth. I repeat, if the woman I once called my Eurydice were to return from the dark realm, my heart would not ache with sweet pain. Women and girls no longer exist for me on this earth, washed with blue-green waves. They are all deceivers, and behind the contrived clarity of their gaze shines a dog-like, slavish baseness and a fear of the strong; at the bottom of their hearts lurks eternal lust, and they are forever seeking new embraces, new conquests!..."
"But surely, teacher, not your Eurydice?!"
"Yes, even she. I can never forget what happened in the land of the dead... When gloomy Pluto, giving in to Persephone's pleas, agreed to give Eurydice back and two nymphs from the dark waters of Lethe led her to me, I cast my attentive gaze over the face of the woman who had been my wife.
"She stood naked, pale, shyly lowering her lashes as if concealing the joy of the meeting with her husband.
" 'Here is your Eurydice! Hermes will escort you to the gates of the kingdom of oblivion. Your wife will follow behind you. But woe unto you if you glance back before you are out! ... And you, son of Maia, approach so you may hear my commission to my aegis-bearing brother.'
"Hermes approached the king of the underworld, and the immortal gods whispered together for a long time, laughing and glancing now and then at Eurydice and me.
" 'You may go!' said the sovereign of Tartarus finally, and to the amazement of the mournful shades, we started on our way.
"With firm steps I made for the gates. My heart was bursting with the pride of victory. My fingers strummed the strings of my lyre, and our procession was accompanied by celebratory tones ...Shades of the deceased silently made way for us. Their sad faces gazed apathetically at us from all sides. The gates were close now. an azure and lilac shaft of daylight cut into the gloom.
"I slowed my steps. Behind me it seemed to me I could hear whispers and kissing. I thought at first that it was only a test to make me turn around, and I drove off my suspicions. After another dozen steps I found myself at a turning, from beyond which a current of warm, fragrant air wafted against my face, and a piece of azure sky and flowery slopes and hills covered with forests met my gaze ...Behind me all was quiet. But then from behind me I again caught the sound of quiet, smothered laughter and someone's drawn-out sigh ...There could be no doubt. Only she sighed that way, my Eurydice, in the hours of our blissful embraces.
"Forgetting myself in my rage, forgetting Pluto's admonition, like an anthropophagous beast from faraway India, I threw myself back into the jaws of the gate to hell.
"Gods, what I saw there! Around the bend in the path, she, my Eurydice, my tender beloved with all her demure melancholy - like a wild satyress, in ardent ecstasy, was yielding to the caresses of perfidious Hermes...
"I stood as if carved in marble, frozen in horror. And only my eyes followed as the son of Maia, with insolent laughter, took the woman who had been my wife back into dark Hades.
" 'You defied the prohibition, son of Calliope, and therefore you'll never see your Eurydice again!' he cried, disappearing into the gloom.
"Clinging to the treacherous god, the white shade of my depraved wife obediently vanished with him.
"Not a single curse did I hurl after them.
"Without a word I lifted my lyre and quietly set off away from Tartarus among green hills and shady hollows. My path led me here, to thickly-wooded Thessaly ...Here my heart is not so heavy. Here I can only barely hear that deceitful feminine laughter. Here the wind murmurs in the ravines; dark-green pines nod their heads at me, and wild beasts follow at my heels and rub their soft fur lovingly against my bare knees..."
And as if wishing to show that she understood the poet's speech, the black panther yawned and started tenderly licking Orpheus's dust-covered feet with her long, pink tongue.
When she finished, she gave a stretch, arching her supple back like a wave, and then settled back down, assuming a tranquil pose and attentively fastening her yellow-green eyes on the face of the Muse's son.
Orpheus and his disciple sat without moving. Around them silence reigned. Only a single small bird timidly twittered something in the branches of a cypress.

- Alexander Kondratiev (1876 - 1967).

Picture: 'Orpheus' by Franz von Stuck (1891).

Monday, 27 May 2013



I was afraid and they gave me guts.
I was alone and they made me love.
Round that wild heat they built a furnace
and in the torment smelted me.

Out of my fragments came design:
I was assembled. I moved, I worked,
I grew receptive. Thanks to them
I have fashioned me.
Who am I?

- Joseph Macleod (from 'An Old Olive Tree', 1971)

Championed by Ezra Pound and Delmore Schwartz; published, then roundly rejected, by T.S.Eliot; life-long friend and youthful collaborator of Graham Greene and Adrian Stokes; poet; theatre director; playwright; actor; historian; biographer; author; Labour Parliamentary Candidate and one of Orwell's Cryptocommunists: there are abundant hooks upon which a person's interest might catch along all the branches of the life and work of Joseph Todd Gordon Macleod (1903-1984) and yet the man and the products of his pen have failed to snag many new admirers since his death with the majority of his reasonably modest output out-of-print and off the beaten track. The number of books that make up his body of work may be relatively small in number but they are, however, expansive in scope and all are long overdue restoration to the realm of the read.

Selection of books from my own collection. Back L-R: 'The New Soviet Theatre', 'Actors Cross The Volga', 'Soviet Theatre Sketchbook', 'A Job at the BBC, 'The Actor's Right to Act', 'People of Florence'. Front L-R: 'The Sisters d'Aranyi', 'Beauty and the Beast', 'An Old Olive Tree'.
(Click to enlarge)
    Macleod's first book is a stimulating and idiosyncratic book of literary criticism entitled 'Beauty and the Beast' (Chatto & Windus, 1927) in which he guides us along his own journey through literature to that point, sets out the principles that guide his taste and which he bookends with two of his own poems. This book followed contributions to various Oxford Journals, including the Oxford Outlook under the editorship of Graham Greene and his own editorship at Cherwell, and marked Macleod out as a high modernist; an identification cemented with the publication, three years later, of 'The Ecliptic' (Faber and Faber, 1930).

Poems and frontispiece from 'Beauty and the Beast'.
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    'The Ecliptic' is a long poem, a collection of interlinked verse divided up under the signs of the Zodiac with a preface of short synopses of each section. The poem seeks to chart the journey through existence of a single consciousness. It is inevitably and, in a sense deliberately, difficult reading; Macleod acknowledges the turn in modern taste towards the generally easier literary form: the novel, and is seeking to resurrect and remind readers of the rewards of grappling with a poem of great length and 'strange symbolism'. The poem's design and Macleod's versification earned the admiration of both Ezra Pound and Delmore Schwartz with the former being in part responsible for the publication of the poem; having recommended it for publication to T.S.Eliot who was then Poetry Editor at Faber and Faber. Macleod corresponded with both Pound and Schwartz for a time and both selected his work for their own literary journals.
    The next work Macleod submitted for publication, 'Foray of Centaurs: a poem of to-day' (1931, revised 1936), my favourite of his poems, was a displacement of the centaur myth in to the London of the day and deals with themes of civilisation and barbarism and desire and abstinence. This work was roundly rejected by everyone it was submitted to. Eliot published a section from the poem in 'The Criterion' but denied it publication with Faber and Faber and it was not until 2009 when the Waterloo Press published their selections from Macleod's poetic works, 'Cyclic Serial Zeniths From the Flux', that the piece became available as a whole.

A favourite passage from the opening of 'Foray of Centaurs'. A ritual beheading during a sword dance.
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     Later, and perhaps partly due to the failure of 'Foray of Centaurs' to find a publisher; though also related it would seem, to his rising profile as a BBC newsreader, Macleod adopted the pseudonym Adam Drinan. Along with this assumed name came a shift in style and focus in his work. Whilst still displaying some modernist complexity and still seeking new and rewarding forms he now began to strive for realism and a documentary style and also began to incorporate dialect words and rhythms of, in the first instance, Cornwall and then thereafter in the Drinan phase those of the Scottish Highlands and Western Islands to which his family line immediately led. The works of the Drinan period include: 'The Cove: A poem sequence' (French & sons, 1940): a thirty-three poem sequence set in Cornwall under the shadow of war; 'The Men of the Rocks' (Fortune Press, 1942): another poem sequence but this time set in the Scotland of the time and this time with the Highland Clearances casting the shadow; 'The Ghosts of the Strath' (Fortune Press, 1943): a play written in verse set in Sutherland and concerned with both the Highland Clearances and the onset of World War II and 'Women of the Happy Island' (MacLellan & Co., 1944): forty-seven soliloquies of mainly female characters left behind on the Hebridean Isle of Barra when the men go off to war. In 1946 Drinan/Macleod composed 'The MacPhails of London' but it failed to find a publisher. The final book Macleod wrote as Drinan, 'Script from Norway' (MacLellan & co., 1953), was a call for Scottish independence from Britain in the form of a poem in the form of a film script that follows a group of documentarians looking to make a film in Norway (Norway having gained independence from Swedish rule in 1905). Macleod revealed himself as Drinan at this point by attaching his own name to 'Script from Norway' alongside the pseudonym This was not, however, the first time the names had been published together, selections from Macleod and his Drinan persona were included in Kenneth Rexroth's 'The New British Poets' anthology in 1949 but in that instance no link was made between the two. Prior to Macleod revealing he was Adam Drinan the disguise seems to have been entirely effective and, aside from a very small number let in on the secret, few seem to have realised it was a pseudonym let alone guessed who was behind it. When he finally cast off the mask it was, for those paying attention, a great surprise, and for some who had corresponded with Macleod as Drinan, or both with Macleod as well as with Macleod-as-Drinan, perhaps a slightly uncomfortable one.

A passage from 'Script From Norway'.
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     The Drinan works are not all that easy to come by but three of them have been published recently, once again by The Waterloo Press. 'The Cove', 'The Men of the Rocks' and 'Script From Norway' comprise 'A Drinan Trilogy' (2012).

Macleod/Drinan titles from Waterloo Press.
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     During the Drinan period Macleod published another poem that centered on Scotland but which was published under his real name. 'The Passage of the Torch: a heroical-historical lay for the fifth centenary of the founding of Glasgow University' (Oliver & Boyd, 1951) is, as the title suggests, a lay of rhyming couplets which tells of the carrying of a torch across Scotland in celebration of the fifth centenary of Glasgow University and offers poetic description and historical account of the places passed through.
       Macleod's last work as a poet, 'An Old Olive Tree' (M. Macdonald, 1971), came after eighteen years in which he published no new volumes of poetry and is markedly different from all that went before. Whilst all his work displays an expansive vocabulary and a linguistic precision this final collection is of a much simpler nature. Here is a small group of short poems about family, friends and aging with a poem each for Graham Greene and Adrian Stokes. The print run for the book was limited to two hundred and fifty copies and none of the poems were published anywhere else.

Two poems from 'An Old Olive Tree'. The poem on the left is dedicated to Adrian Stokes whilst the one on the right was, secretly, dedicated to Graham Greene.
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     If Macleod is remembered in the literary world it is primarily as a poet, and rightly so, an encounter with his verse is something unlikely to be soon forgotten; after my own first encounter with his poetry it was not long before he took up a presiding position in my own pantheon of poets (expand on others in a note?). As the opening of this post indicated though, poetry was not Macleod's only passion and his work outside the poetical sphere stands happily beside his work in it and certainly merits rediscovery also.
     Almost equal to his passion for poetry was his passion for the theatre. Macleod developed a deep interest in the art and served as director at the Cambridge Festival Theatre where he also contributed plays, directed, produced and acted. He even contributed poems to the theatre programme/newsletter under the symbol of Taurus - a form of pseudonym that preceded the Drinan moniker but which did not really seek to hide the true identity of the author, Macleod's first contributions having been made under his own name.
     Out of this love of, and involvement in, the theatre grew six books. Half of those books were concerned with Soviet theatre; the state of the art and its audience: 'The New Soviet Theatre' (Allen & Unwin, 1943), 'Actors Cross the Volga: A Study in 19th Century Russian Theatre and of Soviet Theatre in War' (Allen & Unwin, 1946) and 'Soviet Theatre Sketchbook' (Allen & Unwin, 1951). The first of these Soviet studies earned Macleod a front cover of the Times Literary Supplement where it received a glowing review.

From 'The New Soviet Theatre.
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From 'The New Soviet Theatre.
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     A further two books also dealt with theatre history. 'The Right to Act: A History of British Actor's Equity' (Allen & Unwin, 1981) was written in 1953 but did not see publication until 1981 making it the last of Macleod's works to be published in his lifetime. It is a well regarded history of the establishment of Equity though it was seen to be a little dated by the time it finally reached publication. The final piece of theatre history to mention is 'Piccolo Storia del Teatro Brittanico' (Sansoni, 1961) - a concise history of theatre in Britain which only found a publisher in Florence, the English language version being rejected by all.
    The final book to mention, that sprung out of Macleod's time in the theatre, was 'Overture to Cambridge: A Satirical Story' (Allen & Unwin, 1936). This was Macleod's only published novel (though he apparently had more that were not accepted for publication) and was adapted from a play he wrote and put on during his time at the Cambridge Festival Theatre. I have not been able to track down a copy of the book as yet but from the little I have read of it it appears to be a piece of dystopian prophesy likened at the time to works by H.G.Wells and Aldous Huxley.
     Macleod's interest in the theatre and his study of the actor's art served him well when he came to work for the BBC. In 1925 Macleod had made a small piece of history when he took part, again alongside Graham Greene, in the first radio broadcast of a poetry reading. Now, thirteen years later he found himself engaged as an announcer after the success of two programmes he produced, one of which concerned the New Soviet Theatre that he was so well versed in. Macleod soon became a household name and a beloved voice (though not without some complaints about the occasional suggestion of a Scottish accent) across the country and throughout the war but his time with the BBC was not to end well and he was urged to leave the organisation in 1945. The BBC years, from happy beginnings to uneasy end, are remembered under 'How To' headings in his 'A Job at the BBC' (MacLellan & Co., 1947).

Contents page from 'A Job at the BBC'.
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     In 1973 Macleod would be involved with the BBC once more when BBC Scotland traveled to Florence, where Macleod spent much of the year from 1956 onward, to conduct an interview about his career at the BBC, life in Florence and his poetry.

Macleod reading 'To an Unborn Child'.

     Two more titles complete Macleod's oeuvre; 'The Sisters d'Aranyi' (Allen & Unwin, 1969): a biography of Hungarian Emigre sisters (Jelly, Hortense and Adila d'Aranyi); two of whom became musical stars in their day but join Macleod in obscurity at present, and 'People of Florence: A Study in Locality' (Allen & Unwin, 1968): a study of Florence and its people.
     'The Sisters d'Aranyi' was the first of Macleod's non-fiction books I came upon and read and one which I fell in love with from the very first page.

First page of chapter one of 'The Sisters d'Aranyi'.
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     The biography was a labour of love for Macleod who had been profoundly touched by Jelly d'Aranyi after seeing her play when he was a youth, he felt she ignited his love of music and that he owed pretty much all the knowledge he had of it, a knowledge on full display throughout the book, to that first fire of enthusiasm. I had heard only one recording of Jelly d'Aranyi prior to picking up the book but through Macleod's stirring descriptions of performances by Jelly and Adila as well as the countless touching, entertaining or astounding anecdotes and recollections concerning all three sisters compiled (most of which came from conversation with Jelly over an extended period, up to her death) meant that I soon shared something of the same love Macleod obviously felt for the sisters and has lead to a little digging which has increased my knowledge of the recordings of the sisters that hint at the reality reached for in Macleod's rapturous depictions.

Jelly d'Aranyi and Arthur Bergh - Vitali Chaconne in G Minor.

     The work dedicated to the city of Florence is given the subtitle of 'A Study in Locality'. We can see what Macleod understands by the term 'locality' in the opening to 'The Sisters d'Aranyi' pictured above and it is clear it is an important idea throughout much of his work. It is clearly central to the Florence book but it also informs the realism of the localised Drinan works, is fruitful in his Russian studies, plays its part in the Macleod's approach to biography and, contracting the scope of its sphere to the self, provides the setting for the opening of his final poetic work.

Opening poem for 'An Old Olive Tree'.
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     Macleod died in 1984 and in a fairly short space of time his work has been entirely sidelined if not largely forgotten. His body of work is mostly out-of-print and no extended consideration of his life and work has ever been published. The work has been done though, A PHD thesis by James Fountain has told the story of Macleod's life and career/s and has looked, in no small detail, at his poetical works and their development but so far it remains a thesis and has not seen commercial publication beyond its informing of Fountain's foreword to the Waterloo Press selection of Drinan poetry. The only other contribution to Macleod scholarship comes from Andrew Duncan who provides fine introductions to both of the Waterloo Press titles. With Macleod's drift in to obscurity a poet of genius and a unique voice in all the fields he explored has been temporarily silenced; an oversight that has begun to be addressed but is still far from being rectified.

                                                                                                                        - Ian Meads.

Click to read Macleod's 'Nightslide': a parody written to be part of Terence Gray's production of 'The Birds'.

Portrait of Joseph Macleod by Sadra Bronetti (1970)
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