Posts Tagged ‘W H Auden’

Limestone country

5 April 2013
I was following a guidebook on a short walk in the Brecons, and came across this description:

“The bustle of the valley is left behind. In front lies a a lunar terrain of limestone crags, pockmarked by quarries and loose rocks.”

It’s by Alastair Ross, whose walking guides in the Kittiwake series are ideal for a casual walker like me. The village still has a  (just about) working quarry, and the station building is still standing, even if the remaining quarrymen’s houses are now home to the South Wales Caving Club and the railway line is long gone.
There’s a hidden history here, of the 19th century opera singer Adelina Patti, who paid for much of the station. Patti, who commanded at the height of her career fees of £1,000 a night (then a colossal sum) was rumoured to have been a mistress of Edward VII, and was for a time the flamboyant owner of the nearby Craig-y-nos Castle, which she equipped with a private theatre and a billiards room, and invited musicians and billiards players alike to come and stay.
But I digress. The phrase in the guidebook, and the sudden change to the bleaker limestone landscape, reminded me of Auden’s early poems, strongly inflluenced by the former lead-mining area he would walk in in the Pennines. This is the first part of The Watershed, written in 1927, when Auden was 20, and the earliest poem to make the cut in the Selected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson:

Who stands, the crux left of the watershed

On the wet road between the chafing grass

Below him sees dismantled washing floors,

Snatches of tramline running to a wood.

An industry already comatose,

Yet sparsely living. A ramshackle engine 

At Cashwell raises water; for ten years

It lay in flooded workings until this,

Its latter office, grudgingly performed. […]

The photos in this post were taken by Andrew Curry. They are posted here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

Another country

7 May 2012


I’ve had the miners’ strike more on my mind since I went to see the Jeremy Deller exhibition at the Hayward Gallery a couple of weeks ago, because the exhibition includes his famous reenactment of The Battle of Orgreave, when police cavalry charged protesting strikers.

So when The Guardian published some poems from Jubilee Lines, edited by Carol Ann Duffy (she has commissioned a new poem for each of the 60 years of the Queen’s reign) I turned first to the mid-80s. Sean O’Brien, whom I’ve written about here before, a child of the north, had claimed 1985 with a tough and unforgiving poem called ‘Another Country’:

Whenever someone sagely says it’s time to draw a line,
We may infer that they’ve extracted all the silver from the mine.

O’Brien’s poem starts with a epigraph from Auden, ‘Get there if you can’, the title of a 1930 poem. Here’s an extract:

Power-stations locked, deserted, since they drew the boiler fires
Pylons falling or subsiding, trailing dead high-tension wires;
Head-gears gaunt on grass-grown pit-banks, seams abandoned years ago;
Drop a stone and listen for its splash in flooded dark below…

Auden was born in York and brought up in Birmingham, but was fascinated by underground workings and mining machinery. This early poem – not included by him in his Collected Poems – was written on a visit to the north-east of England, where O’Brien now lives and works. It is one of several from the period that dealt with the decaying or lost landscapes of the early industrial revolution.

There are obvious echoes here of the industrial landscape that Britain has lost since Thatcher’s campaign de-industrialise the country (I use the word ‘campaign’ with care here) of which the calculated destruction of the National Union of Mineworkers was such an exemplary part. And echoes too, in O’Brien’s title, of the famous opening line of L.P. Hartley’s novel of loss, and of class antagonism. London, now, is the other country, as it milks the rest of Britain of resources.

But no matter what you do, history doesn’t vanish. (I had this argument once with an uncomprehending career coach who told me I could put the history I was embedded in to one side and simply ‘move on’ in the modern, deracinated, non-place manner. I was uncomprehending too). And this is how Sean O’Brien ends his poem:

Where all year long the battle raged, there’s “landscape” and a plaque,
But though you bury stuff forever, it keeps on coming back:

Here then lie the casualties of one more English Civil War,
That someone, sometime – you, perhaps – will have to answer for.

No matter how hard you try to tramp it down, the dirt insists on coming up through the roots.

The image at the top is a screenshot of Mike Figgis’ film of Deller’s reconstruction of The Battle of Orgreave, from the Bureaux blog, and is used with thanks.

Steam and speed

17 March 2009


I came across a quote in the Blaenavon World Heritage Centre which captured a passenger’s first experience of train travel:

Everything is near, everything is immediate – time, distance, and delay are abolished.

Of course, it conjures immediately Turner’s famous painting, and it happens that I went to look at Rain Steam and Speed in the National Gallery a few months ago. Reproductions, by their nature, emphasise the rain and the steam. The picture itself has much detail of the world that is about to disappear under the onslaught of speed; the boat on the river, the figures below, in the fields, the hare on the bridge trying to escape the train. (There’s a charming animation of this by Kathryn Miller from the hare’s perspective at the National Gallery site).

It’s hard to see this detail and not to be reminded of Auden’s poem Musee des Beaux Arts:

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the plowman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

But there’s an important inversion. In Auden, and in the Breughel painting which inspired it, the ploughman (and the passengers on the ship, a couple of lines later), can get on with their lives even as Icarus falls out of the sky. In Turner’s painting, there is no turning back from the age of speed. Everyone’s life will be affected, sooner or later, as distance and delay are abolished.

The reproduction of Rain Steam and Speed is from The National Gallery.

The videographer Jim Clark has made a ‘virtual video’ of Auden reading Musee des Beaux Arts, which can be found here.