Friday, 6 December 2013

Spitalfields, Yesterday and Today

Hawksmoor's Christ Church, Spitalfields
London is a second home to me, engraved in consciousness as much as New York and Paris are.  I’ve been moving between the three points of that triangle a good part of my adult life.  So here I am again, a projected stay of nearly four months, and happy with the prospect. At present I’m staying with my friend the poet Mimi Khalvati, which makes being here especially homelike. She has a pretty dwelling in Stoke Newington, Hackney, the rooms filled with mementos from Iran, which she left at age six when she came to England.  Her first professional career was as an actor in theatre, but in mid-life she charted a different course and eventually became one of Britain’s leading poets.  We first met in 2005 and is now one of my closest friends here.

I had errands to do around Liverpool Street Station yesterday and once they were done decided to walk over to Spitalfields, quite close by. I first got to know the district in 1986, when I was staying in London on a Guggenheim fellowship. What led me to seek it out was the Peter Ackroyd novel Hawksmoor!, a fictional treatment of the life of the 18th-century neoclassical architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. Christ Church, Spitalfields, one of his best designs, is a dominant neighborhood landmark, along with the old Spitalfields Market. Spitalfields also made a quantum leap in notoriety when Jack the Ripper (with the help of a knife) claimed it as his turf during the shadowy era of “the other Victorians.”   

Back in 1986, a mutual friend effected an introduction to an American named Dennis Severs, who had lived in London for nearly two decades, one of the pioneers celebrated for reclaiming the Spitalfields environ from the dereliction it had fallen into.  Dennis loved London as few people have ever done and had a fantastically detailed knowledge of the city, since he had begun working as a tour guide shortly after he first arrived.  Eventually, he bought a house at 18 Folgate Street and filled it with old furniture and décor gathered from hither and yon. A year or so before I met him, he’d developed a sort of theatrical presentation, using the four floors of the house as his set. He invented a narrative about an émigré Huguenot family come to London after Louis XIV’s Edict of Nantes expelled all Protestants from France. The Huguenots who settled in Spitalfields were silk weavers and, in time, became prosperous Londoners. Dennis’s narrative took the family through several generations, each floor embodying the evolution in their fortunes, while incidentally summarizing concurrent changes in British society and politics. Recorded texts, changes in lighting and even a few kinetic effects helped move the narrative along.  (I didn’t forbear back then to mention to Dennis that there were a few mistakes in his recounting of history, but he shrugged that off and reminded me that theatre is fiction.) Somewhat incongruously, the top floor was a sort of résumé of Dickens A Christmas Carol. But that popular codicil assured the success of Dennis’s nightly show, and certainly it was in accord with the atmosphere of old Spitalfields.  Less than ten years after I met him, Dennis died of causes related to HIV infection.  I assumed that his house would be dismantled and sold, but, during my walk around Spitalfields, I came to 18 Folgate, and saw twin Christmas trees outside the door and a notice in the window, giving times when the house could be visited. So in one form or another, his work remains with us. I’ll try to come back and see what is currently being shown there. The old door-knocker in the shape of a sphinx's head still exerts a pull. Let me also mention that Dennis appears in a long poem of mine titled “Eleven Londons,” which was recently published in The Battersea Review.  Here’s the online link if anyone is curious.

There are also a couple of Spitalfields scenes in my 1997 novel Part of His Story, which is also set in London and has a past/present structure that might remind some readers of Dennis’s theatrical piece. To state the obvious, writers draw on hundreds of sources when composing any new work.

Continuing the Spitalfields stroll, I peeped in at Verde & Company, a tea-shop on the ground floor at the corner of Brushfield and Gun Streets.   The building is one of the “period” structures that still remain, and at some point it was bought by Jeanette Winterson, who founded the shop.  It has a green awning from which depend a dozen baskets in different shapes.  Small tables inside accommodate a few clients who can enjoy an hour of conversation over tea and pastry. The effect of quaintness is strong--a quality that used to be common in London but has now become pretty scarce.  Needless to say, Spitalfields has been invaded by large modern structures in steel and glass.  The old iron market is surrounded by designer boutiques, but at least the central part, open to the air, is the site of a daily Marché aux Puces, London-style, with all sorts of tat, vintage finery, collectibles, and crockery on offer.

Close by, the imposing edifice of Christ Church, which hasn’t changed. In Spitalfields you find the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present. Looking at all the recent Modernist architecture and smart shops that have sprung up, you also see the Future. Up to you to choose which you prefer.  For me the Present will do, even if it isn’t yet a Christmas Present.            

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Death of a Naturalist

Like so many others, I was saddened to hear of Heaney’s death this past summer. I knew that Heaney had recovered from a serious stroke a couple of years earlier, and indeed he looked thinner and rather more fragile than the young man I first met back in, I believe, early spring of 1978. The occasion was a reading he gave at Yale. He wasn’t well known in the States then. Probably less than forty people made up the audience. Heaney read several sonnets from the “Glanmore” sequence, one of his loveliest. Then, in view of the fact that no one had arranged a post-reading reception, it seemed natural and cordial for the Resident Fellow to invite him and some of the audience to have a drink at Silliman College. I recall shaking the hand of this vigorous, hesitant man with prematurely gray hair nearly down to his shoulders, wearing jeans and a plaid cotton shirt. He had trouble meeting my eyes, and I don’t think he was fully comfortable in those surroundings—but then who could blame him at that stage of the game?
     The next meeting came perhaps five or six years later, when I was living in New York. He had given a reading at the 92nd Street YMHA, at the invitation of Grace Schulman, who was the director of the Poetry Center. Grace had people to her place down in Greenwich Village after the event. By now Heaney was a famous poet, confident, relaxed, wearing a suit, and surrounded by admirers. With him was his wife Marie, who I think was glad to have someone to talk to while fans monopolized her husband. I found Marie unaffectedly down to earth, patriotic about her origins in the North of Ireland, with a sharp eye and wit, not to mention being lovely to look at. I forget the stimulus for it, but at some point Heaney was led to recite one of Wyatt’s best known poems, “Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind.” It was in that era that the current revival of interest in Wyatt began—and may that revival endure. I knew by then that it was a near certainty Heaney would one day be tapped for the Nobel. There was no mistaking his ability and the aptness of awarding the prize to a poet from Northern Ireland. And perhaps it was just such a certainty that convinced me to make no attempt to stay in touch in the years after. Besides, sincere admiration isn’t by itself a basis for a long-lasting association. I could always meet him on the page, and that was the main thing. News of his personal life came to me from people we knew in common, and (strange thing among poets) I never heard any reports of nastiness or arrogance where Heaney was concerned. He was admired as poet and as human being. 
     In my book Atlas: Selected Essays, 1989-2007, his work is discussed at some length.  After the piece was commissioned and published, he went on to publish several more books, so needless to say my essay doesn’t cover his career; but I think it remains a useful starting point.  There is always much to say about Heaney's poems. A sequence titled “Clearances” (from The Haw Lantern) gives a moving portrayal of his mother and recounts her death; and “Squarings,” from the next book, which does much the same for his father. Of course an elegy eulogizes the deceased, but it is also a dry run for the elegist’s own eventual departing this life. Both sequences have that aspect. In The Human Chain, his most recent book, Heaney moved a step closer to confrontation with mortality in a brief sequence titled “Chanson d’Aventure”, which describes being driven in an ambulance to a distant hospital.  Directly after this, the book’s title poem describes the manual labor of heaving sacks of meal onto a trailer, an action Heaney turns into a metaphor for the final unloading of our mortal coil. He realizes he would no longer have the strength to do such heavy work, labor characterized in the poem as, “A letting go which will not come again./Or it will, once. And for all.” 
     To state the obvious, Heaney was preparing himself. And it may be that in advance of this final admission to hospital, he already knew what his last words were going to be. Isolated from Marie in an emergency bay, he text-messaged to her the Latin phrase “Noli timere”, that is, “Fear not”.  He was sending a variant on Jesus’ words to Mary Magdalene, spoken in the garden on the Sunday of the Resurrection: “Noli me tangere”. This is usually translated as, “Do not touch me”, but a rather more accurate translation would be, “Do not hold on to me”. What’s being recommended in the gospel account is a letting go. Heaney would agree with the instruction, I think, (the phrase is included in the Wyatt sonnet mentioned above), and he added his own reassurance that there is no need to be fearful. The death of a naturalist is indeed natural, part of the human cycle and also part of the “human chain.”  The “natural man” has been put off and is now replaced by his writings, which continue to excite, instruct, and reassure his readers.  The letting go has now taken place. It is once, and it is “for all”. All of us.   

Attending the funeral, Bono and Alison Hewison