Tuesday, 27 February 2018

A Magic Shadow-Show

Awake! For Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light.
Now, that's the way to open a poem, isn't it? A noose of light! Words well worth memorizing, words to declaim at suitable (and unsuitable) moments, sound-patterns and word-pictures that roll off the tongue and embed themselves permanently in the mind. But, somewhere along the line, someone decided that because the world is often drab, disillusioned, and prosaic then "good" poetry ought to be like that, too. Which is a shame: it seems we're too sophisticated and worldly-wise today to make the effort to put heightened language in a worthy stage-setting.

Like millions of others, I have enjoyed Edward FitzGerald's rendering of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam since first encountering it, in my case as a teenager in a cheap paperback reprint with the ink-sketch illustrations by E.J. Sullivan reproduced very inkily indeed. And yet, like a lot of very popular things, the poem has had a low profile, academically, and I doubt it even counts as a "guilty pleasure" for most professional critics; they simply won't have read it, or won't admit to having enjoyed reading it.

It seems to have been the equivalent of Coleman Barks' renderings of Rumi in its day. That is, a massively popular blend of accessible-yet-contemporary verse with the vague-yet-visceral teachings of the more relaxed, mystical strain of Islam found in Persia and other non-Arab parts of the Islamic world, generally trading under the name Sufism. "Persia" of the 11th and 12th centuries is not modern Iran, of course; while we in the north-west were struggling out of the Dark Ages the Middle East was having its great flourishing of science, architecture, and poetry. I am not remotely qualified to comment on any of this, however, unlike an old college friend, who has turned into one of those improbable characters that populate the TV series Inspector Morse [1], and is now a Professor of the Art & Archaeology of the Islamic Mediterranean. As far as I know, he has not murdered or been murdered by anyone, but if Morse, Endeavour, and Lewis are to be believed [2], it is only a matter of time. It has been a while since I heard from him, it's true.

What I can safely say, however, is that the Rubaiyat has attracted some of the worst illustrations of any text, ever. Back in the 1970s, when I first started to haunt them, second-hand bookshops were still full of the cast-offs from the domestic bookshelves of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Certain texts were particularly abundant, and would appear in multiple versions, sometimes in lavishly-bound "gift" editions (there was a peculiar taste for limp suede bindings at the turn of the century, for example). Often there would be illustrative plates, and in the case of the Rubaiyat, these were uniformly awful, generally sub-art nouveau or Beardsley-esque exercises in pure turbanned and pointy-slippered orientalism, that must have reduced someone like Edward Said to a perfect ecstasy of vexation (I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he had been a secret Rubaiyat collector, taking a peek every now and then to top up the level of his outrage). Even Arthur Rackham's version is unspeakably bad. I believe there have been something like 300 illustrated editions of the FitzGerald version, and I have yet to see one that didn't make me want to throw it across the room. Not out of any anti-orientalist discomfiture, but out of revulsion at the vein of twee sentimentality most illustrators seem bent on extracting from this Epicurean text. But, no thanks, I'm not intending to have a go at it myself.

By far the rarest edition of  The Grate Booke of Idiocie, 1564
(much rebound)

Second-hand bookshops, though? I have mourned their vanishing from our High Streets before (Book Abuse), but an aspect I hadn't considered is the way this limits a young person's view of the bibliographic past. Once, if you were a bookish type, and had the good fortune to live near a decent second-hand bookshop – one that covered the spectrum from well-read paperbacks to antiquarian rarities – you could form a pretty fair impression of the changing tastes of your forebears in both reading matter and in the various manners in which it could be presented. As in so many ways, my generation was poised at the tipping point between two worlds: one which had valued self-education through the medium of books (and, let's be honest, no other kind of education was on offer to most before 1945) and made inexpensive but robust hardbound editions of "classics" from the approved canon available to the mass market (think Everyman's Library, or Oxford World's Classics), and another which increasingly viewed books as a disposable medium for entertainment, like TV's dull-but-worthy older brother, competing ever more desperately yet unsuccessfully for attention. You could see all this bibliographic history arrayed before you on the shelves, in a full range of sizes, print-quality, and bindings, all aimed at attracting their different readers: centuries-old leather tomes, cheap pamphlets on brittle paper, gold-embossed full-cloth works of reference, novels wrapped in the distinctive dustjacket designs of earlier generations [3], not to mention the luridly erotic paperback cover-illustrations in the "three for a shilling" trays outside. To browse and handle the stock was to receive an education in literary and bibliographic taste, good and bad, and its close relationship with standards of education and the evolving mechanics of book production. As well as the occasional surprise, like the set of Edwardian pornographic photographs that fell out of a very well-thumbed edition of Swinburne in Thornton's, Oxford in 1973.

Now, sadly, the good local second-hand bookshop is yet another of those experiences that belongs to the past, and will most likely stay there. An online bookseller is simply no substitute. I was in Bristol over the weekend, and I was reminded of how, when I worked at the University Library in the late 1970s, a couple of times each week I would make a lunchtime circuit between three or four used-book outlets within a few hundred yards of each other near the University, ranging from the grand academic emporium of George's Bookshop (now a Jamie's Italian restaurant) to an upstairs treasure-trove of boxes and improvised shelves in a leaky loft above a shop on The Triangle. Today the only bookshop of any sort near the university is a tiny Oxfam charity shop, and nearly everything it has postdates the 1980s. You can learn nothing of bibliographic interest from this sad collection of chuck-outs other than that books are no longer a highly-regarded resource. Even (whisper it) by many libraries. A collection of e-books, of course, will leave not a rack behind, when the owner's little life is rounded with a sleep, and the house is cleared. Those texts are merely rented.

And yet, as it happens, the Oxfam Bookshop in Bristol's Clifton Village is one of our habitual visits when in town. After a mandatory takeaway sausage-and-fried-onion bap from Clifton Deli – they are so good, believe me – we generally wander in to see what has turned up since our previous visit. For a charity shop it's unusually well-sourced (lots of hardback review copies and a steady supply of poetry, for example) and we usually end up coming away with a few worthwhile purchases. Last time, I found hardback first editions of Geoffrey Hill's Tenebrae and Seamus Heaney's Field Work; not valuable, but much more satisfying to read than a paperback "selected". This time, I bought an Oxford World's Classics anthology of Modern Verse 1900-1950, full of the sort of rhymed, rhythmic poetry that has gone the way of tweed jackets and pipe-smoking. I'm reasonably well-informed about 20th century British poets, at least so I thought, but had never heard of most of the "thirty younger poets" thought worthy of being added, in 1955, to the enlarged second edition of an Oxford University Press anthology originally published in 1940. Sidney Keyes? Harry Leonard Shorto? Derek Stanford? Nicholas Moore? Michael Greening? And so on. All, in Browning's phrase, people of importance in their day, but distinctly minor also-rans as seen from 2018. But, as a fan of the Rubaiyat, I thought I'd give them a second chance. Why not, for £1.99?
For in and out, above, about, below,
'Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show,
Play'd in a Box whose Candle is the Sun,
Round which we Phantom Figures come and go.

1. I'm not sure whether Inspector Morse is known outside of the UK. Based on detective novels by Colin Dexter, as a TV series it pioneered the middle-brow, 100-minute-episode police drama with high production values, but became slightly notorious for portraying Oxford as the murder capital of Britain, with yet another academic or student dying and/or murdering another academic or student under bizarre circumstances every week.
2. "Endeavour" was the prequel series to Morse, and "Lewis" was its sequel, featuring Morse's Geordie sidekick, Sgt. Robbie Lewis. I'm a fan of "Endeavour", with its excellent attention to early Postwar period detail.
3. My birthday treat to myself this year was "The Illustrated Dust Jacket 1920-1970", by Martin Salisbury, a lovely production from Thames & Hudson that I found in the National Portrait Gallery bookshop.


Paul Mc Cann said...

Clifton Deli is gone is it not ?

Mike C. said...


No, still there, and serving great food! Clifton Village has changed a lot -- gone very upmarket -- but there are still survivors.


mistah charley, ph.d. said...

inspector morse - and associated prequel & sequel - are known in the states by having been broadcast by pbs, which gets a lot of its entertainment content from brit tv - so much so that in the washington dc area there is an entire pbs channel devoted to it

Mike C. said...

mistah charley,

Well, I suppose it's some sort of recompense for all the first class entertainment (HBO etc.) we've had from the USA... You guys are having a Great Age of long-form TV, I have to say.