All the Cultural Bases

Ian Sansom

  • Moon Country: Further Reports from Iceland by Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell
    Faber, 160 pp, £7.99, November 1996, ISBN 0 571 17539 2

This is tricky. First the facts. In 1936 W.H. Auden persuaded Faber and Faber to commission a travel book about Iceland. He spent three months in the country, part of the time travelling with his friend Louis MacNeice and a group of schoolboys and a teacher from Bryanston School. Auden and MacNeice collaborated in the writing of the book, which was published in 1937 as Letters from Iceland. It contained not only Auden’s ‘Letter to Lord Byron’, but also a number of other putative letters (to Richard Crossman and William Coldstream, for instance), MacNeice’s ‘Eclogue from Iceland’, the famously camp prose-piece ‘Hetty to Nancy’, and the joint-authored ‘Last Will and Testament’. According to Auden, MacNeice wrote about eighty of the 240 pages (the review in the TLS compared MacNeice’s contributions to ‘desolate pools unmoved beside a volcano five times in eruption’). As well as the poems and prose pieces the book includes 52 black and white photographs, all taken by Auden, appendices containing pie-charts and graphs, and a fine, coloured folding map. There is an extensive bibliography and one chapter is entirely devoted to an anthology of excerpts from other books about Iceland. The pages of the volume are thick, white unwater-marked wove paper and the whole thing – as eloquently described by Bloomfield and Mendelson, in their Auden Bibliography – is

bound in brilliant yellowish green (130) cloth lettered down the spine: ‘[in red] LETTERS FROM ICELAND [in bluish grey] W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice’. Across the foot of the spine in bluish grey: ‘FABER’. All edges trimmed, top edge stained light grey. White dust jacket with a halftone photograph and printed in red and black.

My own copy of the book, purchased second-hand two years ago, once belonged to a certain B. Mellor, who apparently bought the book in Blackwells, Oxford, in October 1937, price nine shillings. All in all, my Letters from Iceland is a sturdy and well-made object of considerable literary and historical interest, which has sustained numerous readings and spillages, while remaining in excellent condition.

Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell visited Iceland in 1994, to retrace the steps of Auden and MacNeice. They made a recording of the trip for a five-part BBC radio series, Second Draft from Sagaland, first broadcast on Radio 3 in 1995, and Faber have now published Moon Country, their book about the journey. The title comes from a phrase in a line from Letters from Iceland, in MacNeice’s poem ‘Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard’ (‘The songs of jazz have told us of a moon country’). Moon Country contains poems, bits and pieces of reportage, a three-act verse-play by Maxwell, ‘Harald and the Lonely Hearts’, a long, untitled prose piece about his childhood by Armitage, extracts from an interview with Iceland’s President, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, and some reminiscences about Auden by the Icelandic poet Matthías Johannessen. It is published in paperback and contains 14 black and white photographs, no maps, no diagrams and no reading list. My own copy of the book is dog-eared and dirty after a few read-throughs, and the spine has virtually disintegrated.

In any comparison between Moon Country and Letters from Iceland – and Armitage, Maxwell and their publishers obviously intend comparisons to be made – one thing is clear: the standards of book production have declined over the past fifty years. Faber are of course not solely to blame for this sorry state of affairs (indeed, with their recent series of Faber Library reprints – which includes Auden’s Another Time and MacNeice’s Autumn Journal – they have attempted to revive the tradition of the well-made book), but the fact remains: both Letters from Iceland and Moon Country are books as portmanteau, but while Letters from Iceland might be described as a leather suitcase, Moon Country is more a plastic bag.

Armitage and Maxwell are not the first writers to have felt a strange fascination for the poems in Letters from Iceland. Auden’s ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ in particular has attracted many devotees and imitators, professionals and poetasters alike. Clive James’s flashy verse-letters in his book Fan-Mail (1977), for example, owe an obvious debt to Auden’s epistle. So do Charles Osborne’s self-advertising ‘Letter to W.H. Auden’ (‘The fact is that I’m writing a huge book/About you – it’s a kind of ‘Life and Works’ – / In which I aim to take a searching look/At all your poems, books and plays, your quirks’), Francis Spufford’s self-searching ‘A Letter to Wystan Auden, from Iceland’ (‘To business, then, anachronistic Wystan./To limn the details of my situation/I’ll reach into my past’) and James Fenton’s gossipy ‘Open Letter to Richard Crossman’, which goes one up, literally, on Auden by upgrading the seven-line rhyme-royal of ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ to the full Byronic eight-line ottava rima. Tom Paulin has a ponderous poem, from his collection A State of Justice (1977), titled ‘Thinking of Iceland’ (‘to go North to that island / that’s four days’ sailing from Hull/would be what? An escape?/Or an attempt at finding/what’s behind everything?’), which pontificates on many of the themes he explores at greater length in an important early essay, ‘ “Letters from Iceland”: Going North’. Anna Adams’s golly-gosh response to Auden’s poem, published by Peterloo, pretty much sums up the general enthusiasm:

In spite of my shortcomings, your long letter
   roused this response. ‘That’s it,’ I said; ‘that’s it!’
I’ll write a poem full of mundane matter,
   like conversation, in which news and wit
   and Essays upon Woman may all fit;
where metre and rhyme-pattern make a frame
    wherein the voice can have and feel at home.

                          A Reply to Intercepted Mail (1979)

All this is as nothing, however, beside what Armitage and Maxwell attempt in Moon Country, which amounts to a comprehensive update and rewrite of Auden and MacNeice’s much loved travelogue. Their credentials as inheritors and revisionists are good. Like Auden and MacNeice in their day, they are both bright and popular poets. Indeed, Armitage is one of the few contemporary poets who could truly be said to have re-invigorated the language of English poetry. He has coined a number of memorable phrases – ‘I’m so hungry/I could eat a buttered monkey’ (‘Going West’), ‘No, if that house hasn’t dropped a good two inches/this last eighteen months, my cock’s a kipper’ (‘Bus Talk’) – and his best work, from Zoom (1989) to a few of the poems in Kid (1992), brims with the bobs and tags of everyday speech, unexpected openings (demotic versions of the famous first line, in medias res, of the Cantos, ‘And then went down to the ship’) and clever little clasp-like conclusions (‘if you only pay peanuts, you’re working with monkeys’, ‘I could have scored. I could have contended’). He achieves his effects by means of compacting and compressing, incongruity (in ‘On Miles Platting Station’ the stitchwort ‘has done well for itself’, in ‘Looking for Weldon Kees’, ‘American books were of a different kidney’) and elision (the poem ‘Fire’ relights the phrase ‘extent of the damage’ with the spark of a comma: ‘Pull up; let’s stumble over this rough ground/and look on it: the extent, the damage’). He can also be very funny in the manner of the great Lancashire comedian Frank Randle, doing his old routine as the elderly hiker – ‘A’m as full of vim az a butcher’z dog ... A’m as livelagh az a cricket.’

Maxwell is more donnish and deliberative in his poetry, but probably more ambitious than Armitage, and certainly more wide-ranging. As well as three collections of poems he’s written a number of dense and finely stated essays and reviews, a ‘rock thriller in verse’ (The Heart in Hiding), a novel, Blue Burneau, and a collection of plays, Gnyss the Magnificent. He is, moreover, an Auden fan of long-standing (there is an excellent essay, ‘Echoes of The Orators’ in an old issue of the late lamented Verse, and another, ‘Random Thoughts on my Debt to Auden’, in Agenda in 1994); his work is peppered with knowing nods and allusions to the master’s work (the character Aidan/Auden in The Heart in Hiding is a model of the artist destroyed by fame, and Glass is a ‘Dog-Man’, like Francis in Auden and Isherwood’s The Dog beneath the Skin). Armitage, too, has had his Auden moments: a tentative gesture at the end of his long poem ‘Reading the Banns’ (‘if you came to lay//your sleeping head/against my arm or sleeve ... There/how does that sound?’), and a lament in ‘Look, Stranger’ (‘Skimmed into the sea of the century/you went well but fell short of the far shore’).

The omens, then, are good. For various reasons, however, Moon Country fails to deliver on its promises. There are some good poems – maybe two or three apiece – but unlike Letters from Iceland, the whole seems not only frivolous but foolhardy. It’s not so much a bad book as a bad idea: the collaborative nature of the project exposes the poets’ weaknesses, and the element of homage reminds the reader of the terrible curse of belatedness.

Away from home, and compared to Maxwell, Armitage lacks range and confidence. At times he seems lost, unhappy and bewildered. One of the photographs shows him barefoot, head bowed, writing ‘Yorkshire’ in the sand on a beach at Breidavik Bay, an image both charming and pathetic, like an Englishman wearing a knotted handkerchief on the streets of New York in July. He tries hard in his work to be liked, but the downside of his commitment to the demotic is that his verse sometimes descends to doggerel (‘Scotch on the rocks, straight/down. Seen through the empty glass/the moon. It’s twelve noon’) and his prose to the banal. In the prose piece ‘Kit Bag’, a replay of Auden and MacNeice’s ‘For Tourists’, he lists the clothes and books and bits and bobs that he intends to take with him to Iceland, paying particular attention to all the tapes he’s planning to play on his Walkman: Talking Heads, Scott Walker, Bjork, The Smiths, The Fall, The Pixies, Prefab Sprout, Bob Dylan, REM, Felt and the Lemonheads. Perhaps we are supposed to admire this little collection of cassettes, and the poet’s good taste. But two or three years later, what was once modish now seems outdated, a reminder of life before Brit-pop. Fashion has moved on, and Armitage hasn’t.

He also takes with him a selection of magazines – the TLS, National Geographic and the NME – which seems cunningly contrived to cover all the cultural bases, from highbrow to low. But he can’t please all of the people all of the time. He constantly plays up to his reputation as a lad – there is much talk of football and the drinking of beer – and sometimes ends up apologising for his rarefied habits of reading and writing. The ‘selected slim volumes’ that he’s packed for the trip he doesn’t even bother to name, unlike the make of his hair gel, his after-shave and the imprimatur of his T-shirts. At least Auden and MacNeice actually rode ponies in Iceland: at times, Armitage looks like a show pony.

Where Armitage under-achieves, Maxwell tends to over-reach. Beside his companion he sounds po-faced and pretentious. His shorter lyric poems are so full of themselves, and so full of admiration for Auden, that they sometimes sink to pastiche (‘Where water hurtles down so long an age,/Assure yourself what Father took for rage/Is calm’). His prose, however, is more buoyant, and his verse play, ‘Harald and the Lonely Hearts’ is positively light-hearted and by far the best thing in the book, full of trolls with ridiculous names (Glota, Shrugga, Droppa), pounding rhythms (‘Yo ho ho ... Bottle of Rum ... Boat’s gonna go ... Better swig some ... Yo ho hay ... Bottle of Bell’s ... Judgment Day ... Hence those smells ... Yo ho heg ... Bottle of Jack ... All gonna peg ... Came for the craic ... Yo ho hoem ... Bottle of Gordon’s ... Better read a funeral poem ... Not sodding Auden’s’), and a wonderfully improbable plot. It’s as if Terry Pratchett had written The Age of Anxiety. It’s not really serious work, but at least it’s his own.