Reports from the Not Too Distant Canon

Frank Kermode

  • The Invasion Handbook by Tom Paulin
    Faber, 201 pp, £12.99, April 2002, ISBN 0 571 20915 7

This book is a sequence or collection of poems and other things concerning events in Europe in the period between the Treaty of Versailles and, broadly speaking, the Battle of Britain. Some of the events and personalities, like the Treaties of Versailles and Locarno, are considerately annotated, but others, some of them much more obscure than these, are not. Consequently the reader’s share, as Henry James called it, is quite half; or, to put it another way, unless you are a polymathic historian with some knowledge of literature you will need to do quite a lot of research to figure out what Paulin is doing.

This is not a complaint; we are dealing with a modern poet and would hardly expect a linked and lacquered historical account of the between-war years, with one thing giving rise inevitably, tragically, to another, although there is some of that in the pages on Versailles, which inescapably had more than economic consequences. Certain aspects have attracted the poet’s attention; he confers it, sensing no obligation to say why he wrote about one thing rather than another. There are passages of prose: some by the author, some transcriptions from his sources, some a mixture of both; some in the body of the text and some in the margins. It isn’t always easy to say who is doing the talking. The reader must decide whether he or she is up to sorting everything out and making some kind of whole of it.

The prevailing or default mode of the book is verse in short rather rackety and sometimes rickety lines. Frequently it is merely chopped prose. In a vignette of Walter Benjamin we find this: ‘after he fled Berlin/the Bibliothèque Nationale/was the only place/he allowed himself to feel at home in./It couldn’t be a sanctuary/for it gave him only/a brief passing illusion/of safety that ended/with the German occupation.’ This passage appears as nine lines of verse, divided as above, but without punctuation. I see the point of getting ‘safety’ and ‘ended’ into the same short line, but any other advantages over setting it out as prose are hard to descry, except that in general terms it is an advantage to have a routine baseline verse movement to work from. Presumably the line divisions in the following passage have a point, but it escapes me:

the free world’ll punish and blame
– no, not Trudj-
man and the others

As his admirers would expect, Paulin’s language within these mostly rough-hewn lines is also, as ever, rough, demotic (Northern Ireland slang or dialect) and exotic (lots of German words, passages in French). At a guess, I would say that in developing this style he has been affected by Miroslav Holub, whom he greatly admires, and who can sound like this in English:

Inside there may be growing
An abandoned room,
Bare walls, pale squares where pictures hung,
a disconnected phone,
feathers settling on the floor
the encyclopedists have moved out and
Dostoevsky never found the place
Lost in a landscape
Where only surgeons
Write poems

– a passage Paulin has singled out in his praise of Holub, ‘the anti-poet’ who ‘has lived in the truth and spoken it wryly and firmly’. One gets a fair idea of Paulin’s method in this book from some of the Holub lines he quoted in Minotaur:

Pasteur died of ictus,
Ten years later.
The janitor Meister
Fifty-five years later
Committed suicide
When the Germans occupied
His Pasteur Institute
With all those poor dogs

Paulin has also praised Peter Reading for being ‘user-hostile’, and for contriving, by avoiding iambs, to demonstrate ‘his dissidence from the state’.

The preface to Paulin’s excellent Faber Book of Vernacular Verse explains his preference for demotic diction and the natural cadences of Hopkins and Christina Rossetti over upper-class dialects and iambic regularities. Like Donne, he is proud to be harsh. He won’t tell the reader what is meant by a ‘boortree’ or a ‘cuas’, equally unknown to me and the OED. You could probably guess from the context that ‘stocious’ is Irish for ‘drunk’ but even an Irishman I consulted could not explain ‘pochles’, which occurs in the same line. However, ‘pobby’ means ‘swollen’ and a ‘loy’ is an Irish spade. And so on. The ‘jeddo’ turns out to be the jet d’eau in the lake at Geneva. Meanwhile the verses bearing these novelties rattle like unsprung carts over ruts. Wheat dust ‘skinks and twindles’, sledges ‘skitter and slip’. ‘There was heard the plockplock of horsehooves/a toltering bustle clipped scatter/like sabots clocking the cobbles.’ But they can rise to their occasion, as with this moment in a Czech workers’ canteen, come upon in a side street:

oh it was wretched
an unsmiling woman
served us bowls of soup
– dull brown and greasy –
it was intimate and unclean
like eating in a hospital
with a dying man
all we tasted was unhope

So the vernacular style can support such flights. But this vernacular poet is also a very literary poet, and often, when he is at his most elaborate and ambitious, reports can be heard from the not too distant canon. Eliot, whose idea of tradition Paulin particularly reprehends, is contemptuously shown here lunching with Montgomery Belgion, his Criterion acolyte, in the Savoy Grill or the Ritz and saying the sort of thing Paulin would expect him to say. But Eliot’s verse is another matter, one of the ghosts that haunt the poem. It crops up in the midst of the vernacular, as here, when Clemenceau speaks:

the Latin orator in the Sheldonian
made me Christ the tiger
in the juvescence – wrong springy word –
of the year

– a quotation not less donnish in that while borrowing his words it manages to point out Eliot’s mistake. Talk of Hitler brings in the Starnbergersee. A section called ‘Chancellor Hitler’s Speech’ echoes the catalogue of armaments in Eliot’s ‘Coriolan’ and ends with a confession of the theft. (This kind of catalogue, after all an epic convention, recurs in the tallying of the arms abandoned by the British at Dunkirk.) Sometimes the allusion is fugitive: a Dutchman squats on a windowsill, ‘above an earth that for some politely/churlish reason/is jampacked with merds not turds’; ‘patched and peeled’ is borrowed in a passage on the dreadfully burned faces of fighter pilots. Lord Halifax is described as a familiar ghost.

Joyce and his Ulysses get a long passage to themselves, along with passing references to agenbite of inwit and commodious recirculation. Hopkins, a favourite because of his liberal views on rhythm, creeps into a meditation of Trotsky’s, and is also remembered for celebrating the roll, the rise, the carol of creation. Unsurprisingly, but in the end aptly, there is a fine extended fantasy on the themes of Conrad’s Under Western Eyes, though neither the title nor the author is mentioned, which is typical of the cloud of reticence that hangs over the whole book. The Auden of The Orators has a hand in a surreal catalogue of ailments in the section on ‘Weimar’, and also in the prose of the ‘The Invasion Handbook’, a document meant to instruct a German invasion force on the geography and social peculiarities of the British (Freemasons mostly); there is a special wanted list consisting of two names, Lascelles Abercrombie and Stefan Zweig. From the list of two thousand people to be eliminated Lloyd George and Shaw are expressly exempted. When the invasion has succeeded the Duke of Windsor will resume his throne and Henry Williamson replace the Poet Laureate, John Masefield.

If these instructions and predictions derive from a genuine document, then that document is Audenesque. But Auden’s voice can be heard in less fantastic moments: the lights of a car sweeping across a bedroom, as in that fine early poem later named ‘The Watershed’; and the ‘pluck’ of the tide, which remembers ‘On This Island’. Yeats is also a presence, felt in reminiscences of ‘Long-Legged Fly’. The phrase ‘orts, scraps and fragments’, which also turns up as ‘des bribes et des morceaux’, must come from Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts. And I think Pound has made a less obvious contribution; his Cantos may have contributed to the form and structure of these poems.

Milton provides a ‘petrific mace’ in a context which actually refers, as Milton didn’t, to the act of turning things into stone; and he makes a more spectacular appearance in a marginal note in the ‘Weimar’ section, which reads thus: ‘Du matin jusqu’au midi il roula du midi jusqu’au soir d’un jour d’été et avec le soleil couchant il s’abattit du zénith comme une étoile tombante.’ I can’t guess why it is in French, or even why it is there at all, but it does sound rather good. Shakespeare is, naturally enough, an important source, providing sometimes a phrase: ‘waiting for waftage’ from Troilus and Cressida, ‘millions of strange shadows’ from Sonnet 53, bits of Antony and Cleopatra and Hamlet. Speer at Berchtesgaden remarks that the Germans were already so steeped in blood that they could not go back, and Trotsky, too, remembers Macbeth when he describes his ‘adobe ranch’ in Mexico as his ‘procreant cradle’, the expression with which Duncan commends the Macbeth castle on his arrival there; perhaps we are meant to think that the compliment preceded death by dagger or icepick.

The whole book is what Paulin calls a ‘loose-leaf epic’ and it is easy to see that it is only the first of a series. He has a grand plan and there is no limit to what he can do within it; he need never stop since there are a million incidents and characters to work on. Among the topics treated are the Sarajevo assassination (in flashback), the Bauhaus, the Jarrow March, Munich, the German invasions of Poland, Norway, the Low Countries and France, the Battle of Britain, Dunkirk, the Blitz. Among the persons who are spoken for or speak for themselves are Keynes, whose Economic Consequences of the Peace has radical importance, Austen Chamberlain (upper-class softy, hopelessly outclassed by hard European diplomats), Neville Chamberlain (worse), Lord Halifax (holy fox and privileged schemer), George V, Trotsky, Stresemann, Hitler, Speer, Churchill, Heidegger, Benjamin, Dowding, Richard Hillary and the Duke of Windsor, who was very thick with Hitler and had an expensive wedding present from him. There are quite a number of others whom I have to admit I know nothing about except what is here more or less obliquely conveyed.

Some of the stories are simple gossip – Richard Hillary and Merle Oberon, for instance, a particularly warm encounter, warmly recorded; but it seems that the blasted and blistered public-school Hillary is not the kind of young man Paulin likes. Yet he is good on heroism and can produce virile narratives of combat, as in ‘The Attack in the West’, which has strong scenes of action but also the following revealing anecdote: it seems that the German General Student, against orders, took the most secret invasion plans in a plane. It crashed, and the occupants were prevented from burning the documents, but the wicked Duke of Windsor let the Nazi High Command know the Allies had captured them, so this great advantage was lost. And were you aware that Montagu Norman of the Bank of England had ‘a secret line to Ribbentrop/who coos to the Queen of England/ down cunning corridors’, or that Halifax had his own key to the Palace garden?

All this is by the way, and does not prevent Paulin from getting on with the war. The Maginot Line was quite useless, but the inactivity of its defenders allows some nice perceptions:

we kept still
and watched their motorcycle patrols
the flash of field glasses
like stammering lighthouses
at high noon
as dogs tied to the doors of deserted farms
howled old testament howls
swollenuddered cows bellowed
a French cavalryman
shot a line of horses
one by one
I knew we were finished then

A survivor manages to get to the beach at Dunkirk:

went down like Aeneas
among the living shades
among twentypackets of Players
floating on the tide
the greybrown bloated faces
of drowned soldiers in overcoats

– where the demotic arrives just in time to deflate the donnish allusion. Churchill is also credited with thinking of himself as Aeneas glimpsing the Latian shore, but after all he went to Harrow.

The French envy the British their escape, and are permitted to do so in French:

c’est bien beau que les Britanniques
pouvaient ficher le camp
nous n’avons pas le luxe
ils sont retournés chez eux en héros
nous sommes revenus à l’ignominie
à une débâcle belle et bien énorme
La France aimerait juste nous oublier
nous étions comme des mots étrangers

Having got some way, by no means all the way, towards digesting this packed and rather monstrous book, I can certify that it is a work of scope and ambition, with many demonstrations of the poet’s power and some irritating features of a kind he can usually be counted on to provide. I daresay many readers would agree that some sort of companion volume, some guide on the lines of all those ancillary efforts devoted to Pound, Eliot and Joyce, would be a help. Paulin often steps out of the mainstream, as in his admiring accounts of Air Marshal Dowding, who, having been more responsible than anybody for our winning the Battle of Britain, was instantly fired and cast into permanent obscurity; Mitchell, designer of the Spitfire; and Churchill, observed at the moment, a most desperate moment, when he and not Halifax got the nod to succeed Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister. Some of the persons and their adventures are naturally less grandly historical, and it is not always easy to understand what they are doing in the poem. But the poet might well say it’s up to us to find out, and it is not improbable that there will be enthusiasts ready to take him at his word. Wanting myself to know more about this extraordinary work, I promise to buy their books.