A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
By David Boyd
2013 was I think marked by several significant events: one of course was the passing of Eliot’s widow, Mrs. Valerie Eliot. Mrs. Eliot has clearly taken very great care indeed to leave bequests and clear instructions and arrangements to continue her assiduous and painstaking stewardship of her husband’s estate. She ensured for example continued support both for our Summer School and for the annual Festival at Little Gidding. Before she died, Mrs. Eliot had sanctioned an immense undertaking in international literary scholarship in the form of the T.S. Eliot Editorial Project in order to release from storage, collate, edit and promulgate all of her husband’s vast lifetime’s literary archives and she similarly left provision for this momentous undertaking to continue apace.
Professor Ronald Schuchard of Emory University has long been a friend of Valerie Eliot and one of the driving forces of the Project as well as a General Editor of the Complete Prose section thereof. In 2009, Ron instigated the Eliot International Summer School and oversaw five highly successful yearly Schools as Director. 2013, though marks Ron’s retirement as Director: he handed the lead role over this year to the current Associate School Director, Dr. Gail McDonald of Goldsmiths, University of London.
The 2013 Summer School began as it usually does within the splendid period edifice which is Senate House, with delegates’ first assemblage for the formal opening. The great diversity amongst delegates was immediately apparent: this year they were from no fewer than seventeen different countries and ranged from teens and twenties undergraduate and graduate students (many supported by generous fee bursaries) to far more ‘mature’ specimens such as myself. Whilst academics were in the majority, there was the usual smattering of non-academics, adding to past years’ roll call of itinerant preachers, corporate lawyers, venture capitalists etc, and even including this year a veteran nun from Australia….
One of my (many) decrepitudes includes a neurological one that leads to my readily falling into slumber whenever in the audience of lectures, plays, concerts and the like, much to the consternation of my dear partner, Judith. I’m rather ashamed to admit, therefore, that my remembrance of much of the various lecture content is sketchy to say the least. But at least the Summer School has placed an indelible and treasured sketch-pad within this disordered old head of mine.
Two innovative and significant departures from last year’s curriculum were made. The usual evening reading and reception within the magnificent premises of the London Library could not take place as a result of extensive refurbishment works there. A remarkable substitute was provided, though, in the form of a visit to Christies International auction house in nearby King Street, and a private viewing of the late Mrs. Valerie Eliot’s art collection, which is to be auctioned by them in November. Full details are here:
Christopher Reid, former Poetry Editor at Faber and Faber, read a selection of his own poetry, whilst the scope and content of the art works on show was simply stunning: the whole event, a great privilege to be part of, and a total delight.
There was also a late-afternoon viewing at the National Portrait Gallery of a Special exhibition of artist Patrick Heron’s studies for a portrait of T.S. Eliot, but unfortunately I couldn’t make it to that one, so am unable to describe it further.
Change number two took the form of one day’s lectures rescheduled from their usual Senate House location to the very interior of St. Magnus Martyr church, in the heart of the City of London, by London Bridge. We were all completely subsumed there by Eliot’s ‘inexplicable splendour of Ionian White and gold’. It was apparent that all of us – not only those of Christian faith – were in great delight and awe of this place. As another contemporary English poet, Philip Larkin once so aptly observed:
…..A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete…..
Reading about the history of St. Magnus brought back vividly very fond personal memories of H.M. The Queen’s Jubilee Pageant on the adjacent River Thames, which had featured a unique bell barge, full of specially-cast and traditionally-hung church bells and a team of expert ringers. See:
The driving force behind this unique floating bell-tower concept had been one with the colourful name of Mr Dickon Love, City of London church bell ringing enthusiast par excellence, whose involvement with the recently-rebuilt St. Magnus Martyr bells is recounted here, in this touching account of modern enthusiasts putting right past neglect to our precious, indeed, largely priceless, heritage: a piece of tradition with which Eliot himself wholeheartedly might have approved:
The more ambulant amongst us ended the afternoon with a guided walking tour of Eliotic locations in the City of London, conducted by one of the Summer School’s Patrons, Mark Storey and terminating appropriately at the unique and ancient galleried coaching inn, The George, just over the soft-flowing River Thames, in Southwark.
The excursions to both Little Gidding and to Burnt Norton were, as last year, glittering highlights of the whole sparkling Programme.
As has become customary, we joined the annual Little Gidding Festival for its second and final day and joined forces with the Friends of Little Gidding and the members of the UK T.S. Eliot Society in a big marquee on the lawn of that utterly peaceful and remote place, next to that exquisite little church. It was a great opportunity to mingle with diverse but universally-enthusiastic Eliot enthusiasts; to inspect the various publications of the Friends and of the Eliot Society and contemplate the benefits of becoming a member of either or both, and of course to participate in the main, formal programme, which included the 2013 Little Gidding Lecture, presented by Oxford literary biographer, Lyndall Gordon, on the topic of Eliot’s search for perfection in ‘Four Quartets’.
This delightful, (very) warm and sunny day ended with Choral Evensong in the little church, a small but vociferously glorious choir filling the church’s tiny nave with soaring devotional voice and ending our visit with a fitting and resounding spiritual flourish.
One of the speakers this year was Professor Sir Christopher Ricks, still as erudite and entertaining as ever, despite his 80 or so years of chronological age. As usual, he managed to lever into his talk a considerable chunk of Bob Dylan Appreciation; his great learning and vastly-perceptive appreciation of all the sounds of words as well as their mere strings of letters simply gushed out with totally-refreshing and enlightening force.
The delightful, remote house and grounds of Burnt Norton basked elegantly in the sun over the Cotswolds when we all visited from London on the final Sunday, as guests of the present occupiers, the Earl and Countess of Harrowby. The Countess has recently had published a novel based on the violent and fiery history of the place, as in
… under her pre-Countess name of Caroline Sandon: it seems to be of the genre called ‘faction’, with the actual facts surpassing the limits of even a gigantic imagination: a kind of roistering and dastardly ‘Downton Abbey’, perhaps.
The marquee on the lawn shaded the sun but this year stored the intense heat, but with sufficient ventilation through the opened-up walls to keep it comfortable. We were treated to the distinguished poets Professor Robert McDonald and Christopher Reid reading to us Eliot’s eponymous Quartet, followed by Professor Nancy Hargrove of Mississippi State University delivering the annual Burnt Norton Lecture, rounded off by Nancy’s husband, (Professor) Guy Hargrove singing, in terrific voice, Eliotic songs, from Eliot’s own Ragtime and Music Hall favourites to an incomparably fine rendering of the iconic song from the ‘Cats’ musical, Memory, a most apt theme for the place which inspired such profound reflection upon the theme that:
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
(David – who previously reported on the 2011 Summer School HERE – lives in West Cumbria and is currently working on a critical biography of Faber poet Norman C. Nicholson (1914-1987) which he says is progressing very well, greatly inspired by his Summer dose of all things Eliot …)