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.
We’ve recently returned from a week in London.
“SO BLOODY WHAT?!” you might rightly cry, dear reader, but please bear with me a little longer for some possibly pertinent and salient Vulpes Libris content, because this was a very special, literary, week. It was, in fact, the 2011 T S Eliot International Summer School organised by London University’s School of Advanced Studies (the SAS is a somewhat appropriate acronym) and conducted mainly within their magnificent Senate House HQ next door to the former Faber and Faber offices from where Eliot ruled literary life – and wooed Valerie in their late-flowering burst of love.
The week comprised: a Grand Opening by Simon Armitage; an exquisite fine wines-and-canapés reception kindly sponsored by the above-mentioned Mrs Eliot; hosting by the School Director, the eminent Eliot scholar Professor Ronald Schuchard from Emory University; guided excursions to Eliotic locations such as Little Gidding and Burnt Norton; morning lectures by distinguished Eliot academics such as Professors Jewel Spears Brooker and Sir Christopher Ricks; afternoon seminars led by the same; exeats to readings and receptions at The London Library etc; i nformal nights in the nearby pub where delegates and leaders could mingle socially – etc.
Senate House is a breath-taking building, and London University an unbelievably-immense operation (ie: circa 3,500 staff and 120,000 enrolled students) that occupies most of the built environment of Bloomsbury – the area of central London bounded by Centre Point, Euston Road, Tottenham Court Road and Holborn (I’m tempted to shriek “MORNINGTON CRESCENT!!” at this point, but that’s another story…), and the intellectual/literary boiler-room of early-20th century thought, inhabited by JM Keynes, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey and William Empson, to name but a few stellar intellects.
The Senate House Building reminds me uncannily of that vast structure of the Terminal Building at Berlin’s Templehof Airport, at one time one of the largest buildings on the planet and an awe-inspiring survival of Hitler’s Germania. Fittingly, it is said that Hitler had planned to rule Britain from Senate House, once he’d invaded, and the building currently serves as a ready-made Gotham City set for Batman movies.
Just to be in this place for a whole week was to me a true privilege and a fascinating experience in itself – even the lavatories exude 1930s style, splendour and grandiloquence.
Anyhow, back from the lavs to Eliot …
A big obstacle to Eliot studies since the great man’s death in 1965 has been the denial of access to his unpublished works and papers and the posthumous prohibition of any authorised (critical) biography. This sad situation is, however, likely to be utterly changed soon by the TS Eliot Editorial Project, whereby the strong dam holding back the previously-forbidden waters has been given brand new floodgates via the TS Eliot Estate (mainly Valerie), Faber and Faber (mainly Valerie, as a principal shareholder, still) and The University of London (aided by associate editors such as Professors Ron Schuchard and John Haffenden).
Tantalising dribbles from the floods to come regularly emerged during the week: for example, Ron has been tracking down many of Eliot’s unpublished and formerly-unattributed, yet masterly, ‘blurbs’ from Faber’s published works and Eliot’s very many addresses delivered as guest of honour at both great and small ceremonial gatherings, for which he never charged fees and donated all honoraria to charity.
Furthermore, Ron has been given free access to Eliot’s most sensitive letters, such as those he wrote to his companion and in many respects soul-mate-in-later-life, Mary Trevelyan, in which he explains in agonised detail why he couldn’t ever contemplate their becoming an item, as Mary so very fervently wished.
Yet, despite all of this Eliot, at the age of 68, was swept off his feet by his vivacious secretary Valerie, and the grand old Russell Hotel where Eliot and Valerie met for incognito out of the office assignations (in the public areas – not the bedrooms, I think !) still commands Russell Square.
Some people consider Eliot’s published verses to Valerie embarrassingly soppy and unworthy of his poetic stature but I am not one of them and think the following worth repeating here (I’m sure Mrs Eliot would not mind, in this particular context):
A Dedication to My Wife
To whom I owe the leaping delight
That quickens my senses in our wakingtime
And the rhythm that governs the repose of our sleepingtime,
The breathing in unison
Of lovers whose bodies smell of each other
Who think the same thoughts without need of speech
And babble the same speech without need of meaning.
No peevish winter wind shall chill
No sullen tropic sun shall wither
The roses in the rose-garden which is ours and ours only
But this dedication is for others to read:
These are private words addressed to you in public.
To me, at least, it’s both poignant and strangely fitting that even such a dyed-in-the-wool philosopher/old aesthete as Eliot still couldn’t dodge Cupid’s arrows, and a true blessing that he finally found such personal happiness far, far away from The Waste Land.
There are very few poets or novelists whose legacy can sustain and justify such intense, detailed and high-level research and study, but I think that Eliot is undoubtedly one of them – largely, I’d suggest, because much of his output transcends the fetters of being mere words, with circumscribed meanings. In the case of lesser writers, even if they’ve written anything worth reading, once is enough, and often (to deploy Eliot’s immortal description) ‘we had the experience, but missed the meaning’. But, who can ever tire of reading, or feel one has exhausted the meaning of The Waste Land or Ash Wednesday or Four Quartets? As a consequence, most ‘takes’ on Eliot’s lines are equally valid, and tend to provoke spirited and polarised debate.
I suppose some may think it odd that people can expend so much time, effort and money on such an intense and avid study the work of just one author, believing perhaps that doing so is okay for academics, but inappropriate for fugitives from industry and commerce like me – but, although it was a bit overwhelming to be in groups in which PhDs and Readers and Emeritus Professors predominated, non-academics were warmly welcomed and treated with great respect.
Apart from my companion and I, there was an advertising magnate from Atlanta, a preacher from Australia, a GP from nearby Harley Street and a novelist from New York – to cite but a few of the deviants from the ‘norm’.
Ron Schuchard described us all as ‘a very diverse group’. I thought he could just as accurately have said ‘motley-bunch’ …
Of many precious moments, the pilgrimage to Little Gidding, where we joined the UK TS Eliot Society and the Friends of Little Gidding (Google them both!) for their joint annual Festival was a real highlight, as was the lecture by Sir Christopher Ricks, who – had he not become such a pre-eminent scholar – could have surely attained stardom as a stand-up comedian. (Example – Philip Larkin was somewhat deaf – and he didn’t much like listening either.)
It was interesting to hear Sir Christopher, no less, deploy the term ‘great poet’ and to cite some of Bob Dylan’s lyrics as shining examples of lyrical mastery, alongside Eliot’s.
In conclusion, I recall that I was once taken to task on this very site for daring to suggest that, lyrically speaking, Tony Hatch wasn’t exactly up there with ‘the greats’. Well, after this experience, I stand defiantly by that opinion!