Saturday, March 26, 2011

Cobbett, etc.

1. I was reading William Cobbett's Rural Rides on the flight back from Dallas; was hooked by this passage on p. 1:
All Middlesex is ugly , notwithstanding the millions upon millions which it is continually sucking up from the rest of the kingdom; and, though the Thames and its meadows now and then are seen from the road, the country is not less ugly from Richmond to Chertsey bridge, through Twickenham, Hampton, Sunbury and Shepperton, than it is elsewhere. The soil is a gravel at bottom with a black loam at top near the Thames; further back it is a sort of spewy gravel; and the buildings consist generally of tax-eaters’ showy, tea-garden-like boxes, and of shabby dwellings of labouring people who, in this part of the country, look to be about half Saint Giles’s: dirty, and have every appearance of drinking gin.

There is a great deal to like -- lists of place-names and soil, "local color"... -- but on the whole it makes for atrocious in-flight reading as there is no narrative to it. I read fitfully and got through about 70pp. Disappointed he didn't do East Anglia as I sort of wanted to read Cobbett in parallel with Sebald. I'm always baffled by the things I choose to pack... this is why one should own a Kindle I suppose.

2. Speaking of Cobbett, I had not heard of Tom Paine's afterlife (Wikipedia):
A plan to return to England with the remains of [...] Thomas Paine (died 1809) for a proper burial led to the ultimate loss of Paine's remains. The plan was to give Paine a heroic reburial on his native soil, but the bones were still among Cobbett's effects when he died over twenty years later. There is no confirmed story about what happened to them after that, although down the years various people have claimed to own parts of Paine's remains such as his skull and right hand.

This is, of course, coheres with everything else one does know about Cobbett.

And some tab-closing:

3. From Randall Jarrell's review of The Shield of Achilles: "Auden [...] lies back in himself as if he were an unmade bed." (Cf. Lydia Davis's prose poem on Auden's sleeping habits.) I think most people who still read Auden today would be a little puzzled at Jarrell's claim that the very earliest work was the best. One is fond of "The Watershed," "1929," etc., but they are neither the anthology pieces nor the poems that have actually had influence.

4. Jeremy Harding on Hitch's "strong, almost gamey opinions" [LRB]. Trilling remarked somewhere that Orwell should be thought of an essayist in the tradition of Cobbett and Hazlitt; Hitchens, of course, is in the tradition of Orwell, and this is a transitive relation. Harding manages to squeeze in a swipe at Martin Amis, as a sidekick "with a frozen alcopop in one hand and an unread novel by Victor Serge in the other" who isn't as clever/fastidious/etc. as Hitchens. True in relative terms, perhaps, but reading Hitch in parallel with Orwell -- or Cobbett -- reminds you of what a self-indulgent poseur he is by comparison, how shallow and improvisatory his crotchets have always seemed.

No comments: