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22nd March 2022
Unheimlichkeit is a German word that literally means unhomeliness. It is used to express feelings of unease, upset, displacement in a domestic context (heim). Several WWII Persephone books are about this, for example. Few Eggs and No Oranges by Vere Hodgson, PB no. 9, a diary written in London during the five years of war, A House in the Country by Jocelyn Playfair, PB no. 31, a novel about a house full of refugees and the displaced, and Doreen by Barbara Noble, PB no. 60, a novel about a little girl whose mother sends her out of London to live with strangers. All these books relate powerfully to what we are going through at the moment, empathetically if not in fact.
But even if horror is not happening to us, and it certainly isn’t to anyone reading this Letter, we all share the feelings of unease etc. as we mostly go on leading our normal-ish lives while, not far away, Ukraine is being bombed and the inhabitants of Mariupol are being deported to camps in the east. As Joy Lo Dico put it in the Financial Times, having defined unheimlichkeit: ‘One day you are taking your child to music lessons, the next you are cast back into a primitive state of just trying to survive.’ And she pointed out that we use the phrase ‘safe as houses’ to mean – safety and security. But the people of Ukraine do not have the everyday luxury of feeling safe as houses; which is why those of us whose lives do continue as normal, who empathise, as most of us do, feel such unheimlichkeit.
As we grapple with all this, it’s a little bit of a comfort to recite verses from ‘Somewhere in England’, one of the poems in Virginia Graham’s Consider the Years, PB no. 22; these are WWII poems about a young woman working for the war effort yet longing for everydayness. Our favourite verse in the poem is:
Somewhere there must be women reading books,
and talking of chicken-rissoles to their cooks;
but every time I try to read The Grapes of Wrath
I am sent forth
on some occupation
apparently immensely vital to the nation.
This says so much: the idea of having a cook; the period detail of a chicken-rissole; it seems that everyone read Steinbeck; bureaucracy flourished ('apparently vital'). Virginia, whose best friend was Joyce Grenfell, grappling with the important and the trivial, managed admirably to combine empathy with frivolity: her tone is perfect, and we must try to emulate it.
So this Letter is now going to stick with books and chicken-rissoles and for a short while we are going to pretend that the only things preoccupying us are art exhibitions and nicely-distanced political turmoil like the Suffragettes. But goodness it is SO difficult to avoid politics completely. For example, there is an Eric Ravilious exhibition in Winchester. But as Ian Jack pointed out astutely in the Observer a few years ago (at the time of the last Ravilious exhibition) the crowds going to see his work are in themselves, because of their demographic, making a political statement. However, since this Letter is now a politics-free zone we won’t expand on this any further, but do read Ian Jack’s excellent piece. Btw, the documentary maker Margy Kinmonth has made a film about Eric Ravilious. She will certainly draw on Long Live Great Bardfield, PB no. 119, and if only the film had been about both Eric and Tirzah! Or just Tirzah. But there we are.
Here is an extraordinary 2nd or 3rd Century mosaic that was recently uncovered. It looks as though it was made this year.
The Guardian had a leader about Middlemarch, ‘one of the masterpieces of nineteenth-century literature’, though we would say the masterpiece. It’s a novel that somehow always has the first and last word. Here the reader is observing Dorothea six weeks after her marriage: ‘If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.’ In other words, we have to harden our hearts to everyday tragedy or we would go mad.
A statue of the Welsh writer and feminist Elaine Morgan has been unveiled in her home town of Mountain Ash.. How imaginative and marvellous that she is shown with a disorderly pile of paper. The statue, designed by the sculptor Emma Rodgers, is beautiful and a huge crowd attended the ceremony, which is wonderfully heartening. Details of Elaine's life here.
A Leeds university study recommended six changes we should or could be doing to help stop a climate catastrophe. (Apologies for getting perilously close to politics.) A new movement has been launched asking relatively well-off people to make 'The Jump' and sign up to six pledges. These are: 1) eating a largely plant-based diet and using up leftovers 2) only buying three new items of clothing a year 3) keeping electrical products for at least seven years 4) taking one short-haul flight every three years and one long-haul every eight years 5) not having a car 6) making improvements by eg moving to green energy or insulating your home. To this we would add abolishing freezers except for tiny ones within a fridge wherein to keep ice cream and fish fingers; and there is a case for only allowing very small dogs in urban areas, but we don't want to annoy people who like large dogs! Here is Gilbert, who is indeed very small (he's a Havanese). As is appropriate for Persephone's office dog, he is seen on an early 1980s Collier Campbell duvet cover and a William Morris cushion. (And we must just add: the most poignant thing about the pictures of fleeing Ukrainians is how many of them had their dogs with them. Well, it's true, we would not leave G behind.)
The Ashmolean in Oxford has a Pissarro exhibition. Now this really does take one away from everyday life, in a good way. Here is a good trailer (scroll down) about the exhibition. This is 'View from my Window' 1886-88.
Tomorrow, March 23rd, at Bonham’s there is a sale of suffragette memorabilia.
We publish another Wilkie Collins Sensation Novel – The New Magdalen, PB no. 138.
There is an exhibition at the V and A, in conjunction with the National Trust, called Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature; for readers in Cologne, Anna Gmeyner’s play Automatenbüfett (1932) is being performed there, details here; Adrian Tinniswood has written a book called Noble Architecture about the rise and fall of the post-war country house; and the Times Literary Supplement ran a long article about Sylvia Townsend Warner in which it mentioned our own English Climate, PB no. 137, but mostly focused on Penguin’s new editions of the novels; this quite rightly provoked a letter the following week from Carmen Callil who pointed out that Virago had had almost all Sylvia’s work in print for decades and to treat the Penguin reissues as an event, something new, was absurd, which is indeed true.
Finally, we know Shirley Hughes was 94 when she died but nonetheless her death is upsetting because we all love her work so much. If there is anyone reading this who is not familiar with her work, they must remedy this immediately. Here is the cover of Dogger, and here is a BBC piece about the inimitable Shirley Hughes.
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