The Welsh Review in December 1945.
I owe much of the above to Carl Phelpstead’s absorbing Tolkien and Wales: Language, Literature and Identity (University of Wales Press, 2011). It tells us a great deal about Tolkien as a philologist, and as a writer, and suggests how the fantastical inspirations of the latter grew out of the former. One of the prime motives for his fictions was the desire, or need, to create a race of beings who would speak the languages he invented. The process of invention was not merely lexical, but concerned the fundamentals of language structure, such as syntax and the formation of the plural. It was essential, furthermore, that the language had its own linguistic history and the rich patina of legends that living languages possess, and that manufactured (in Tolkien’s terms ‘dead’) systems, like Esperanto, do not. We learn (via Phelpstead) from Tolkien’s letters that the Elvish language Sindarin, in The Lord of the Rings, was ‘constructed deliberately to resemble Welsh phonologically’. But that was not enough. It also has ‘a relation to High-elven [Quenya] similar to that existing between British (properly so called, sc. the Celtic languages spoken in this island at the time of the Roman invasion) and Latin’.
Few of us appreciate the value of learning another language to facilitate communication abroad, far less as the key to the door of another culture. That ‘everyone’ speaks English is an excuse for not bothering to learn another language. To Tolkien, however, language acquisition was an aesthetic experience, and he profoundly disagreed with those who would promote English as a world language. That was, he wrote in 1925, ‘the most idiotic and suicidal [notion] that a language could entertain. Literature shrivels in a universal language, and an uprooted language rots before it dies’. He asked us ‘to realise the magnitude of the loss to humanity that the worlddominance of any one language now spoken would entail: no language has ever possessed but a small fraction of the varied excellences of human speech, and each language presents a different vision of life’. If we this side of the March remember that Welsh is beautiful and do all in our power to treasure and preserve it, will the English on their side do so too?
Tolkien thought the greatest of all surviving works in Old English, the epic poem Beowulf, more typically Celtic than most things he had met written in a Celtic language. This took me back to Gwyn Jones’s teaching of Beowulf. In our twohour-long sessions, severe concentration on the text was leavened with anecdotes concerning matters Scandinavian or Icelandic. Along one of these byways I first heard that well-preserved bodies of Iron Age people turned up in peat bogs in Denmark. In the early 1970s I read P.V. Glob’s The Bog People (Faber, 1969) where I learned that, along with men and women, artefacts were sacrificially deposited, most notably the Gundestrup Cauldron, a great silver bowl found by peat-cutters in the Raeve Bog, Himmerland, in 1891. It had been separated into sections before deposition, but re-formed is 42 centimetres high, has a diameter of 69 centimetres at the top and weighs almost nine kilograms. Experts still dispute where and by whom it was made, but it is broadly agreed that its repoussé decoration, inside and out, is characteristically Celtic.
In an exquisitely illustrated scene a line of warriors, on foot, is approaching a cauldron, over which one is suspended head first by a far larger figure. He is being sacrificed: a dog, signifying death, precedes those waiting their turn. Above the foot soldiers, a line of cavalry moves briskly away. While illustrations of the cauldron and Glob’s explanation of them were still fresh in my mind, I happened upon Robert Graves’ Penguin Greek Myths, where, in the introduction, I read, ‘If some myths are baffling at first sight, this is often because the mythographer has accidentally or deliberately misinterpreted a sacred picture or dramatic rite’. I was reminded of the strange tale that begins the second branch of The Mabinogion. Matholwch, King of Ireland, visits Bendigeidfran, King of the Island of the Mighty, to receive the host’s sister, Branwen, as wife. Efnysien, resentful brother of Bendigeidfran and Branwen, maims Matholwch’s horses, and when Bendigeidfran hears of this insult, he gives his guest not only a fresh horse for each one maimed but also a magic cauldron that has the power to return to life men killed in battle, in Welsh called pair dadeni, ‘cauldron of rebirth’. I was at once convinced that the original Welsh storyteller had seen the Gundestrup Cauldron, and in his narrative ‘misinterpreted’ the image described above so that its cauldron represents not sacrificial death but resurrection.
This minor revelation occurred almost forty years ago. I was so enthused that I wrote to A.O.H. Jarman, Professor of Welsh in Cardiff and far-famed Arthurian scholar, and laid the theory before him. With courteous academic coolness he dismissed my brainwave, and I put it aside. It is a little gratifying to find a note in Sioned Davies’s excellent translation of The Mabinogion (Oxford, 2007) informing readers that ‘Parallels have been drawn between this Cauldron of Rebirth and a scene portrayed on the Gundestrup Cauldron’. Without claiming proprietorial rights over those of Denmark, I think we ought to have a copy of that wonderful object in the National Museum at Cardiff.
As I write, the aftermath of the riots in England fills the media. Some commentators have reminded us that summer is the favoured time for rioting; others mentioned the possibility of a role for soldiers in keeping the peace and as quickly dismissed the idea. Untypically, the Tonypandy Riots occurred in November 1910. The unrest had begun in September that year when coal owners locked out the work force, with whom they were in dispute over miners’ demands for a pay increase to take account of working in geologically difficult conditions, where much of their labour was unproductive, and therefore unpaid. At the height of the conflict on the streets soldiers were called in, and stayed. The strike continued until October 1911, when imminent starvation forced the men back to work. Everyone knows about the Tonypandy Riots, the last time, I thought, soldiers were deployed in a situation of that kind. I was wrong.
A hundred years ago to the day, 19 August 1911, during one of the hottest summers on record (124 degrees Fahrenheit was recorded in Cardiff in July), railway workers rioted in Llanelli. A national strike over pay had been called on 17 August and the strikers in Llanelli, their numbers swelled by sympathetic tinplate workers and miners, were intent on stopping rail traffic through the town. The press had vilified the strikers, who were among the poorest paid of British workers, and spread rumours that foreign agents were fomenting trouble. At the instruction of Home Secretary Winston Churchill, soldiers of the Royal Worcestershire Regiment were already in place, and when pickets stopped a train their commanding officer ordered a magistrate to read the Riot Act. This did not disperse the crowd and after a minute’s warning the soldiers opened fire. Two bystanders, John John and Leonard Worsell, were killed and two others seriously wounded. This was the last time that British soldiers on mainland Britain fired on civilians. The event was commemorated in July on BBC TV’s One Show and within the last week by media in
PN Review 202 Wales and socialist organisations here and elsewhere. But it has been expunged from the history of the Royal Worcestershire Regiment, and London newspapers and broadcasters, if they ever knew, prefer to ignore it. So far as I am aware, there has been no word from David Starkey – surely an opportunity missed.
S I MON ECKETT Keep on Truckin:
Kitaj in the Lake District
While painting The Rise of Fascism (1975– 79), R.B. Kitaj wrote to the publisher, poet and hiker, Jonathan Williams, ‘Keep on Truckin. you are one of the only ones. In your own time, the daily thing may feel bleak but it is probably not and will look good when people look at your work and your days from outside.’ For Kitaj ‘the daily thing’ became really bleak in 1994 when his wife Sandra Fisher died and his Tate Gallery retrospective received such criticism that after thirty-five years of living in England he left for his native America. Once home he engaged intensely with his American and Jewish identity, the death of his wife and his continuing anger at the critics. He died on 21 October 2007 at the age of seventy-four.
Now in 2011 Abot Hall Art Gallery, a Grade I listed Georgian house on the right bank of the river Kent in Kendal, Cumbria, offers us the opportunity to look at Kitaj’s work and his days ‘from outside’. The first major exhibition in England since the dark days of 1994, Kitaj: Portraits and Reflections displays Kitaj’s versatility in oil, pastel, charcoal and screen-print and his voracious appetite for human engagement in art, literature and thought, for culture in its broadest sense, from his first paintings in the late 1950s to his last oils painted a few months before his death. As the curator and close friend of Kitaj’s, Marilyn McCully, said in her speech opening the show, ‘Michael [Raeburn] and I want to show Kitaj as a working artist, to re-introduce him to a new generation of art lovers.’ They manifestly succeed in the intimate rooms of Abot Hall’s upstairs galleries, but what they also lay bare through their picture hang is Kitaj’s polarity, his swings through sympathy and love to edginess and anger, his fall into complexity and self-doubt.
The love is deeply felt. Take the graceful contours of Kitaj’s 1978 charcoal Lem (Sant Feliu), his son in profile sitting in a rocking chair reading a book. Or his screen-print portrait For Love (Robert Creeley), the poet and close friend in burning reds and oranges caught face-on glancing downwards. It hangs next to the 1968 screen-print portrait Star Betelgeuse of the visionary poet Robert Duncan and the painter Jess, with whom Kitaj enjoyed staying when he visited San Francisco. But then comes the edginess, the dissonance, that sense of loss and thrown-togetherness of Cecil Court: London WC2 (The Refugees) of 1983–84, figures floating insubstantial, swinging like puppets through squares of harsh yellows, strokes of bright reds and dirty greens. Or the curators’ pairing of the Murder of Rosa Luxemburg of 1960, slashes of red-black oil, with the blue-purple-black of The Rise of Fascism, a naked girl (Kitaj’s future wife?) caught from behind cocking her right leg, ‘heightening the sense of unease, lack of communication and sexual provocation’. Existential sadness and despair mask the cut-out faces in Kitaj’s complex 26-colour screen-print, Addled Art: Minor Works Volume VI (1975), a look back at the early Erasmus Variations of 1958, also in the exhibition – ‘the first modern art I committed’, as Kitaj wrote in the catalogue of his 1994 Retrospective at the Tate.
Prowling from room to room, picture to picture, there’s a feeling of a man on the hunt, of an artist in search of an answer. The visceral rawness and vulnerability, his leap from idea to intuition to misunderstanding, to experimenting with the surface of painting (‘Arranging a life of forms on a surface will always be the bread and butter of picture-making’), transform the twists and turns of his ideas and pursuits into highly charged provocative images. In SelfPortrait: Hockney Pillow of 1993–94 Kitaj portrays the artist as harrowed figure, wrapped tight in a straitjacket of sheets and blankets. You sense the despair, that there’s no truth to explain, no reason found for existence. But he’s restless and wrestling and will continue to hunt through his powerful pastel and charcoal portraits of Richard Wagner (that glint of hatred), of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Sigmund Freud (palm clicking a pen, or is it a needle?), and in his writings and interviews. That need to explain, to interpret, to gloss and emend, in a torrent of words and suggestions:
My Jewish library is the heart of my house. This heart beats into my Yellow Studio in the garden, where I paint, and into a Drawing Studio… I made the Cézanne room because he teaches me lessons each day… Painters have always treated their last houses, or rooms (as in Mondrian’s room) seriously: Monet at Giverny, Munch at Ekeley, Bonnard at Le Cannet, Auerbach at 2 The Studios, Kitaj at Westwest…
It’s what makes Kitaj so compelling an artist. That he never stopped, that he Kept on Truckin right to the end.
JOHN GREENING Nicholson, Suddenly
Norman Nicholson, who died almost twenty-five years ago, used to be widely read. He was a Faber poet. He won prizes, edited anthologies, had verse dramas performed, appeared on the A-level syllabus and was one of the featured writers in the American series Twayne’s English Authors. He received a Cholmondeley Award the same year as Seamus Heaney. Heaney is, of course, from another generation (born, indeed, twenty-five years later, also at the outbreak of a world war) but it is hard to think that he could ever suffer the same degree of neglect. When Derry sings of a working-class childhood, of troubled landscapes, of spiritual longing, everyone listens. Why did we stop listening to Millom?
This was the English poet’s omphalos: an agglomeration of iron and steel and slag, tucked away from the through-routes on the coast south of Whitehaven: an area overlooked by visitors to the Lakes, and generally unnoticed until the taxi-driver Derek Bird went berserk amongst its Viking remains in 2010. Nicholson was born in Millom in 1914 and remained there, in the same terraced house, all his life. His mother died in the flu epidemic when he was very small, and he was brought up by his shopkeeper father and his second wife. They lived above the outfitter’s shop, their existence strictly tailored to the needs of a community for which the chief preoccupation was making ends meet and where any spare time involved church or chapel. The neighbouring Lake District was considered as exotic as the Mediterranean by the people of Millom (and most were too hard-
John Greening: Nicholson, Suddenly