Into every life, it must fall once or twice:
Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream:
The Genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council; and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.
My moment, balanced on the spiked chains in Front Square of TCD, was the morning of Thursday 25 October, 1962.
We were all very much aware that US Navy destroyers and the Soviet-chartered Marcula were steaming towards each other, near Cuba. The likelihood of a nuclear strike hung in the air.
Auden on Yeats, and on war
You don’t go through the High School, do Honours English in Irish Leaving Certificate, and enter TCD without Yeats, and — in particular, Easter 1916. Nor, in an Irish dimension, do you escape the politics of that poem.
Wystan Hugh Auden marked the death of Yeats with a homage to Easter 1916:
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
A Malcolmian contribution to Lit Crit
A “low dive” on 52nd Street? Must that be the 21 Club? It was where Bogey and Bacall had their first date. It’s where Hem was in the kitchen, playing hide the sausage with Legs Diamond’s gal. It’s where you’d have found Dorothy Parker, Benchley, Lilian Hellman. To name a few.
And then I came across an E. B. White Comment piece for The New Yorker, precisely date-lined:
SEPTEMBER 2, 1939
This will be one of those mute paragraphs written despite the impossible interim of magazine publication, handed over to a linotyper who has already heard later news. Today is Sunday, August 27th. Perhaps you don’t remember that far back, you who presumably now dwell in a world which is either at peace or at war. It is three o’clock in the morning. The temperature in New York is 70 degrees, sky overcast. The long vigil at the radio is beginning to tell on us. We have been tuned in, off and on, for forty-eight hours, trying to snare intimations of our destiny, as in a butterfly net. Destiny, between musical transcriptions. We still twitch nervously from the likelihood of war at 86 on the dial to the possibility of peace at 100 on the dial. The hours have induced a stupor; we glide from Paris to London to Berlin to Washington—from supposition to supposition, lightly. (But that wasn’t a supposition, that was the Hotel Astor.) The war of nerves, they call it. It is one of those phrases that catch on. Through it all the radio is immense. It is the box we live in. The world seems very close at hand. (“Countless human lives can yet be saved.”) We sit with diners at the darkened tables in the French cafés, we pedal with the cyclists weekending in the beautiful English countryside, we march alongside the German troops approaching the Polish border, we are a schoolboy slipping on his gas mask to take shelter underground from the raid that hasn’t come, we sit at the elbow of Sir Nevile as he presents the message to the British Cabinet (but what does it say?). Hour after hour we experience the debilitating sensation of knowing everything in the world except what we want to know — as a child who listens endlessly to an adult conversation but cannot get the gist, the one word or phrase that would make all clear. The world, on this Sunday morning, seems pleasingly unreal. We’ve been reading (between bulletins) that short story of Tomlinson’s called “Illusion: 1915,” which begins on a summer day in France when the bees were in the limes. But this is Illusion 1939, this radio sandwich on which we chew, two bars of music with an ominous voice in between. And the advertiser, still breaking through: “Have you acquired the safety habit?” Moscow is calling New York. Hello, New York. Let me whisper I love you. They are removing the pictures from the museums. There was a time when the mere nonexistence of war was enough. Not any more. The world is in the odd position of being intellectually opposed to war, spiritually committed to it. That is the leaden note. If war comes, it will be war, and no one wants that. If peace is restored, it will be another arrangement enlarging not simply the German boundary but the Hitler dream. The world knows it can’t win. Let me whisper I love you while we are dancing and the lights are low.
- It is nicely constructed prose.
- It relates to the moment when reality strikes.
- It is the perfect meditation of a writer trying to anticipate, and bridge the hideous dream between deadline and publication.
Above all, it memorialises the time when The New Yorker grew up. Look at the cover that fronted that issue (right).
I assume it marks the 1939 New York World’s Fair of 1939-40. That had opened on the 150th anniversary of George Washington being inaugurated as first President (and inaugurated in New York, which is an answer to a tricky pub-quiz question). Labor Day is over. It’s back to the daily grind … and where do we take the kids for a day out?
The problem of The New Yorker of that vintage was its founder, Harold Ross.
Ross set out — and did so with terrific panache and success — to produce what his 1925 prospectus called a marker of metropolitan life. That meant, as it said on the cover, something East Coast, specifically of and for the Manhattan set, detached, mildly ironic (though not in the harder British sense) in a manner not too serious, and above all well-written. Ross and his creation, were something (liberal — though we would have needed that qualification in 1930s New York) Republican — which amounted to minimally politically, and far from socially conscious, except in a mild de haut en bas mannerism.
If nothing else, Ross was the exponent of the exiguous comma. Oh, and the creator of the Private Eye staple, “Who he?”
Elwyn Brooks White
White earned his weekly crust being the anonymous writer of The New Yorker‘s Comment.
You have to look hard to see White’s politics showing through Ross’s manner not too serious. It is there. White noticed the arrival of Der Führer:
Thus in a single day’s developments in Germany we go back a thousand years into the dark.
The White Comment, published on 2nd September 1939, but written — as we saw — a week earlier, marks when The New Yorker became fully aware of the darker, nastier, bigger world.
So, what prompted this, Malcolm?
Apart from the distant, but imminent noises off remembered from Cuba Week? Apart from history repeating itself with the antique practices of female slave-taking in Nigeria? Apart from a hideous parallel of pre-war Sudentenland and the eastern Ukraine?
Well, … nobody takes Eurovision and its song-contest seriously, I trust.
Still, for a few days it held its undeserved place in the newspaper columns, including the likes that cross the threshold of Redfellow Cott.
So there was this name: Molly Smitten-Downes (and, as far as I can decode the “voting”, she definitely was).
Why did that name ring some kind of bell?
Ah! Yes! What I was hearing, but not reading, was “Mollie Panter-Downes”, the novelist and short-story writer. Also, for many decades, The New Yorker‘s voice of English sanity. From 1939, the outbreak of war, until the 1980s, Mollie Panter-Downes had a regular column Letter from London. From her Surrey pig-farm she gave a view of Dunkirk and the Blitz. Her grasp of the wry, spiky-almost-acid New Yorker tone was remarkable:
Incidentally, the announcements of the first air-raid deaths are beginning to appear in the obituary columns of the morning papers. No mention is made of the cause of death, but the conventional phrase ‘very suddenly’ is always used. Thousands of men, women, and children are scheduled to die very suddenly, without any particular notice being taken of them in the obituary columns.
That Virago book (see thumbnail, right, seems to have gone out-of-print remarkably quickly. In stead one may have to relay on her collection, Good Evening, Mrs Craven.
How to cope with a phantasma, or a hideous dream
I once asked my mother what it was like to live, and (as she did, as a midwife in Greenwich) work through the London Blitz.
All I got was, “You just got on with it”.