Endurance test: Houses close to the Hoe in Plymouth. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Will Self: Plymouth is for me ever associated with a certain outwardly bound derring-do

As I sat in the cavernous and entirely empty dining room, delicately abstracting flesh-flakes from my perfectly poached cod, my only desire was that I could stay longer. Much longer.

Plymouth should, I think, be twinned with Hull: both are oddly remote-feeling cities for our right, tight little island. Hull, unlike Plymouth, at least has a motorway connection, but the Devonian capital must have felt like ultima Thule last winter when the mainline rail connection was severed in the storms. The cab driver who took me from the reconnected station to my hotel descanted on the depredations of wartime bombing, and how the brutalist/modernist and now postmodernist rebuilding of Plymouth has never compensated for the dreadful damage caused by wartime bombing. I must say I’m beginning to find this excuse – which can be heard in South­ampton and Coventry et al as well – a little grating; I mean, it’s been nearly 70 years since VE Day, surely time enough to effect civic beautifying.

Mind you, the only extended stay I’ve ever had in Plymouth was in the mid-1970s and mostly spent underwater. A friend of my brother’s, Bob Farrell, was a marine archaeologist who at that time was diving on a wreck in Plymouth harbour. Out of the goodness of his large heart he enrolled me, aged 15, in the fortnight-long British Sub-Aqua Club course at Fort Bovisand. All the other diving trainees were in their twenties or older, but I manned up, and despite it being April, spent many frigid hours squatting on the seabed laboriously completing emergency drills with my appointed buddy. (You have to be able to remove all of your kit and replace it while sharing a single scuba apparatus.) One day we drove to a leisure centre and passed the afternoon sitting on the bottom of a particularly deep swimming pool – but beyond this I can remember very little of the locale.

Still: remoteness, Francis Drake bowling on the Hoe, me diving in the harbour – you get the picture; Plymouth is for me ever associated with a certain outwardly bound derring-do. The cabbie dropped me at the Duke of Cornwall, an imposing late-Victorian edifice with the top-heavy lines of an Atlantic steamer redesigned by a disciple of Augustus Pugin. Despite being under the auspices of a large chain, the hotel didn’t seem to have had much by way of a refurb’ since at least the mid-1980s: unseasonable palms lurked in the tiled vestibule, and the original bell board was still on the wall by the lift, complete with buttons for signalling to the Writing Room and the Manager’s Sitting Room. As I checked in I sensed the deep, looming vacuity of the establishment: an ambience somewhere between the Overlook Hotel and Last Year at Marienbad. And as I sat in the cavernous and entirely empty dining room, delicately abstracting flesh-flakes from my perfectly poached cod, my only desire was that I could stay longer. Much longer.

A desire that was only sharpened when I saw the brass plaque that had been put up on the patch of wall on the other side of the lift; this told me that Ernest Shackleton had stayed at the Duke of Cornwall on 7 August 1914, the night before he sailed in his ship, the Endurance, bound for his final expedition: an attempt to reach the South Pole from the Weddell Sea that ended up with him and his men stranded in pack ice for months. As I’ve had cause to remark before, there’s nothing I like more, when the evenings draw in and the wind gusts hard, than to lie in bed – preferably in an overheated old pile like the Duke of Cornwall – and read about the British officer class getting their bollocks frozen off in Antarctica. That Schadenfreude having been acknowledged, Shackleton is by far the most sympathetic of the frozen-stiff-upper-lips: he never lost a man (and treated his men well), and while he may’ve been driven, it wasn’t by the same imperialist demons as that loathsome narcissist, Captain Robert Falcon Scott.

I went to my bed up the great and yawning staircase, admiring the thick pile of the runner, which was patterned with three ostrich feathers argent, the ducal crest. My room was snug; the electric kettle boiled and I settled down to my hoosh of tea and courtesy Jammie Dodgers (three-pack, naturally). It was difficult to imagine somewhere more powerfully somnolent, and as I undressed I gaily anticipated unconsciousness as heavy and blubbery as an elephant seal descending on my febrile head.

Then, hanging my jacket up, I was arrested by a bizarre sort of ledge that had been implanted in the bottom of the corner cupboard. I suppose it was intended as a shelf for shoes, but the way it had been neatly covered in the same red Axminster as the rest of the room struck me as hilarious – our human interiors are like that, aren’t they, always enacting a transformation of the utile into the decorative, or the cosy. Or at any rate, trying to enact it: the more I looked at the triangular carpeted shelf, the more absurd it seemed. And then the talking began in the room above.

There were several loud and excitable speakers, and it sounded like a language spoken somewhere far to the east of Plymouth; not Hull, but possibly Afghanistan. I wondered why exactly a loya jirga was being held in the Duke of Cornwall Hotel at midnight on a Tuesday evening in late October – but not for long: the silence had been deafening, and I was happy to slip into sleep serenaded in Pashto – or possibly Dari; it seemed entirely in keeping with my remote situation. 

Next week: Real Meals

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF WALES, CARDIFF
Show Hide image

Everything is illuminated: Rowan Williams on the art and faith of David Jones

Haunted by his time in the trenches and disturbed by the modern marketplace, Jones formed a world-view full of symbols and connections.

In 1967, the poetry magazine Agenda published a special David Jones issue, including a number of unpublished fragments of his work. The first of these was the brief piece entitled “A, a, a DOMINE DEUS”, often reprinted as Jones’s most poignant statement of his sense that the world of technology was making the writing of poetry – and indeed the other arts – impossible: “I have watched the wheels go round in case I/. . . might see the Living God projected/from the Machine . . ./my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible/crystal a stage-paste”.

He had elaborated on this two decades earlier in a note addressed to the doctor who was treating his paralysing depression and anxiety. We are living, he wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.

Thomas Dilworth’s welcome (and superbly produced) biography will clearly be the point of reference for Jones’s life for a long time to come. Dilworth has already written extensively about Jones, most recently a full and valuable account of the wartime years, and his research is exhaustive. He quietly corrects a number of errors in earlier biographical sketches and provides a wealth of detail at every stage – and he tells us that this substantial book is only part of a longer document that he intends to publish online. In all the detail, it is hard to pick out a single thesis; but in so far as there is one, it is that Jones is “the foremost native British modernist”, as Dilworth claims in his concluding paragraph.

This may sound strange, given what we know about “the Break”. But in fact, Jones himself believed that the modernist, post-impressionist aesthetic was a decisive break of its own kind – a break with representation as a sort of substitution, a recognition that a work of art is a thing in which something else is allowed to come to life, in a new medium: a picture is the scene or the human figure existing in the form of paint, as the Mass is the flesh of Jesus existing as bread. He insisted that his Catholic conversion began with his artistic conversion, and tried persistently, in his superb essays as well as his artistic output, to show what this meant.

The artistic conversion was dramatic enough. Dilworth reproduces some of the technically skilful and aesthetically awful work of Jones’s early art-school days, as well as some startling propaganda pictures from the war years: languishing virgins being threatened by hairy medieval Teutons, and so on. Jones needed to rediscover the extraordinary talent of his early childhood, when he produced sketches of a delicacy and vigour that foreshadow the very best of his mature work. Immediately after the war, back at the art school in Camberwell, he let his imagination be opened up by a variety of new impulses, ranging from El Greco to Samuel Palmer and Pierre Bonnard.

But Jones’s distinctive touch as an artist came to life when he threw in his lot with his fellow Catholic convert Eric Gill. He shared the life of the Gill family frequently for nearly a decade, in both Sussex and the Welsh borders, imbibing Gill’s distinctive artistic philosophy and gently but steadily distancing himself from it, and was for a while engaged to Gill’s second daughter, Petra. Gill mocked Jones for continuing to paint watercolours, insisting that carving and engraving were intrinsically more serious matters because of the manual work involved: watercolours were just decorative, the worst possible thing for a work of art to be, in his book. The Gill circle was a crucial stimulus for Jones, but ultimately one that allowed him to sharpen up his own understanding rather than adopt an orthodoxy. The watercolours, gouaches and engravings of the 1920s show a striking confidence. In 1928 he was nominated by Ben Nicholson for membership of the “7 & 5 Society”, probably the leading group of artistic innovators in 1920s Britain.

Jones’s acute and recurrent depression and worsening anxiety held back his output in the 1930s, though he struggled through to the completion of In Parenthesis. The later visual works – drawings, paintings, inscriptions – display an exceptional range of idioms and are increasingly characterised by abundant detail that is of filigree precision as well as unusual fluidity. There are religiously themed pictures: Vexilla Regis (1948), the great symbolic tree in the forests of post-Roman Britain standing for the cross as a sort of world-tree; the Welsh hill landscape framing the Annunciation in Y Cyfarchiad i Fair (1963), with its abundance of exquisitely observed small native birds. There are the “calix” paintings of glass vessels holding flowers, which deliver an effect of profound translucency. There are the inscriptions of Latin, Welsh and English texts, a unique corpus of work in which he defined a new approach to “monumental” lettering as an art form. These are perhaps the lasting legacy of his apprenticeship to Gill, yet they are anything but derivative.

In the middle of all this, in the postwar period, he continued to write, producing another unclassifiable poetic masterpiece, The Anathemata (1952), an exploration of both personal and cultural history, with the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the centre of everything. Other “fragments”, many of them very long, were worked on over years but never found their connecting thread; most of these were not published until after his death.

Dilworth provides a comprehensive account of Jones’s struggles with mental health. He was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic therapist who strongly encouraged him to keep working; but later on, a formidable regime of antidepressant and other drugs left him less able to focus – “groggy and slow”, as he said – and his productivity declined sharply. A temperamental indifference to social encounters combined with tormenting agoraphobia to make him ever more of a recluse in a succession of north London boarding houses and nursing homes until his death in 1974.

Yet his friendships were immensely important to him – friendships with members of the lively and critical world of Catholic artists in the 1920s, with younger artists and writers, to whom he was unfailingly generous, and with the two young women, Prudence Pelham and Valerie Wynne-Williams, who were the recipients of his strongest (but unconsummated) attachments. The breaking of his engagement to Petra Gill had been a great trauma, and his lifelong celibacy seems to have been the result both of this shock and of a deep-seated conviction that his artistic vocation could not accommodate ordinary family life.

He was a wonderful letter-writer; anyone wanting to get to know Jones should start with Dai Greatcoat, the selection from his letters published in 1980 by his friend René Hague (Gill’s son-in-law). Funny, ­affectionate, eccentrically learned, curious, irreverent and sad, they give a good sense of why Jones was so deeply loved by those who knew him. He viewed the world – and his own work and calling – with a gentle and vulnerable bafflement, but also with patience and humility. He seems to have had no malice in his make-up.

Dilworth does not, however, shirk the embarrassing fact that Jones expressed a measure of sympathy for Hitler in the 1930s. This should not be misunderstood. What Jones says is that, having read Mein Kampf, he feels it is almost right, but ruined by hatred and racial triumphalism. Hitler appears to him more appealing than most of his opponents, who represent international finance and impersonal bureaucracy, or Marxist collectivism. He later admits that he was simply wrong. But it is a revealing wrongness: he accepts at face value a rhetoric that opposes the market, and he seems to see Hitler’s passion and violence as at least a more honest response to national or global crisis than the “business as usual” of mainstream politicians. And how far are Hitler’s “opponents” being tacitly understood as the cosmopolitan financiers of anti-Semitic myth? Dilworth does not absolve Jones for dipping his toe into this swamp; but he does note that Jones was – more than many of his Catholic colleagues – intolerant of the anti-Semitism of much traditional Catholic thought and shocked by the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is another sidelight on his fundamental artistic problem: a disgust with managerial, commodified mod­ernity that, in his case as in some others, can make a quite different anti-modernity, the fascist refusal of public reasoning and political pluralism, fleetingly attractive.

The other delicate issue that Dilworth handles carefully and candidly is whether Jones was aware that Eric Gill had sexually abused two of his daughters (including Petra). His conclusion is that it is very unlikely, and this is almost certainly right. And yet, looking at Jones’s haunting painting of 1924 The Garden Enclosed, with its depiction of himself and Petra embracing awkwardly, Petra apparently pushing him away, with a broken doll lying on the path behind her, it is hard not to believe that he intuited something deeply awry somewhere. The background presence of Gill’s omnivorous sexual appetite can hardly not have been a further complication in an already complicated relationship.

Jones’s reputation has probably never been higher. There have been several important exhibitions in recent years and Dilworth’s assessment of his standing among British modernists is increasingly shared. His thoughts as an essayist on theology as well as aesthetics have been increasingly influential. This biography is a landmark. It would be good if it stirred an interest not only in Jones as an artist and poet, but in the questions he faced about modernity: what happens to art in a culture where each thing is no more than itself, or its market price?

"David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet" by Thomas Dilworth is published by Jonathan Cape (432pp, £25)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution