On Cuneo, Sebald and Hamburger

On my weekend running route from Surbiton to Hampton Court and back – Surbiton, Long Ditton, Esher, East Molesey, Hampton Court, over the bridge, along the Thames towpath to Kingston, over Kingston bridge, through the market, the back-roads including the ascent of Cranes Park, back to Surbiton – I pass two blue plaques, the first of which, on a new-ish house on the site of where he lived in East Molesey, just along from Imber Court, the Metropolitan Police sports ground, honours the artist Terence Cuneo. For a man who secreted a trademark mouse into every painting, it seems appropriate that when my brother Adrian and I visited an exhibition, which included work by a friend of Adrian’s, of the Molesey Art Society in the late ’80s, Cuneo was far and away the membership’s biggest cheese, with the size and prices of his work dwarfing the others’. His famous paintings of steam locomotives regularly appeared in the catalogues of Hornby, whose model trains I coveted in Bentall’s toy department for years. He was hardly a great painter, but to my young eyes he brought to life the individual characters of the engines.

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In a few weeks, Lyn and I will be spending a few days in Norfolk and Suffolk, so in preparation I’ve been re-reading The Rings of Saturn. Every time I read any of Sebald’s novels or poems, I become engrossed in his explorations of synchronicities, coincidences and travels, physical and mental, back and forward through time and space, fact and fiction. He’s perhaps the only writer I’ve ever read where from as soon as I started reading his work, I knew he was a truly great writer. Part VII of The Rings of Saturn covers his visit to another wonderful German émigré writer, Michael Hamburger, who left Berlin for Britain with his family shortly after Hitler came to power. Sebald describes a series of coincidences between the two, including how both of them first met Stanley Kerry, a lecturer at Manchester University, when they were 22 years of age.

I found several coincidences of sorts myself: my dad undertook his national service in the same regiment as Hamburger had, and both had the first name Michael; and I was born in September 1966, when Sebald arrived in England for the first time to take up a post in Manchester. The poet Will Stone has movingly described his own visits to Hamburger’s home, in Middleton, and how the news of his death affected him deeply, and he, too, was born in early autumn 1966. When he worked for Anvil Press, my friend Hamish Ironside visited Hamburger several times.

I’ve come across Hamburger’s books in strange places and each time been amazed that his poetry wasn’t and isn’t widely known and loved. His last few collections in particular – Intersections, Wild and Wounded and Circling the Square – are chocker with poems which possess a deceptively simple clarity of thought and image. That sense informs Tacita Dean’s extraordinary 2007 film on Hamburger, in which sunlight and whistling winds come and go until Hamburger, by then in his eighties, finally speaks, of the apples he’s grown in his garden over the years, and reads his elegy for Ted Hughes, from whom he obtained pips. I’ve seen the film twice, at the Sebaldian extravaganza Waterlog at Norwich Castle, and later that year, on my birthday, at The Printed Path, the remarkable one-day post-Sebald symposium at Tate Britain which drew together a rich array of writers and artists; and on both occasions was transfixed by its fittingly Sebaldian melancholy and beauty. If ever two writers mirror my own default state and influence my own writing, they are Sebald and Hamburger.

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The subject of the other blue plaque will be revealed in another blog post some time this year or next.

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