On Rebecca and J.A. Baker

Among the many pleasures of watching Hitchcock’s 1940 rather-less-than-faithful but compelling adaptation of Rebecca is the array of acting talent; the Oscar-nominated trio of Olivier, Joan Fontaine and the unforgettable Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers, with her amazing range of faraway, disturbing looks; and also the supporting cast of British talent: brilliantly caustic George Sanders; Mexico-born Nigel Bruce, doing his usual buffoonish turn, memorably in caveman fancy-dress, and Gladys Cooper, born in Hither Green, as Major and Mrs Lacy; Hitchcock regular Leo G. Carroll; and founder of the Hollywood Cricket Club, C. Aubrey Smith.

Before taking up acting, Smith had a successful career as a ‘gentleman’ cricketer, for Cambridge, Sussex and England – in one test, in which he took seven wickets, and as captain on a tour of South Africa before they’d been ascribed test-playing status. His obituary in the 1949 edition of Wisden includes the following:

Over six feet tall, he made an unusual run-up to deliver the ball and so became known as “Round The Corner” Smith. Sometimes he started from a deep mid-off position, at others from behind the umpire, and, as described by W.G. Grace, “it is rather startling when he suddenly appears at the bowling crease”.

Both Anderson and Cooper became dames. At the start of the 1970s, Anderson, then aged 73, toured America as the Prince in Hamlet.

Sanders’s life took in all sorts: birth in St Petersburg 11 years before the Revolution, a Best Supporting Oscar for his role in All About Eve, similar brilliance in a strange and chilling adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the unmistakable drawling voice of Shere Khan in Disney’s Jungle Book, Mr Freeze in the 1960s Batman TV series, and multiple marriages (including Zsa Zsa Gabor, her sister Magda, and Ronald Colman’s widow), and death by barbiturate overdose, with three suicide notes, in a village near Barcelona in 1972. Javier Marías has written about him at length.

I should add that the score by Franz Waxman, one of many great film composers who was a refugee from Nazi Germany, is a precursor of the knob-twiddling weirdness of 60s and 70s cult classics; and that the cinematography of George Barnes, especially the way the camera dwells on the shadows of the flames as Manderley burns, augments the intense atmosphere of the film.


Last week, I read Hetty Saunders’s My House of Sky, an intriguing, excellent biography of the short, sad life of J.A. Baker, which relies heavily on her own archival work and that of one of the founders of New Networks for Nature, John Fanshawe. The two books – the only two he published – for which Baker is remembered, The Peregrine and The Hill of Summer, are the most poetic prose books I’ve ever read, chocker with outlandish similes and metaphors, to the extent that I can only read them very slowly. They’re shot through with a deep melancholy born of his loveless start in life as an only child and then a late-teens breakdown induced by the horrors of German bombing in his home town of Chelmsford. It’s a pity that no footage or tape has survived of the television and radio appearances he made during his few years of relative fame following the publication of The Peregrine in 1967. Perhaps one will turn up in someone’s loft one day.

Here is an extract from Chapter Two (May: A Storm*) of The Hill of Summer to illustrate his remarkable, unsurpassed nature-writing style:

A garden warbler sings in the caves of the darkness under the misty birches, sings endlessly over the arches of bramble. Through the hiss and roar of the rain that bows above the trees, the bird pours out his pure breath of song. It flows unbrokenly, loud and mellow and far-echoing. He sings in the shining green bubble of his own world. The whole wood is an exultant respiration of storm-driven wind and rain. It is like being inside the hollow bones of an immense bird, listening to the sudden inrush of air and the measured heart-beat of huge wings.

Curiously, the few poems by Baker which Saunders includes in her biography of him are
overblown to a degree which, whilst it works beautifully in his prose, becomes too much when set out as verse. Baker was a great fan of poetry, especially of Dylan Thomas,
Housman (thus the title of his second book) and Hughes (unsurprisingly). It would still be fascinating to read an edition of his collected poems.

Over on her website, Kathy Pimlott describes how she can’t stop wanting to tinker with poems, even after they’ve been accepted for publication in a collection. That’s a compulsion I share. I often can’t tell whether I should just leave a poem alone or needlessly search for perfection. I know full well that including prosaic phrases among the more poetic ones serves to provide a background against which the high-register language can shine, and that even the greatest poets wrote dull lines occasionally; but even so, the urge to revise is overwhelming. It can be a curse. It’s interesting to note that the response – from critics and readers alike – to Baker’s The Hill of Summer was much more muted than the outpouring of praise which he received for The Peregrine, and, though some of that is due to the less compelling sense of narrative in the former, I believe it’s also attributable to the almost tangible degree to which Baker was trying to make every single phrase and sentence sparkle. Without the shade, the light becomes blinding. I realise that’s blindingly obvious, but it’s good to remind oneself of that every now and then.

* Coincidentally, as I typed this, thunder sounded outside on this May evening.

On Martin Lucas again

Seven years ago today, at about this time of day, I received a phone call confirming the passing of Martin Lucas, haiku and tanka poet and editor.

Here are a few of Martin’s haiku, selected from the first and final (#12) issues of Snapshots haiku magazine, edited, respectively, by John Barlow in 1998 and John and Matt Morden in 2006. For me, they display Martin’s observational brilliance, wry humour and ability to present each ‘haiku moment’ in spare, just-so language. Due to the manner of Martin’s passing, the final haiku has a particular resonance.

        the play of light
along the slow canal—
           cygnets preening


flag at half-mast—
      summer breeze
             big enough to flutter it


autumn evening
a cardboard box
walks down the hill


October dawn
the flicker of lights
at the river mouth

On moving to Rotherham

It’s nearly three weeks now since Lyn and I moved from Thames Ditton to Rotherham. Since then, it’s been jolly cold, as it seems to have been everywhere in the UK, and full Lockdown in England has been in place until today, when anyone who’s hard(y) and/or desperate enough can go and drink outside (but not inside) a pub. Fortunately, barbers and hairdressers can also now open, which means I no longer have any excuse for looking like a member of the Hair Bear Bunch.

What that all means is that we’ve not been out of the house much. We’ve found a lovely woodland, which contains evidence of human life going back to the Bronze Age. Curiously, it was whilst walking round it last weekend that we bumped into our new neighbours, who are very nice and kind.

I’ve tried several different running routes, chosen by looking at my copy of the A to Z of Sheffield and Rotherham, but what that publication doesn’t show, of course, is the contours of the land. There are no flat roads or paths anyway around here – you’re either climbing a very steep gradient, which I confess I quite like, or going down one, which I don’t like, because I always fear that I might get shin splints unless I put the brakes on. My thighs and ankles have never taken so much punishment in such a short space of time. I’m beginning to sound like the Hunchback of Rother Hame, bellowing ‘The hills, the hills’ to anyone who’ll listen.

I’ve been pondering the socioeconomic differences between Thames Ditton and Rotherham. The tables below, of ONS data for 2016–2018, relate to the local authority areas in which the two places are situated:

Table 1: Life expectancy from birth
Table 2: Further life expectancy from age 65 onwards

I can’t be alone in thinking that such marked differences are scandalous. Of the 317 Tier 1 and Tier 2 local authority areas in England in 2019, Rotherham was the 50th most deprived and Elmbridge the 310th. Is anyone foolish enough to believe that our present government truly cares about addressing such inequalities as these? Opinion polls suggest that they are, which makes me very sad. Not that the last Labour government, 19972010, did much to ‘level up’, in today’s parlance, either.

The books I’ve read prior to, and since, our move include: the Collected Poems of Moya Cannon, the simplicity of which have an accumulative power and brilliance; Scouse Mouse, the last volume of George Melly’s memoirs, which is packed full of details and entertaining incidents from his childhood in 1930s Liverpool; and Lydia Kennaway’s superb pamphlet of poems, A History of Walking.

I’ve written nothing new of note for several months now. I suppose that’s to be expected given the move. Yesterday, I did my first reading this year, as part of the Red Door Poets events. It seemed to go well, though apparently the Wi-Fi kept making my voice dip out. Whilst it’s great that online readings (and workshops) can attract people from anyone on the planet, it will be lovely to return to in-person readings – Covid permitting, of course.

Red Door Poets

Readers of this ’ere blog may remember that I am a member of the Red Door Poets, a collective of nine poets who, in normal times, meet fortnightly behind the red door of one of the nine, Mary Mulholland, for poem workshopping and chewing of the poetic fat. In Lockdown, meetings have mutated into weekly Zoom sessions. My ability to attend has always been restricted by how busy, or not, my day job is, and my attendance since the pandemic started has been patchier than a 1970s supply-teacher’s corduroy jacket.

I’ve recently told my Red Door colleagues that I’m going to be moving up north shortly – to Rotherham, next week – so my attendance post-Covid is likely to be even more scant, even though I’ll still be coming down south regularly to see family, friends and for work, since I’m not changing jobs. This news prompted another of the Doors, Elizabeth (Lizzie) Horsley, to say that I would be a ‘country member’, which has an old-fashioned charm to it that I rather like, as John Peel used to say. (Mind you, I had been thinking more along the lines of D’Artagnan . . .)

As well as being very fine poets, Mary, Lizzie and the other Doors – Hanne Busck-Nielsen, Tom Cunliffe, Beatríz Echeverri, Katie Griffiths, Chris Hardy and Gillie Robic – have been enormously helpful to, and supportive of, me over the time that I’ve been part of the group. I’ve very much missed the lovely meetings at Mary’s house and I hope to be able to pop along occasionally, whenever I’m in that thar Big Smoke.

Consequently, I will have mixed feelings – pride, happiness and a hint of sadness – when we have two Red Door Poets readings, via Zoom, in the next few weeks.

The first reading will be between 6pm and 7pm on Sunday 28th March, and features Chris, Katie, Lizzie and Mary, plus guest readers. Free tickets can be obtained from Eventbrite. It will be a very special reading.

The second, at the same time, will be on Sunday 11th April, featuring Beatríz, Gillie and me. The EventBrite link for this will be circulated in due course.

I hope you cam make one or both of them.