Posts tagged ‘Ecclefechan’

May 22, 2021

Books on a shelf: a random miscellany blog number 3 – love and loss

Week three of my rummage through bookshelf two from the bottom in the spare bedroom finds me in a melancholic mood which I’ll come to later.

First up this week is a copy of poems from one of Russia’s greatest poets, Anna Akhmatova, the pen name of Anna Gorenko, that contains text both in Russian and English. On opening the book three coloured photographs of northern Canada dropped out which probably indicates the book was bought there some years later than its date of publication, 1976. Every journey is a book purchasing opportunity.

I was born on June 11 (June 23, Old Style), 1889 near Odessa (Bolshoi Fontan). My father was at the time a retired engineering officer on The Russian Navy. At the age of one, I was taken to the north, to Tsarskoye Selo, where I lived till the age of sixteen.

My first memories are of the damp, green grandeur of the parks, the common where Nurse took me for walks, the racecourse where little bright-coloured horses galloped, the old railway station, and some other things that later formed part of the “Ode to Tsarskoye Selo”.

Beneath that ancient maple on the ground

My marble twin* lies broken, listless,

Her face turned ever to the pond

As to the rustling leaves she listens. 

    * a sculpture of a milkmaid with a broken jug by the sculptor P. Sokolov in Tsarskoye Selo park.

Anna Akhmatova was one of six children. Her maternal grandfather’s aunt, Anna Bunina, is said to have been Russia’s first poetess; certainly the first Russian women to make a living solely from her writing. Akhmat was our Anna’s great grandmother’s name and according to family legend it could be traced back to Khan of the Golden Horde. The Golden Horde refers to a state under khan leaders dating from 13th century territorial disputes between Mongols and Turks. And for consecutive weeks we are swept up in the myths and legends of the Netflix series Resurrection – Ertugrul which is about just this. What was golden about it? Apparently the tents lived in by some of the Mongols were golden in colour.

Like Anna Bunina, Anna Akhmatova also became a significant poet. She was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize. In common with so many Soviet writers Anna’s work was criticised and censored under Stalin but unlike some other writers and artists she chose to live on in the Soviet Union, despite the difficulties that caused her. Her first husband was shot by the Soviet secret police – the Cheka.

Terror fingers all things in the dark,

Leads moonlight to the axe.

There’s an ominous knock behind the wall:

A ghost, a thief or a rat…

Her son was frequently imprisoned in Soviet labour camps. So too was her partner Nikolay Punin (a writer and art historian) imprisoned in the Gulag – dying there in 1953. On his arrest in 1949 (for criticising many of the portraits of Lenin churned out by what Punin described as talentless painters.) Akhmatova left his coat hanging in its place in their flat as a memorial.

During the war 1941 –

Now of all the plenty of this world

What is left? Only one’s daily bread,

Someone’s word – a gently human word –

And the lark’s pure singing overhead.

*

From 20th century Russia to 19th century Scotland and one of the most celebrated couples of their time, the Carlyles.

The Carlyles is the title John Stewart Collis gives to his biography of the illustrious pair, the historian, essayist and translator, Thomas Carlyle and his wife, Jane.   

The Father

He was among the last of the true men, which Scotland (on the old system) produced, or can produce.

So wrote Thomas Carlyle of his father, James Carlyle, a builder at Ecclefechan in Dumfriesshire. And again,

This birth into a family of Lowland Scottish peasant stock is very important, for such families were often aristocratic in their demeanour and their values.

Carlyle remembered his ‘uneducated’ father, a master-mason and builder, of having a prodigious facility for expressing himself ‘though not on paper.’

The Son

James Carlyle ensured his son, Thomas, was more formally educated and he was able to read as a very young child who at five excelled at arithmetic and Latin. He attended Edinburgh University at fourteen, not unusual in 19th century Scotland where education and learning came next to God in worship.

Jane Carlyle was Jane Baillie Welsh. She was from Haddington in East Lothian, daughter of a doctor and his wife, Grace Caplegil. Jane was also a precocious learner, specialising in the classics before she was five. She loved to express herself in prestigious letter-writing, remarked upon by Virgina Woolf.

Their marriage was perhaps platonic and stormy but endured.

Thomas Carlyle’s writings included satirical attacks on the abolition of slavery at a time when British men, women and children were being dreadfully exploited in the United Kingdom. Among his histories his work on the French Revolution is regarded of great importance. But revered as he was for his writing among the poor children in the neighbourhood of Chelsea in London where the Carlyles moved to from Edinburgh he was better known as the man who supplied them with extravagant quantities of sweeties.

Carlyle’s criticisms of the social setup in the United Kingdom made him unpopular with some in the establishment and on a more mundane level both Carlyles experienced that common prejudice experienced by the Scot living in England, ridicule of their coarse Scotch accents which he and Jane retained throughout their lives.

*

Next up is the work of a fellow-Scot who like the Carlyles decided his literary future was best served in England. J. M. Barrie from the home of Scottish gingerbread, Kirriemuir, is best known as author of Peter Pan. He was also from a working class home – his father was a weaver – and like Carlyle he also studied at the University of Edinburgh. Also like Carlyle his marriage was said to have been unconsummated. I don’t know what that says about the University of Edinburgh.

I’m not going to write about Peter Pan as I’m not even sure we have a copy of the book any longer but Barrie’s biographical novel, Margaret Ogilvy. Margaret Ogilvy is a charming account of the author’s mother’s life.

Chapter 1

How my mother got her soft face

On the day I was born we bought six hair-bottomed chairs, and in our little house it was an event, the first great victory in a woman’s long campaign; how they had been laboured for, the pound-note and the thirty threepenny-bits they cost, what anxiety there was about the purchase, the show they made in possession of the west room, my father’s unnatural coolness when he brought them in (but his face was white) – I so often heard the tale afterwards, and shared as boy and man in so many similar triumphs, that the coming of the chairs seems to be something I remember, as if I had jumped out of bed on that first day, and run ben to see how they looked…

Neighbours came in to see the boy and the chairs.

Was there ever a better beginning to a biography?

Both the child Barrie and his mother were devastated by the death of James’ brother David in an ice-skating accident a day before his fourteenth birthday.  James Barrie tried to protect his mother from the feelings of loss that stayed with all her life and as a small child he wore David’s clothes and imitated his whistling in an attempt to assuage some his mother’s despair. The lost boys and the boy who wouldn’t grow up in Peter Pan can be linked to David’s death.

 It was from his mother that Barrie learnt the art of the story-teller and when he set out as a writer he revived several of those tales told to him by her of her life as a girl and young woman. Barrie’s fondness for his mother is demonstrated in the touching way he writes of her. Here he describes her approaching death.

They knew she was dying. She told them to fold up the christening robe and almost sharply she watched them put it away, and then for some time she talked of the long lovely life that had been hers, and of Him to whom she owed it. She said good-bye to them all, and at last turned her face to the side where her best-beloved had lain and for over an hour she prayed. They only caught the words now and again, and the last they heard were “God” and “love.” I think God was smiling when He took her to him, as He had so often smiled at her during those seventy-six years.

*

And finally, the reason for my own melancholia (probably not the correct description since I know its cause) is our gorgeous and sweet-natured cat was put to sleep on Monday following a short illness and stroke. The Dude was about eighteen years old, a rescue cat who chose us at the Cat and Dog Home. He came home with us a poor wee specimen of a beastie, severely ill but we nursed him through that bad time and for fourteen years he was our beautiful companion who adopted the sunny front spare room and would settle down on the floor next to me while I read my daily five-minutes and more of books from the second shelf from the bottom of the bookcase next to the door.

Where we lived in our last house, in the Aberdeenshire countryside, we were semi-adopted by two feral cats who looked very like wild cats. We sometimes fed them and looked out for them. These cats were different generations and one followed the disappearance of the other. Both of these cats we called Murdoch. The first Murdoch and the Dude got on particularly well. One early morning Murdoch appeared as usual in the garden and the Dude ran out to see him. We saw nothing of either of them the whole of that day. It was into the evening before Dude turned up, hungry and exhausted and went straight to bed. He slept soundly that night and most of the following day after his adventure on the road with Murdoch – or more likely across fields and woodlands. Where they got to we never discovered but life on the road didn’t appeal to the Dude and he never again followed his friend beyond the end of the drive.

The younger Murdoch was never such a close companion but he was a frequent visitor and we watched him over the years as his health failed. Cats never give up and so it was that Murdoch would drag his clearly arthritic body around the area he frequented, presumably for food from households such as ours.

One day he turned up at the back door obviously unwell. It was winter but there was some warmth from the sun against the south-facing wall of the house and Murdoch cooried in to rest there. When he went to drink from a little pond he lost his balance and it was obvious he was having a stroke and had lost control of his hind legs. The vet was called out and we managed for the first time to get hold of the poor animal and he was put to sleep on garden bench. Now the two Murdochs and the Dude can roam cat heaven together.

Farewell my old friend.