Wednesday, June 04, 2014

`Unconcerned and Pawky'

Louis MacNeice spent most of 1940 in the United States, where he lectured, worked on a collection of poems and a study of Yeats, and recovered from surgery for peritonitis. After the start of the Blitz, he returned to England despite writing at the time, “I have never really thought of myself as British; if there is one country I feel at home in it is Eire.” At age thirty-three he volunteered for the Royal Navy but was turned down because of his recent illness and surgery. Like Henry Green, he served as a London firewatcher in the Home Guard. He would soon go to work for the BBC Drama and Features Department. MacNeice published four “London Letters” in Common Sense, a left-wing journal based in New York City and named after Thomas Paine’s pamphlet (1776). They are collected in Selected Prose of Louis MacNeice (ed. Alan Heuser, Clarendon Press, 1990). 

The articles detail the Battle of Britain as experienced by English civilians. The first letter, dated Jan. 1, 1941, and published in the February issue of Common Sense, is titled “Blackout, Bureaucracy & Courage.” MacNeice visits Birmingham (“rows and rows of toothless, eyeless houses, gutters of powdered glass”) and Oxford (“up to a thousand people are sleeping in an outlying movie-house”), and finally London: 

“Night after night the same people sleep in the Tubes (the number of them is now put at about 35,000) lying on the platform where the trains come in, their heads to the curving wall and their feet to the trains; between their feet and the trains there is not more than a yard, so you have to be careful where you step.” 

MacNeice strives not for propagandistic sentimentality but objectivity, and the effect is proportionally more powerful: “The vast majority of Londoners lead a life these days of very hard work, immeasurable patience, and next to no frills.” He has a nice eye for detail and anecdote: 

“When Virginia Woolf’s apartment [at 37 Mecklenburgh Square] was disemboweled [in September 1940], left open to the air, I am told that for several days paintings by Duncan Grant (the rising star of the twenties) remained hanging on the remaining walls through the London drizzle and the blitzes that followed.” 

MacNeice even sees the humor implicit in some of the devastation: “…some of the more pretentious commercial architecture is aesthetically improved by bombing.” Then MacNeice happens on a stirring image of England, battered but indomitable: 

“The church of St Clement Danes in the Strand, one of Wren’s elegances in Portland stone, looks none the worse for having had its windows blown out; outside it in the churchyard, just beyond the apse, a statue of Dr Johnson still stands among the debris, unconcerned and pawky, with an open book in his left hand, looking up Fleet Street.”   

The statue is still there, the work of Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald, who unveiled it in 1910. Besides the book in his hand, two more and an inkpot are at Johnson’s feet. The inscription reads: “SAMUEL JOHNSON/ L.L.D. / CRITIC . ESSAYIST . PHILOLOGIST / WIT. POET. MORALIST / DRAMATIST. POLITICAL WRITER. TALKER.” Fitzgerald also made a sculpture of Boswell in Lichfield, Johnson’s birthplace. In his Dictionary, Johnson defines “pawky” (or “pauky”) as “sly; cunning; artful.”

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