Thursday, November 09, 2017

`He Was Never Bored'

As a belated birthday gift a reader in England, David Jones, has given me a one-year subscription to Hortus: A Gardening Journal, an elegant little quarterly published since 1987 in Herefordshire by founder and editor David Wheeler. In his card David writes: “I have much enjoyed reading Ford Madox Ford’s The March of Literature on your recommendation. I hope you will enjoy – amongst other things – the articles on Ford in this and the next issue of Hortus.”

The ten-page essay in the journal’s autumn issue, “The Small Producer: Gardens in the life of Ford Madox Ford,” was written by Tim Longville, whose “Who’s Who” entry at the back of the magazine is an unlineated couplet: “Tim Longville sits by the Solway and scribbles, pausing only for slurps and nibbles.” Could he be the co-translator of What I Own: Versions of Hölderlin and Mandelshtam (Carcanet, 1998)? More likely, given the subject matter, he’s author of Gardens of the Lake District (Frances Lincoln Publishers Ltd., 2007). I suspect he’s not director of finance at the Cleveland Clinic, but may be the resident of Cumbria dubbed a “gardening guru.” Longville knows his Ford, has read more than merely The Good Soldier, and describes his life as “a combination of obstinacy, courage, and poor timing [that] characterised his whole career.”

Longville takes his title from one of Ford’s great, unread books, Great Trade Route (1937): “I want to belong to a nation of Small Producers, with some local, but no national feeling at all. Without boundaries, or armed forces, or customs, or government.” Though the author of more than eighty books and editor of two of the last century’s most important literary journals – The English Review and The Transatlantic Review – Ford was dreamy-minded, an eminently impractical man forever on the cusp of destitution. Longville says Ford’s naïve, unsystematic vision was positioned “well towards the outer edges of idealistic innocence, being in effect a sort of pre-hippy Tory anarchism.” Ford often recalls a warmer, fuzzier version of our own Southern Fugitives (he was a friend of Allen Tate and Tate’s wife, the novelist Caroline Gordon).

Longville recounts some of the adventures Ford and his girlfriend, the Australian-born painter Stella Bowen, had in the English cottages they lived in during the nineteen-twenties. He relies on Bowen’s wonderful memoir, Drawn from Life (1941). Here is a passage not cited by Longville, an account of Ford, the self-described “old man mad about literature,” at work:

“He would retire upstairs to write, and leave me to wrestle with the dinner. At eight I would say, ‘are you ready to eat?’ and he would reply, ‘in a minute.’ At eight-thirty I would say, ‘It is eight-thirty, darling,’ and he would reply, ‘Oh, give me another twenty minutes,’ and I would return to the kitchen and concoct something extra — another vegetable, or a savoury. At nine I’d say, ‘what about it?’ and he’d tell me to put the meal on the table. At nine-thirty I would suggest putting it back on the fire, to re-heat. ‘What!’ he’d cry, ‘dinner on the table all this time? Why ever didn’t you tell me?’ Well, we’d eat perhaps at ten, with enormous appetite, and discuss the progress of his book and of my cooking.”

Ford loved to eat. There’s no mention of flowers in surviving descriptions of his gardens. Longville tells us he weighed “well over seventeen stone,” and writes:

“. . . the freshness of food became something of a mania with him and one that increased with the years (it was one of many ways in which this self-proclaimed conservative was decades in advance of his time) and the mere thought of a canned vegetable could reduce or inspire him to grandiloquent rages.”

They lived at Red Ford Cottage, near Pulborough in West Sussex. Ford was writing the early volumes of his masterpiece, the tetralogy Parade’s End. Longville quotes a charming account by Bowen of Ford during these years: “The simplicity of heart which made small things seem important, like the earliest salad, or the purchase of an old bit of brass or an effective arrangement of our meagre possessions, made Ford a delightful companion. He was never bored.” The perfect epitaph for a good man.

Of course, it couldn’t last. They moved to France and eventually parted. In one of his best books, Provence: From Minstrels to the Machine (1935), Ford writes: “There are in this world only two earthly Paradises . . . Provence . . . and the Reading Room of the British Museum.” Thank you, David, for an excuse to revisit Ford Madox Ford. Part II of Longville’s essay, scheduled to appear in the next issue of Hortus, is titled “France.”

[In his letter to a new Hortus subscriber, David Wheeler writes: “The journal was founded in 1987 when I came to realise that there was no place for the kind of discursive article which, by definition, is too long for modern-day picture-led glossy magazines and too short for a book – the kind of article that dedicated readers (of all subjects) enjoyed in the 1920s and 1930s, when the so-called ‘little magazines’ flourished. We now have around 2,000 subscribers in thirty-two different countries world-wide.”]

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