Sunday, March 20, 2011

To shake the tattered arras

The charms of a Somerset village may be extinguished by the proposed building of a vast housing development, we are told. This would really only be a story of local interest – albeit one that exemplifies all sorts of deliciously English conundra about the competing claims of class and aspiration and ‘heritage’ and cold, hard cash – except that the village under threat is East Coker, which shares its name with a poem by TS Eliot. He first visited the place in 1937, when he discovered his ancestors had lived there in the 17th century, before emigrating to New England; his ashes are interred in the village church.

This connection is strong enough to have provoked the concern of the TS Eliot Society of America, which has added its voice to the usual hubbub of opponents to such change, from devotees of architectural history to people worried about the value of their own houses. (Only in Britain is the phrase ‘affordable housing’ a pejorative.) Now, I could understand the Elioteers’ concern if their man had actually lived and worked in East Coker, if its skies and fields and stone and timber had seeped into his poetic soul. But it was only really the idea of East Coker that prompted him to write the poem, its small role in his own heritage and identity, its place in the continuum of life. Had his family come from Nempnett Thrubwell or Huish Champflower or Wellington Without, who can say that the piece would have been radically different?

It’s interesting to consider what Eliot’s own reaction might have been. No doubt he was a frightful snob: apparently, when the first edition of ‘East Coker’ sold 12,000 copies, he declared that this proved what a bad poem it was. And I’m sure he would have been baffled by the success of Cats, and found the notion of Andrew Lloyd Webber getting a peerage as utterly wrong. But despite his High Tory, High Anglican instincts, he was also deeply impressed by the Vedic notion of impermanence: as he says in the poem, “Houses live and die.” Although, as if to admonish anyone who wants to read too much into his own lines, later on he also says “The poetry does not matter.”

And here he is in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture:
Neither a classless society, nor a society of strict and impenetrable social barriers is good; each class should have constant additions and defections; the classes, while remaining distinct, should be able to mix freely; and they should have a community of culture with each other which will give them something in common, more fundamental than the community which each class has with its counterpart in another society.
Eliot may have liked East Coker as it was in 1937, but he would have been aware that it had changed enormously since his forebears left it in the 1660’s; and that it would inevitably change again and keep changing. Also from the poem:
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces...
Or, since I stopped writing poetry years ago: Shit Happens.


Richard said...
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Richard said...

As I have now reached what is deemed in some quarters to be a "grand old age", nothing gives me greater pleasure than to visit interweb groups on the Facebook devoted to my old home town and soundly berate 40-year-olds who lament the passing of something that us elderly people considered something of a monstrosity when it was first constructed. I remind them that whenever I visit it I see a thriving, pretty town and that maybe they should all come visit Crewe in the wet before they pass judgement on their own home. his used to be a quiet little hamlet before the bloody railway came.

I think my uncle lived in East Coker once.