Besides which there was the heavy battery operating just beneath the ridge, at a kept interval of minutes, with unnerving inevitability, as a malign chronometer, ticking off with each discharge an exactly measured progress toward a certain and prearranged apocalypse.
(From In Parenthesis by David Jones – Part 6, page 135)
I was in Waterstones in Cardiff at the end of March, just browsing aimlessly.
Even so, because I knew a book on David Jones was soon to come out, I thought I’d check that one out just in case. Nothing in Biography. In the Arts Section though I found something. A large powder-blue cover with an intriguing tree-scape on it: The Art of David Jones. Even a quick flip through revealed page after page of superb reproductions of engravings and paintings displaying a captivating beauty which hinted at something beyond the scene, person or situation depicted.
There was no price that I could see. I picked it up anyway and headed for the psychology section. Nothing much there.
Smart Thinking had one book of interest: The Distracted Mind. It seemed to be delving into the same ground as Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows but a bit more deeply into the psychology of distraction and smart technology. I picked that up as well.
A brief scour of the rest of the shelf revealed nothing. I headed for the till.
After a short wait a member of staff appeared.
‘How much is this?’ I asked, handing over the David Jones book. ‘If it’s £100 I’m putting it back.’
She scanned its barcode.
‘£35,’ she informed me.
This was less than I had paid for the equally beautiful book I had bought about Stanley Spencer after first spotting it in Liverpool’s remarkable Central Library. I instantly agreed to buy it. As it turned out it was by the same publisher: Lund Humphries.
At this point I spread across the desk at least three book tokens, my points card and a Waterstones Stamp Card. It took several minutes to work out that, after all of these had been emptied, I owed £15 but had gained six stamps on my card and heaven knows how many points. It seemed a good deal.
Since then I have acquired another book token which should cover most of the cost of Dilworth’s David Jones biography which I still intend to buy.
Why am I prepared to invest so much money, even if most of it is a gift, in books about David Jones?
Near the Serpentine
My fondness for and interest in David Jones as a poet goes back a long way. More than 20 years in fact. The story of my first reading of In Parenthesis illustrates how much he matters.
It had been a long weekend meeting. I was shattered. I walked across Hyde Park by the Serpentine to Paddington Station. When I reached the station, for some reason I convinced myself my train was in and boarded it, dumping my stuff on the seat and placing my copy of In Parenthesis on the table. I felt really hot and thirsty.
In blind reaction, I did something I had never done before and have never repeated since. I got off the train and went to the Upper Crust stall to buy a coffee.
It was as I was standing in the queue that I realised that the train I had put my stuff on was not going to Hereford. It was not even going anywhere near there. I had chosen completely the wrong train.
I dashed back to the train, scrambled up my stuff from the seat and stumbled back to the concourse with it awkwardly in my arms. As I did so I heard the train pulling out behind me.
As I tidied up my possessions again on a nearby bench, I realised I had donated my copy of In Parenthesis to the rail company – can’t remember which one. I was furious with myself. On the way to London I had been deeply absorbed in reading this compelling description of the front line in the First World War, the intensity of my interest probably fuelled by a desire to know more of what my taciturn father never spoke, his experience of the trenches in the Machine Gun Corps. T S Eliot, its publisher in 1937, regarded it ‘as a work of genius.’ I was so looking forward to finishing reading it on the way home, even though I was tired.
I had squandered this delight in the hope of a cup of coffee!
Needless to say, after I had stopped beating myself up for my stupidity, and had calmed down at home, I took the first opportunity to buy a replacement copy of the 1978 Faber & Faber edition. And at least I hadn’t continued in the queue long enough to see all my luggage receding out of the station, powerless to retrieve it. And as for the strange looks the other passengers cast on me, I couldn’t care less. It was not the loss of face I cared about, but the loss of the book.
I am 150 pages into the book on his art and do not regret for one moment having bought it. There is nothing better I could have spent the book tokens on.
The authors, Ariane Bankes and Paul Hills, manage to combine clear explanations of his developing technical skill with a strong sense of what the particular piece of art represented for Jones. At the peak of his career he was producing something like 50 paintings a year, except when what might have been recurrences of some form of post-traumatic stress reaction derailed him, as they did from time to time. The war had made an indelible impact upon him, as upon so many others. That it led in the end in his case, nearly twenty years later, to one of his masterpieces, In Parenthesis, is a blessing that goes some way to compensate for the curse.
It will take me some time to absorb the richness and depth of his art, with which I was not previously familiar, and to revisit his poetry, which I haven’t read for at least a decade and a half, before I can say more. Both his poetry and his art are challenging in their intricacy and in the honesty with which they confront the challenges of both war and peace. The complexity of some of his paintings doesn’t translate well into the smaller format of the page. Even so, the skill, delicacy and power come across sufficiently strongly often enough to give me a foothold at least on the cliff of their significance, and make the effort of further attempts to climb higher seem well worthwhile.
The best I can say for now, at least about his poetry, is this. Though he is acclaimed by Dilworth, his recent biographer, as a ‘lost modernist,’ I do not feel his kind of modernism is the usual capitulation to materialistic incoherence and obscurity. Rather he stands with T S Eliot, the later W H Auden and R S Thomas (though he insisted on using only two of his names) as someone with his gaze fixed beyond the material even as he replicates the complex chaos of our age on the surface of much of his work. He repays rather than repels the effort of engaging with his struggle to articulate his perspective on the ineffable. I am convinced this will also be true of his art. I’ll let you all know if I change my mind.
Even at this early point in my encounter, I just thought it was worth flagging up how much I valued the work of a poet-painter who has somehow stayed under the radar of widespread popularity for so long.
It’s time he was more widely appreciated. Maybe this will help a little to achieve that.
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