James to the Reader

hello! this is the first of many (the gods grant) Sunday screeds from James McKay, a poet on a hill by a river in an archipelago that has frankly seen better times

Gentle reader, hello. Also, all you common as muck readers. As it happens, this being the first one of these, I just copied and pasted in your email address by hand, so I have a fair idea as to the starting demographic of the readership and let me tell you, you’re all beautiful. Please don’t tell the data priests.

Explain, you say? Well, here I am in sitting in my attic on the hill and unlikely to be going anywhere or seeing much of anyone at least until the flowers bloom in the spring trala, probably not even then, and there’s only so many phone conversations one can have with people who aren’t going anywhere or seeing much of anyone either.

So, in the interests of staying in creatively - of being in company when alone - and of not having the books I read just go forgotten from one pile to another - I’ll be sending out one of these each Sunday. Old books, poems and poetry, this town of Gravesend and the estuary it sits on, coffee: all Life is here. Do please chip in with comments, ideas, entire original philosophies if you’d like, in these days human interaction is nuts and nectar.

Literary Gravesend: Robert Pocock

We start our catalogue of illustrious literary Gravesendians with Robert Pocock, known to all in the town today as the eponymous patron of the Wetherspoons on Windmill Street. An antiquarian and printer in the eighteenth/nineteenth century, Pocock was in correspondence with the leading scholars of the day (I came across a reference to him in a Victorian edition of Bishop Lowth’s Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews the other day, a book which will surely feature in future discussion) and published, among other things, a magisterial History of Gravesend (1797), and several much shorter and enjoyable works, including the magnificently titled Pocock's everlasting songster, containing a selection of the most approved songs, which have been and are likely to be sung for ever with universal applause. - pdf available to read or download at OpenLibrary.

Of particular interest is the introduction, and collection of Toasts and Sentiments (sorry the capitalisation thing is infectious), which describe a drinking culture that looks back towards ancient Greece, where a symposiarch (in Pocock a “Chair”) calls each drink, or nominates some body else to, and drinkers are supposed to be able to confidently take the floor at any time with a patriotic motto, a noble organisation or individual dignitary whose health to drink. Failure to do so confidently, warns Pocock, risks you being rumbled as Not a Man of the World. Some of the rather jolly examples:

True hearts and found bottoms.

The hand that gives, and the heart that forgives.

The rose of pleasure without the thorn.

Wit without bitterness and mirth without noise.

Plenty of coal, and fire to make it fly.

Religion without priestcraft, and politics without party.

Love to one, friendship to a few, good will to all.

May the coward never wear a red coat, nor the hypocrite a black one.

Safe arrival of our outward and homeward-bound fleets.

The danger of exposure is one of the darkier threads running through a genre of literature that I’m becoming a little obsessed with, a thing which may become obvious as you read on: manuals of etiquette and “correct” behaviour. During the upcoming recalibrations, I’m beginning to think, we’re going to have to relearn and adapt the way we interact with and behave around each other, and the formal study of Etiquette may yet again become a Thing.

In particular, there has to be a way of making that drinking “with” people via video conferencing software thing a bit more convivial, if we are to avail ourselves of the solace that alcohol affords in our northern European winter, summer too for that matter. Some creative version of Pocock’s patriotic drinking rituals that invoke sentiment and loyalty, and regulate consumption, might well serve to make the whole thing more satisfying. It was never just about the alcohol, was it? And is it not equally important to have an etiquette of incorrect behaviour, too?

The etiquette theme extends into the first of the vintage audio books (which should strictly be “audio vintage books”, I suppose) that you’ll find me posting on SoundCloud: Eileen Terry’s Etiquette for All: Man, Woman and Child was published in 1926, and offers a glimpse into the terrifying world of polite society in the days when you weren’t allowed to speak to people you hadn’t been formally introduced to (including your next-door neighbours), a dinner invitation was a source of enormous anxiety, and if you weren’t careful you might get yourself cancelled by making such a simple error as trying to tip the servants in someone else’s house.

As well as having a certain morbid fascination in itself, this is precisely the world of Bertie Wooster, Lord Peter Wimsey, and a hundred TV heritage dramas - if you want to understand all that faffing about with calling cards you read about in the books - or to be able to spot how poorly researched big-budget TV can be - this is the book for you. Assuming, of course, that you don’t actually intend to acquire the art of peeling and eating an orange with a knife and fork.

And coming soon (next few days), the first chapter of Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (1937), out of copyright for a week and a half. If I tell you that there exists a paperback edition of this with cover quotes from Philip K Dick and Jorge Luis Borges, that should indicate the level of excitement that’s appropriate for this. Epic is not the word.

Next week, some actual poetry! our Literary Gravesend feature will be on Lord Byron’s hero Don Juan, who passes through Gravesend somewhere between stanzas 76 and 79 of Canto 10 of his poem. And for the inaugural Culinary Gravesend spot, the beginning of the quest for the perfect gipsy tart.

Till then, keep it spiny.

To support the Blue Porcupine project, please consider buying one of my books from me over on Ebay, or fomenting an insane bidding war for one of my other lots there. Thanks.