Monthly Archives: June 2012

some Sylvia for your pocket

I’ve been meaning to write about Sylvia Townsend Warner here for literally years now, but to really do her any justice I need to go back and re-read many things of hers I read fairly recently. Which is hard to make myself do when I’ve got such a large pile of other, new-to-me things I’d like to get to first. (Same problem with various films, which I’d never write about after having seen only once). I will indeed do it anyhow at some point because I think it’s important, but in the meantime I see no reason not to send you off about your business without a few enticing little scraps of Sylvia to tuck in your pocket.

This first one in the series is from the short story “Furnivall’s Hoopoe,” which appears in the collection The Music at Long Verney. If you’re a New Yorker subscriber you can read it in their archives here, as it was published in their Jan. 3, 1970 issue. They published a great many Sylvia Townsend Warner stories over the years — she became very good friends with her editor there, William Maxwell, and you can and should read some of their correspondence in The Element of Lavishness — and in my opinion being able to plunder their archives at one’s leisure for her alone is well worth the cost of a subscription.

Jan. 3, 1970 New Yorker cover

the Jan. 3, 1970 cover

There are plenty of other passages I might have opted to start off with, and loads of them where she’s doing something more dazzling in a writerly way, but this one captures some very true things about love and that’s been on my mind lately. Particularly the other day, when I found myself thinking about The Great Gatsby in connection with a food blog post (spoiler alert: it’s somehow just as depressing miniaturized and briefly outlined with clams as it is as a novel), and again just a couple of hours after I’d written it, when I found myself having a long talk with an unhappy friend about her married girlfriend. Maxwell wrote the foreword to The Music at Long Verney well after Townsend-Warner’s death in 1978 and briefly but rather heart-breakingly describes her own love troubles with her very long-term girlfriend Valentine Ackland:

Sylvia was not distressed by Valentine’s casual infidelities, but when she fell in love with a spoiled American woman who thought she might (and then again thought she might not) want to live permanently with Valentine, Sylvia suffered deeply and even made herself homeless until the crisis had passed. As she wrote a friend, ‘I was gray as a badger and never at any time a beauty but I was better at loving and being loved.”

Having read much of her work, I find her believable on this point. Fortunately the crisis did pass and they went on living together until Ackland’s death from breast cancer in 1969. Ackland opened an antiques shop in their home in 1952, which is an interesting background tidbit about The Music at Long Verney; five of its stories are set in the same (fictional) antiques shop. According to Wendy Mulford’s This Narrow Place: Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland Life, Letters and Politics, 1930-1951, Valentine and Sylvia had a routine worked out for dealing with annoying customers whereby Valentine would ring a little bell to summon Sylvia, who would then call her away for some important reason or other. Anyhow, on to the little scrap of Sylvia, which fortunately is far more economical and humorous than my introduction to it. I regret having to give it to you in two pieces but those are the breaks.

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a good kick in the blog-pants

I find my spam comments in-box incredibly inspirational and I’m disappointed in myself for having forgotten to check it for such a long time. Clearly this is the reason for my silence over here! One of them, at least. I’ve been blogging over on my food blog pretty regularly lately but I’ve got a funny problem that’s disproportionately affected this one, apart from the usual moods and illness and day-job stuff: My w on my keyboard is broken. I snipped that one from a recipe for mango pickle I happen to have open in another tab. I’ve become adept at scavenging for this letter. Needing a big one is much more problematic but I incidentally mentioned Edith Wharton on my food blog the other day so at least that’s there if I need it. I could simply buy a replacement keyboard, of course, but I’d like to get a . . . hmm . . . cord-free one that I can use in connection ith shit alongside both my big desktop computer and my iPad, and I’d like to research my options a bit before buying. A tedious little project, as I’m not very interested in shopping for things like this. Then I noticed that blog-friend A beguiled slim alien (that is not really his name) is making lipograms and naturally I thought, suppose I never buy a replacement? At the very least I should give this more time to see if I can use it to my advantage.

My spam comments inevitably push me to reconsider things in this exact same manner. They are consistently inventive in language usage and often very funny too, and I find the combination irresistible and inspiring. Seriously, if you don’t have a blog, think about starting one solely for the purpose of harvesting spam comments. Here are the ones I have at present (after discarding the useless and irredeemably dull ones, the ones that are just links and the ones about SEO something blah blah):

Lunar Camel Co. spam comments

Lunar Camel Co. spam comments part 2

Click either image to enlarge. I’ve blurred the email and IP addresses because even spammers have a reasonable expectation of privacy there.

So many ideas and lessons! The fact that they’re about hard-on pills, escorts, and headphones also, I admit, tickles my blogger parts. They generally are this flavor. I like to think there is a subtle but discernible hint of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll around here and apparently there is. If my spam tilted more in the direction of moms earning $2000 a day at home I’d feel a need to do some inner searching. But back to the ideas.

1. Addled syntax can be super-exciting. It tends to lose something if made intentionally, but that’s all the more reason to practice and to experiment and to learn to cover your tracks. Being nimble, spontaneous-seeming and intentionally playful is damn hard to pull off in part because none of those qualities should be obviously being pulled off.

2. If you’re going to blog about topical topics, bring a fresh perspective to them. Zombie attack jokes are very cheap at the moment. The paranoid edge to the zombie references in my spam here is genuinely off-kilter in a manner that’s hard to fake, and that makes them more intriguing. Alongside the doom and gloom in both of them is a strange vision of something transcendent: “an unexpected getting” and “a good unsuspected becoming.” I believe both are meant to evoke innocent people placidly minding their business, but if so there is a curious sense of transit on their part, a sense of movement amidst their calm, and an implication that the actions being talked about have not stopped occurring. It’s a challenging idea to get one’s mind around and, I think, an interesting one.

3. An under-used bit of vocabulary can pack a big punch if thoughtfully deployed. I’m talking about the use of “devilry” in the last one there, the Slendertone link. Very nicely done.

4. Flattering your reader can be embarrassing for both parties but that doesn’t make it a bad thing. I take a small but genuine pleasure in thinking of myself as “an overly skilled blogger” and “thus cool,” even if it’s only robots and jaded, spotty Uzbeki teens saying so.

5. Being mysterious but not coy is tricky but should be attempted. To say that “[c]ertain 3 areas in this article are definitely the very best” but not specify the areas doesn’t cut it for me, but there’s room for improvement.

6. An unaffectedly simple question can have a devastating effect. The one inquiring about my method(s) for making my blog froze me in my seat because I truly have no idea. Surely this commenter didn’t mean coding, surely he or she meant something more nebulous? But those aspects of it are not any less opaque to me than they are to anyone else. I’m going to try not to get hung up on this at the moment and focus on making use of some of these other lessons instead.