Tuesday, December 15, 2009

England Have My Bones

TH White, author of the strange and indelible Arthurian sequence The Once and Future King, is also the author of a strange and indelible memoir called England Have My Bones. You can often find it in secondhand bookshops; if you see it, do pick it up.

It is ostensibly a diary of a year of country living in the 1930s, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a book in which so much is unsaid. White fishes, hunts, shoots ducks, learns to fly a small aeroplane and keeps snakes as pets. He does these things one at a time and obsessively, being the sort of person who needs to be the best at everything he tries. He sets arbitrary and very difficult goals because he wants the punishment.

White writes beautifully, a genuine master of prose so much in control that he can break the rules. He has a knack of composing perfectly-balanced sentences from those middling words which you think you know but would want to double-check in a dictionary if tested. This makes for a somewhat disorienting reading experience. For example:

The primaries of the plover buckled to the wind on the turn, like the tawse of a brogue. The pine clumps on the moors had dead trees in them, like the badger bristles on a tramp’s old chin. Then it began to rain. It was a Homeric east-winderly rain, as repeatedly described by the Southcotes.

He appears to be both vain and deeply self-loathing. This may be grounded in an unfulfilled homosexuality: one biographer described him as “a homosexual and a sadomasochist”, though his friend David Higham said: "Tim was no homosexual, though I think at one time he had feared he was...and in his ethos fear would have been the word." White is terrified of people and relationships and humiliation, but not of death. This becomes apparent in the flying section of the book and in an extraordinary ending in which he suffers a serious car crash. Warner said, "Notably free from fearing God, he was basically afraid of the human race.” In other diaries (England Have My Bones contains nothing so direct) White himself made the Morrissey-ish statement: "it has been my hideous fate to be born with an infinite capacity for love and joy with no hope of using them."

The odd thing is that all this comes through in what are, essentially, laboriously detailed descriptions of his hobbies. The effect is somewhat akin to finding a profound and melancholy meditation on the human condition in an airfix instruction booklet.

8 comments:

worm said...

"it has been my hideous fate to be born with an infinite capacity for love and joy with no hope of using them."

sounds like a fairly obvious declaration of gaydom to me

I must admit that I thought you described this book as inedible. which would have been an exciting new form of book review

Brit said...

...Or might be much weirder than gaydom.

worm said...

ah, fishiality, deviance indeed!

My father had a male teacher at his prep school in the 1950's who kept in a book a collection of photographs of the boy's knees. All the pupils knew about the book, and it was referred to as 'The Book of Knees'.

ghostofelberry said...

i´d guess that a great many technoloical & artistic achievements come from an obsessive-compulsive, lunatic perfectionism, often practiced by people with odd sexual lives, or, rather, the lack thereof.

Brit said...

Wotcha Elb!

You sound like a man who knows...

Willard said...

Keeping snakes gives it away.

Brit said...

They're grass snakes which he goes out and catches himself, then brings them back to slither freely about his sitting room. Up to a dozen at a time.

Frank Wilson said...

Love is one of the easiest things to fall into, but one of the very hardest to do.