Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Some Do Not by Ford Madox Ford being the First Book of Parade's End

Having read all 4 books of the tetralogy I now know why it is a good idea to keep my head below the parapet. Hun snipers are waiting to send me to Valhalla. Why didn’t Ford keep his head down? He went out to the Western Front in 1915 and saw action there even though he had no obligation to do so being 41 at the time and already doing his bit in the propaganda department. This is the front that we most associate with the slaughter and large parts of Parade’s End are situated there. But before that in the first book Some Do Not we are introduced to Christopher Tietjans, his friend Vincent Macmaster and La Belle Dame Sans Merci (big time) Sylvia the wife of Tietjans, Valentine Wannop the young Suffragette, Mrs. Duchemin the mistress of a salon and wife of the scatological vicar, Breakfast Duchemin who is a disciple of Ruskin and a florid lunatic. The literary breakfast scene during which he quotes and offers a translation of scabrous Latin verses of Ovid is perhaps the most comic event ever to have taken place in a Vicarage. To extract any part of it would be to limit its effect but at its core is the convention observed by English gentles which is that no notice is to be taken of the unacceptable.

Mrs. Duchemin suddenly screamed:

‘Oh....no

As if checked for a moment in their stride all the others paused - for a breath. Then they continued talking with polite animation and listening with minute attention. To Tietjens that seemed the highest achievement and justification of English manners!

The handling of all the elements of this scene and the placing of all the actors in their conversational clumps withal conscious of each other and trying to control the cumulative appal is pure genius. How is it to be resolved? Magnificently and with that curious sense of peace that comes from the perfect ‘punch line’. You’ll see.

Tietjens is the central character who though he is the youngest son is the father of the next to be Tietjens of Groby, a vast estate with iron and coal deposits in Yorkshire. His other brothers have no issue. But is Tommie/Mark/Michael, in the upper class English way names change according to the prevailing context, really his son. He was a 7 month child and clearly Tietjens was used to give him a name. A certain Captain Drake may have been the father or so Sylvia thought. She wasn’t sure but uses that to taunt her husband before going off with another man for some months before asking to be taken back with stipulations in the most insolent manner. She is a Catholic and he is a gentleman so divorce is out of the question. If a man cannot keep his woman at home he must live with it.

Like Tietjens Ford also affected High Tory, even megatherium views of society and respected the French for their devotion to the 18th.C. The class system and 'other ranks' are fixed poles of a stable universe that is about to be dismantled. There will then be no point in writing a letter to the times.

If they saw policemen misbehave, railway porters lack civility, an insufficiency of street lamps, defects in public services or in foreign countries, they saw to it, either with nonchalant Balliol voices or with letters to The Times, asking in regretful indignation: 'Has the British This or That come to this?

But Lord Port Scatho had entered the room with the stiffness, with the odd high-collared sort of gait that on formal and unpleasant occasions Englishmen use when they approach each other; braced up, a little like strange dogs meeting in the street.

Sylvia at calumny and detraction is nonpareil. Banker Brownlie fascinated by her bounces a check on Tietjens made out to his club. That they should return a gentleman’s check is a savage insult and only possible because she has persuaded everyone that he is a ‘bad hat’. Without going ‘native informant’ on us Ford teazes out all these tribal matters which are as complex as the kinship systems of aboriginies.

The control of straightforward narrative time is excellent, the quick quick slow of the dance seems as natural as only a master can accomplish. In the later books the other Bergsonian aspect of duration is displayed. Here all the hero’s life is being pressed to the point in each moment under fire.

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