Friday, August 31, 2007

The Flutes of Autumn: Peter Levi

Summer break in England found me trawling the charity shops for books. Here in Belgium they don’t really do charity shops, and even if they did it wouldn’t help much given that neither my French nor my Dutch is up to literature.
I picked this slim volume because I once met Professor Levi through his niece. Levi was the Oxford Professor of Poetry having been a Jesuit priest and later married the widow of Cyril Connolly.
It is a true delight, a memoir that is part life, but more a study of love; love of the British, more specifically the English countryside.
“What comes first is a passion for the places themselves, for the body and bones of England and of all Britain. Or that was what came first for me. The longing curiosity to read the landscape like reading a book is only one of its expressions”.
For Levi this love was tempered by a constant reference to the horrors witnessed by that self same landscape. Each field, each stone is drenched with the blood of conquerors and conquered.
His humanity and care shine through his career. Childhood during the war in near rural Ruislip, tracking the roads and fields now covered in concrete. His schooling was spent at the magnificent Palladian mansion that is Prior Park bedevilled by a regiment of savage Irish brothers whose hatred for the English was matched by their love for sport and rote learning. But all through this time comes the love of place. The park, the landscape around Bath, the Cotswolds and but mostly through onwards.
Through poetry, history, archaeology this deep soft love of England despite herself, his description of place and self shine.

Student, scholar, priest, poet, historian, prison chaplin, all these things in part but human in whole,
“Neither life nor death is safe, and almost everything that consoles us is false. It is the right and in a way the dignity of every human being to defy cure or comfort, though it is a sad dignity, and most people can be helped in one way or another. They can even be educated, even cured of a deep wound. But one should give only what people need or want, and in the way they need or want it. In the same way one must accept the blackest truth about human history, without pretending things were less bad. It is a bad fault and not an unusual one to insist on curing or reforming or comforting, and then to lose patience, to blame the wicked client, when this process, the illusion one had of one's efficacy, is rejected".

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