Leaves in the Wind – ‘Alpha of the Plough’

Leticia gave me the very best kind of recommendation earlier in 2013, on this post – a recommendation for a book which I already owned, and was keen to read.  Perfect!  The book was Leaves in the Wind (1918), the author was ‘Alpha of the Plough’.  Not, as you may imagine, the author’s real name.  Alpha is, in fact, A.G. Gardiner (not E.V. Knox, as I thought at one point) – who chose the name when writing for The Star, as several contributors were named after stars. What a serendipitous recommendation, seeing as I’d bought the book out of (a) curiosity and (b) frustration at the lack of decent books in Dorchester’s charity shops.  And I ended up doing rather well.

It’s that variety of gem which doesn’t really exist any more (and how many times have I lamented its demise in my posts here!) – the personal essay.  All sorts of wonderful people wrote them, from Rose Macaulay to J.B. Priestley, and there seemed to be no lack of audience for them in the first half of the 20th century – even (maybe especially) during the First World War.

Gardiner covers a great number of jovial topics – from his companions of a bus to giving up tobacco, from smiling in the mirror to famous conversationalists – but there is also a hefty portion of the book given over to soldiers and war.  Difficult to avoid during wartime, and perhaps it is only to the 21st-century reader that the combination of the frivolous and fatal seems incongruous.  Gardiner was nearly 50 when the First World War began, and did not see active service in it – but he is a kind, insightful observer of soldiers, blinded neither by patriotism nor cynicism:

A dozen youths march, two by two, on to the “up” platform.  They are in civilian dress, but behind them walks a sergeant who ejaculates “left – left – left” like the flick of a whip.  They are the latest trickle from this countryside to the great whirlpool, most of them mere boys.  They have the self-consciousness of obscure country youths who have suddenly been thrust into the public eye and are aware that all glances are turned critically upon their awkward movements.  They shamble along with a grotesque caricature of a dare-devil swagger, and laugh loud and vacantly to show how much they are at ease with themselves and the world.  It is hollow gaiety and suggests the animation of a trout with a hook in its throat.
A central thread of Leaves in the Wind is humanity in the midst of war – the minutiae amongst the vast and awful.  The collection would be worth hunting down for that alone.  But I don’t want to give the wrong impression of Gardiner’s tone – because Leaves in the Wind is very often an amusing book too, and wanders onto the sorts of topics in which A.A. Milne would have delighted in his pre-war sketch writing days.  Such as gentlemen’s fashion:

I am not speaking with disrespect of the well-dressed man (I do not mean the over-dressed man:  he is an offence).  I would be well-dressed myself if I knew how, but I have no gift that way.  Like Squire Shallow, I am always in the rearward of the fashion.  I find that with rare exceptions I dislike new fashions.  They disturb my tranquillity.  They give me a nasty jolt.  I suspect that the explanation is that beneath my intellectual radicalism there lurks a temperamental conservatism, a love of sleepy hollows and quiet havens and the old grass-grown turnpikes of habit.
Quite frankly, I adore the idea of calling someone ‘an offence’, and will be putting it into practice asap.

This has been a speedy overview of a book which, though slim, is very varied – and, like almost all collections of personal essays, covers so many topics that an exhaustive review would be impossible, unless it was almost as long as the book.  Gardiner proves himself, in Leaves in the Wind, to have an impressive range of tone – from funny to solemn, and (more impressive still) sometimes both at once.

Thanks, Leticia, for pushing this to the top of my tbr pile – I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for any more furrows ploughed by this particular author.

12 thoughts on “Leaves in the Wind – ‘Alpha of the Plough’

  • April 4, 2013 at 2:36 am
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    You're very welcome – I'm so happy you liked "Alpha" so much! I do hope you find more of his books; he's getting very difficult to find. Finding him in a dusty little store in Houston, Texas, of all places, was certainly serendipitous for me!

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    • April 13, 2013 at 1:17 pm
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      I will certainly be keeping an eye out! (but I wonder where bookshops would keep him in alphabetical order??)

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  • April 4, 2013 at 7:32 am
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    Did you visit Julian Nangle's SHBS in Dorchester?
    There used to be a good SHBS at Athelhampton, not sure if it's still there.

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    • April 13, 2013 at 1:17 pm
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      What's SHBS? Is that a sort of charity shop? In which case, I will have done! I went to 'em all.

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  • April 5, 2013 at 2:49 am
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    Has the personal essay really gone out of style? I’m not so sure. I think David Sedaris would fit this niche. I recently read a collection of essays by David Foster Wallace. Granted, they were originally magazine articles, but the A.A. Milne’s collection I read last year (due to your recommendation, Thank you! :) had previously been published at various times in newspapers. Or is the stress on “personal”? I can think of other essay collections that I am aware of, but they are often thematically linked essays with perhaps less of a personal slant, like what Oliver Sacks writes.

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    • April 13, 2013 at 1:19 pm
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      Interesting point – perhaps I'm just out of touch with what's going on in essay publishing? Marilynne Robinson had that collection out recently, but it was scholarly, really. It's the whimsical, personal-but-not-too-personal sort that I love, and is perhaps still out there.

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  • April 5, 2013 at 2:46 pm
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    It is such fun to find a book of personal essays from another era. It makes me realize how little changed and yet how much has changed. This sounds delightful. One of my favorite finds of this sort is "The Romance of the Commonplace" (1902) by Gelett Burgess. He takes on subjects such as maps, dining out, slang, living alone, and wanderlust.

    Mr. Burgess was an American author, artist, poet, humorist, and art critic. Here is one of his little ditties for your amusement.

    I NEVER SAW A PURPLE COW,
    I NEVER HOPE TO SEE ONE;
    BUT I CAN TELL YOU, ANYHOW,
    I'D RATHER SEE THAN BE ONE!

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    • April 13, 2013 at 1:20 pm
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      I will definitely have to keep an eye out for that! Maybe next time I do my Century of Books, since it was so difficult to find books from the first decade of the 20th century.

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  • April 9, 2013 at 1:28 pm
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    Simon, I noticed you recently grabbed "Z. Dobson" (fabulous book), so if you enjoy essays, Beerbohm is a master of the genre. "Going Out For a Walk," "Hosts and Guests," and "How Shall I Word It?" come to mind immediately. He is delightfully funny, but can also be sentimental as well ("A Relic"). The first volume of essays is "The Collected Works of Max Beerbohm" (a joke by Max, as this his first collection, published in his youth). There's also "More" and "Yet Again." There's also "Mainly on the Air," which transcribes talks he gave for the BBC during WWII, but I haven't read those.

    And while I haven't read any of Joseph Epstein, he is a modern essayist that adores Beerbohm, so he might warrant investigation next time you're looking for current essayists.

    Now I want to go pull Max off the shelf and pour another cup of coffee…

    Reply
    • April 13, 2013 at 1:21 pm
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      Thanks so much for those recommendations Bridget! I will definitely keep an eye out for those – and I love Max's joke title (and the indulgence of a publisher who let him use it!)

      Reply

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