Consider the Years – Virginia Graham

You’ll see that I’ve tagged this as post as ‘Persephone’, for this Consider the Years (1946) by Virginia Graham is available in a dove grey volume – but my copy is the beautiful one you see below (and the gorgeous bookmark was made by my friend Sherry):

Having read, and loved, Virginia Graham’s hilarious spoof etiquette and ‘how to’ books Say Please and Here’s How (click on those titles to read my reviews – or here for an excerpt from the latter on ‘How to sing’), I thought I’d branch out and read some of her poems.  Consider the Years is a collection of poems which were written between 1938 and 1946 and so, of course, primarily concern the Second World War.

Dear reader, what we have is a case of frustrated expectations.  Having read Graham in fine comic mode, I was hoping that Consider the Years would be a collection of comic verse.  And, goodness knows, many authors have found much to laugh at amidst the horrors of wartime.  Unfair as it is to judge an author by standards which they they didn’t agree to, the only poems I really loved in this collection were those that were funny.  Here, for example, is one called ‘Losing Face’:

This is my doodle-bug face.  Do you like it?
It’s supposed to look dreadfully brave.
Not jolly of course – that would hardly be tactful,
But… well, sort of loving and grave.

You are meant to believe that I simply don’t care
And am filled with a knowledge superal,
Oh, well… about spiritual things, don’t you know,
Such as man being frightfully eternal.

This is my doodle-bug voice.  Can you hear it?
It’s thrillingly vibrant, yet calm.
If we weren’t in the office, which isn’t the place,
I’d read you a suitable psalm.

This is my doodle-bug place.  Can you see me?
It’s really amazingly snug
Lying under the desk with my doodle-bug face
And my doodle-bug voice in the rug.
Would that the whole collection had been along these lines!  And I mean that both in tone and metre.  I know it’s a terribly unscholarly thing to say, but I have to confess a fondness for poems with rhyme and scan.  (This is why I have only studied prose at graduate level, I suspect.)

When Graham wanders into free verse, or to scanning verse that doesn’t rhyme (or, sometimes, rhyming verse that doesn’t scan), I lose interest.  Her poems are never particularly experimental, I should add – her free verse isn’t unduly free – but I, with my reluctance to read poetry, had come hoping for pages of poems like ‘Losing Face’, and Graham does not intend to provide that.

But… it’s is a beautiful little book, isn’t it?

How To Sing (Virginia Graham)

Here is the first chapter from Virginia Graham’s wonderful Here’s How – ‘How To Sing’.  I learnt a lot…

In order to be able to sing it is necessary to be able to do so.  Many people, eager not to be left out of things – things such as weddings or the dedication of British Legion huts – open their mouths hopefully in the chanting of “Oh Perfect Love” or “Jerusalem” yet, though enunciating the words with commendable clarity, remain, musically, on one note.  This, though the note be ever so loud and ever so pure, is not singing, and it is wise, before embarking on a strenuous vocal course, to discover from friends whether you are or are not deaf.  They will only be happy to provide the information which, strangely enough, may come as a surprise to you.

Having ascertained that your rendering not only of “Night and Day”, which happens all too conveniently to be on one note, but also of “Oh for the Wings of a Dove” or, damn it, “God Save the King” is recognisable, you should, if you want to sing properly, do exercises.  Singing in the bath, in a cheerful “savonard” fashion is no use at all for, as you will have learned at life’s knobbly knee, the road to success is invariably painful.  To achieve anything worth while you must experience discomfort and get thoroughly depressed.  (This does not apply to asparagus which can be procured simply by being rich.)

The whole secret of singing is not to breathe.  You should therefore educate your mind into believing the life does not depend on breath alone and that air, whether on a G string or not, isn’t in the least important.  Not only must the breath be constrained but practically everything else as well should be rigidly disciplined, particularly the stomach.  It is then, when the body deprived of air and activity, begins to become atrophied that musical notes, rebelling against this unnatural state, force their way with a plaintive whining noise to the surface.  The neck, being shaped on narrower lines than the bits below it, forms an obstacle, indeed a bottle-neck, to ascending scales, and the tongue is, of course, hopelessly redundant.  So that while most portions of the body should be kept tightly under control the neck and the tongue should wave loosely, like a demi-mondaine saying goodbye to Tosti.  To be tight below the shoulders and loose above them calls for biological ingenuity but if you spend a few hours every day holding your breath and waggling your head from side to side with your tongue hanging out you will soon get results.  These vary from falling in a faint on the floor to being sick.

The vowel sounds, ah, ee, oh, oo (but not, I think, y) form the basic language of all singing practice, and it is usual to run up and down the keyboard, metaphorically speaking of course, to these words until the top of the head blows off.  Notes, if one is thoroughly musical, are constantly seeking freedom, but it is a singer’s duty to keep them in a condition of perpetual frustration, making giant efforts to deter them from doing what they want.  This, owing to the peculiarities of the human torso, is to come down the nose. Every note that would fain rock the chandeliers with a fine nasal bellow must be squashed back on to the vocal chords and re-directed round the teeth.  It takes an infinite number of years to establish ascendancy over these wayward breves, and anybody who thinks he can ah, ee for a week and then sing “Verdi Prati” to a Mothers’ Union is a fool.

Having produced, after many months of abdominal and laryngitical exercise, a sound that can be called a note, you should permit yourself to sing a song; and this must, it absolutely must be sung in front of a looking-glass.  Even though the sounds are being squeezed up from God knows where and squeezed through God knows what the process of compression must not show on the face.  Distorted mouths, semaphoring eyebrows and great big agonised eyes should be severely strictured.  You should aim to look serene and unbreathing like some beautiful pink and white instrument draped in lace or, of course, a starched dickey.  There should be no signs of struggle save in the furtive wiping of hands on pocket handkerchiefs in the intervals.

I am assuming that you are confining your vocal operations to the concert platform, for opera singing is a very different affair. During the required dramatic exertions the face can of course get as anguished as it likes, the hands can wring themselves like rags and great generous gestures of despair can swept the carafes right off notre petite table without anybody becoming embarrassed.  Only when opera singers knock down whole pieces of scenery or take a peeler off Valhalla on to the stage are they considered to have gone too far.

It is possible – people are so idiotic – that you may fancy yourself as an opera singer, visualising splendid nights at Covent Garden when you knock them for six with your Butterfly, mow them down with your Wotan; but before indulging too deeply in dreams it is well to pause a moment and consider.  Not only will you have to sing loud but also long, memorising your roles in French, Italian and German so that the English versions, which you will invariably use, puzzle and confuse you.  You will have to learn the art of making love in a tender way to a colleague who is, as are you, looking at the conductor, and you will assuredly have to die, propped up on one elbow on a very draughty stage for a very long time.

Many are called to enter opera, but few are chosen and these are usually rather fat.  So unless Joan Hammond AND Joan Cross tell you you’d make a ripping Mimi; unless Walter Midgeley AND Walter Widdop cry “By jove, here’s a smashing Siegfried!” my advice to you is to stick to the platform.  Platforms can be hired for quite a modest sum and they can be sent back and forgotten about the following day.

It is a good thing for a singer to sing in tune.  Difficult as it is to reach a note it is doubly difficult to stay there, and indeed I would suggest that should you lose more than a tone and a half in the course of an aria you should think seriously about pursuing some other vocation.  Many singers also, while aiming at a particular note, become waylaid by others en route and this, which is called in musical circles, a “scoop”, caused a certain amount of pain to purists who prefer to reach B flat in one go.  In crooning, of course, everything is inverted, and it is very bed form to find the note you’re looking for straight off.  It should be approached obliquely and slid up on (and sometimes over) like a main road on a wet day.  But then, crooning is not singing.  It is much too natural and much too easy.

An incessant tremolo is also to be avoided, as not only is it very ugly but it is associated in an audience’s mind with nerves, anything that wobbles, be it knee or epiglottis, giving an impression of doubt and insecurity.  Already anxious relatives may easily panic and make for the doors if your quavers oscillate too freely.  A coloratura soprano, which you most certainly will not be, does, it is true, rush about the top register in acrobatic trills, but she invariably sounds as though she were doing it on purpose, not as though she couldn’t help it.  That will be the difference between you and her.

Enunciation of words, however silly they may be, should be crystal clear, and this is by no means an easy task since composers rarely bother with the words of their songs and expect singers to sing phrases such as “My love is a singing bird” or “Where can I go to find my rest?” on bat-high notes.  It not being possible to sing A and say I at the same time the result sounds like this: “Mah lahve eez ah see-ning bahd” and “Wha cahn Ah gaw to fahned mah rahst”.  An effort must be made, however, to overcome these carelessly contrived hazards, and it is a good thing to practise with hot potatoes in the mouth so that when, on concert day, they are removed, it will not sound as though they were still there, if you get my meaning?

For those of you who are intelligent enough to realise, quite early on, that you are wasting your time, there are always Choral Societies.  In order to join one of these it is only necessary to be able to sing any scale in any voice you happen to have on you at the moment.  No one, since the larynx was first fully fashioned, has ever been rejected, on musical grounds, from joining a choir, and it is comforting to know that not only is it easy to become a member of some such organisation, but that apart from drunkenness or sedition there appears to be nothing on earth that can get you out once you’re in.  There was once a famous choir, the master of which sought to purge it of its older members; but it was discovered that all but six of the choir were older members, most of them over seventy and none of them able to sing within the meaning of the word.  The fact that there were 500 of them accounted for the volume of sound they made and the fact that they had sung Handel’s “Messiah” forty-five consecutive years accounted for their accuracy in hitting the right notes.  In any case their hearts would have broken had they been superannuated, so on they went till death brought them to the last chord.

A word of warning.  While the ability to sing well is of no importance in choral singing, to be able to read music is, if not absolutely necessary, certainly useful.  Choral works are commonly divided into four parts, soprano, alto, tenor and bass, and as these are all written on top of each other it is usual, on turning the page, to get lost.  Sopranos are all right because they are singing the tune, but altos who should, several notes lower, be repeating “Oh my luv, oh my love, oh my luv” may get seduced into tagging along with the tenor who has advanced to “is like a red red rose”.  You will notice I say tenor in the singular?  This is because tenors are tremendously handicapped by never being there.  They are as elusive as a demmed pimpernel and at most choir practices they number one with a slight head cold against thirty sops., twelve alts. and four basses.  Somehow basses seem to be more reliable, perhaps because they tend to be elderly and have really nothing better to do than spend an evening holding on to bottom C.

For those with modest vocal ambitions choir singing is a delightful pastime, for there is safety in numbers, and providing the mouth is open and closed at correct intervals little else is demanded.  Ambition, however, burns in many breasts, so on with the gargles and the gusty breaths, the diaphragm exercises and the first fine lamentable bashes at Percy Quilter’s songs!

Here’s How – Virginia Graham

One of the best, and certainly one of the funniest, books I read in 2009 was Virginia Graham’s Say Please, a faux etiquette guide from 1949.  (I wrote about it here.)  Foolishly, I did not investigate whether or not Graham had followed it up – and it was a joyful coincidence that I happened across Here’s How (1951) in London a while ago, and an even more joyful discovery that it’s perhaps even BETTER than Say Please.

Rather than a guide to etiquette, Here’s How purports to be an instruction manual on many and various activities – from singing to redecorating to playing the piano to laying a carpet.  Needless to say, Graham has very little of great use to impart on these topics, but the voice she adopts is one of unswerving self-confidence, coupled with a devastating lack of confidence in the abilities of her reader. It’s all deliciously tongue-in-cheek and her tone is expertly judged. Sadly Osbert Lancester doesn’t do the illustrations for this one, but Anton’s are amusing too – as shown by this DIY Henry Moore impersonator, on the cover.

I could chirrup on forever about how much I enjoyed reading this, but I think instead I’ll simply give you some excerpts. There are quite a few, but I couldn’t resist. If they meet with your approval, I’ll type out a whole section tomorrow (probably the first, ‘How To Sing’) rather than just the sentences/paragraphs which caught my eye.

How To Play The Piano
However beautiful a melody may be it requires bolstering with an accompaniment, and this does not mean, as so many people seem to think, hitting bottom C repeatedly in the hope that it may, on occasions, coincide with the tune.

How To Ride
In a clash of wills between horse and man it is imperative that man should win; otherwise horses will just go browsing about eating grass in a nonchalant fashion instead of taking people places and pulling things.

How To Paint
Unless you are made of some steely inhuman stuff or unless you have a stingy and really not very attractive streak in you, you will insist upon giving yourself a very beautiful, heavy wooden box, smelling richly of cedar, satin to the touch and containing dozens of tubes of paint.  Separate from these rotund and glistening torpedoes will be ranged, in neat compartments, brushes, turpentine and oil.  If you are zealous in your work and really want to get on you will find, in a few weeks’ time that the tubes have not only become misshapen but that most of them exude paint from both ends; that all their screw caps are lost and that the orifices thereby exposed to the open air are clogged.  In consequence the box refuses to shut and, having primarily been a portable asset becomes an encumbering fixture.  Now is the time to go out and buy the capacious mackintosh shopping bag which you could have bought right at the beginning if you hadn’t had such ridiculous delusions of grandeur.

How To Skate
In recent years, since the knack of freezing chemicals into a passable imitation of ice has been acquired, skating has become very much the vogue.  Even the “lower orders” who, in more natural circumstances would be employed sweeping snow from the pond’s surface or feeding coke into braziers are now able to skim like birds from one end of Earl’s Court to another, only pausing on their way to circumnavigate an orange.

How To Plumb
Lagging pipes is one of those things you read about in the weekly magazines and it isn’t normal for a householder to get around to lagging his own. Indeed it isn’t normal to do anything until it is far too late, and even then action is often confined to ringing up one’s mother to ask if one can go along to her and have a bath.

Obviously this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it is very much mine – and I think Here’s How would make a fantastic present for anybody like-minded. This is exactly the sort of book which doesn’t seem to appear any more (I suppose the nearest comparison are those quick-flick books flogged at Christmas – how much more wonderful Graham’s collection is!) and exactly the sort of book I love to discover and stack up on my shelves.

Say Please

I’ve recently finished one of the funniest books I’ve read this year. I bought Say Please by Virginia Graham because (a)it was a nice old hardback, (b)Virginia Graham is both a Persephone author, and co-author of the wonderful letters to and from Joyce Grenfell, (c) I read the Foreword. Which I will now quote in full:

‘This is a book on Etiquette for Ladies, neither of which or whom now exists, as everybody knows; so the whole thing, both from my point of view and from yours, is the most shocking waste of time, and I have really no idea how it happened. The only thing that can be said for it is that it will not help you in the least to be a lady, which is all to the good as I believe it is not a desirable status, but it may make you laugh, which is always nice, even if this, also, is a waste of time. It may, of course, do nothing of the kind, which will be an enormous pity.’

Thus set up, how could I resist? Published in 1949, Say Please is a tongue-very-much-in-cheek guide to everything from leading committees (‘A very good Chairman never lets anybody speak at all but assumes with perfect confidence and with a perfect disregard for the truth that everybody is in agreement’) to dealing with an ill relative (‘any information he cares to give must be regarded as puerile… If a patient insists on being spoken to, then he must be addressed in the third person as though he were a baby.’)

This book, though obviously not meant to be an accurate reflection of everyday life, does still give a snapshot of the obstacles faced by the 1940s woman. Still sections on huntin’ shootin’ fishin’, and servants – but also how to deal with rationing and post-War discussions. Not forgetting the Tennis Party, present in so many books of the early twentieth century, now a thing of the past. The section on Tennis included an epigraph from Harry Graham (her father): “She also served but mostly stood and waited”. A-ha-ha-haaa, if you’ve read your Milton.

A pseudo-etiquette guide may not seem immediately your cup of tea, but any fans of The Diary of a Provincial Lady are advised to get a copy of Say Please: the humour is often quite similar. There are quite a few cheapish (£2-3) secondhand copies on Amazon and abebooks, and doubtless elsewhere. A few editions appear to have been printed in the late ’40s and early ’50s, but nothing since… it seems to linger on only in collections of sporting quips. Say Please could be a good candidate for a reprint, only which market would it fall into?

One of the funniest books I’ve read this year, and might well make my top ten of 2009… I’ll leave you with a quotation from the section on Invitations.

After reaching a certain age it is legitimate to throw etiquette to the winds and be frank. In society, and indeed out of it, frankness is considered very bad-mannered, and that is why one has to be of a certain age before one attempts so drastic a measure. (How certain the age is can only be ascertained when one reaches it.) Then, in a voice nicely balanced between self-depreciation and arrogance, one can say: “No, Jane! It is sweet of you, but you know how stupid I am? I simply loathe the country in the winter and nothing in God’s earth will make me come to Norfolk in November! I’m sorry, darling. I love you, but NO”. This type of remark, firm but loving, resolute but begging sympathy is unfortunately dreadfully wounding, but on reaching that certain age (curse the thing) one prefers, alas, to wound rather than go to Norfolk.

Remember that to get a name for not going out eventually means you will not be asked out. This is rather a bore, for the whole charm of life lies in being asked everywhere and going nowhere. When you are a very old lady living in one tiny room with only one tiny frayed aspidistra for company, you may wish you had gone to Norfolk after all and kept up with dear Jane, who is still being photographed blowing, with her last remaining breaths, down a hunting horn at local Hunt Balls.

50 Books…

It’s been quite a while since I introduced a new book to my ’50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About’. That’s partly because I have those examination things, but also partly because I got a little bit panicky… running through my fifty so quickly, I wanted to make sure the central thread of the blog didn’t end by June, leaving me without that directing force. Plus I lost the list I made.

I’ve talked before about my troubled ethics in reading the diaries of others. I’ve never sure whether or not it’s too invasive – and while I make up my mind, I devour authors’ diaries at a rate of knots. Same can of worms, but a different kettle of fish, provided by letters. I love writing and receiving them – I also love reading those written between others, especially when those others happen to be interesting, literary, friendly types – like Joyce Grenfell and Virginia Graham.

Confession first. I haven’t actually read this entry in the list of 50 books. Nope. But, may I add before you throw your hands up in horror and strike this website from your list of links, I have listened to it on cassette at least fifty times. One to which I listen, when slumbering.

Dear Joyce, Dear Ginnie, as the cassette is called, or Joyce & Ginnie: The Letters of Joyce Grenfell and Virginia Graham, the more prosaic title of the book, is well worth looking out for. Indeed, a ‘must-read’ for anyone intrigued by either correspondent. Everyone knows who Joyce was – for those unfamiliar with Virginia, she was a poet whose work includes Consider The Years, now republished by Persephone. The exchange of letters between the two women spans many, many years, and offers a unique perspective upon the lives of each – life as they wished to convey it to their closest friend. Without the modesty (assumed or otherwise) requisite for autobiography, or the idolatory of biography, reading letters may feel a little like encroaching upon a friendship, but also allows closer and more genuine understanding of the women than available elsewhere.

Grenfell appears to have been a prolific letter-writer – I’m also currently enjoying An Invisible Friendship, letters between Grenfell and Katharine Moore, a pen-friend she never met, though who often attended Grenfell’s concerts and readings. What makes Dear Joyce, Dear Ginnie superior, to my mind, is that they saw each other as equals. Katharine Moore (though interesting writer herself, as Cordial Relations demonstrates) never quite loses the sense of appreciation and awe that Grenfell is writing to her.

So there you are. If you’ve hurriedly read all 9 previous recommendations in this ongoing list (seen on the left hand side, somewhere) then here is manna for you. It’s even available, from £0.01, on Amazon. Don’t say I don’t spoil you.