Review – “The Thirties” – Julian Symons

The Thirties: A Dream RevolvedThe Thirties: A Dream Revolved by Julian Symons

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Julian Symons is perhaps best known as a crime writer. He also wrote poetry, social and military history, biography, literary criticism … He was a prolific, as a glance at his Wikipedia page will testify.

This book looks at the role of the arts – particularly literature, and particularly Auden, in the decade of the 1930s. Symons also discusses political movements – particularly of the left – and their connections to those artistic currents. Symons, who was in his twenties at the time, was a member of the intellectual and political groups he discusses, so has first-hand knowledge of the authors and artists in those groups, and of the political atmosphere at the time.

My knowledge of Thirties literature – particularly poetry – and the politics of the intelligentsia is limited. This book was, therefore, an interesting introduction to the period. Because my knowledge is limited, however, I cannot tell if the book was tendentious. Symons, to his credit, sometimes mocks his younger self, sometimes is appalled by him. The feeling I took from the book was that Symons was sympathetic to left-wing views, but was not a prosletyser, nor a zealot. Indeed, as he admits – and here is one of those moments he was appalled with himself – he sometimes took on the persona of a more right-wing individual in reaction against the zealous left-ism of the intelligentsia in which he found himself.

The book is short and easy to read – useful if all of this is new to you – and the chapters snappy and concise (each chapter tends to introduce a topic and then spin and divagate around it – Auden, poetry, politics, theatre, the New Left Review, Gollancz, and so on were all introduced in chapters of little more than five or ten pages. The subjects of these chapters would then reappear, weaving their way through the Thirties until Spain and Munich.

The book is, then, a concise look at a particular period in British political and intellectual history, and will be of interest to those, like me, who had little knowledge of that period and that milieu. The book also (re)introduced me to some poets I had heard of but knew little of, such as Stephen Spender and Gavin Ewart – and the few line lines and stanzas Symons provides from these poets to colour his themes has spurred my interest in reading more of them.

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The Ladies of Butcher’s Row

One of my favourites of my own poems…


The Ladies of Butcher’s Row

There is, you see, this song I worked,
Assured in word, that once unstopped
Had a kind of water rhythm
And sunlight warped into its lines.

I took my words into the street
And sang to decorate the air.
One night I sang in Butcher’s Row,
Performing for the ladies there.

They dropped their knives and changed my song.
I tried to rule and train this change,
But still the choir conspired a way
To cleave and bleed into my air.

Now it had a chopping rhythm,
And blood they warped into the song.
And such unwonted harmonies!
I dropped to the road in awe.

The Lament of Handsome Stevie

[I was discussing poetry with a friend last night, and we mentioned in passing The Song of Hiawatha. Later, I went and looked at some stanzas. As often happens after reading Hiawatha, I can’t stop the rhythm banging away in my head. So I thought I’d just let it out in an homage ]

The Lament of Handsome Stevie

On the byways of the high Plain –
The plain that stretches across Wiltshire,
The high wide Plain that’s north of Salisbury –
Drives the handsome Stevie Dewey
In his jaunty silver Honda.
On his lap there sits a camera,
Such a big black Sony camera;
A camera with a mighty zoom lens
A mighty Sigma zoom lens:
To photograph the running roe deer!
He parks the Honda in the tall gorse,
Hides the Honda in the tall grass,
Waits in silence for the roe deer!
Sees instead a hawk a-hunting,
A handsome harrier on the quarter,
Swiftly raises heavy Sony
Goes to focus mighty Sigma
And finds the grasses foil his focus!
In a panic hunts the button
That will switch to manual focus,
But instead he starts to film
The out-of-focus waving grasses,
Curses Sony button layout,
Stops the filming, reverts to stills.
Now the bird is growing distant;
Cursing Stevie exits vehicle
Trips on seatbelt, presses record,
Begins a film of dusty byways.
Curses more, pokes random buttons.
Finds the proper camera function,
Scans the Plain for distant bird-sign:
Cannot see the hawkish V-wings,
Cannot see the big bird hunting.
Can only see the big sky empty!
Sends foul language to the heavens
Fills the Plain with many curses,
Scares away the timid roe deer,
That had been nibbling the tall grasses
Just the other side of silver Honda.
Handsome Stevie kicks the Honda,
Damns all fauna to extinction.
On the byways of the high Plain
Stephen mutters imprecations
Blind to falcons, hawks and red deer
That mock him from the trackside hedgerows
And the photogenic wide blue skies.
So our cursing handsome Stevie
Leaves the byways on the wide Plain,
The high wide Plain athwart the county.
Lists his cameras up on eBay
Takes up knitting, watches telly.