Tree surgery and Janet Frame’s ‘The Linesman’

Tree surgery: ash tree

Tree surgery: ash tree

Three men arrived the other day to carry out tree surgery on two trees beside our garden. As I watched the man climb a ladder then attach himself with harness, clips and his ropes and abseil up, down and round a tall ash, then a lime tree, chainsaw bombinating (a word I just encountered in the Introduction to an Anthony Trollope novel, and had to look up; I’m determined to start using it!), I felt a mixture of trepidation and exhilaration. He was so high up, so precarious.

And I half recalled a poem from my youth about someone looking at a man up a telephone pole, with a shocking last line. I tried Twitter, to see if anyone could name the poem or author. No success.

Then someone suggested I try the National Poetry Library. I sent an email, and after a few days had a reply from Lorraine, asking if I could recall any lines or phrases. A few days later I got a positive response. She’d found it! [Update, 13 Dec: she’s emailed to say it was her colleague Russell who found it, so thanks, Russell!]

It’s not a poem. It’s a very short story by the New Zealand writer Janet Frame. It’s called ‘The Linesman.’ I found a copy online HERE:

Three men arrived yesterday with their van and equipment to repair the telephone lines leading to the house opposite. Two of the men stayed at work in the house. The third carried his ladder and set it up against the telegraph pole twenty-five yards from the house. He climbed the ladder and beyond it to the top of the pole where, with his feet resting on the iron rungs which are embedded at intervals in the sides of the pole, he began his work, his hands being made free after he had adjusted his safety harness. He was not likely to fall. I did not see him climb the pole. I looked from my window and saw him already working, twisting, arranging wires, screwing, unscrewing, leaning back from the pole, dependent upon his safety belt, trusting in it, seeming in a position of comfort and security.

I stared at him. I was reluctant to leave the window because I was so intent upon watching the linesman at work, and because I wanted to see him descend from the pole when his work was finished.

People in the houses near the telegraph pole had drawn their curtains; they did not wish to be spied upon. He was in an excellent position for spying, with a clear view into the front rooms of half a dozen houses.

The clouds, curds and whey, were churned from south to north across the sky. It was one of the first Sundays of spring. Washing was blowing on the clotheslines in back gardens; youths were lying in attitudes of surrender beneath the dismantled bellies of scooters; women were sweeping the Saturday night refuse from their share of the pavement. Perhaps it was time for me to have something to eat – a cup of coffee a biscuit, anything to occupy the ever marauding despair.

But still I could not leave my position at the window. I stared at the linesman until I had to screw up my eyes to avoid the bright stabs of spring light. I watched the work, the snipping, twisting, joining, screwing, unscrewing of bolts. And all the time I was afraid to leave the window. I kept my eyes fixed upon the linesman slung in his safety harness at the top of the telegraph pole.

You see, I was hoping that he might fall.

Lime tree

Lime tree

It was that last line that I’d remembered. We’ve all surely had that strange mix of impulses when standing on a high place like a cliff or mountain: excitement at the panorama, and an urge to jump. So it was with the tree surgeon – or the linesman: how skilful and fearless they were. Precarious. ‘He was not likely to fall.’ Confident that his was a position of ‘comfort and security.’ She wanted, she believes initially, to see him come down safely.

Maybe Janet Frame was also creating an extended metaphor for her own experience. The dangerous, precarious act of creating as an artist. Exposing yourself to the gaze of others, while increasing your own capacity for observing the lives of others (all those verbs of ‘staring’, ‘spying’). The awareness of the possibility of success or catastrophic failure; the mix of artistry and sheer physical hard work (the vocabulary of ‘snipping, twisting, joining, screwing, unscrewing’).

Lime tree againMaybe as well she’s alluding to the horrors of electricity (the linesman is ‘arranging wires’): she endured countless procedures of ECT, and I believe narrowly avoided a leucotomy, as primitive ‘treatment’ for her mental health problems as a young woman (that ‘ever marauding despair’ felt by the narrator).

There’s a sense in this story that the woman is both detached from the linesman, observing him, but projecting herself into him: she becomes him.

I’m pleased to say our tree surgeon safely completed his task and left intact with his two mates. The squirrel whose nest was exposed by the removal of lime tree boughs was less happy. Serves him right for eating all my bird food.

My thanks to Lorraine and the National Poetry Library for their detective work.

Edith Wharton, The Spark

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), Old New York. Virago Modern Classics, 2006. First published 1924.

  1. The Spark (pp. 173-226) (1860s)

Edith Wharton, Old New York cover

This third in Edith Wharton’s collection of novellas, Old New York, each of which is largely set in successive decades of the mid-century, 40s-70s, deals centrally with the effects of the Civil War (1861-65) on some of its ageing veterans in the upper echelons of New York society.

My father was an artilleryman in WWII. He endured much of the war as a POW. Not surprisingly he was traumatised by his experience, and rarely spoke about it. I was poignantly reminded of him in Wharton’s portrayal of Hayley Delane in this novella – another ‘shut-up fellow’ who ‘wouldn’t talk about the war.’

The Spark depicts him through the eyes of the young Harvard graduate who narrates three of the four novellas. He’s attracted to Delane by his standing morally aloof from the shallow, ethically bankrupt society of ‘well-to-do and indolent New Yorkers’ in ‘the archaic nineties’, yet being more than content to engage with them in their senseless social activities.

Our narrator is curious to discover what is the ‘hidden spark’ that motivates mild, ‘soft-hearted’ Delane to behave with such undemonstrative moral probity, while turning a blind eye to his wife’s heartless treatment of him, and seeming content to conform to the shallow pleasures of his social world. Furthermore, he seems once to have been a keen reader of poetry, and yet now shows no interest in literary matters. There’s a puzzling dichotomy in the man that he’s determined to get to the bottom of.

Delane’s wife Leila is a trivial, frivolous, flirtatious woman, fifteen years younger than her husband, who is besotted with her. The narrator is intrigued to see how ‘it was she who ruled and he who bent the neck’. She treats him with undisguised contempt in public, while making no attempt to conceal her serial flirtations – or perhaps affairs.

A crisis comes when Delane thrashes Leila’s most recent conquest for mistreating his polo pony. Delane is forced by his hypocritical friends to apologise to his rival; they assume it was a jealous outburst. The narrator is more inclined to believe Delane’s quietly insistent explanation: ‘”It’s the cruelty. I hate the cruelty”’.

Furthermore, having heard the wronged husband talk eloquently and knowledgeably about literature, he can’t believe ‘it was his marriage which had checked Delane’s interest in books.’ His ‘limited stock’ of quotations and allusions indicates his literary interests ceased long before he’d met Leila.

After showing an early interest in reading, especially of poetry, ‘when his mind had been receptive’, it had:

snapped shut on what it possessed, like a replete crustacean never reached by another high tide.’

When he discovers that Delane ‘ran away from school to volunteer’ to fight in the Civil War (hence this story’s billing as ‘the sixties’) and was wounded, he begins to understand what now sparks Delane’s soul into being. He’d ‘stopped living’, in a sense, aged about nineteen, at a date roughly coinciding with the end of the war, when he’d returned ‘to the common-place existence from which he had never since deviated’ – the vacuous, unthinking life he clearly now enjoyed, like the ‘merest fribble’: polo, cards, hunting and social gatherings in which his unfaithful wife could shine:

Those four years had apparently filled to the brim every crevice of his being.

The war had made him different – in a way not seen by most other veterans in his circle who bragged about their war experiences. Although indistinguishable in most ways from the rest of his narrow-minded social set, with their empty libraries and obsession with sensual pleasures, ‘it was only morally that he had gone on growing.’

Hence his calm defence of his unfaithful wife, of the cruelly abused horse, and of unfashionable moral principles and causes, ‘careless of public opinion’ in ‘important matters’ – even at the expense of his own reputation: ‘To Delane, only the movement itself counted’; he wasn’t interested in the social standing of those who supported it, or what society thought of him.

Fresco at Siena of GuidoriccioDaFogliano

The fresco at Siena, attributed to Simone Martini. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1046283

There are parallels here with the depiction in other Wharton fictional works of the roles and shortcomings of parents and children. The narrator of The Spark looks up to Delane with the devotion of a son to his father. This New York banker ‘of excessive weight’, mounted ‘heavily yet mightily’ on his polo pony in a ‘gaudy polo-shirt’, contrasted unbecomingly with the young rival for his wife’s affection, as Leila heartlessly points out. Yet he’s intrigued by some quality in this unusual man, and he senses depths beneath ‘his lazy, torpid’ ways, that would justify his love for the man. He ‘whimsically’ perceives him as an image of the 14C condottiero Guidoriccio da Foliagno, ‘the famous mercenary, riding at a slow powerful pace across the fortressed fresco of the Town Hall of Siena’ on ‘his armoured war-horse.’

Given what he discovers about Delane’s wartime experiences, this apparently incongruous image takes on greater significance. Despite his trauma, which atrophied much of his personal development, Delane has matured morally in ways that most of his peers can never match, and which the loving narrator instinctively perceives.

This develops in interesting ways the theme found in other works of fiction by Wharton, in which parents and surrogate parents vie for the devotion of their children, as in A Son at the Front, published in 1923, around the time of the first appearance of these four novellas in magazine form.

There’s another twist at the end, when we finally learn the identity of the person who was the catalyst for this ‘spark’ in Delane: it was the gentle, humane influence of Walt Whitman, who nursed him when he’d been wounded early in the war, at Bull Run. It’s well known that Wharton greatly admired Whitman’s poetry. The final irony of this strange story is that Delane blithely admits to his young friend that he considers his poetry ‘rubbish’.

Michael Flay, ‘The Theorist’, from ‘Closed Doors’ (1999)

Michael Flay, Closed Doors: Polar Books, 1999

After Mike’s funeral last week I’ve had time to return to the stories in Closed Doors, from his own Polar Books imprint.

The second in the collection is ‘The Theorist’. Unlike ‘The Mad Mother’, written about last time, which was set in Switzerland, this one takes place mostly in Paris, and briefly in London.

Flay Closed Doors As usual in these short stories the protagonist and main secondary characters are unnamed: there’s ‘the Professor’, who’s part of an interviewing panel for an academic post at his university, and ‘the applicant’ – a man who has applied for the teaching post only because he needs ‘to survive, to have the wherewithal’, and hence has to ‘perform, catch a selector’s eye’ – whereas his instinct is to ‘baulk them’.

Also in keeping with the other stories the setting adds to the bleak tone: the street outside is ‘gritty’, the panel of interviewers ‘ludicrous’. This is a world in which scholarly merit or integrity has no virtue: all that matters is to be fashionable and commercially active – and maybe sexually deviant. The Professor-theorist has made a name for himself by riding the crest of the postmodern, post-structuralist wave of literary-critical, jargon-filled theory. He has ‘banished experience from the text’:

All was cynicism, he was well paid. What did it matter if he talked nonsense? Hadn’t the greatest grown jaded and found communication impossible?

Maybe an echo of Yeats there. The disaffected applicant moves on, possibly to Brussels:

He’d just ride on. You just did things. He’d studied, but what he knew was out of key with the fashion…He had no market value.

For this is the world of the market – that repeated ‘just’ is telling. The protagonist is a modern urban equivalent of the samurai who casts his sword into the air at a crossroads to see which path to take, or the drifting cowboy, homeless, friendless and seeking some kind of contingency, security.

The theorist is a paedophile with a taste for boys, like the early Romans, an indicator of his morally nugatory state. It’s a socio-ethical corruption he shares with other senior figures in London with whom he fraternises: a financier, a minister – that is, the worlds of commerce and politics are equally destitute morally, depraved. I find the equation of sexual deviance with moral destitution one of the weaker aspects of this writer’s position.

But these are general themes that recur in Mike’s work. His is a world view that shares some of Kafka’s despair and the hopelessness of Camus. It could maybe do with a little of Beckett’s humour.

The visions of the blood-soaked battlefields of two European wars create a grim backdrop to the images of Nazi troops in occupied Paris, of Goebbels with his PhD thesis on ‘romantic poetry’. Literature and art has been subsumed by the monsters, and the crowd has followed.

The next story, ‘The Dancer’, has a lighter, more romantic tone.

As always, contact Polar Books via Facebook if you’d like to obtain a copy of Closed Doors, or any of Michael Flay’s other works of fiction.