Plymouth Pilgrim

Plymouth pilgrimage

Drake statue HoeIf you’ve read this blog recently you’ll know that one of my oldest friends died in May. Michael Flay’s works (reviewed by me) and contributions have featured many times over the years here. He and I used to meet several times a year to talk. Usually it was somewhere between Cheltenham, where he lived, and Truro – most often Plymouth (Bristol and Exeter also, sometimes).

We always travelled by train to these meetings; Mike loved railways. Yesterday I went on a poignant, solitary trip to Plymouth to meet with him in his absence.

Having arrived at Plymouth station concourse at noon, I paused to scan the Arrivals noticeboard. There was the train Mike would have caught: the 13.01 from Cardiff. I would usually wait in the garish buffet over a coffee. I looked towards the barriers, half expecting to see Mike’s customary approach and greeting. Of course, it wasn’t to be.

Armada Way, looking north (wikipedia photo)

Armada Way, looking north (wikipedia photo)

Through the arid shopping precincts of the city (Mike would have called them ‘zones’), rebuilt by modernist zealots after the destruction of the blitz – aimed inaccurately at the naval shipyards – during WWII.

I walked to the Waterfront, a striking art-deco bistro-pub on a terrace right beside Plymouth Sound. To get there I pass over the

The repaired Waterfront bistro terrace with the Hoe behind

The repaired Waterfront bistro terrace with the Hoe and Smeaton’s Tower behind

Hoe, with its stiff statue (see above) of an implausibly theatrical Drake (born in nearby Tavistock), bowling-ball in hand, gazing out implacably towards the expected, despised, ‘invincible’ Armada.

From below the Pilgrim Fathers set out on their puritanical way in 1620 to New Plymouth in New England – the second settlement there. Hence the accent: the West country English burr.

Our favourite table inside the Waterfront when too cold to sit outside

Our favourite table inside the Waterfront when too cold to sit outside

To the West, the estuary of the Tamar, border with my county, Cornwall. To the east, the Plym. Across the broad entrance to the Sound stretches the Breakwater, which has protected the haven since 1814.

Like a whale’s back in the middle of the Sound looms the granite bulk of Drake’s Island.

Drake statue lighthouse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Drake’s statue the red-and-white striped lighthouse, Smeaton’s Tower, named after its designer, and built by Cornish miners in 1759. Originally located 14 miles offshore, the second of the famous Eddystone lighthouses, it was dismantled and reassembled on the Hoe in 1877, two thirds of its original height. Tourists can now climb to the top to admire the panorama. The tower even has its own Twitter account (@SmeatonsTower).

We used to catch a cab to the Waterfront and have a couple of beers. Mike invariably ordered a burger, but he only ever ate half of it.

The curving facade of the Waterfront and its terrace, with Plymouth Sound behind

The curving facade of the Waterfront and its terrace, with Plymouth Sound behind

It was warm and sunny enough to sit outside and admire the view across the bay. The terrace was almost destroyed in the winter storms a couple of years ago, so we’d taken to spending our lunchtimes at what Mike called ‘the colonial hotel’, about which more later. Sadly, the Waterfront didn’t reopen in time for us to have one more rendezvous there.

A young man with a handsome whippet called Carlos joined his father at the table next to mine. We chatted. The father was from Belfast, and was delighted to hear that my ancestors came from that city. Carlos watched us with canine dignity.

Brittany Ferry in the distance, entering the Sound

Brittany Ferry in the distance, entering the Sound

As we talked I noticed the Britanny Ferries ship approaching. It passed close enough to see its name: ‘L’Armorique’. Plymouth has long been an important trading and naval port, with a busy ferry service to Britanny and Santander, across the choppy Bay of Biscay. Armorica was the ancient Gaulish name for that French peninsula which features so often in Arthurian legends. An apt reminder of the cultural and ethnic links between Old and New Britain (as Geoffrey of Monmouth called Britanny).

 

 

 

L'Armorique ferry passes by

L’Armorique ferry passes by

Mike enjoyed coming to this place: as a child he’d spent many family holidays at the beach resorts nearby, and often visited Plymouth with his parents. I drove us to Cawsand, Kingsand and Whitsand Bay on one occasion when I came by car to meet him. We’d also visited Dartmoor – we liked the grim prison at Princetown, and once had a coffee in the dour café in the village.

 

Copthorne entranceCopthorne bar areaBack through the shopper-thronged precincts to the hotel bar, our more recent haunt while the Waterfront was rebuilt. It’s an unprepossessing concrete structure, but has a comfortable bar, and does adequate food. This is where my last obituary piece arose: the Sky News with sound off, subtitles scrolling, relating Cameron’s last PMQ session, and the forced jollity of the debating chamber’s farewell to the outgoing Prime Minister.

On the train home I considered whether this had been an uplifting pilgrimage, or morbid wallowing in sadness. On balance I think it was the former: cathartic. I felt his presence, like Eliot’s shadowy figure, the ‘third who walks always beside you’ from the Waste Land, and was able, in some way, to feel we’d communed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rhyming Byron: Orioles and Eliot

 ‘I also like to dine on becaficas’: T.S. Eliot, epigraph to The Sacred Wood

In  Beppo (written in Venice in 1817) stanza 42 Byron’s narrator says he likes ‘on Autumn evenings to ride out’ without worrying too much whether the weather will be clement, for in Italy everything is less mundane than in England.  He goes on, in the next stanza, with further examples of why he finds Italy superior to England:

I also like to dine on becaficas,

To see the Sun set, sure he’ll rise tomorrow,

Not through a misty morning twinkling weak as

A drunken man’s dead eye in maudlin sorrow,

But with all Heaven t’himself: the day will break as

Beauteous as cloudless, nor be forced to borrow

That sort of farthing candlelight which glimmers

Where reeking London’s smoky Caldron simmers

We can still find genuine pleasure in the playful pararhymes in Byron’s verse; ‘becaficas’ clearly chimes visually as well as in a sonic sense with ‘weak as’ – the vowel sounds are identical if one adopts a vaguely Italian pronunciation for the ending of the first line, and the consonants are also symmetrical (although the sibilant Italian terminal ‘s’ clashes with the ‘z’ sound in ‘as’).  But this pattern is subverted when, according to the rhyme scheme, we expect line 5 to chime with lines 1 and 3; instead we get ‘break as’ – which only rhymes if we pronounce this already irregularly sounded word falsely, as if it were an ‘ee’ vowel, not ‘ay’.  It’s an eye-rhyme, a sonic corruption, and it thwarts the very pattern established by the preceding stanzas.

It’s this subversive teasing with words and sounds that is one of the reasons I enjoy Byron’s lighter poems: he refuses to take himself or anyone or anything else seriously; it’s the opposite of po-faced (‘smiling’?)  Here’s another delightful example (he’s writing about Venetian ladies’ pretty faces):

And like so many Venuses of Titian’s

(The best’s at Florence – see it if ye will),

They look when leaning over the balcony,

Or stepping from a picture by Giorgione’…

Once more he’s teasing his pretentious readers with their smug awareness that the Italian name ‘Giorgione’ is pronounced ‘George-oh-nay’, and that therefore one’s reading of ‘balcony’ renders the next line-ending problematic – he’s forcing us to consider pronouncing the artist’s name ‘GEORGE-oh-nee’, with the stress on the first syllable, to rhyme with ‘balcony’; or else we have to consider the ridiculous possibility of retracing our readerly steps and retrospectively re-pronouncing ‘balcony’ as ‘bal-CONE- y’, with the stress on the second syllable!  As the academic F.V. Bogel helpfully explains, this produces for the reader a ‘division…between visual and auditory modalities’ (The Difference Satire Makes: Rhetoric and Reading from Jonson to Byron [Cornell UP, 2001]).  While we’re looking at Beppo, here’s one of my favourite lines, a beautifully balanced and modulated artifact in words: the narrator is mockingly praising England – ‘Our cloudy climate, and our chilly women’.

So what on earth IS a ‘becafica’?  The OED spells it ‘beccafico’(although an ‘a’ ending is one of its variant forms), deriving from the Italian for ‘fig-pecker’:   ‘A name given in Italy to small migratory birds of the genus Sylvia, much esteemed as dainties in the autumn, when they have fattened on figs and grapes: they are identified with the British Pettychaps and Blackcaps’.  Marquez often writes about his characters eating such small fowl, maybe baked in pies.  Conrad Aiken in an essay about Eliot defines ‘becafica’ as a small bird, a warbler, a garden oriole, loosely termed by Italians as one of the ‘uccellini’.   He says that by using Byron’s line as an epigraph to this book published in 1920 Eliot was suggesting that he likes to ‘dine on song-birds’, apprizing us, ‘with a gleaming and slightly sinister politeness, that he is about to do so’.  He intends, that is, to be ‘severe to the point of destructiveness’ (‘The Scientific Critic’, in Freeman, 2, [2 March, 1921], pp. 593-94).

How fitting that Eliot should choose to head his collection of essays  about poetry, published in 1920, two years before The Waste Land, with this particularly ambiguous line; while delineating the modernist notions of technique, feeling and a  ‘tradition’ in poetry, (here we find his famous pronouncement: ‘Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality’) Eliot illuminates the text and prepares us for the bombshell of The Waste Land with jewel-like fragments like those ‘becaficas’, which fail to sate our appetite, but  charm us with their song.