PLEASURES STRANGE AND SIMPLE
By Ray Greenblatt
We find poetry in the damnedest places. Sometimes in a TV ad; perhaps a bit of doggerel, but fresh in its context. Sometimes a phrase leaping from a letter we have written; surprising ourselves with this unconscious creativity. William Sansom (1912-1976) was primarily a fiction writer, penning articles probably for monetary supplement in numerous periodicals. However, this essay form reveals a deep poetic vein in his writing. His novels have fallen out of favor, but this collection of prose should be revisited.
Pleasures Strange and Simple covers a very broad gamut of topics. Sansom writes about: Henri Rousseau (Sansom also was a painter), nudism, restaurants, pets (from a glow-worm to a tarantula), tight-rope walkers, faces, Poe, dancing (Sansom was a jazz pianist), etc. Let us examine some of these twenty-three topics.
FROM ST. PETERSBURG TO COPENHAGEN BY TUNNEL
Sansom explores a London train station, although the title of this essay is cryptic. He explains that Russian horses were trained for the World’s Fair near one of the station tunnels; near another tunnel stood a house owned by the King of Denmark, thus the names for the areas stuck. Here are the tracks: “Iron poles like the standards of ancient battles announce speed limits with mysterious metal numerals. Signals flap like tired high-stepping birds. Disc-signs dot the line like a scarlet fungus growth. Black engines glide like skaters on mysterious errands obliquely over a great iron-meshed rink. On wet days these move through low-pressed clouds of their own smoke and steam with the purposeless going and coming, the sense of haunted quest, of doomed despondent phantoms.” (45)
In that passage alone we can observe so many poetic qualities: varied rhythms (fitting for an oncoming train), series, alliteration, rhyme, and generally quite vivid word usage. Here we are inside a tunnel: “Half-way along the flint-track the rail raises its voice to remark, in dull embery lights, that no one should shunt past that point. At the needle-point ends of the tunnel, light still shows—but dull gold light, or light of fiery red, as the faraway daylight refracts at mid-day a strange sunset of distant smokes and steams.” (43)
In a tunnel recess Sansom watches: “Looking out from them the great iron engine pounding down seems more animated than usual, smoke and fire-glow give it life, it looks a little mad like a monstrous runaway horse or some vast and lively piece of furniture seen by a child in a dream. At a busy time of day a man can be trapped for as long as an hour or more in such safety vents with traffic continually passing and belching the blackening, sickening, throttling smoke.” (44) Again his metaphors are striking and his use of triplets powerful. He can, likewise, relate to a child’s view of the world.
IN THE MIDST OF LIFE
Sansom contends that many people think life a touch boring, but accidents can befall a person at any time to overturn such complacency. He examines some who are already nervous about life: “Those who can never enter a lift unless their hearts, creaking like the tender cables that raise them, drop to their boots.” (58) But what about the following episodes: “Watching the light make a chandelier of sun-flashed icicles along the eaves, rejoicing in this new warmth and the great benison of the thaw. But you might not notice the long, heavy and sharply-pointed bull-icicle hanging like a glass dagger several storeys exactly above your own head.” (59)
We can observe Sansom’s lightness and ironic humor in this essay. Here is another possible mishap concerning a stack of barrels: ”A whisper of a lurch, a shifting creak, the dribble of a roll that informs those packed against it and stacked above. And then, as if a nervous message has shivered through the flanks of the herd, as if an instinctual urge for migration has galvanised the great colloquy—all the huge, heavy, headless mass of wood comes rolling down and onwards with the vertigo of a mighty, lumbering, thundering tidal wave.” (60) His choice of “sound” words (onomatopoeia) add to the emotion.
The tongue-in-cheek humor continues in this essay. First about a moth and a flame: “Its black eyes gazed fervently into the yellow fire above. It stared up at the yellow fire that had already burned off its foremost antennas with black eyes fixed in deep fanatical understanding. Slender whitish legs clasped the black wick, like hands wrung in prayer. And its wings! Its wings flowed downwards like a knight’s mantle, clasped high, spreading bravely over the armour of its body down to the platform of pale candle grease.” (173) A bit gruesome but very minute observation.
Now a beetle: “Beneath lay a rock pool. A new world of water, alien to the beetle, where strange drowned hairs waved, where shells slept, where perhaps the only movement was a slight bubbling of sand as a limpet thrust out its blind, toeless foot and dragged itself one, only one, pace forward. The beetle paused above this new world. Its feelers waved at the gleaming water. It tasted fresh enchantments, it savoured the grand limitless vista of new ground, new life, horizonless possibilities, space.” (175)
Notice the effectiveness of personification where the insect seems to display the sensibilities of a human. Finally a fly in a bathtub: “What a huge world confronted this little black pegasus in motor goggles! What vast tracks of smooth enamel, what complexities of mountain and valley lay bare to its exploring eye. What irregular pipe strata, what phenomena of taps and hooks, what chains and bowls and baskets and pipes, pipes, pipes—each a giant’s causeway for the small inquisitive visitor.” (177) As in a ballad the repetition builds the tension.
TO SOUTHEND ON AN EAGLE
In summer a Londoner takes a boat, the Eagle, down the Thames River for a day at the shore in Southend. “Warehouses and factories slipped backwards by. The sundecks were packed with a perplexity of chairs, now claimed with battling ardour and set out in rows facing the water-view.” (180) “Slipped backwards by” is unique phrasing that catches the ear as well as eye.
As time went on: “To the wide open sunlight that on this day shone hot through thin-veiled cloud, putting a curious grey sparkle on the water, grey-gilding everything, giving an air of misted dream to what on that broad river was in reality a strange industrial water-idyll.” (181)
At Southend entertainment of all sorts awaits: “The gentle Ferris Wheel, distorting mirrors and dark places wild with winds and skeletons. Or a deckchair on the beach. Or the beach without a deckchair. Or a stalk round the stalls and stands and the sea-food sellers’ and the ice-creameries and those most magical booths that sell vast globes of electric pink sugar floss.” (184) Again the use of “and” stresses the plethora of delights.
THROUGH A GLASS LIGHTLY
Sansom recalls the mood glass set for him at an early age: “Grey light, grey and bright but never precisely clear, never exactly alive—as though the finest pale veil has been drawn across the eyes, as though indeed one is for a moment standing within the dead time of the past itself. And this becomes doubly mysterious—for this light was itself the past’s own light, our present illusion was then its actuality, this is no dust of bones; what is was.” (51)
Glass conditioned the light in London: “In such avenues of dolorous bluish glass it seemed to rain the whole year round. In the sunniest days an underwater gloom persisted. Leaving the front-door one stood for a moment startled—questioning the polished mosaic path for a bloom of moisture, the laurels for a slow dripping, the cast-iron tracery above for a glimpse of dark rainclouds in a sky that proved itself to be blue, almost, as the jealous panes that guarded it.” (53)
Many glass conservatories were erected: “Then bellying, jellying from back or side came the Conservatory. A soundless, breathless wilderness of pots and palms and wicker chairs. Sometimes a tinted frieze decorated the upper windows—red or yellow or purple as the hind-window of a tram. Sometimes the ironwork curled in a tasteful floral design from each supporting pillar.” (54)
Arcades soon appeared: “Arcades are one of the thoroughly useful things that also give pleasure. But why pleasure? It is very mysterious. Is it the sense that this is private property, a sense of pleasant intrusion? Or is it an animal, or even a womby, instinct for enclosure—the more exquisite for a kind of daylight filtering through, the hunter’s day and the safety of the lair at one and the same time?” (56) Not only does Sansom philosophize but he also shares English cultural history.
MY FIRST FIRE – FROM A FIREMAN’S JOURNAL
William Sansom became a fireman in London during World War Two; thus, he gives more space to these adventures in this collection of essays. Their firehouse is so proud to get a new fire engine: “So on that afternoon instantly all such men raced for their scrim and brasso, and then for an hour the great lady could hardly be seen for the massing of elbows—boney elbows, dimpled elbows, elbows high and short fat elbows, greased elbows all pistoning up and down like the limbs of worker-ants pushing and tugging at an enormous and bemused queen.” (187)
He gets inside the engine: “At any hour of the day you could—if you dared—raise her bonnet and see the bristles of your beard in the gleaming copper engine pipes. That petrol-engine became a masterpiece of artisan artcraft—gay as a Birmingham barge. Its bulk was blackleaded to a pewter brilliance, its little pipes of copper and brass polished until they ran like sparks. Its fan was lacquered scarlet, and everywhere there had been painted little bands of garden-roller green.” (187)
This is how a fire looks: “The coppery-red reflection of fire in the sky and on every building everywhere. This colour has the same enervating constancy as the smell of a fire. This too is solid, unwavering. After several hours it nauseates the eyes. It is live colour, the colour of a living element, it cannot grow dim and neutral with familiarity. It glares and sickens all the time. Every window, every brick, every tile, every block of stone, reflects this vivid colour force. There is just the coppery-red and the black shadows and no other colour.” (191)
In the previous paragraph he had hinted at the odor of fire: “A hundred other stores and factories each cook the firemen their own sweet dishes . . . a sugar factory—acres of boiling sweet molasses . . . a paint factory—and the poisonous fumes of blistered chemicals . . . a rubber depository . . . a toffee warehouse.” (193)
The look of a burning house: “It was a blue, moonlit night and the flames blazed orange. The house stood dark and detached in its own garden of trees and shrubbery walls. It was all dark up to the top two floors and there the bright fire suddenly began. Windows sprang to life. And above, through broken rafters, the flames curled out nakedly into the night. A hail of sparks and small embers eddied round the chimneys and false turrets. The house looked like a miniature castle on fire, a pyrotechnic display piece, the kind of fire you would find drawn in a children’s fairy book.” (193)
He looks for his fellow firemen in the house; when he glances them it resembles a tableau painting: “Then I saw them. The fireglow from the room flickered over their silver buttons and over the water on their faces and helmets and leggings. Their faces were black, like sweeps’ faces, with white eye-rings and pink rings round their mouths. They were all clustered round the nozzle of the hose, leaning forward against the recoil of water pressure, heads bent down to protect their faces from the singeing heat, swaying from side to side as they swept the room with a thundering broom of white water.” (197) A suitable way, I think, to end a discussion by a writer who was also an artist.
Let us hope that William Sansom’s novels will be rediscovered in the near future. During his lifetime he never published even one book of poetry!
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Pleasures-Strange-Simple-Sansom-William/dp/B0000CIGGJ
Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018.