August 17

1786, 1987, 1887, 1930, 1932


"Davy" Crockett, frontiersman, born today in 1786. Another of those people whose name has been in my head since I was a boy - probably there was some TV western that included him - but about whom I know absolutely nothing, except that image of him wearing a racoon-skin cap. And I don't like having somebody inhabiting my head in that manner, so he is ambered here


Whereas I am only too happy to have this particular mini-monster removed from my head altogether, by tow-truck if necessary, and am therefore declaring the lights to be stuck on amber in his case for eternity. Not long enough for you, Walter Richard Rudolf Hess, the last Nazi held in Spandau Prison; but left today, in 1987. I wonder if they cremated him.

After which, three very different residents of my head, and all welcome to bring sleeping-bags and pizza and stay as guests for as long as they do their own laundry:

The first is Marcus Garvey, born today in 1887, generally biographed as "black nationalist leader", though something rather more generous might bother to mention his founding of the UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association) in Jamaica in 1912, and his editorship of the newspaper "Negro World", which was dedicated to giving Black Americans a sense of their African identity, and a pride in that African identity. He was also among the founders of the Black Nationalist Movement, in New York, in 1919, and then of the Pan-African Movement (see my June 28 piece about George Padmore), though he fell out with many fellow activists over his insistence that Blacks needed to develop separately from Whites, or they would never get anywhere. Few of my fellow Jews would have disagreed with him.

Garvey was also the founding member of the "Wilfully and Systematically Destroyed by J. Edgar Hoover Club", which would later count both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King amongst its Hall of Famers - his life spied on, his business ruined, and himself first framed, then imprisoned, finally deported to his native Jamaica, for the crime of being "a negro agitator".

The second is Ted Hughes, born today in 1930, and please bring Sylvia and use the spare bedroom. Author of the single most important collection of poetry in the second half of the 20th century - no this isn't the way to do it

Crow imagined himself as simile
but it didn't work
So he tried metaphor
and he was flying

He took D.H. Lawrence on one wing
but dropped him somewhere over Taos, New Mexico

He took Joseph Campbell on the other wing
but the sheer weight put the enterprise in danger
so he steered a path to Patagonia
and left him there
with Chatwin and Theroux and a piece of brontosaurus

I shall do this on my own, Crow determined

I shall find my own way

And off he flew into the blackness

There, spontaneous tribute, form harmonised with content harmonised with language, as it always should be. A much longer essay on Hughes' "Crow" will be published soon; Sylvia Plath can be found in Private Collection, by clicking here

And then there is V.S. Naipaul, "Vidi" to his friends, born today in 1932, a fine novelist, or so many people whom I respect greatly tell me, though it was never for his novels that I read, and then re-read him. "India, A Wounded Civilisation", and "The Enigma of Arrival", which pretends to be a novel but is really auto-biography, and then explains itself: "An autobiography can distort, facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies. It reveals the writer totally." Which is why I never read him for his novels, even when I read those novels. Commercial writers create plot and character in order to tell stories, and if there are deeper issues, they are generally appendages, because you have to write about something. But great authors explore themes, and if you are going to use fiction to articulate the deepest corners of those themes, then you need the appendages of plot and character, because you have to set it somewhere, and with someone. So, too, Proust in his great novel, Lawrence in "Sons and Lovers", Dickens in "David Copperfield". And then there are the books that I believe are even greater than the novels, the ones in which he set aside appendages and simply went for theme, of which "India, A Wounded Civilisation", the middle section of his Indian trilogy, stands out for me as one of the major contributions to the question of identity in a global world, a multi-cultural world, a post-imperial world, yet written.

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