Sunday, 19 July 2009

44. E.M. Forster - 'Ansell' (1903)

'We were feeding on the past, and I knew that we could not live by that alone.'
(E.M. Forster, The Life to Come and Other Stories, Penguin, 1975, p.29)

Subtle links with the Bates story, with literature the focus instead of music; the unnamed 'I' in the Forster being analogous to Bates's gifted, yet unhappy, main protagonist, Clara.

Forster has a succinct, emphatic way of expressing the difference between having a traditional, presumably Oxbridge, education, and not. He explores this in the relationship between the verbally articulate 'I' and the manual worker and title character, Ansell. They were relatively on the level when introduced at age 14, Ansell proving a playmate, albeit one distracting 'I' from what his parents see as his serious destination: 'The sound of our whoops and shrieks as we jumped with abandon on one another's hats penetrated even into the smoking-room, where my father was arguing with my cousin as to the respective merits of Eton and Winchester as a school for me.' (p.28)

A future mapped out, and bound to lead away towards the sort of conveyor belt identified by one of the three posh-schooled boys in Granada's Seven Up series (the one who broke out of it by going to Durham, and then became a BBC producer, pointedly not taking part in the series beyond age 21).

He returns to the Hall where Ansell works when now are both 18 and have taken drastically divergent paths in life, and then again at 23, where the main action takes place; Ansell is now a type who anticipates Ted Burgess in L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between (1953), presumably many in D.H. Lawrence and even Tom Seaton in When the Boat Comes In. A man defined by work, practical and taciturn, who often comes into contact with the 'higher orders' by virtue of his work.

The narrator identifies the distinctions; physically he himself is inept, out of shape in comparison: 'But I had forgotten how to rest, and preferred reading to outdoor amusements.' (p.28) But he consoles himself with his presumption of higher intelligence, which are represented not by himself but by his books: 'After six years of a student's life I was perfectly inured to attacks on my implements.' Forster undermines this by the way in which it is revealed that he does not contain the requisite knowledge to complete his dissertation in his noggin, but has to rely overly on his notes and annotations (admittedly something I can sympathise with to some extent!). Also, in a key passage, his greater learning is revealed to be more of an insecurity; his reflex is simply to speak to cover any awkward silence, even making quotations that are not strictly relevant to deflect the idea that he might be wrong in any way.

Forster speaks volumes about what university means, socially: 'But to educated people silence matters: it is a token of stupidity and lack of invention. I racked my brains for some remark that would serve to keep my self-respect, but could find none.' (p.29) This expresses how people are judged socially, and have to adapt to survive, within the sophisticated world of academia. The academy develops the ability to fill gaps in conversation, but not necessarily to communicate meaning; talk may be superfluous, redolent of an untrustworthy verbosity. Forster is clearly ambivalent about this, being of this world himself, not necessarily trusting it and grasping for something more. 'unless I speak I cannot go on thinking' - amply expressing the way thoughts come through a constant articulation in the intellectually self-confident.

The picture at the top of this entry is one of my own, taken from the room at Jesus College I stayed in during the first of my two return visits to Cambridge last year - one in a professional capacity, the other to receive the absurdly difficult to explain (or justify!) Cantab MA. These visits, within the space of three months, brought back the Oxbridge experience in all its ambivalence; there was the space and context to 'get on', as Jack Ford would have it, almost too much to handle. It is a truth that Oxbridge gets better results due to fundamental factors such as the student : lecturer ratio, as well as that expectations, from parents, society and background are greater than they are for someone going to Sunderland or Northumbria University, say. It is a foreign country, compared with up north; a confident, increasingly secular and well-read middle-class enclave, in which the average record shop customer in Fopp was buying distinctly non-mainstream music and cinema. Of course, there's a great potential for smugness there, that you may not get in the more mixed areas of bigger cities like London or Newcastle. Yet, revisiting Galloway and Porters, for example, Clowns cafe, conversing with old faces at the MA reunion, it seemed, once again, an attractive world, if not quite mine, all the way. Part of me will always be there, part will always be at the old Roker Park (with perhaps the modern analogue of the Raich Carter Centre, Sunderland and the 5-a-side team I play in); part to Newcastle, though obviously never to its football. Owen Hatherley captures the city's contradictions well in these pieces:

It is set up better than most to be a European city (YES, indeed, regarding the metro system, and its fine architectrual mix), but is held back by too many living up to the Viz-documented Biggmarket lairiness and unpleasantness. This has definitely been corroborated by several friends who live there, who tend to agree with me that Ouseburn, east of the city centre, is where to go. Civilised, and yet far from smug; as beautiful in its distinct way, as Cambridge, so long as they don't spoil it with over-development - the seemingly eternal, and depressing, fantasy of yuppie flats and their implied end of history. The Cumberland Arms forever.

(Anyway - barely related digression over!)

The two young men's past escapades - making birdlime from a Boy's Own Paper recipe - cannot sustain an easy conversation in the present. An inter-dependence only comes apart through the jeopardy they are thrown into - and indeed, 'Them Books' quizzically referred to by Ansell, end up saving his life. The cart carrying both of them and the narrator's books pertaining to his dissertation becomes overturned and the weight of the box of books saves them - going into the river before they do.

In this situation they literally save lives, but they ruin, or at least drastically alter, the narrator's assumed passage in life: he is looking to become an academic and requires successful completion of his prized dissertation to achieve that end. With Ansell's and others' help, he recovers several books, including the 'cover of an Artistotle', but his in-progress dissertation and annotated notes are lost forever - effectively ending his career before it had even truly begun. (p.34)

Intriguingly, Forster's The Longest Journey (1907) - made much of by Michael Bracewell in his England is Mine exploration of English cultural trends - also contains a character named Ansell. It will definitely be the next Forster I read; I regret to say that I have read no further than A Passage to India (1924) - and that was as a requirement as part of my BA course. 'Ansell' is a well crafted tale, especially impressive considering EMF's youth at the time; he is indeed remarkably adept at conveying what it is like to be 23 and 'educated'.

'Well, there's other things but books', Ansell reflects.

'If I met with one sign of sympathy I should break down'.


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