The life behind the life

In 2008 I began composing and recording a series of short pieces inspired by writers who interested me. These pieces eventually coalesced into a song sequence on an album called The Continuing Adventures Of The Strange Sound Association, released by Second Language under the artist name Ghostwriter in 2010. John Cowper Powys was one of the featured writers, along with Georges Simenon, David Jones, Ivor Gurney and others.

The idea was not so much to write music about the writers. Rather, I was trying to capture something of the atmosphere of their writing – or at least, the atmosphere as I perceived it when reading them. In John Cowper Powys’s case I was after that juxtaposition of down to earth detail and a vivid sense of place, with a perpetual sense of something else, intangible, always just out of reach of comprehension, yet very definitely there.

The composition ended up combining field recordings with more obviously musical elements. Sound designer Raz Ullah and pianist Thomas Seabrook helped out with the recording.

Here are the liner notes from the original release, not all of which are rooted in fact:

‘The Life Behind The Life (Fragments for John Cowper Powys)’ – Brend/Ullah

“Although the paths to immortality appeared permanently blocked, his life remained a succession of profoundly-felt impulses to which he ascribed the characteristics of eternity.”

Mark Brend: prepared piano, toy piano, field recordings*
Raz Ullah: sound collage
Thomas Seabrook: piano

*Field recording no. 1 copied from a wax cylinder in the John Geard Archive. The date and location of the recording are unknown, but scholars believe it was made at a country fair somewhere in England in the earlier part of the 20th century. Used with permission.
Field recording no. 2. Footbridge at Brampford Speke. 10.15am, 8th May 2009.

Less than perfectly groomed

Some corners of Powysland have become very hot property, as explained by this piece in the New York Times. The Palisades was where John Cowper’s sister Marian chose to retire following her remarkable career as a world-leading expert in lace-making in New York.

It sounds perfectly Powysian: “Hilly, leaf-encrusted and less than perfectly groomed, the Landing, as locals call it, incorporates about 100 houses with the informal, romantic aspect of books in an antiquarian shop.”

Once an unfashionable backwater, the crustiness has taken on a sheen of bohemian chic. 

“Last month, Scarlett Johansson closed on a $4 million, ivy-covered colonial on Washington Spring Road, up the hill from Jerry Hall and Rupert Murdoch. Jane Pauley and Garry Trudeau are reportedly building a house in the woods. The presence of these and other giants (Bill Murray, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Al Pacino — it’s like a land-bound episode from a rebooted “Love Boat”) brings disproportionate press attention and sets the eyes of less prominent locals rolling when you ask about it.”

Marian lived in an “unpainted, ramshackle house across from the Palisades Presbyterian Church” until she died (aged 89) in 1972. The article includes a memory from a local resident who recalls how the elderly English lady would invite neighbour’s children around for tea and cake:

“She wasn’t fastidious about washing things up. We were always afraid that the kids would catch something terrible.”

Very Powysland. Lots of old-world charm and character – but is it always hygienic or wholesome enough by modern standards?

“Every new thought is a return to a spring that has been choked up”

The world’s newest ‘guru’ is Yuval Noah Hurari. An Israeli historian, each of his three books has been a global bestseller. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind was a surprise popular hit for the publisher, leading to follow-ups Homus Dei: A  Brief History of Tomorrow and now 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Within Hurari’s position is a Powysian core in terms of some concerns and conclusions.

Hurari is worried about the long-term implications of technology and our psychological and emotional ability to cope with an immersion in a digital environment run by Artificial Intelligence and networks of autonomous tech where we may no longer need to work in the same way, associate with people the same way, even think the same way (if at all). Equipped with brains and bodies designed principally for hunting, gathering and singing songs around a fireside, we are struggling to adjust to the barrage of technological change. And that presents a host of problems. As he asks at one point: “How do you live in an age of bewilderment, when the old stories have collapsed, and no new story has yet emerged to replace them?” 

Hurari points to the ever-increasing importance of self-awareness in the preservation of human life and of our essential humanity, who we are and how we relate to the real world. We need to cultivate our personal culture, our life-illusion in order to defy the insidious perils of the modern world – so exactly what Powys was calling for, again and again, in the novels and books of popular philosophy a hundred years ago. 

This is the point where Powys and Hurari part ways. The 21st century historian is a modern man who is reputed to rely on two hours of meditation each day, along with annual ‘retreats’ for the sake of mindfulness. It all sounds a bit like our modern idea of ‘me time’ and the need for pampering. Powys, I’d say, wasn’t so much interested in being perfectly healthy. There was too much to enjoy from the full gamut of human sensations, not all of them so serene.

Wishing it could be Christmas every day

There’s something odd happening in our village: there are round red-suited figures on windowsills, strings of lights popping into life, wicker reindeers appearing in gardens. It’s mid November and Christmas decorations are going up. It might be pressure from excited children who just can’t wait for the festive season now the dark autumn evenings are here, but more likely it’s the adults who want that Christmas ‘feel’ to come sooner and last longer. 

People want some magic in their lives, some mystery, some sparkle, and in our intensely rational age, Christmas can seem to be all there is. It doesn’t really matter what it means – Christmas is a hopeless mess: a confusion of stars, camels and sandy deserts alongside reindeers, Elves on shelves, Coca-Cola trucks and mistletoe. The warm glow of the season is more likely to come from reckless shopping, seasonal spirit from the drinks cabinet.

This need for magic only re-affirms the importance of what John Cowper Powys spent most of his life writing about – the magic contained within the ordinary, the ability of us all to enjoy “life in itself”, if we would only block out the noise of modern life and cultivate our way of seeing and thinking. For Powys every day was a holiday/holy day.

For a head-clearing antidote to a 21st century Christmas it’s worth turning to John’s brother Llewelyn, whose Christmas essays balance an atheist’s perspective with his fascination for religious traditions and a receptivity to the moods of the winter season.

A game of love

Google Alerts can open up some strange doorways to a culture. ‘Famous Fix’ isn’t where you’d expect (or really want) John Cowper Powys to turn up, but there he is alongside buzzy profiles for Meghan Markle and Justin Bieber, all the exchange of celebrity gossip and crowing remarks about unwise fashion choices.

One of the main features of the site is the ‘who’s dating who’ content, giving lists of people tagged with ‘Married’, ‘Relationship’ and ‘Encounter’ labels. What was once a matter of personal affairs – intricate, many-layered emotions and relationships – are made public in the coldest form, listed like the football results.

Powys is awarded four ‘wins’, his long-time partner from middle-age Phyllis Playter, and three others: dancer Isadora Duncan, writers Frances Gregg and (even) Gamel Woolsey. No mention of wife Margaret. And no sense of the very different situations and human stories attached to each name. His brother Llewelyn also manages to get himself an entry (linked to wife Alyse Gregory and again, Gamel Woolsey). There’s Hardy and Dickens on there. Even Tolstoy (though there’s no ‘dating’ information – was someone daunted by the prospect of how all the ‘encounters’ with peasant girls could be represented?).

It’s a snapshot of our celebrity obsession, and with it, a signal of the extent to which anything can now be reduced to a matter of data. Web sites like this want big numbers, the more ‘famous’ profiles the better (which is the only way the Powys brothers could be included), meaning more users and more clicks. The bigger question is what influence this kind of desiccation will have over time to the nature and psychology of relationships.

Soon be arriving at…

Just a note to say that final proof copies of Powysland should be with us in the next week.

Frank at The Sundial Press is finishing up on the cover, and I’m looking forward to seeing what will be a chubby little volume at 300+ pages.

Does a map help?

One of the research projects at the Alan Turing Institute (the UK’s new national institute for data science and artificial intelligence) is looking at ‘Mapping fictional worlds – creating immersive 3D maps from literary texts to advance understanding and interpretation of literature in entirely new ways’.

The tech under development will be able to generate 3D worlds autonomously, picking up on place names and descriptions used in the texts. While rooted in Mikhail Bakhtin’s idea of the ‘chronotope’ – providing some academic backbone and justification – the work is mostly being directed at engaging reluctant young readers. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Michael Morpurgo’s Kenzuke’s Kingdom have been built with the Minecraft app as part of a project known as ‘Litcraft’. Minecraft is already home to giant virtual worlds based on George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones series, as well as any number of Hogwarts castles and Panem cities, but this is more serious-minded. Explorable worlds from Robinson Crusoe, The Tempest – even Dante’s Inferno – are planned.

Powysland is anything but mappable. John Cowper Powys’s novels don’t form anything like a fictional ‘universe’ – unlike Thomas Hardy’s Wessex or even brother Theodore’s sprinkling of villages in the Purbeck hills. No-one would ever expect Wolf Solent to turn up doing his ‘marketing’ in Maiden Castle’s Dorchester. And in themselves they purposely resist reduction to a single physical and psychological reality. He’s insisting on the essential reality of imagination, the imagination of each one of us, in creating and re-creating what the world actually is. 

Weymouth Sands demonstrates this idea best: a novel based on rich childhood memories of a single location, a small town and its bay. For all the regular re-iteration of landmarks, the places made familiar and frowzy, Weymouth remains intangible, a phantasm. Memories, ghosts, the psychological dramas of the characters hover and drift over the coast, but Weymouth as a physical entity seems hardly there at all.

(Having said all this, who wouldn’t be curious about the results from running Porius through the chronotope machine?)

Which roads lead to Powysland?

Stephen Baldwin’s post about the power of blurb (below) strikes me as making an essential point. How can the marketing – the all-important positioning when it comes to capturing new readers – encapsulate what those Powys novels are really like? Can it ever be inspiring without being hopelessly misleading?

I’m racked with prejudice when it comes to books. I find it hard to stomach much that’s been written post-1960. My nose turns up at anything that seems desperate to entertain me, too consciously written with the Booker Prize in mind, that just ends up looking like a business plan to lure sales. So I’m unlikely to read any contemporary literature unless it’s linked in a reassuring way back to an earlier age of sincerity, when there could be more interest in authenticity over hooks and gimmicks. I must be missing out, but there it is.

So it was the blurb that provided my entry point to John Cowper Powys back in 2000: the comparison of a British writer with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (along with its golden mystery of a cover). On reflection the comparison is an impressive one, but if I’d been banking on a Tolstoy meets Dostoevsky epic I’d have wanted my money back. There are simple and complex affinities with both Russians, but the whole reading experience, the richness of vision, the humour and weirdness of A Glastonbury Romance is really something else.

If I have to answer the question about who Powys is – and it’s not that often – I will tend to say he’s “a bit like Thomas Hardy if he’d been a Modernist, writing later into the 20th century”. What I’m really thinking is that yes, he’s a bit like Hardy, but “a drunk one, damning his publishers to hell, ditching his suit, rolling up grubby sleeves and writing the kinds of novels he’d always really wanted to write; he’s spilling himself onto the page – and damn the scandal, damn censorship, damn prison!” But it’s never going to work for blurb.


I suppose one of the problems Powys’ books encounter when trying to find a new readership is the inability of publishing marketers to liken his works to anything else, especially anything else that is currently popular. After all, consumers apparently crave things are similar to other things if modern advertising blurbs are anything to go by.

“Jane Austen devotees will enjoy…”

“In the tradition of Sherlock Holmes comes a new detective series…”

“A Dickensian romp…”

I even seem to recall one book touted as “a Joycean examination of” something or other, whatever that means.

And most cringe-worthy and prevalent of all, “Fans of Downton Abbey will love …”

But how can you describe John Cowper Powys in terms of popular writers? Margaret Drabble called A Glastonbury Romance “the visions of William Blake illuminating the domestic realism of Cranford subjected to the remorseless psychological analysis of Proust.”

I’m not sure that’s going to succeed as a tagline for a new edition of the novel: “Fans of TV’s Cranford will be bemused by …”

I once failed to recommend Powys to a speculative-fiction reading friend of mine by (very lazily) making the analogy of Mervyn Peake rewritten by Thomas Hardy. My remark elicited a look of horror that Stephen King would envy. It certainly doesn’t sound like a readable combination, and I apologize to all the authors concerned. But at least my intentions were good.

No doubt it will require a bestselling contemporary author to start referencing Powys as an influence. Perhaps if Karl Ove Knausgard ceased contemplating his own navel and moved to Weymouth? “Fans of Knausgard’s series of Wessex novels will love Maiden Castle …”

But then again perhaps not.