The last time I was in Belfast I got a lift from a taxi driver with a typical gift for the blarney. He was thinking of relocating to the south, but what was keeping him back was a cherry tree in his front garden. He planted it himself and now it was ten feet tall, he couldn’t bear to part with it. It would not, he insisted, survive the shock of the transplant.
By contrast, Louis MacNeice’s roots survived the move from Belfast – “my mother-city” – but with a residual yearning that was to underpin his entire emotional and literary life. Home and the notion of the city becomes a recurrent theme in his work, alternating in meaning between idyll and nightmare. “I was born in Belfast between the mountain and the gantries,” he recalls in Carrickfergus. But his mother’s death, when he was just seven, was to scar not only his memories of Belfast, but also his outlook on life.
For MacNeice, the idea of the city holds endless fascination; it embodies his famous epithet: “the drunkenness of things being various”. It is the melting pot of people and cultures, cars and trams, brand names and shop girls, drunkards, killers and priests. It is also the continuation of a cultural experiment begun in classical civilisation.
But the city also represents work and routine, an impersonal existence and hollow commercialism – it is the holding pen where the living use the bright lights and cheap goods to distract themselves from the certainty of their extinction.
MacNeice’s interest lies in both antiquity and modernity, seeing the modern world through the eyes of the ancient. He sees links between classical civilisation and language, current behaviours and usage, and this lends his poems an extraordinary quality – a stage removed from reality. When MacNeice the great classical scholar and aesthete finds himself teaching in Birmingham – “this hazy city” – he also feels himself slightly above it. He confides to his Autumn Journal that classical texts were never meant to be read with the flat vowels of the Midlands’ vernacular (his ear resists “Homer in a Dudley accent”).
That distance is detectable in Birmingham, his great sprawling work of observation, movement and colour. His technique is that of the film camera, swooping in on what interests him, pulling out for a wide shot. We arrive by train in the industrial heartland as the smoke “blunders upward”. In the street, we hear the “brakes of cars” while a “policeman… raises his flat hand” to the traffic, with “his figure of a monolith Pharaoh”. He enjoys the collision of this with the ultra modern references of “triplex screens… electric mops”. Ultimately it is a shallow experience – the shop girls’ faces are as “empty as old almanacs” – and the commuters return, sheep-like, to the suburbs.
Buses, trains, trams and taxis crisscross the cityscape of so many of MacNeice’s poems (notably Taxis, Birmingham and Reminiscences) and MacNeice’s biographer, Jon Stallworthy, interprets “the image of the bus as a potential hearse” – an unexorcised reminder of his mother’s early death and an extended metaphor of life as a journey towards it. In Birmingham MacNeice sees: “On shining lines, the trams like vast sarcophagi move.” In Charon, it is the greasy rumble of a London bus taking its passengers – the living dead – through the London fog to the Thames where the ferryman awaits.
London was to become MacNeice’s city of choice – it was where the work was (at the BBC), where his women lived and where poets drank. The Stag’s Head in Portland Place was a magnet for BBC writers partial to an early ale (including Dylan Thomas) but, having sampled its atmosphere recently, I can report that its decor seems more likely to herald 1971, not 1941. However, it was here that many of MacNeice’s most important ideas, transactions and liaisons occurred, rather than inside the BBC itself.
The London of Autumn Journal is charged with the dread and excitement of the impeding war and he is fascinated by the way the people continue their everyday lives. “Today they are building in Oxford Street” – but now “it seems futility”. “Nelson is stone” and powerless this time to help the nation. And yet, MacNeice cannot help but succumb to the sensory intoxication of the city with “the electric signs as crude as Fade” and the smell of the mortar. His brings London to life with his scattergun impressions: the smell of “French bread in Charlotte Street”, and even the warning bark of the sea-lion in London Zoo. His senses are heightened by the prospect of war and the possibility that all of this could vanish. Paradoxically, he never sounds more hopeful or alive.
MacNeice returned to Belfast several times in his poems, as if restlessly searching for resolution or absolution. But his poem Belfast is as bleak as Birmingham; while he feels the ties of his home city, he feels no sentimentality towards it. This work is shot through with religion and death – the city’s two strongest associations for MacNeice. “Like crucifixes the gantries stand”; a church is a “cave of gloom”.
Again, MacNeice is seen peering into shop windows, at the “painted ware… parchment lampshades – harsh attempts at buyable beauty.” Just like the cheap cosmetics and flash cars of Birmingham, these are trappings to disguise the drudgery of city life.
And yet, is there a faint nostalgia detectable in Carrickfergus? Initially the tone is as hard as usual. He remembers himself as the outsider – the Anglican who could never share “the candles of the Irish poor”. But far away, in the drab confines of Dorset public school, he is overwhelmed by the city’s powerful associations: “the mill girls, the smell of porter, the salt mines and the soldiers with their guns”. The suspicion is confirmed in Carrick Revisited when, on his return, “the green banks are as rich and the Lough as hazily lazy”. He feels the pull and draw of Ireland, his roots aching to return to their home soil – and yet there are so many barrier and contradictions; with his “foreign voice” he is neither “western Ireland nor southern England”.
Strangely, it is only in Dublin (“never my town”) where he feels freedom and release. “Not Irish, and Not English”, he feels its unique status as an international city of passing traffic, most closely mirroring his own status. It is a city that lives with its contradictions, with the “porter running from the taps”, while “Nelson on his pillar” (again) watches “his world collapse”. His descriptions of the city could almost be of himself – he admires her “seedy eleganc and “the bravado of her talk”. The city is untroubled by the ghosts that walk its streets – they only add to its strangeness and attraction. It is like meeting a soul as troubled and lost as he is. Writing about the city, his tone is for once lyrical: “the sun comes up in the morning like barley sugar on the water”. It is, at last, the place where he can finally finds his peace: ‘But oh the days are soft,/Soft enough to forget.’ (‘Dublin’)