Wednesday 8 October 2014

Ian Macmillan on Auden's face

This week's BBC Radio 4 documentary about W. H. Auden's great poem 'In Praise of Limestone' featured thoughtful, eloquent and fascinating contributions from Anthony Sharpe and Robert Forsythe (both Auden experts with a particular knowledge of the poet's 'numinous landscape', the lead-mining region of Alston Moor in the Pennines.)

It was a terrific subject, but marred by the approach of its presenter, the poet and broadcaster Ian Macmillan, who repeatedly told us how excited he felt about everything, chortlingly ordered champagne in a hotel bar just as Auden had once done (ho ho!), explained that he was a short man and, by way of clarification, that he wasn't as tall as Auden. In a room once briefly occupied by Auden more than two decades before he wrote 'In Praise of Limestone', Macmillan was moved to say: "it's almost thrilling beyond comprehension to think that you're leaning against a wall that he would have leaned against. Gosh. And so - just rubbing the wall there - that's . . . fascinating, absolutely. But also very moving actually, it's a moving thing. You don't often get to a poet's place,  do you?"

(Somebody decided to broadcast such unscripted inconsequential blather, which is why I feel entitled to quote it.)

Macmillan went on to sing his chirpy version of Auden's beautiful lines to the tinkly rhythm of a Hammond organ, by which time the poem and its creator had all  but disappeared. Auden and a grown-up radio audience deserved better than such relentless, low-grade capering. All of this I found annoying, but perhaps that's just me being grumpy. Things turned sour, though, when Macmillan boarded a bus from Threlkeld to follow a route the poet took in 1928. He said:

"His trips on here were the start of his face changing, into that craggy place we know, that craggy face, 'cos you set off on this bus often enough with a small face you end up looking like Ingoldmells Beach, which is what Auden looked like."

Later a 'wrinkled' pebble reminded him of the poet's distinctive physiognomy. This wasn't simply banal but also (although I doubt whether Macmillan realised it) deeply offensive. 

Let me explain why. 

In 1935 (when Auden was 28) the French physicians Touraine, Solente and Golé first described the condition that has since borne their three names as the primary form of the bone disease hypertrophic osteoarthropathy. The malady - also known as Pachydermoperiostosis (PDP) - tends to have its onset in the bearer's twenties and stabilises in middle age and typically manifests itself through pachydermia (thickening of the skin), clubbing of the fingers and a lugubrious expression.  It was Charles H. Miller in his memoir Auden - An American Friendship (1983) who first attributed Auden's appearance to Touraine-Solente-Golé, noting that Auden's brother John apparently shared the condition and some of its outward signs (as, incidentally, did the French playwright Jean Racine). Alan Bennett, in his 2009 play The Habit of Art, which explored the relationship between Auden and Benjamin Britten, referred to the condition.

So it's a physical malady that gave Auden his distinctive appearance (and to be sure the booze and tobacco and amphetamines made a contribution). I'm quite sure Macmillan would be mortified by the thought that he was being flippant about a disability, when his laudable aim was to bring Auden to a wider audience. But the programme did a disservice to Auden, to a great and complex poem, and to the radio listeners.

It's time for radio producers and presenters covering the arts to abandon the now-ubiquitous blokey debunking approach and raise their game. What we need, apart from thoughtful, literate scripts and self-effacing  knowledgeable presenters is a commitment to seriousness (not the same thing as solemnity), a sensitive re-mystification of the subject, a renewed sense of how complex and challenging and rewarding art in general and serious poetry in particular can be. In this programme we learned practically nothing of real interest, such as when the poem was written (in May 1948), or where - in Auden's holiday residence in the parched limestone landscape of Ischia in the Gulf of Naples. Macmillan's 'journey of discovery' (and let's have a blanket ban on that horrible phrase and the wide-eyed approach it implies) didn't take in the poem's astonishing technical complexity or its central place in the poet's oeuvre. Auden's biographer and Literary Executor Edward Mendelson and other commentators see 'In Praise of Limestone' as an allegory of the human body, but Macmillan simply offered us his jokey musings about the poet's face. Josephine Dickinson (a marvellous poet who lives in the Pennines and would have made an ideal presenter) was featured all too briefly before being co-opted into a childish 'tribute' to Auden that involved chucking pebbles into a stream as the presenter counted down, not '1, 2, 3,' but 'W! H! A!' It must have seemed a good idea to someone at the time, but they would be better employed in making programmes for toddlers.

'I've learnt a lot on this trip' Macmillan confided to us at the end. So had we, but not about Auden.

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