Magazine article The Spectator

Always on the Side of the Wolf

Magazine article The Spectator

Always on the Side of the Wolf

Article excerpt

IT WAS THE NIGHTINGALE by Ford Madox Ford Carcanet, £14.95, pp. 272, ISBN 9781857549324 £11.95 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Poor old Fordie. That was Ford's eternal cry, and it is repeated often here. His father called him 'the patient but extremely stupid Ass', his very name -- Huffer -- meant 'Ass', so was changed first to Hueffer, then to Ford. As a writer he was disliked ('It is me they dislike, not the time-shift'), as a returning Great War soldier loathed; even as a Sussex smallholder he is a figure of fun, followed everywhere by a dog, a drake and a goat.

Above all, after years of war he is forgotten as a writer, 'as good as dead', convinced he could no longer write. He is an outsider, a dung beetle, a 'ruined author', misunderstood and despised.

Poor old Fraudie. For most of this, like much of what he said and wrote, is not true. I've never heard of first world war soldiers meeting the hatred he describes; and he wrote several books in Sussex, as he cheerfully admits.

But truth was not the point of Ford. The opening of It Was the Nightingale promises a book about Paris in the Twenties, and this new edition picks up the promise for its blurb. But if you want to read about Paris in the Twenties, It Was the Nightingale is almost entirely useless.

There is the odd line about Hemingway, Joyce and Gertrude Stein, and a bit more about Ezra Pound and the great patron of writers John Quinn; but nothing about Jean Rhys (from whom Ford had parted with mutual loathing) or anyone else, and nothing at all about Paris.

There is a good deal about the birth and early death of the transatlantic review, but none of it is remotely reliable.

Coming to Ford for history, however, is like coming to his nightingale for eggs -- our mistake, not his. We must come for the song. And Ford's song, it struck me reading this, is surprisingly like Jean Rhys's. Ford may have been a well-educated Englishman, but like Rhys, he knew only himself. It Was the Nightingale is about Ford's thoughts and feelings at a turning point in his life; and about these he can write marvellously.

The turning point is between England and France, the farmer and the writer. Will he stay or will he go? Given his Francophilia, his hatred of English philistinism, his sense that his England died in the war, it's not much of a contest. …

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