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James Mitchie a painting buy Anne Redpath

Painting of James Michie by Anne Redpath (1895-1965)

        

Before Christmas I went to a low-key carol concert at a local church where they sang some good Christmas songs (Warlock, Holst, people like that) and read some nice Christmas poems (Betjeman, U A Fanthorpe, other people like that). One of the poems was called A Roman Thank You Letter. “It’s written by a man called James Michie,” said the reader helpfully beforehand, “whoever he was.”

My eyebrows went up and down noisily in the otherwise unshocked church. Whoever James Michie was? Why, the man was hardly in his grave, and the obituaries were still hot on the online depositories! To have lived to eighty years old after a full and rich life and then to be totally unknown in a village full of oldies barely a month later seems a little unfair. And yet here I am striking know-all attitudes myself, because if you quizzed me on exactly what Michie had done and written, I would not score well on points.

If, for instance, you had sat me opposite him at the lunch table and expected me to engage him in light yet sultry conversation, I would have let you down. I know this, because I was once placed opposite him at an Oldie lunch and although I warmed to him immediately, I felt like an under-briefed barrister going into court to cross-examine an expert witness. I can’t even, dammit, remember anything we said to each other.

Indeed, it is only since his death and that stray remark in the carols that I have made the effort to explore his life’s work a bit, and I know now the extent of his talent as a poet, and as a translator from dead and live languages (no-one did La Fontaine, Aesop or Horace into English any better then James Michie did, it seems). I know that as a publisher he was said to be the first to get Sylvia Plath and Sebastian Faulks into print. I know that he also led a separate life as Japistos, the veteran and perpetually fertile puzzle-setter of the weekly competition in the Spectator. Not a bad three lives’ work.

But, given a second chance, I am not sure I would strike up a conversation with him about any of those things. Not straight off, at least. To begin with, I would have tried talking to him about Theophile Gautier. According to more than one obituary, Michie had a weakness for this French writer, whose poems are some of the neatest and tightest-fitting ever written in any language, and, I would guess, about the hardest to translate. I can’t wait to get my hands on Michie’s versions.

Though less as a poet than as a prose writer. he created the ballet Giselle, which I have never seen. He wrote a strange novel called Mademoiselle de Maupin, whose long preface contains a good many ideas later used by Oscar Wilde in his epigrams, and if anyone ever wanted to undercut the idea of Wilde as a total original, he would need only go through Gautier’s mini-essay on art and the useful to find the seeds of a lot of Oscar’s stuff. “I am a man for whom only the superfluous is necessary”, said Gautier. “Give me the luxuries of life, and I can do without the necessities,” said Oscar. Oscar’s is neater, but Gautier’s is sixty years earlier. . .

Gautier wrote some great travel books, notably Voyage en Espagne, which has about the funniest or at least neatest opening of any travel book ever. I love his journalism, too. There is a volume called Caprices et Zigzags, full of choice pieces covering his visit to London in 1851 for the Great Exhibition, on the British Sunday, a day out at Ascot races, the art of British cooking (!) and so on. Sometimes I have toyed with the idea of trying translating some of this material, which I have never seen in English, but in fact the only time I ever got to grips with a piece of Gautier was when I started a version of a sixteen line poem called Paysage about five years ago. It’s a very odd poem, because it’s just a description of a landscape, with no main verbs in it, just a list of things in the picture. The first verse is:

“Pas une feuille qui bouge,
Pas un seul oiseau chantant,
Au bord de l’horizon rouge
Un éclair intermittent. ..”

Which I find I have on some forgotten occasion rendered as:

“Not a leaf that shakes,
Not one bird that sings;
Far off, the lightning breaks
But no sound brings …”

Not bad for five years work, eh? But I think I would have welcomed James Michie’s advice, even if all he said was, ‘Well, just do the bloody thing.’

So instead I will bring you my version of the neat funny opening to Voyage en Espagne and see what you think.

“A few weeks ago, in April 1840, I told someone casually that the place I would really like to go to was Spain. Less than a week later I found that the cautious conditional tense in which I had phrased the sentence had been ignored by my friends, and they were letting it be known generally that I was going to Spain soon. This was soon replaced by a direct question: ‘So, when are you off?’ ‘Without thinking, I told someone, ‘Oh, in a week – ten days, maybe...’ After a week or ten days people started expressing surprise that I was still in Paris. ‘I heard you were in Madrid,’ said one. ‘Back already?’ said another. It was then that I realised I owed my friends an absence of at least several months . . . I managed to get a stay of execution for a couple more days, just to get some things together, and on May 5, much to everyone’s relief, I was climbing into the Bordeaux coach prior to leaving the country altogether.”

I would be surprised if anyone in 1840 was doing anything half as engaging as that in the English language, anywhere in the world.

The Oldie Jan 2008