Wednesday, 9 December 2015

A Walk around the West Midlands: parts 3&4, Bromsgrove to Blakedown to Stourbridge

It was May 2014, the weather was perfect and the fields were full of new growth; the crops were coming on nicely. But first there was the Oxfam bookshop in Bromsgrove to check out. I came away with two purchases: Owen Hatherley's A Guide To The New Ruins of Britain and Basil Spence's book on the building of his cathedral, Phoenix At Coventry.

The path from Perryfields to Dodford is known as the Chartist Walk because Dodford was the last of the movement's plantations. This was the Chartists’ trading route to the market at Bromsgrove. Their other was north to Stourbridge which would be my next destination after Blakedown. The beginning of the path at Perryfields takes the neo-Chartist down the side of an unsentimental apple orchard, along a fenced-off alley enclosed by pines. From this tightly enclosed path the sound of traffic built up until I found myself on one side of a footbridge over the M5. I took a moment midway across to take in the angry energy of all that metal hurtling along; never fast enough, nobody ever wanting to be there, all convenience and fear. The field ahead promised something else entirely. The line of the path could not have been clearer. A strip of barren earth ascended the hill.

Many feet must have tread this path to the point where crops could not grow on the compacted soil even if the farmer wanted them to. It was the end of winter when I first made this journey, but springtime when I managed to complete it, having only made it to the woods on the other side of Dodford on the first attempt. What had been immaculately ploughed fields in March were now sprouting growth on either side of me in May. I was no longer on city time but moved with the seasons.

A buttercup meadow brought a gentleness of mind. I was beginning to feel that Dodford was an idyll of a sort, that Chartism in the village had indeed created the New Jerusalem. But, in reality, the project had only survived a few years. Now the beautiful, simple cottages which had been built for the plantation were now much sought-after property. Luckily one of them, Rosedene, is now in the hands of the National Trust, although access is limited.

Through patches of bluebells in Nutnells Wood, I had my lunch by a pond at Henley Brook. As thousands of tadpoles swam about, I sat on an abandoned concrete pipe and rested a while before crossing a bridge in a beautiful shaded twist of the brook’s course.

Up Barrow Hill to find the tumulus, I took the bridlepath down the other side as with so much growth, a proper view of it was not possible until I reached the bottom of the field. An angel cloud hung above it. The neolithic dead were being watched over.

Soon I felt lost but was not lost. I lost faith in my intuition and relied too much on signposts which failed to materialise. After wandering in the opposite direction for a while, I took out my compass and rechecked the map, taking note of the line of pylons. Soon I was secure again in my direction. The next official footpath was narrow and completely overgrown but I hurled myself through it with relish, knowing that I had found my way.

The entrance to Blakedown is gained by traversing the dam of Ladies Pool, and through the paddocks on the other side. The day was now hot and dry. The poor horses looked overwhelmed in their coats, and I was in need of refreshment and found some at the local post office. This itself was a journey back to a more dishevelled time. It reminded me of caravan holidays in the 1970s and hunting for paper bags of cola cubes and polystyrene gliders in Northern Irish coastal villages. I could feel my legs were aching for home so I trained it back to Moor St and returned in a fortnight to continue the walk.


The journey from Blakedown was at first a pleasant stroll past an old watermill to the authoritatively-named village of Churchill, over a hill to Common Farm, a sharp right turn cutting across the border from North Worcestershire into Staffordshire, then trekking northward along a very muddy Roman road to Norton Covert and then finally entering the western fringe of Stourbridge.


 Conscious of walking on an ancient highway, especially when it is reduced to a narrow trek and ankle deep in liquid mud, I couldn't help wondering how a centurion would have managed in sandals. And how faraway from home he must have felt. Places gain importance from their approach, and next time I'll arrive in Stourbridge by train and won't think much about it, but coming in by an ancient track, however dubious its authenticity, is magnificent.

The Roman road took me to Norton Covert which, to put it crudely, is a big hole at the edge of town. In fact it is an old sandstone quarry where building material was extracted in the nineteenth century to construct the expanding town of Stourbridge. Nature has long since recaptured it, and because man has dug through strata for industrial purposes it has become a place of geological interest and beauty. Paths along the edge allow views of the canopy and steep paths down into the pit invite the curious. By this stage of my walk my legs were afraid they would not make it back up again, so I vowed to return one day and carried on.

The Roman road continues from Norton Covert along the western edge of Stourbridge becoming a sandy lane called, unsurprisingly, Sandy Lane. This particular leg of my journey ended by heading into the town centre for coffee, grub and books; my usual nourishment. I found a lovely old edition of Tom Sawyer to give to my son when he's a bit older, then headed off on the train back home.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

A Dream of a City beginning with A (part 2)

Along Tamaki Drive, I hear the universal sound of the marina; cable banging on mast. There are boats everywhere, preparing, it seems, for a mass exodus in a flotilla of wealth. Masters of land, explorers of the sea. Plunderers of the deep and the shallow; businessmen with professional fishing gear. Some people are taking their pleasures very seriously. Working hard, playing hard. Got all the gear, Being seen getting all the gear.

Fishing was not an activity which ever grew into more than an occasional pastime for me. As a child I clambered over rocks with my crab line every summer and all day sat contented beside rockpools while, nearby, salmon left the River Bush for the adventure of the North Atlantic, negotiating the headland of Portballintrae by swerving the dangling lines of hopeful young men up from the towns. The smell of fish was everywhere, all day all summer long.

Even at that age I went the extra mile for solitude and clung to the rockpools where the stillness of the water allowed visibility of the curious world within, until one year my father bought me a wee mustard coloured rod, and I prized myself away from the hermetic world of rockpools to casting off from the harbour. Mostly this ended in entangling the line around the spool and rod in a hopeless mess. I never caught anything until one day a fish accidentally swam into the hook. I felt the strain on the rod and carefully reeled it in with nervous excitement. But instead of the fish gorging on my wily bait, it had managed to impale the hook in its eye. Certainly it did not feel like a proper catch. In fact, I felt distinctly awful that it had been cruel fate rather than any sporting skill which had given me my first, and last, catch.

Now I imagine sharks gliding past my head like repugnant memories waiting to pounce. I gaze at them as nonchalantly as I can muster. The other fish avoid their dead, predatory eyes. Here in the tank at the aquarium, all is balanced in a precious and precarious harmony. Another shark passes overhead. Beside me, my son presses his face against the glass fearlessly. His eyes are alive with wonder as he sees this world for the fist time.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

A Walk around the West Midlands: parts 1&2, Cotteridge to Barnt Green to Bromsgrove

For a long time I was feeling an urge to escape the city, to wander beyond the orbit of its motorway collar, and explore the surrounding countryside. It would not have to be far, just a bit beyond the city. Of course, I had been there many times before but as a car passenger driven around on aimless days or enforced diversions from the A roads in and out of the city; occasional expeditions to car boot sales, or pub lunches. But I had never actual been there.

From my home in Cotteridge, Birmingham, I summoned up the courage to pass through Kings Norton, with all its memories, and head south, late in the autumn of 2013. Masshouse Lane took me to the gracefully named Primrose Hill, past dilapidated council houses of the 1920s, past a cemetery and into the first sign of countryside. It is difficult to get muddy in a city unless you are somewhere you shouldn’t be, even some canal towpaths are gaining the urban respectability of tarmac. Immediately I realised my work shoes were wholly inadequate as the mud came over the top. And this was the first field; a city boy squirmed with embarrassment.

The dominant animal at the edge of the city is not the cow or sheep or pig, but the horse. These elegant, four-legged investments are dotted around the fields, quietly contemplating their indifference to solitude. There are also numerous riding schools on the outskirts. One need not go short of opportunities to part with good money to sit on top of an animal.

The city oozes out its wealth past the slum-clearance estates, and out into what is only regionally Birmingham, i.e. as viewed from London, or narratively Birmingham, i.e. when it suits me. My destination for this initial leg of my journey was to be Barnt Green, a satellite village due-south of the city, just past Longbridge. This was once the home of the atomic spy Allan Nunn May whose father was a brassfounder in the city, that is to say, he owned a brassfoundry in the city which allowed him to live way beyond the consequences of its noxious factories. Incidentally, Nunn May was not the only atomic spy ever to reside in Birmingham. Klaus Fuchs began passing the details of his work to the Russians when he lived in Edgbaston.

The atrocious path from Primrose Hill came out to a road edged with trees and swampy pools. It was the first road I had been on in years where I could walk down the middle undisturbed by traffic. It felt good. It felt glorious. Already my wellbeing was improving. To mark the occasion I took some blurry photographs of discarded objects with my phone.

It wasn't long until I was back on an obscure public right of way - a narrow, overgrown path running up the side of a house. Clearly no one had walked there for some time. I had to stoop under branches as I stumbled forward, alerting a large, protective hound only inches away; growling and barking behind the fence immediately to my right. Once past the house and another of the many swampy pools I would grow intrigued by, the path joined a lane taking me to the top of Wast Hill. There was a slight view of the now distant city behind me and my first panorama of the comparatively sparse valley in front. The path turned right and descended pleasantly through woods beside the Wast Hill Autism Centre, then there were a couple of muddy fields to cross before crossing a road and onto the next path. I was acclimatizing to having wet feet and called it stoicism.

The path had a Richard Long appearance of a clean line swooping down toward the end of the Wast Hill Tunnel. From there it was a steady trek along the Worcester canal to the Bittell reservoirs where Bruce Chatwin’s father would go boating. My map was old, very old, having been purchased from the Hogg’s Lane car boot sale for twenty pence, and did not even feature the M42, the southern part of the collar around Birmingham. This ensured confusion and for a short while I was lost on my way into Barnt Green. As I staggered on, I was delighted to be welcomed by three little piggies who came squealing to their gate. They had no problem with the mud, and I was beginning to get used to it.

The next leg of the journey was straight down to Bromsgrove, mostly continuing along the Worcester canal. It felt liberating to emerge from under the bridge of the motorway. I felt a surge of pride to be beyond that suffocating collar.

At the moorings of Alvechurch a prehistoric crane was dangling a barge over the works. Alvechurch is one of the hubs of the canal tourism industry, but today I wasn’t stopping.

Further south Network Rail had pinned notices onto trees to the east of the canal. With news of the HS2's go-ahead, it is hard to look at the fields without a projection of what will be in store for them. It is an image of the future which is hard to bear while standing in such pleasant surroundings. I think it was this, combined with a drop in blood sugar, which prompted a sense of pointlessness and despondency about my journey. And this was only the second leg! I wasn't walking anymore, I was marching at a pace with my eyes at my feet. 

Not until the canal disappeared into a tunnel, and I was left alone to find my way through Shortwood, did I recognise a new feeling of excited isolation, the awe of the environment and the enjoyable illusion of adventure. A city boy living out a fantasy. The wood had an atmosphere of Twin Peaks. The damp, the quiet, the piles of lumber. I climbed to the top of the hill and the edge of the wood. The re-emergence to the canal was hidden by a clump of trees far below. A cold wind whipped around me as I made the slippery descent.

The canal path did not last for long. As I negotiated a dual carriageway, the canal was making its way to Tardebigge, the spiritual home of the reborn canal network. Instead I was veering along footpaths toward Bromsgrove. A Dyno-Rod truck sat grazing in a field alongside a couple of tired old horses and an impressive collection of digger scoops. A wider collection of farm machinery and materials was revealed further down the path. It was very impressive. A mausoleum of agriculture.

Right turn to Bromsgrove, along quiet country roads punctuated only by the genial whirl of a cycling club passing by. Their friendly waving indicated a bond between those who like to get out in the middle of nowhere for the good of their health. Or so it was in my imagination.

From this way in, the edge of Bromsgrove is Aston Fields, where the railway station is located. The actual centre is another mile westwards. I had walked far enough for that leg but I returned in the spring of 2014 to take up the walk to Blakedown. 

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Linz: a fantasy

I know Linz is a city because I live in Birmingham, and I believe I see city form.

Can I describe Linz without knowing the German language?

I begin with the correspondence.

I remain aware of my presence in Linz no matter how extensive this correspondence, the quantity of pairings.

It is hard to establish anything at all, but I am not fooling myself. As far as I know.

I have not travelled all this way to be in the same city. What's the point in that?

I know Birmingham is a city because I live there.

I used to live in Belfast, and that was a city too. It was where I learnt of the city form.

Belfast is still a city, even after my departure.

Birmingham was a city before I got there.

Linz was a city before I got there.

Linz has had an airport for at least as long as it takes to build an airport and establish "airportness".

I have some faith in what some others tell me. Some of these tell me having faith in others is the fibre of humanity. A fibrous humanity is a goal.

Perhaps I have too much faith in what others tell me. Perhaps I have too little. It is hard to say with certainty. It is beyond me.

The importance of dust is that it establishes that the object on which it lies has existed before I have seen it for the first time. However, Linz airport is very clean.

The people who work in Linz airport can explain many of the facts associated with being in an airport, of being, in particular, in Linz airport. They are versed in "airportness", in "Linz airportness". They speak with a degree of authority. I should at least have some faith in something of what some of them say.

I make a guess (an educated guess?), this is not day one of Linz airport. It has established itself, at least earlier today, almost certainly before the plane took off from Birmingham airport.

Birmingham airport, Linz airport - that is one correspondence.

They correspond, but they are also different. I know they are different places. The plane did not just take off, circle Birmingham and then land again. (I know all about circling Birmingham, having circumnavigated the city on foot.) I watched the ground as we climbed away, and, although I lost sight of it as the plane disappeared into cloud, when we emerged again several hours later and our destination certainly looked like a city (it had city form) - it ticked many boxes - and in ways it looked like Birmingham, there were also many ways the destination most certainly did not look like Birmingham. As the plane descended further I could see cars driving on the right-hand side of the roads. There was also a whopping big river running through it. Birmingham's rivers do not impress anyone suspended in the air. Just these two observations affirmed that at least the flight had been, to a certain degree, value for money.

I had faith, I admit, that I had boarded a plane for Linz, and frankly, there was no noticeable reason why it should have landed anywhere else. No bad weather, no hijacking, no passengers took sick, no observable technical failures, no announcements from the captain to the contrary. In fact he stated quite clearly we were descending into Linz.

I took the captain's word for it. Although, I never actually saw the captain. The voice on the speaker stated he was the captain. He, in fact, announced, 'This is your captain speaking...' My captain? Temporarily I had a captain.

To be in the hands of such a man of authority, of such technical skill, of such professionalism, surely should inspire faith. If the captain says it is Linz, then it is Linz. However, after we passengers exited the aircraft, the captain's authority remained on board. On leaving the aircraft we stepped into post-modernism.

But what is Linz? What is Linz-ness?

Is there a conjunction of Linz-ness and Birmingham-ness?

Perhaps, here and now, I am that conjunction.

I brought some Birmingham-ness with me on the plane, embedded in my psyche like a stowaway. I hope to bring some Linz-ness back with me, hidden in a similar compartment. Perhaps I will declare at customs, 'I have nothing to declare but my Linz-ness!'

If I do not give myself over to madness, what words can be relied upon to decompress Linz-ness into a string of sufficient length as to resurrect the memories being formed as I wander the streets of Linz, if this is indeed the city of Linz, and if I ever make it out of the airport?

I have never made it out of several airports, namely that of the cities of Dubai, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. I have never actually stepped foot on actual Australian soil, only on Australian transit lounge floorboards, which is just not the same, nor run my fingers through Arabian sand. I have never burst through the bubble of the airports and into their cities, absorbing their individual city-ness and forming memories to be later decompressed from uttering their names. When the plane descended toward Sydney airport, I caught a glimpse of the Sydney Opera House with its unmistakable shape. A shape so unique that it inspired certainty. From that point on I firmly believed I was suspended in the air, hurtling through the sky, above the city of Sydney, even though I could clearly see cars driving on the left-hand side.

The ease with which misinformation can be contrived in a digital format worries me. It regularly keeps me awake at night. The faith which a computer requires in its user, is a little too much for my palate. For instance, as an object sways through compression and decompression, data floats away like the ash from burning paper. However, if I am prepared to make a leap of faith, I could go down the list of arrivals and departures on the digital monitors of "Linz airport", and tick off the cities in which I am not standing. This could provide the education in an educated guess.

So if I am prepared to make a leap of faith regarding the arrivals and departures board, why not go the whole hog and ask someone and believe them? Well... Where would it end?! If I were to go round believing people all the time I would end up without a shirt on my back; on my knees before God begging for esoteric solutions to practical problems; seeking consolation in the words of a priest; telephoning the numbers at the bottom of advertisements...

I close my eyes, take a deep breath, walk through the automatic doors, and ask a taxi driver to take me to the Cowboy Museum.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

A Dream of a City beginning with A (part1)

I imagine an Auckland in which I have come to live.

I imagine a small house. Discreet, in the middle of an inner suburb, near public transportation. I hope I own it, but I seriously doubt that. Let's say I can afford it, given the efforts I expect myself to undertake.

I imagine a small plot of land. Very small. A patch really; given over to a small indulgence of self-sufficiency which would be easily matched by a quick trip to the store, but nevertheless it is naively and amateurishly cultivated in a loving way. It is a gesture to good intentions which hopefully will grow into a peace of mind one day. I struggle to find the time to attend to it however, such are the demands of work.

I imagine saying hello every morning and evening to curious neighbours. I shrug off their wariness. They'll get to know me in due course, and they'll become relaxed, reassured I'm a safe pair of hands in their neighbourhood. I will help them if I can, and ask their advice from time to time, perhaps about civic matters.

I dream of discussing the various merits and drawbacks of R and LISP with Greg Chaitin at a mathematics conference, of sitting languidly in Albert Park and watching a group practising Tai Chi, of reading William James and Gertrude Stein over coffee in the library, pondering phenomenological sameness and daring to formulate my own theory of poetical decompression. The incompatibility of pattern in post-modernism initially flummoxes me, but to press on is exciting. Elegant solutions come to me in dreams. Only in dreams. Rationalism takes a strange turn and poetry blossoms there, in a dream of Auckland.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Nikolai Bakhtin, Nicholas Bachtin

        Serge Aleksandrovich Konovalov (1899-1982) was not yet thirty years old but already he had been elected to the Chair of Russian at Birmingham University. Although, it seems his main qualification was actually being Russian. His father, a businessman who had served as Minister of Trade and Industry in the Provisional Government under Alexander Kerensky, had moved his family to England in the wake of the October Revolution, allowing Serge the opportunity to study economics and politics at Oxford.

 He was of imposing appearance, discreetly elegant in manners and dress. Dignity, courtesy, and great personal charm are among the qualities attributed to him. He was very tall and powerfully built. A man of natural caution and reserve, he sometimes gave the impression of being aloof, but this was probably due to shyness and a natural reserve. [Slavonic Studies at Oxford: a Brief History, p18]

        Konovalov had a reputation for ‘formidable’ diplomacy, and it was a shrewd decision to ask the secretary of the Slavonic Society to accompany him to Paris to rescue ‘the most brilliant man of the Russian émigration’. Not only could she speak both French and Russian, but her style of approach might just be what was needed to entice an antagonized philosopher out from the shadows of a dilapidated Parisian tenement.

Francesca M. Wilson

       His interlocutor was Francesca M. Wilson who, it can be said, was formidable in her own right. E.R. Dodds referred to her as an ‘untiring worker for the unfortunate’. After putting her teaching career on hold, she had worked with the Society of Friends helping victims of the violent upheavals of history in France, Corsica, North Africa and Serbia during the First World War and then in Vienna during its aftermath. In September 1922 Wilson travelled eastwards to administrate a relief outpost of the Society of Friends in the village of Pasmorowka, a small corner of the Russian Empire in present-day Kazakhstan. She later published a memoir of her humanitarian work, In the Margins of Chaos (1944) in which her colleague Marjorie Rackstraw explains the background to the Russian famine:

In 1920 there was a poor harvest, and in 1921 there was no rain at all. Most of the seed never germinated. The blades that struggled up were burnt by the sun. The peasants have a proverb that you must never see the floor of your granary. But during the years of war and revolution all the reserves were used up. The Red Army had to be fed, and the towns too, and requisitions had depleted all stocks. Transport difficulties aggravated the situation. The railways are in a shocking state. Food got held up for weeks and the people fleeing the famine died by the thousands waiting for trains at the railway stations. And it takes days to get food out to country districts by ox-wagon or sleigh. Then there was our intervention and blockade - that made everything twenty times worse.

        By 1922 the peasants had become too weak to plough the fields, and yet again the harvest was a poor one. Without doctors there was no distinction between dying of starvation or disease. It was estimated that three million had died of typhus alone. Wilson's work in the field was being hampered by an unpleasant translator who aggravated the people whom she was trying to help, so Francesca immersed herself in learning enough Russian to function on her own. Combined with her capabilities in French, these skills would later prove useful in her journey to Paris with Konovalov. Perhaps he was being cynical by using Francesca Wilson to lure his prey out into the light. The man in question was no straightforward victim of the Revolution, and he was desperate, hungry and prone to violent outbursts. However, the man who appeared from the darkened staircase was not at all what Wilson had been expecting:

I made myself a picture of an elderly Russian with a pointed beard, pale, studious, remote and grave... Though at that time he was pale and thin, his broad shoulders and massive frame made him look more a man of action than of thought.

Nikolai Bakhtin in 1935

       Wilson's first impression of Nikolai Bakhtin as a man of action was essentially correct. In 1916 Bakhtin had abandoned his studies in Petrograd to become an Uhlan Lancer in the Tsar's forces 'when someone told him he would look dashing in the uniform's jodphurs', but after the Bolshevik revolution he was forced to seek refuge in the Crimea where he encountered his former commanding officer who persuaded him to take up arms once again, this time as a White Guard in the Civil War, a decision he would come to regret. In 1920, he was forced once more to flee as the White Army retreated south. Briefly he became a sailor in the Mediterranean, then, while drunk one night in Constantinople, he joined the French Foreign Legion. After three and a half years of fighting in North Africa, Bakhtin was invalided out with severe wounds to his right arm and hand.

       In 1924 Bakhtin settled in Paris where he became part of the substantial émigré intelligentsia.  French regulations regarding work and accommodation made it a hard experience, though he did not make it any easier for himself. After walking out or being sacked from several minor jobs, he kept starvation at bay with contributions to The Link, a literary supplement to The Latest News, a Russian émigré newspaper. Edited by his friend from St Petersburg, Georgy Adamovitch, The Link was published for just five years from 1923 to 1928. Later he contributed to Numbers which first appeared in 1930 and existed for only four years.

          Born in 1894 in Orel, Nikolai Bakhtin was the oldest of five children. His younger siblings included his brother Mikhail, and his sisters Ekaterina, Maria and Natalya. Their parents were liberal-minded and interested in culture. His father was manager in a bank established by their grandfather, accordingly the children were given the best education affordable. To say the young Nikolai was precocious would be an understatement. He read Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy at the age of eleven, and frequently he would wake in the small hours of the morning to absorb Kant and Hegel. At school he became the leading figure of an intellectual circle under the influence of the Russian Symbolists, and this circle had itself evolved from a group who would assemble in the toilets to sing revolutionary songs. His schooling was conducted in Vilnius where the family had moved to in 1905, and when they moved again to Odessa in 1911 Nikolai remained to complete his education. It was around this time that he began writing poetry and became interested in Dmitri Merezhkovski's trilogy of historical novels concerning the conflict between paganism and Christianity.

Merezhkovski and his wife, the poet Zinaida Gippius, were living in Paris as exiles from Tsarist Russia and ran a salon called the Green Lamp. Although regarded as conservative and decadent by the exiles of Bolshevik Russia, these symbolist writers were part of an earlier generation who had established a Russian cultural base and influence in the fin de siècle Paris of Diaghilev and Stravinsky. So when Bakhtin found himself in the same city, he became a regular visitor to the Green Lamp. Merezhkovski and Gippius admired Bakhtin greatly, regarding him as ‘a kind of prophet announcing a new conception of life’. Certainly, Bakhtin impressed those who heard his lectures and they included the most famous names of the émigré intellectuals. Despite giving this positive impression on his audiences, Nikolai Bakhtin was destined to remain in obscurity throughout his life and beyond. Where Nikolai had the freedom and possibilities of the West including studies at the Sorbonne and Cambridge, it was his younger brother Mikhail, working in the difficult circumstances of internal exile within the Soviet Union, who became the famous philosopher.

       Because Russia Abroad was entirely formed by its awareness of the other Russia left behind it became by far the more traumatized of two unhappy twins split at birth. Unable to accept the forced break with Russia, many of the exiles and émigrés suffered nightmares of disinheritance and dangerous thoughts of reconciliation and self-sacrifice. A striking feature of memoirs and stories from between the wars is the recurrent sense of Soviet Russia and Russia Abroad as always aware of the other and thinking similar thoughts, whether or not they were actively watching over or intervening in each other’s lives. [CHAMBERLAIN, p250]

Despite their separation, Nikolai and Mikhail came to remarkably similar conclusions philosophically; both made the journey from classicism to the philosophy of language. Together as young students they had paid for tutoring in Ancient Greek which was not taught at their school. Their German governess had given them their passion for the myths of Greece. They were intense intellectual sparring partners and this was the source of the importance of dialogism in both of their philosophies.

One day in a Parisian bookshop, Nikolai came across a copy of a work by Mikhail on Dostoevsky. He had not heard from him since the early 1920s. During the Second World War, Nikolai learnt of Mikhail’s arrest in 1929 and assumed he had perished during Stalin’s purges of the 1930s, but Mikhail had actually survived. In the 1970s, he received a package from Birmingham, it was a collection of Nikolai’s papers assembled by his friends.

Francesca Wilson and Nikolai Bakhtin’s initial meeting did not go well. It acquainted her with Bakhtin's periodic gruffness. Nevertheless, she persuaded him to come to Birmingham, and when he arrived Francecsa got to know the warmer side of his character. Soon, in fact, they became lovers. Until the end of his life Francesca and Nikolai were very close. So in May 1928 Bakhtin arrived at the door of 35 Duchess Road, Edgbaston, with his worldly possessions, mostly books, wrapped in newspapers. He was by no means the only Russian staying at Francesca’s house. She had adopted several boys and girls, all Russians who had been living in exile in Paris, and then there was the housekeeper and the odd lodger here and there.

During the first months of Bachtin’s stay in Birmingham we were a trio, as a Russian schoolboy, Sim, was living in my house at the time. Sim was as greedy for knowledge and experience as Bachtin had been at his age and questioned him endlessly on his philosophy and his adventures. We often went little walking tours in Shropshire and Wales and Bachtin told us about the Foreign Legion… Sim and I realised that in Morocco Bachtin had relived the days of the Iliad and Odyssey.
[Francesca M Wilson in BACHTIN, p12]

Bakhtin stayed for five months before he returned to Paris to study at the Sorbonne and the Ecole des Langues Orientales. His decision in 1916 to seek adventure in the army had curtailed his studies before he could take his degree. Life in Paris was made easier when, in 1929, Francesca decided to buy a flat at 2 rue Rubens in the 13th Arrondissement.  By 1931 their romance had ended, but they remained intensely close over the years. Nikolai met Constance Pantling who was teaching in Paris. They married in 1935, but it was not destined to be a happy marriage. Francesca later described it as a ‘shipwreck’. However, when Constance was dying in 1959 she exclaimed that it had been Francesca’s influence over Nikolai which had made it so difficult.

By 1932 Nikolai had completed his studies in Paris and was able to move to Cambridge to undertake a Ph.D. in classics. His thesis was ‘on the origins of the Centaur-Lapithai myth in thirteenth century B.C. Thessaly.’ 

          In Terry Eagleton's novel Saints and Scholars, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein retreats to Ireland with none other than Nikolai Bakhtin. Together they take up residence in a remote cottage in a thwarted attempt to live the simple life. They are unexpectedly joined by an injured James Connolly, who has eluded his executioners through authorial intervention.  Like Connolly, Wittgenstein is also on the run. However the great philosopher wishes to escape the parasites who feed off his work, and the obliging Bakhtin has joined him because he is 'ready to go anywhere with anyone.'

          Although Wittgenstein did indeed live for a time in Ireland, he was not joined by Bakhtin, nor of course by Connolly. Nevertheless the novel does illuminate a friendship between Bakhtin and Wittgenstein which did exist. Their pairing in Connolly's eyes resembles 'a monk and a clown.' Later the fantasy is extended when they are joined by Leopold Bloom, who has wandered off in despair as Molly has left him for Stephen Dedalus. Connolly and his lieutenant, Molloy, keep the party in stasis as they await the reinforcements who, like Beckett's Godot, never come. There is more of the shadow of Beckett cast over Saints and Scholars. As the situation ends, Connolly's final thoughts include, 'You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on.’

Bakhtin had met Wittgenstein at Cambridge and the two became good friends. In Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist's biography of his younger brother, Mikhail, they make it clear that 'Nikolai was the most significant "other" whom Mikhail ever encountered.' They were intellectual equals, and Wittgenstein filled the absence of Mikhail in this respect.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

        What I do know and what in itself would call for attention to the friendship is that Wittgenstein indeed loved Bakhtin, was unusually happy and gay in his presence, and never dropped him as he easily did others. His was the rare case of Wittgenstein taking a person as he found him. All this in spite of the fact that they were poles apart in outlook and character. Bakhtin was given to extremes of passion and an uncontrolled exuberance of feeling and expression. He always seemed on the verge of erupting, like a volcano. He suffered from many irrational fears and obsessions, loved expansiveness, was a great gourmet. Unlike Wittgenstein, Bakhtin, though childless, could take delight in children, even in cats. They did however share a kind of childlike innocence, and lacked everything commonplace.
[Fania Pascal in LUCKHARDT, p25]

        Nikolai Bakhtin left Cambridge in 1935 to take up an appointment at Southampton University where he worked for three years, and was then offered a similar role at Birmingham University by George Thomson (1903-1987), who had succeeded E.R. Dodds as Professor of Greek. Thomson was known as a brilliant and serious man. He had been a member of Maurice Dobb's communist circle at Cambridge, joined the Party in 1933, and while others moderated their views under the light of the purges, Thomson was known as a Stalinist. He could be severe with those who did not share his outlook but charming to those who managed to breach the ideological wall around him. Despite this, he too was a friend of Wittgenstein.

George and Katharine Thomson in 1946

        Thomson married Katharine Stewart, a distinguished musician, in October 1934. With Thomson’s new wife, Wittgenstein reprised the musical technique which he had developed with his close friend, David Pinsent, back in 1913, of whistling Schubert’s Lieder to piano accompaniment. Pinsent and Wittgenstein had last performed this at Lordswood House the night before they parted, never to see each other again. With Katharine it became a regular Thursday evening ritual.

        Dobb himself was not a stranger to Birmingham. He was known to have been a guest at Highfield, the bohemian home of Lella and Philip Sargant Florence. Thomson moved nearby to the Florences at 84 Oakfield Road in 1940, but at the time of Wittgenstein’s visit to the Bakhtins in 1938, he was living in Goodby Road, Moseley.

        Nikolai and Constance moved into their flat on Wheeleys Road in April, and Wittgenstein visited in the autumn. It was the first of a handful of visits to the Bakhtins in Birmingham which we know about. The existence of this particular one is established in a letter to George Thomson's mother-in-law dated 28th October 1938, reproduced in Ray Monk's biography, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius:

        Dear Mrs Stewart,
        I must apologise for an untruth I told you today in Miss Pate's office. I said that I had seen Mrs Thomson recently in Birmingham; & only when I came home this evening it occurred to me that this wasn't true at all. I stayed with the Bakhtin's a few weeks ago in Birmingham & I tried to see Mrs Thomson & we had a talk on the phone; but I wasn't able to see her. When I talked to you this afternoon what was in my head was that I had seen Mrs Thomson at your house before she went to Birmingham. Please forgive my stupidity.
                                                            Yours Sincerely,
                                                            L. Wittgenstein

          Around this time Wittgenstein was experiencing 'great nervous strain' brought about by the situation at home in Vienna. The Wittgenstein family were under great pressure from the Nazis to hand over their foreign currency in exchange for an acceptance of their racial status as non-Jews. This was an attempt to guarantee the safety of Ludwig’s sisters, Hermine and Gretl who had chosen to stay in Vienna. The trip to see Bakhtin was perhaps some relief from the stress he was under. It was also his first stay in Birmingham since he said farewell to David Pinsent in 1913.

Fania Pascal

       Some of Wittgenstein's other visits to the Bakhtins in Birmingham can be pieced together from Fania Pascal's Wittgenstein: A Personal Memoir. Fania and her husband Roy Pascal had moved from Cambridge to Birmingham in 1939 when Roy was appointed the Chair of German at the university. Their home was at 17 Rotton Park Road, Edgbaston. The Pascals had both known Wittgenstein at Cambridge where Roy, like George Thomson, had been a member of Maurice Dobb's circle. Fania Polyanowska had studied literature and philosophy at the University of Berlin where, in 1925, she befriended Rudolf Peierls, the future pioneer of nuclear physics at Birmingham University. Fania married the charming and gentle Roy Pascal in Cambridge in 1931.

The Pascals' home on Rotton Park Road

       Fania gave private tuition in Russian to Wittgenstein and Francis Skinner who often accompanied him to Birmingham. The lessons had ceased in 1935 when Wittgenstein travelled to the Soviet Union looking for a new life for Skinner and himself. He returned shortly afterwards having changed his mind. It would seem that the Soviet Union was always seen as somewhere to escape to, be accepted and start again, but it lost its appeal when the possibility approached reality.

       In her memoir Fania recalls a letter written to her by Skinner from the Bakhtin household. This was August 1940. Unfortunately the Pascals had not been in Birmingham when Skinner and Wittgenstein were visiting Nikolai and Constance. They were picking fruit in Pershore, a very practical activity in wartime. As Fania writes of knowing Wittgenstein up to 1941 and recalls a visit to their house when he 'was an orderly in a hospital' (Wittgenstein worked first as dispensary porter then a technician from October 1941 to April 1943), it would suggest that Wittgenstein's last visit to Birmingham in which he saw the Pascals was in late 1941. Whether it was during this visit or a later one to the city in 1943, Wittgenstein spent time with Nikolai Bakhtin which played a part in the development of the Philosophical Investigations. They had many discussions over the years, often late into the night and often "interminable" according to Constance.

        G.H. von Wright, in his 1982 book on Wittgenstein, points out an error in the printed preface to the Philosophical Investigations which differs from the original typescript. It is a reference to a time with Bakhtin when they read the Tractatus together. In the printed version it would seem to have been 1941, but according to von Wright, it was really 1943. In Fania Pascal’s recollections of Wittgenstein she admits to not being good with dates, so perhaps his last visit to the Pascal household when he was an orderly in a hospital, was later. Perhaps the original typescript was wrong and the printed version was correct and Bakhtin’s and Wittgenstein’s reading of the Tractatus had been in late 1941 when he saw the Pascals for the last time.

        The two phases of Wittgenstein’s philosophy, or his two distinctly different philosophies, which culminate in the publication of the Tractatus and the posthumous Philosophical Investigations, coincided with the two periods in which he made visits to Birmingham. In 1912 and 1913 he was studying under Russell, exploring the nature of logical propositions, then in the later period of 1938 to 1943 he was concerned with mathematics and the philosophy of language. When he dictated his Notes on Logic, he was sowing the seeds for the Picture Theory of Language which would become central to the Tractatus. Then came the First World War and the death of his ‘first and only friend’, David Pinsent, and when the Tractatus was eventually published in 1921:

        He thought he had got all the answers right, so at that point he gave up the subject. For a number of years in the 1920s he was an elementary school teacher; then he worked as a monastery gardener; then he helped design a house for his sister; and it was not until the end of the 1920s that he took up philosophy again… In this period he produced a completely different philosophy which… approaches language as a natural human phenomenon, something that we find going on all around us, a complicated, overlapping array of human practices.
[Anthony Quinton in MAGEE, p109]

        A noticeable difference between the two philosophies is the social function of language. In the first period, language analyses the world, and the possibility of language analysing itself is considered. In the second, language breaks out of these purely rational constraints and consists of social games whose rules define community but are also ever changing as communities change.

[Language] can function only if there are rules that are accepted by more than one person, so that any one person’s use of the rules which guide him in speaking is open to correction and improvement by another person’s observations.
        [Anthony Quinton in MAGEE, p109]

        The apparent reductionism of his earlier work is abandoned to embrace the evolving complexity of the social functions of language. It is therefore worthwhile considering Wittgenstein’s own sociability as his second period of philosophy develops. His network of friends in Birmingham gives us some idea of this, and his relationship with Nikolai Bakhtin is particularly telling.

        The ‘interminable’ discussions between Bakhtin and Wittgenstein were not just about Wittgenstein’s philosophy. Together they would also read Pushkin in Russian. For Bakhtin, Pushkin’s work is ‘a poetry that can reveal itself only through direct experience, defying translation and imitation and remaining for ever circumscribed by its own perfection.’ For Wittgenstein it was also an opportunity to utilise his Russian.

Nikolai Bakhtin's home on George Road

The old road from Birmingham to Worcester, thence the new world, remains in fragments.  Bakhtin's flat at 27 Wheeleys Road lay on the wrong side of the Edgbaston Conservation Area. The border was the boundary wall. Only the gateposts frozen in redevelopment cement give any clue to the existence of the boarding house. Of his other residences in Birmingham, two still exist – 37 George Road and 36 Frederick Road. However his final home in Cambridge Cresent has disappeared. He died there suddenly of a heart attack in 1950, in the middle of a heatwave and having just returned from a holiday in the Southern France. There is no grave for Nikolai Bakhtin in Birmingham. His body was cremated, and no flowers were requested. His wife Constance survived him for another nine years; housebound with multiple sclerosis in a foreign city. Bakhtin never published his great on-going work on the nature of language nor his incomplete autobiography. His essays and lectures were compiled by his friends for publication by the University of Birmingham in 1963, and his work sank into the shadows of obscurity while that of his brother, Mikhail, and his close friend, Ludwig Wittgenstein, formed those very shadows.

I know that when people talk of death of senseless, they are not speaking of the one who has just died but of external things: of all that he might have done and attained, that he has left undone and unattained.
But at such times as I have felt in myself the power to force my way through the external chance and meaninglessness of events I have realised that death is not something alien, exterior and violent: that an end, annihilation coming by chance from without, is only possible for inanimate objects. For the living it is not simply an end but always a fulfilment. It does not come to him from outside but grows within him; all his life it is maturing in him, nourishing and strengthening itself on his joy, his wisdom, his pain and ascending slowly like the sun from the depths within him.
[from In Praise of Death (BACHTIN, 1963)]

This blogger outside Nikolai Bakhtin's home on George Rd.


BACHTIN, Nicholas, Lectures and Essays (University of Birmingham, 1963)

CHAMBERLAIN, Lesley, The Philosophy Steamer: Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligentsia (Atlantic, London, 2006)

CLARK, Katerina & HOLQUIST, Michael, Mikhail Bakhtin (Harvard, 1984)

DODDS, E.R., Missing Persons (Oxford, 1977)

EAGLETON, Terry, Saints and Scholars (Verso, 1987)

MAGEE, Bryan, Men of Ideas (BBC, 1978)

MONK, Ray, Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (Vintage, 1991)

PASCAL, Fania, Wittgenstein: A Personal Memoir in Wittgenstein: Sources and Perspectives edited by C.G. Luckhardt (Harvester, Hassocks, 1979)

ROBERTS, Sian Lliwen, Place, Life Histories and the Politics of Relief: Episodes in the Life of Francesca Wilson, Humanitarian Educator Activist (Doctoral thesis submitted to the University of Birmingham, April 2010)

VON WRIGHT, Georg Henrik, Wittgenstein (Blackwell, 1982)

WILSON, Francesca M, introduction to BACHTIN, Nicholas, Lectures and Essays (University of Birmingham, 1963)

WILSON, Francesca M, In the Margins of Chaos, (Murray, 1944)