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This article is taken from PN Review 151, Volume 29 Number 5, May - June 2003.

Shelf Lives 17: William Plomer Peter Scupham

                        The Death of a Snake

(`Death and generation are both mysteries of nature, and somewhat resemble each other.' Marcus Aurelius)

Bruised by a heel he strove to die,
In frantic spirals drilled the air,
Turned his pale belly upward to the sky
In coitus with death: and here and there
Scored in the dust quick ideographs of pain -
These, that the wind removed, in memory remain.

On Monday the 19th of August 1929, Virginia Woolf fixed with her inimitably barbed pin the latest Rodmell house-guest: `A compressed inarticulate young man, thickly coated with a universal manner fit for all weather & people: tells a nice dry prim story; but has the wild eyes I once noted in Tom (Eliot), & take to be the true index of what goes on within' (The Diary, Volume III, The Hogarth Press, 1980). This compressed young man, William Plomer, had that year returned to England after a childhood and youth spent largely in South Africa, followed by a teaching tour in Japan. From now on he would make his life in England, knowing, as he puts it in his Autobiography (Cape, 1975), that `Civilisation has many dialects but speaks one language, and its Japanese voice will always be present to my ear, like the pure and liquid notes of the bamboo flute in those tropical evenings on the Indian Ocean when I heard it for the first time', the ...


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