Tales Of The City: The fatal attraction of Sylvia Plath

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The Independent Online

The kerfuffle over Sylvia, the film of Sylvia Plath's life and tragic death, presents us with a new cultural phenomenon - a game called interactive emotion. I haven't seen the movie, but I've been intrigued by the fallout of real-life reminiscences that it's provoked from contemporaries, men and women, all adding their two-penn'orth to what we know of her descent into terminal depression. Ruth Fainlight, her friend and fellow American poet, quotes the last letter she got from the lonely and isolated Plath in London, begging Fainlight to come with her to Devon in the spring. "Ever since then I have wondered whether, if I had been there when Sylvia moved back to London, everything might have been different." Philip French, whose invitation to Plath to join the Home Service's The Critics programme was probably the last piece of good news she received before she died, remembers her cursing the squawky gearbox of her Morris Traveller while giving him a lift to Hampstead, and proudly recalls that it was on his radio show in 1965 that her work was first discussed with appropriate seriousness.

Al Alvarez, who, as poetry critic of The Observer, published Sylvia's late poems, recalled how "When Ted [Hughes] walked out of her life in the summer of 1962, Sylvia, in lieu of anyone better, sometimes came to me" - and how she used to sit cross-legged on the floor by the stove, holding a drink and reading from her new work. It's hard not to invest this charming remembered scene with a patina of romance - the gruff, pipe-smoking poetry critic with the highly strung, newly solitary, young blonde genius literally sitting at his feet - and, as though anticipating our thoughts, Alvarez gets a little defensive about his failure to rescue her, like a knight errant. "She... needed someone to take care of her, and that was not a role I could fill," he writes. "My own life was a mess back then, and I was neither willing nor tough enough to shoulder her despair."

I can't decide if it's utterly natural or shockingly arrogant to interpose oneself into literary history like this - to say, in effect, Dammit, if only I'd joined her on the floor by the stove, and offered to be her rock and her salvation, and promised to love her forever... If only I'd been more of a friend in London... If only she'd come on my radio show and been a big star... how differently her life would have gone. The Plath counterlife is something that recurs all the time, prompting new generations to look at her luminous beauty and the vivid sense of life evoked in her Letters Home to her mother, and to try not to imagine falling for her and attempting to save her.

It's useless to argue that, had her life taken another path, we wouldn't have the Ariel poems and she might, in 2004, be with us still, a matronly Mrs Alvarez, publishing light verse for children, and what a tragedy that would be. Sylvia is a special case. She has hovered before us for 40 years, tormented, chronically self-destructive, unsaveable but tantalising, as if the right word from us, her devoted fans, might have made everything better.

Soon, I swear, there will be an interactive computer game in which the whole Hughes-Plath scenario will unfold onscreen, but you can bring yourself into the action, turning up on her doorstep in 1962, bringing roses and reassurance and ameliorative chat and earning her undying thanks. There will eventually be a range of computerised counter-life scenarios ("Become Scott Fitzgerald's buddy - persuade him that he shouldn't drink so much and that he doesn't have a tiny willy"; "Meet Coleridge - see if you can get him off opium"), but Sylvia will always be the one who breaks your heart.

Danger! Thinkers ahead

Edward James was a legendary figure in the 1930s, a louche and arty dilettante who painted, wrote poetry, hung out with the Sitwells, Mitfords and Churchills and built up an unrivalled collection of Surrealist art. But he encountered nothing quite as surreal as his namesake, Edward James of Westcliff-on-sea, has just encountered at the hands of the Essex Wildlife Trust.

Mr James is a Buddhist who bought a half-acre of woodland near Hockley, Essex, so that he and some friends could meditate in the bosom of nature, only to be told that he'd need planning permission from Essex District Council, Essex County Council and English Nature, as well as the trust. It seems you can't just sit under a Bo tree any more, as Gautama Buddha did once in pursuit of enlightenment; you have to ask the district council to approve a "change of use" from "woodland" to "meditational woodland", and promise that no trees will be damaged by your transcendent thoughts. This does not represent, I fear, the final frontier of local government nannying. After meditation is curbed, thinking will come next.

Unbridled displays of ratiocination, cognitive reasoning and brain-cell deployment will be frowned on in certain parts of the Home Counties. Signs warning against "inappropriate thoughts" will be seen at beaches and swimming pools in Bexhill-on-Sea. And then someone will warn against the dangers of Passive Thinking...

Whatÿs it all about, Alfie?

So Emily and Jack, those quintessentially Victorian forenames, were the top choices for girl and boy babies in 2003. After them come the usual Dans and Sams and Emmas and Lucys, interspersed with some newer, trendier names, hitherto unpopular with modern parents. Instantly, the press can explain their popularity. "Alfie" is 18th in line, apparently due to the popularity of the diamond-geezer barman played by Shane Richie in EastEnders. I don't believe that can be the reason. There are plenty of Albert Square characters who are just as popular, and you don't see their names in the top 20. Where is Kat? And Barry and Dot and Pauline? Where, might I enquire, is Den? And can anyone explain to me the absence from the list of Big Mo?