Elizabeth Taylor, A View of the Harbour – and some recent walks

Elizabeth Taylor, A View of the Harbour. Virago Modern Classic, 2018. First published 1947

As its title suggests, this is a painterly novel. There’s an ensemble of characters who live in the picturesque houses, shops, pub and cottages clustered around a fading harbour in the south of England just after the war. Among them is the visitor Bertram Hemingway, a retired naval officer, who likes the idea of painting seascapes and a view of this harbour, but he lacks the talent or application to produce anything of note. He’s a sort of catalyst: his arrival sets off a chain of reactions in the other characters in this enclosed community that will change some of their lives.

Elizabeth Taylor A View of the Harbour coverHe’s curious about other people; some would say he’s nosy. He has ‘a passion for turning stones’ to see what lives underneath. He’s less keen on taking responsibility for the disruption this curiosity causes.

The novel reveals the frictions, frustrations, infidelities, betrayals and imperilled friendships that go on in the harbourside’s fractious families and isolated individuals. Everyone watches everyone else: there’s a good deal of curtain-twitching as lonely individuals keep an eye on the comings and goings around the once-busy, now dying harbour.

Taylor’s usual sharp eye for telling detail is apparent. She describes the world of nature as if it were a living chorus, or reflection of the human drama onshore: the sea is sometimes ‘queasy’; ‘waves exploded and crashed’ as a young couple walk the coastal path, anticipating love; the fish being caught far out at sea ‘fought and slithered in the nets, floundering and entangled.’

She seems most at home with the middle-class characters, but she writes with acuity about the working classes, too – without romanticising or evading harsh realities.

If you haven’t yet tried Elizabeth Taylor’s fiction, this would be a good place to start: not her most subtle work, but I’m sure you’ll not regret exploring her fiction (the short stories are excellent, too – list of links to my posts at the end).

HeronRecent walks: a few days ago with Mrs TD I crossed town and did the circuit of a park beside which runs a tidal river. There we saw this elegant grey heron, poised like a dancer as it fished in the muddy shallows – the tide was low.

Another day I had to step into the shelter of a rural gateway to let a car pass in the narrow lane. As I looked across the huge garden of this country house I saw a large grey and white goat standing on the roof of a shed. His back was towards me, but he must have sensed my presence, because he obligingly turned to face me as I zoomed in with my phone camera to take his picture. He was too far away to include the photo here – he’s just a blur.

I looked online but couldn’t figure what breed he was. The nearest I could get was an Icelandic goat. What’s he doing in Cornwall?

Mossy wall

Yesterday I took one of our favourite local routes, and I had to take this picture of a lovely old Cornish hedge. Maybe not as authentic as those in the open country; this one is the outer wall of a house on the edge of town in a small development of fairly modern properties. Even so, it’s got a lovely downy coat of moss.

 

The River Kenwyn flows in the valley     River Kenwynjust below our house. This view is from the road bridge just as the river enters the outskirts of the city. All looks very monochrome and bare in December, but buds are bursting on the tree branches. Do the fish have trouble swimming against the strong currents in the swollen waters after recent heavy rain? How do they see where they’re going when it’s so muddied by the run-off from the steeply sloping fields upstream?

Saw two dippers splashing around in one of the other rivers that enters the built-up area across town the other day. I think they’re the only British birds that can swim underwater.

Also finally caught a good view of one of the tawny owls that haunt our valley: we hear their screeches, hoots and whistle most nights, but so far I’ve never managed to see one. This one was only about thirty feet away, perched on a branch just beyond our garden fence. He blinked at me nonchalantly in the beam of my torch, swivelled his head in that owly way they have, then took off.

CrocusFinally, the first winter flowers appeared in our garden yesterday: a crocus in a pot and a snowdrop by the bird feeder. The delinquent squirrel, who ate all the crocus bulbs last year, has spared most of them this winter, but I did see this morning the shredded remains of a crocus flower – as if he’d left a sinister message for me. You thought I’d given up, didn’t you?

That’s why, as I watched him in the owl’s tree this morning, he arrogantly turned his back and flounced his tail at me. Like a French archer at Agincourt. Pesky little rodent.

Links to all my Elizabeth Taylor posts (five novels and the complete short stories) HERE.

 

More lockdown rambles

I won’t comment on last week’s events in Washington DC, or the subsequent craven behaviour by those who supported them. Neither shall I mention the worsening Covid crisis here in the UK. We’re now in our third lockdown as cases surge alarmingly.

All we can do, me and Mrs TD, is to go for our daily country walks, tune in to nature, and get through each day. I have managed to read most of Elizabeth Taylor’s early novel A View from the Harbour, so should be posting on that soon.

Meadows in shadow at noon

Meadows in shadow at noon

The weather finally brightened last week: cold and frosty, but this was because of the clear sky overnight. Daytime was therefore crisp, sunny and beautiful. Even though the sun barely struggled above the horizon at noon. Long shadows were cast by the trees at the edge of this local meadow.

That was at the end of the walk that day. Earlier I looked over the hedge beside the lane I walked along, Sunny scene with birdtowards the north and the wind turbines by the A30 – the main road linking Cornwall with the rest of the country, just beyond the horizon in this shot.

The turbines are barely visible in my picture – but a passing crow managed to photo-bomb it.

A little further along from this scene the lane turns sharply left and drops down into the deep Kenwyn river valley. Here are a couple of pictures of this downward-sloping lane, the first taken (and posted here) last May, the second from my walk last week:

Lane with cowparsleyCountry lane, winter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Earlier this week, as we walked down another local lane, we spotted our first wild daffodils (I included a picture of some cultivated ones at Epiphany House in my post a week or so back) atop a hedgerow.  Early daffodils

 

This week has been warmer – no frost – but very murky, with a misty rain rippling across the countryside.

Here’s a glimpse of the contrast with last week’s conditions: Misty rain

 

 

 

Mrs TD went for her walk today alone as I wanted to write this post. As I was drafting it, she texted me this picture below. I’ve featured these local peacocks several times since the rural rambles became so regular during the Covid restrictions.

This is the first time they’ve been seen together as a group of three. She said there was a fourth one standing ostentatiously on top of his favourite shed roof.

We haven’t heard them screeching, though, since the summer. We’ve spotted the occasional one in recent weeks, moping about this area, all alone, but resolutely silent. Why don’t they screech in winter? Are they sulking?

 

Austin Wright, Tony & Susan

Austin Wright, Tony & Susan. Atlantic Books, 2011. First published in USA 1993.

Austin Wright, who died in 2003, was for many years an English professor at the University of Cincinnatti. There he had the reputation for minute critical analysis of literary texts. I’m afraid this shows in his first novel, Tony & Susan, not entirely in a good way.

It’s technically superb: a taut thriller is embedded in another novel that struggles to emerge from its shadow.

 Austin Wright, Tony & Susan coverSusan is sent the MS of his first novel by her ex-husband, Edward with a request that she provide a critique: something is lacking in it, he says in his letter. They’d divorced after the wreck of their marriage, precipitated by his abandoning a budding law career to indulge his desire to become a writer. Susan wasn’t pleased: she thought he took for granted her complicity in this (to her mind) deluded dream, supporting his fantasy with her salary as a college English teacher.

You see what’s coming: Susan, a self-confessed severe literary critic, especially of Edward’s apprentice work when they were married, reads the novel that forms the basis of this novel. It’s a metafictional, self-reflexive premise that I never fully bought.

The novel-within-a-novel is called Nocturnal Animals – which is the title of Tom Ford’s 2016 film version (I haven’t seen it: I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has). Mild-mannered maths professor Tony, his wife Laura and teenage daughter Helen are driving to Maine. They get involved in a dangerous game of chicken on the highway that culminates in a minor accident. The occupants of both vehicles get out, and it all goes horribly wrong from that point.

The three men from the other vehicle turn out to be nasty individuals, and they force Tony and family into a terrifying ordeal. Tony is forced to question his adequacy and agency. The plot manipulates him into increasingly destabilising positions.

All of this is narrated with alternating sections in which we get Susan’s back story and her reactions to Edward’s novel as it develops. Here’s where I started to lose engagement: as a teacher of literature she evaluates Edward’s narrative that I’d just read, and her analysis occluded my own. I felt placed in a position of uncertainty in my own judgement. This is probably what the author intended, but if that’s the case, I didn’t care for it.

Susan also inevitably looks for a personal message in this rather gruesome story. Is her ex suggesting that she is represented by one of the characters in his novel? If so, which one: the academic, unheroic Tony, who feels guilty and ashamed that he can’t act more decisively to protect himself and his family? Or, even worse, the leader of the men who threaten them? Or the detective who tries to help Tony find the thugs, eventually by resorting to dangerously unorthodox methods that expose Tony to even more menacing dilemmas and confrontations?

Similar questions arise about Edward: is he represented in some way by one of the characters? If so, what might be his cryptic message to Susan?

Wright manipulates Susan’s response, and my own. I was assessing her assessment of Nocturnal Animals and attempts to interpret it in terms of her two experiences of married life – after divorcing Tony, she’d married Arnold, a philandering doctor and had three children – and Edward’s: he’d remarried too. Is his novel really an allegory of their two lives: is he suggesting that they made a mistake by divorcing, or is he just taunting her for leaving him?

As a postmodern puzzle dressed up in a noirish tale of violence and menace it’s entertaining in patches, but ultimately rather cold and…I don’t know, kind of pointless.

Nunez, daffodils, holy wells again

Sigrid Nunez, Salvation City. Virago paperback, 2020. First published 2010

I thought Sigrid Nunez’ 2018 novel The Friend (link to my post HERE) was an intelligent, well-written and highly engaging read. I was disappointed by Salvation City.

Nunez, Salvation City coverMaybe it’s because it’s set in an imagined near-future flu pandemic in which many die – including some of the central characters in the narrative. Given our current dire situation here in the UK, where we’ve just entered our third lockdown in response to a scary surge in Covid cases, it wasn’t perhaps the best choice to cheer me up.

I don’t think that fully accounts for my dissatisfaction with the novel. The long central section has the 13-year-old protagonist, a sensitive lad named Cole, being more or less indoctrinated by a group of well-meaning religious zealots who live in the city of the novel’s title. They are convinced that the pandemic is God’s way of initiating the rapture, and only the chosen (ie those same fundamentalists) will achieve ‘salvation’.

I very nearly gave up on the novel after too many pages of their fanatical self-righteousness. Towards the end Cole shows signs of asserting himself and going his own way, but by then I’d almost ceased caring.

I’m afraid I can’t recommend this one – but do try The Friend. Don’t worry about the dog in it.

DaffodilsInstead here’s an image from yesterday’s local walk. In the grounds of Epiphany House (I recently wrote during first lockdown in April about this former convent and school, now a retreat and conference centre – though not much retreating or conferring is happening there at the moment – HERE). These are the first daffodils I’ve seen this winter. They lifted our spirits. Spring is on the way

It’s weird to be walking our local lanes and paths in a January lockdown, almost a year since we started doing this pretty much every day as our only permitted exercise during the first pandemic restrictions. We’ve seen spring flowers come and go, summer hedgerows burst into life, autumn and now midwinter. Soon the cycle will be back where we started. I guess the message is that life goes on (despite the efforts of our hapless leaders, who seem always to be tardily reactive, rather than proactive and firmly decisive).

Holywell Finally a picture taken the previous day at a north Cornwall beach we haven’t been to in ages: Holywell Bay. There are two holy wells in the area: one, a sea cave in the cliffs over the beach (the tide was too high for us to enter it), the other in what’s now a holiday park in the nearby village of Cubert. Their holy, healing qualities are said to derive from association with the northern English St Cuthbert, or a Welsh St Cubert.

The figure just visible in my picture top left is my brother-in-law, peering into the abyss. No, he was investigating a curious concrete structure in the clifftop – possibly some sort of bunker: this area adjoins Penhale, a stretch of sand dunes on which there’s a military establishment which the public can’t access. This is where Cornwall’s patron saint, Piran, is said to have landed on his miraculous stone from Ireland. I wrote about him and his oratory in the dunes HERE back in 2016.

You can read more about the wells and this area HERE. Link to my two posts on Bede’s Life of Cuthbert HERE.

 

Happy New Year to you all. As we’re all saying at the moment, surely this will be an improvement on last year.

 

 

Nikki’s swims

Nikki’s pool

I wanted to share with you today a personal story about my amazing, inspirational stepdaughter, Nikki. When she was just 19 she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a blood cancer, and was given a ‘target of five years – get that far without a recurrence and she’d have done well’. She underwent the trauma of radiotherapy and chemo, and was told it was unlikely she’d be able to have children. Soon after this I met her mother, who subsequently became Mrs TD; Nikki became my lovely daughter.

She’s now 48, married, with a daughter and a son, aged twelve and fifteen.

That’s not all. Four years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Back to the horrors of chemo and a mastectomy. She now has an annual mammogram, followed by the agonising wait for the results letter a few weeks afterwards. She prays for a ‘thin letter’ – it’s the fat ones that bring bad news.

Nikki’s pool, swimmers, blue sky

In the recent past she’s become fond of water-based activities – kayaking, paddle-boarding. Since the summer she’s become addicted to wild swimming. She’s been going to a seawater pool on the coast near where she lives, accompanied by an equally crazy friend or two, sometimes her firefighter husband.

Most of her working life Nikki has worked in the National Health Service, most recently in cancer services. She’s a passionate advocate of ensuring the best support and care is available for those who are having treatment, or are survivors of cancer.

A friend of hers, also an NHS worker, was so impressed with Nikki’s courage and obvious pleasure in her cold-water swims that she created a link for herself and others to make donations to the charity Cancer Research UK for every swim Nikki completed this December. At the time of writing she’s raised over £800.

I was going to write here about Nikki’s swimming, but thought she expressed it far better than I could in her own personal blog. She’s given me permission to quote from it here, and to use some of her pictures.

Extract from her Shephards Way blog, 2 Nov: link HERE

Nikki and her pool (or lake)

I’ve been asked quite a lot recently A. Am I mad? B. How do I do it? Cold water swimming that is …. we can come back to other answers for A. another time.

Mr S [Nikki’s husband] had invited me cold water swimming a while back and I had politely declined – my reasons were mainly vanity and size based. Roll on 4 months and a good number of swims tucked under my swimsuit I am HOOKED. Vanity and size-based concerns have literally been washed away: I don’t care that I may look like a plonker in my pink hat, black costume and boots – I am as happy as happy can be! It is the most liberating feeling I have ever experienced, well apart from the big purposeful flash I did the other night just after a dusk swim, but we can save that for another time too.

Christmas Eve swim!

I would say I’m a fearful and anxious person by nature but I’m think my anxiety has also developed through my life experiences. I often think of myself as a not very brave person, definitely not someone who likes to step too far out of their comfort zone, although I am known for pushing my limits a little at times. BUT when I swim in cold water I feel the bravest person I know! Bonkers eh??

When I am driving to the lake, I get a little knot of anxiety in my tummy – I think it’s also mixed in with a little excitement. I get out of my warm gear and pop on my swimming hat and boots. As I walk to the steps into the lake the excitement builds a little. The first few steps are cold (obviously) but I take a big deep breath and as I exhale I swim off into the lake. With certain friends at this point there is a loud woo hoo. Initially there is some tingling pain mainly in my arms then as I swim I start to get used to the feeling and strangely my body sort of warms up! My mind during this point is doing what I think is most clever, it is overriding all my natural fears, it’s forcing me to think of the water, the feel of the fresh air on my face, to be aware of my oh so clever body. I look around at the sights, people watch, gaze over the sea to Wales, to the gorgeous iconic pier. I can hear the water lapping around me as I push on through, the sound of silence or the hum and chatter of friends or others. For a brief moment in time I am fearless, I am free and I am happy.

The return to shore is exciting too, the sense of having just done something mad makes me dizzy with excitement, wanting to take pictures and to share my euphoric state with everyone!! Then there is the getting dressed, the woolly hat, plenty of layers and the hot chocolate, before setting off back to life again!

My perfect moment in time, where for a short space in time I am brave, strong, invincible and cancer doesn’t exist.

An evening swim with head torch

In a recent Guardian article: ‘Nature has healing powers: Britain’s Covid heroes share their favourite outdoor spaces’, several people talk of the beaches, woods and other places in which they’ve felt connected with nature and its restorative, calming influences (link HERE).

Nikki is more of a heroine, to my mind, than any of these worthy individuals!

Camellias, pheasants and Tess of the D’Urbervilles

This was going to be a post about Salvation City, the second Sigrid Nunez novel I’ve read recently (I posted on The Friend in September, HERE). I find that my Covid-era lethargy persists, however, and its setting in a near-future flu pandemic also puts me off for now. I’ll return to it another time.

As I returned from my daily walk yesterday I was passing the house and garden at the bottom of my road. There’s a large camellia that forms part of the garden border, hanging over the footpath next to it. This camellia produces beautiful pink flowers every December, and this year is no exception.

As I paused to admire them, one of them dropped off and fell with a soft thud onto the damp pavement at my feet. It looked perfectly healthy: it hadn’t blown or turned brown. I suppose it just gave up on blooming.

What happened next quite disturbed me. I recalled vividly the troublesome scene with the dying pheasants in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

It takes place when Tess has fled from the sinister, unwanted sexual attentions of Alec, found love with Angel, and then disaster strikes again when, soon after marrying him, he learns about her…dalliance with Alec. In a fit of moral outrage he rejects her and takes off to sulk in Brazil, leaving her penniless and vulnerable to the renewed sexual predation of Alec.

As she wanders the country, trying to figure out how to subsist, she turns aside to spend the night in a tree plantation. She sleeps fitfully in her ‘nest’ of leaves, under the branches, and is often disturbed by ‘strange noises’. She feels ‘wretched’ and that she’s wasted her life: ‘All was, alas, worse than vanity–injustice, punishment, exaction, death.’ She wishes she were dead. (It’s not the most cheerful of novels…) Here’s what follows  – extract from Phase the Fifth: The Woman Pays, ch. 41 (available at The Literature Page website – this is described there as the 1891 text):

In the midst of these whimsical fancies she heard a new strange sound among the leaves. It might be the wind; yet there was scarcely any wind. Sometimes it was a palpitation, sometimes a flutter; sometimes it was a sort of gasp or gurgle. Soon she was certain that the noises came from wild creatures of some kind, the more so when, originating in the boughs overhead, they were followed by the fall of a heavy body upon the ground. Had she been ensconced here under other and more pleasant conditions she would have become alarmed; but, outside humanity, she had at present no fear.

Day at length broke in the sky. When it had been day aloft for some little while it became day in the wood.

Directly the assuring and prosaic light of the world’s active hours had grown strong she crept from under her hillock of leaves, and looked around boldly. Then she perceived what had been going on to disturb her. The plantation wherein she had taken shelter ran down at this spot into a peak, which ended it hitherward, outside the hedge being arable ground. Under the trees several pheasants lay about, their rich plumage dabbled with blood; some were dead, some feebly twitching a wing, some staring up at the sky, some pulsating quickly, some contorted, some stretched out–all of them writhing in agony, except the fortunate ones whose tortures had ended during the night by the inability of nature to bear more.

Tess guessed at once the meaning of this. The birds had been driven down into this corner the day before by some shooting-party; and while those that had dropped dead under the shot, or had died before nightfall, had been searched for and carried off, many badly wounded birds had escaped and hidden themselves away, or risen among the thick boughs, where they had maintained their position till they grew weaker with loss of blood in the night-time, when they had fallen one by one as she had heard them.

Tess in the plantation

Tess in the plantation

Her response to this gruesome experience is interesting. She pities the maimed and dying birds that survived being shot, and ‘tenderly’ wrings their necks to end their suffering, tears running down her cheeks. The plight of these unfortunate pheasants causes her to snap out of her self-pity: their misery was far more severe than her own:

‘”I be not mangled, and I be not bleeding, and I have two hands to feed and clothe me.”‘ She was ashamed of herself for her gloom of the night, based on nothing more tangible than a sense of condemnation under an arbitrary law of society which had no foundation in Nature.

You can see, I hope, why the fall of the camellia and the flashing into my mind of this melodramatic scene in a novel not noted for its emotional restraint caused me such disturbance.

The camellia tree

I stopped to take these pictures of the lovely blooms that still flourish on the tree: maybe I should emulate Tess and refrain from gloomy thoughts.

Although Christmas for most of us this year will be different from what we might have hoped, Tess’s response reminds us that nature always has the capacity to restore and renew.

[Illustration of Tess in the plantation is by Joseph Syddall – plate 22 from the monthly serialisation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. Originally published in monthly parts (with censored text) in the London Graphic magazine, 1891, in three volumes in book form the same year, and in one volume in 1892. Image from The Victorian Web site HERE]Camellia flower

Charlotte Wood, The Weekend

Charlotte Wood, The Weekend. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2020. First published in Australia by Allen & Unwin, 2019

An aged man is but a paltry thing,/A tattered coat upon a stick… WB Yeats, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’

During this pandemic it’s become apparent that there aren’t many terms for people in the final years of their lives that don’t sound patronising or demeaning: the elderly (like the infirm: a category of useless outsiders, surplus to societal requirements). Older people. Older than normal people, is the implication.

Older women in fiction are even scarcer than the men. They often serve as slightly comical or absurd, often acidic commentators on the antics of the more interesting younger people around them – like the battleaxe in Downton Abbey whose name I forget, or the dowagers in Victorian novels who view the perceived shortcomings of the ‘girls’ of marriageable age in their social circles with disapproval.

Fiction writers tend to be more interested in younger people – those who are still useful to society, of breeding age or raising their young, holding down jobs and contributing to the economy – or, if they’re not, finding ways of dealing with this. They have agency.

There are notable exceptions to this tendency. Elizabeth Taylor, more recently, Elizabeth Strout. I’m sure you can think of many more. Devon-based blogger Caroline focuses (among other subjects) on older women in fiction in her Bookword blog (link HERE), and is doing her bit to shift the balance in our perception of this demographic.

Charlotte Wood, The Weekend front coverI was inspired to read Australian author Charlotte Wood’s recent novel The Weekend by a review at Lisa Hill’s ANZ Litlovers blog last December (link HERE) and a follow-up post in May 2020, about the Yarra Yarra writers festival (link HERE). Like a less sentimental Golden Girls, it deals with the bonds and tensions between three women in their early seventies. She does this with frankness, insight and quite a bit of humour. She doesn’t idealise these women: they’re all flawed in their own ways. But they’re all interesting, vulnerable and utterly convincing as characters.

Every Christmas they would gather at the beach house of Sylvie and her partner Gail. This year it’s different – Sylvie has died earlier that year, and Gail has cleared out their city house and gone to Ireland, and invited Jude, Adele and Wendy to do the same for the beach house, taking anything they want to keep for themselves. Sylvie’s death prompts intimations of mortality and decline in all of them.

Fissures in the three women’s friendship appear right from the start. Even though they’ve been close for decades and know each other better than their own siblings, ‘strange caverns of distance between them’ are revealed.

Jude, an elegant ex-restauranteur, is judgemental, bossy and spiky. She’s been conducting an affair with a married man for forty years, and there’s little sign he’ll ever commit to her.

Adele is an actor noted for her glamour rather than her talent, and the acting parts have dried up along with her looks. She’s become desperate to revive her career, and begins to humiliate herself as the weekend proceeds. Some of these scenes are almost painful to read.

Wendy is an intellectual, a published feminist. She’s also adrift, having lost her much-loved husband, and her direction and purpose in life. Much to the annoyance of Jude, she’s brought along her incontinent, bewildered old dog Finn, whose dementia foreshadows perhaps the fate of these women. Jude insists he stays outside the house, convinced he’ll soil the expensive white sofa she’d given to Sylvie, and is intolerant of his senility.

This hostility reflects the occasional attitude of much of wider society towards older people in the community. They’re an embarrassment, and best kept out of sight. The kindest thing, Jude believes, would be to put the old dog out of his misery. Why don’t we do this for people, is the inference she’d probably not acknowledge.

There’s not much in the way of plot, although it’s not surprising that startling secrets spill out that threaten the fragile equilibrium of this friendship. It’s unclear until the end whether life-affirming connections that hold the women together will prevail against the rifts that open up between them, or whether their weekend will end in acrimony and disaster.

I realise I may have made The Weekend sound a bit depressing – it isn’t. There’s some cracking dialogue and wit in the narrative, and the prose is unfussy and sprightly. Right at the start, when Jude is thinking about her lover’s unsuccessful attempt to elicit her sympathy for a relative of his who’s died (she feels more inclined to spit on the floor than to hug him), she admonishes herself not to be so ‘hard on people’. Then:

Jude hated other candles being lit next to the one she secretly thought of as Sylvie’s, in the cathedral she had stolen into once or twice. Sometimes she blew the other candles out.

I like the way Wood has Jude ‘steal’ into the cathedral, and vindictively blow out the other candles – she doesn’t even seem to have lit one for Sylvie herself! Her acerbity conceals an almost-lost capacity for affection.

Later, Adele reflects painfully on the way that Jude would never praise her acting performances or the plays she appeared in. Instead she ‘demolished the various elements’ of the production, because:

Jude was like a reverse Midas, walking through your life pointing at the things you cherished, one, two, three, and at her touch each one turned to shit.

It was said of Jude she ‘didn’t have friends, she had subordinates.’ But that was when she was younger, Jude has begun to realise. Now she has nothing except her part-time, absent lover.

None of this is spelt out; my extracts indicate how Wood carefully presents the minds of her characters in turn through free indirect thought, with all their evasions and elisions, as they contemplate the actions of others and their own inconsistencies.

Wood’s capacity to splice barbed revelation with humour is one of the highlights of this novel. Like the moment where Wendy looks at Sylvie’s (probably unread) copy of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. She recalls how they all liked talking about death when they were younger, especially Jude:

Back then Jude talked about her image of death; a white, curved place of stillness and a kind of holy silence. She made it sound like the damned Guggenheim.

Wendy goes on to think of her unsympathetic daughter’s friend, who’d set herself up as ‘an end-of-life doula’:

What’s that, Wendy had said, palliative care without the qualifications?

Hadn’t this woman heard of feminism, she wonders. She can be spiky too.  And of course she’s also pondering the way her own feminist career has run its course – she’s becoming another ‘paltry thing’. But all of these women are finding ways for their souls to ‘clap hands and sing’ – and refuse to slouch into senility.

 

 

Lockdown diary

I’m still finding it difficult to summon the energy to read much, let alone post, so today I thought I’d do another account of recent events.

My first cake

My first cake

Before lockdown ended last Wednesday I thought it was time I baked my first ever cake. With some supervision from Mrs TD – an excellent cook and baker – I produced this beauty: a Victoria sponge, with raspberry jam in the middle. It was delicious.

Next day the weather finally improved, so we went for a walk on the north Cornwall coast. The beach at Crantock was our dog’s favourite place, and is still one of ours.

Polly Joke

Polly Joke

We love the walk along the coastal path to the next bay: Polly Joke. I’ve posted here earlier this year with pictures of the beautiful display of poppies there in the summer. My picture shows the aftermath of the stormy weather during the preceding week.

When lockdown ended we found ourselves in Tier 1 – one of only a few areas in the country not to face tighter restrictions because of the recent surge in Covid cases here in the UK. On another fine sunny day we went to the south coast.

St Austell Bay

St Austell Bay

We took a picnic: Mrs TD’s home-made roast tomato and red pepper soup and a sandwich, which we ate on a bench overlooking St Austell Bay. My picture shows the sea as flat as a lake, gleaming like polished metal in the low winter sunshine.

On Monday I walked alone locally while Mrs TD had her Zoom yoga class at home. There were angry-looking dark clouds being buffeted across the sky by a blustery wind, but in between the sun was bright and the sky blue.

Pig lane view

This is the view from a lane that runs along the valley cut by the river Allen. There used to be a huge pig that wallowed in the mud beside the river below the farm, so we call this the Pig Lane – even though she’s long since gone for bacon.

Yesterday for another walk around Feock and the creekside paths (very muddy after all the recent rain) to Penpol and back.

I’ve posted before about the lovely little church in Feock, and the saint after whom the village is named. I finally traced the location of the holy well named after him: websites gave conflicting information.

Steps leading to St Feock's Well

Steps leading to St Feock’s Well

It’s a fairly modern-looking brick structure at the bottom of a slope, reached by a set of rough steps. Iron bars – like a prison cell’s – are the only way of seeing inside, so it’s very dark. Murky water the colour of milky tea looks uninviting. I can’t imagine this water having very curative powers – rather the contrary.St Feock's well

 

 

 

 

 

Since the lockdown ended the town has become very busy again. Everyone seems intent on making up for lost time, doing their Christmas shopping. I prefer to avoid the crowds and stick to my rural walks. As always we feel so fortunate to live in such a lovely place. The scenery always lifts our spirits.

So do the plants and wildlife. My bird feeder is regularly visited by a handsome nuthatch. The bullfinches that were regular visitors earlier in the year are also starting to return after the summer hiatus. Mrs TD insists that the birds fend for themselves during the summer. She says naturally foraged food is bountiful at that time, and they’ll become lazy and probably delinquent if we carry on feeding them through those months.

She’s not usually so tough.

Cairngorm pilgrim: Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain

Nan Shepherd (1893-1981), The Living Mountain. Canongate, 2014 (The Canons series)

‘One never quite knows the mountain, nor oneself in relation to it.’

Nan Shepherd wrote this homage to the Cairngorm mountains mostly towards the end of the second world war, but was advised by a well-meaning correspondent that it would never find a publisher. She put the MS in a drawer where it remained until it was published ‘quietly’ (as Robert Macfarlane puts it in his introduction to this edition) in 1977.

I find it as difficult to describe as he does:

A celebratory prose-poem? A geo-poetic quest? A place-paean? A philosophical enquiry into the nature of knowledge? A metaphysical mash-up of Presbyterianism and the Tao?

Mountains have long inspired powerful emotions in those who contemplate them. Edmund Burke, in his examination (1757) of all things ‘sublime’, such as mountain ranges, believed that ‘terror’ was its ‘ruling principle’. Until the time of the early Romantics, wild nature in all its forms, especially mountains, were viewed with similar misgivings, although there was always a concession that mighty vistas inspired feelings of awe. Rude nature was seen as something of an imperfection, a visual proof of the fall of humankind from grace. It was chaos – the antithesis of human reason and logic.

I came across a fine example of this wary attitude to nature’s wildness when listening to a podcast recently of the Radio 4 programme The Verb (dated 29.6.18), an episode called ‘Northern Rocks’ – about the craggy hills of the north of England. One contributor cited the English author and rent collector in Scotland, Edward Burt (died 1755; he was also a surveyor for the making of General Wade’s military roads there after the 1715 Jacobite rebellion). Burt wrote in 1727-28 about Scottish mountains in a grumpy letter to a friend (published 1754):

I shall soon conclude this description of the outward appearance of the mountains, which I am already tired of, as a disagreeable subject. . . . There is not much variety, but gloomy spaces, different rocks, heath, and high and low, . . . the whole of a dismal gloomy brown drawing upon a dirty purple; and most of all disagreeable when the heath is in bloom. But of all the views, I think the most horrid is, to look at the hills from east to west, or vice versa; for then the eye penetrates far among them, and sees more particularly their stupendous bulk, frightful irregularity, and horrid gloom, made yet more sombrous by the shades and faint reflections they communicate one to another.Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland to his Friend in London. Fifth edit., vol. i. p. 285. (Link to this quotation online HERE).

Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain front coverWordsworth was to use the term ‘sublime’ about his beloved Lakeland mountain region in a more transcendendent sense, and he was influential in changing the largely negative attitudes to wild nature prevalent until his time (though there was a fashion in the decades before him for admiring the ‘picturesque’ – sanitised tableaux of natural scenes to be admired in urban drawing-rooms). Shepherd favours this Wordsworthian attitude, with a dose of sensuality, metaphysics and Zen thrown in. She’s also a sort of rural psychogeographer or flâneuse, if it’s possible to be one outside of an urban setting:

Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with them…

She has no truck with the (mostly male) climbers who seek simply to chalk up another peak to their tally of conquests. Mountains are not there to be vanquished. Her approach is more selfless, spiritual and poetic.

The dustjacket of this book carries a quotation from the Guardian newspaper: ‘The finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain’. I wasn’t convinced of this until the final three chapters. The poetic prose and lofty transcendentalism was a bit heady for my taste – though there were some lovely descriptions of the flora and fauna as well as the topography of the mountains. Then I must have become attuned to the style and approach.

There are some memorable moments, like the description of her waking from a sleep outside her tent (in the summer, of course) to find an owl perched on her tent-pole. She writes beautifully about the ‘swiftness’ of many of the creatures that live on the mountain: the eagle, peregrine falcon, red deer and mountain hare. But this isn’t sentiment or gush: as a sensible naturalist she recognises that being speedy is ‘severely practical’ –

…food is so scarce up there that only those who can move swiftly over vast stretches of ground may hope to survive. The speed, the whorls and torrents of movement, are in plain fact the mountain’s own necessity. But their grace is not necessity. … Beauty is not adventitious but essential.

This represents the best and worst of Shepherd’s prose style. That second sentence is, well, sublime, but I omitted a long sentence in that extract, which would to my mind have benefitted from some editing.

I don’t want to end on a negative note. Here’s the final paragraph, that conveys this book’s essence:

I believe that I now understand in some small measure why the Buddhist goes on pilgrimage to a mountain. The journey is itself part of the technique by which god is sought. It is a journey into Being; for as I penetrate more deeply into a mountain’s life, I penetrate also into my own. For an hour I am beyond desire. It is not ecstasy, that leap out of the self that makes man like a god. I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am. To know Being, this is the final grace accorded from the mountain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let us alone: Polly Samson, A Theatre for Dreamers

Polly Samson, A Theatre for Dreamers. Bloomsbury Circus, 2020

This was passed on to me by Mrs TD via her sister, who read it first.

I disliked it.

I thought a novel based on the sybaritic lives of artists, writers and poets – including a youthful Leonard Cohen – on the island of Hydra, off the mainland of Greece, in the early sixties, would be fascinating. It wasn’t.

What was wrong with it? Well, it’s overwritten. Although Samson portrays the exotic scenery and Aegean seascapes with some vivid descriptions, they become intrusive, and sometimes strive too hard for poetic effect.

It’s repetitive: the narrative consists largely of tedious, self-absorbed proto-hippies skinny-dipping, or lurching through drunken or drug-hazed parties, well, orgies. Fine if you’d been there, I suppose, but after the first couple of booze-ups I lost what little interest remained. Lotos-eaters are fascinating only to each other; here are Tennyson’s:

In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined/On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind. 

Dozens of interchangeable, shadowy characters appear whose identities we seem to be expected to remember from earlier in the book, but who lack any kind of distinguishing or interesting characteristics. Are these the sex-mad Scandinavian painters, or the sex-mad American drifters? Ultimately it makes little difference. None of them has any substance or depth – nothing like gods, but certainly careless.

The locals fare no better: grizzled, unreconstructed Hydriot fishermen and downtrodden, unliberated women are caricatures seen in a hundred second-rate films. Indeed, Sophia Loren’s role in ‘The Boy with the Dolphin’, filmed partly in Hydra, is name-checked several times. I’ve not seen it, but from what I read about it online it sounds no more authentic than Polly Samson’s Hydriot ciphers.

The expat characters are almost all unpleasant, narcissistic egotists who spend most of their time (when not getting drunk or high in those parties) bitching or gossiping maliciously and hypocritically about the others in their circle. As they’re all sleeping with each other’s partners, there’s plenty to be vicious about.

Leonard Cohen is a shadowy figure who’s given some toe-curlingly awful pronouncements that are supposed I presume to sound gnomic and profound, but simply come across as pompous or affected.

There’s his famous affair with Marianne, the married, ethereal Norwegian beauty whose husband Axel runs off with the latest in his string of girlfriends. This cad is so despicable it’s a mystery why anyone would ever pass the time of day with him. Oh, and he takes off just after his wife has given birth to their child. Cohen turns out as faithless as the odious Axel.

The central character, Erica, is a naïve eighteen-year old, escaping an abusive father after the death of her mother. Samson contrives a half-hearted mystery about the relationship of her much-loved mother with their ex-neighbour Charmian Clift, the Australian author who now lives as a sort of expat queen bee in Hydra with her ghastly alcoholic husband, also a writer. This storyline limps along for over 300 pages and is hastily resolved in a sort of post-it note final section told from the perspective of Erica decades later. This Australian couple come nearest to fully-fleshed, authentic characters – but they’re increasingly horrible to each other and most of their hedonistic circle of hangers-on. Even Charmian’s occasional softening towards Erica is overshadowed by her drunken rejections of the young woman’s desperate overtures to her to be a mother substitute.

Erica’s brother Bobby is vile to her, while her feckless boyfriend disappears abruptly from the narrative, with barely a gesture at explanation, as Bobby does later. Neither of them is missed by the reader. Erica is too inexperienced in love to know better than to break her heart over their joint betrayal and desertion of her. Not to worry, she’s soon hopping into bed with a few more young men whose identities didn’t register with me enough to recall anything about them, except that I think one was a local potter.

DonkeyI don’t enjoy being negative about the books I post about here, so here’s a nice picture of a doleful donkey I spotted through a hedge on my walk in the country the other day.