Plymouth Pilgrim

Plymouth pilgrimage

Drake statue HoeIf you’ve read this blog recently you’ll know that one of my oldest friends died in May. Michael Flay’s works (reviewed by me) and contributions have featured many times over the years here. He and I used to meet several times a year to talk. Usually it was somewhere between Cheltenham, where he lived, and Truro – most often Plymouth (Bristol and Exeter also, sometimes).

We always travelled by train to these meetings; Mike loved railways. Yesterday I went on a poignant, solitary trip to Plymouth to meet with him in his absence.

Having arrived at Plymouth station concourse at noon, I paused to scan the Arrivals noticeboard. There was the train Mike would have caught: the 13.01 from Cardiff. I would usually wait in the garish buffet over a coffee. I looked towards the barriers, half expecting to see Mike’s customary approach and greeting. Of course, it wasn’t to be.

Armada Way, looking north (wikipedia photo)

Armada Way, looking north (wikipedia photo)

Through the arid shopping precincts of the city (Mike would have called them ‘zones’), rebuilt by modernist zealots after the destruction of the blitz – aimed inaccurately at the naval shipyards – during WWII.

I walked to the Waterfront, a striking art-deco bistro-pub on a terrace right beside Plymouth Sound. To get there I pass over the

The repaired Waterfront bistro terrace with the Hoe behind

The repaired Waterfront bistro terrace with the Hoe and Smeaton’s Tower behind

Hoe, with its stiff statue (see above) of an implausibly theatrical Drake (born in nearby Tavistock), bowling-ball in hand, gazing out implacably towards the expected, despised, ‘invincible’ Armada.

From below the Pilgrim Fathers set out on their puritanical way in 1620 to New Plymouth in New England – the second settlement there. Hence the accent: the West country English burr.

Our favourite table inside the Waterfront when too cold to sit outside

Our favourite table inside the Waterfront when too cold to sit outside

To the West, the estuary of the Tamar, border with my county, Cornwall. To the east, the Plym. Across the broad entrance to the Sound stretches the Breakwater, which has protected the haven since 1814.

Like a whale’s back in the middle of the Sound looms the granite bulk of Drake’s Island.

Drake statue lighthouse









By Drake’s statue the red-and-white striped lighthouse, Smeaton’s Tower, named after its designer, and built by Cornish miners in 1759. Originally located 14 miles offshore, the second of the famous Eddystone lighthouses, it was dismantled and reassembled on the Hoe in 1877, two thirds of its original height. Tourists can now climb to the top to admire the panorama. The tower even has its own Twitter account (@SmeatonsTower).

We used to catch a cab to the Waterfront and have a couple of beers. Mike invariably ordered a burger, but he only ever ate half of it.

The curving facade of the Waterfront and its terrace, with Plymouth Sound behind

The curving facade of the Waterfront and its terrace, with Plymouth Sound behind

It was warm and sunny enough to sit outside and admire the view across the bay. The terrace was almost destroyed in the winter storms a couple of years ago, so we’d taken to spending our lunchtimes at what Mike called ‘the colonial hotel’, about which more later. Sadly, the Waterfront didn’t reopen in time for us to have one more rendezvous there.

A young man with a handsome whippet called Carlos joined his father at the table next to mine. We chatted. The father was from Belfast, and was delighted to hear that my ancestors came from that city. Carlos watched us with canine dignity.

Brittany Ferry in the distance, entering the Sound

Brittany Ferry in the distance, entering the Sound

As we talked I noticed the Britanny Ferries ship approaching. It passed close enough to see its name: ‘L’Armorique’. Plymouth has long been an important trading and naval port, with a busy ferry service to Britanny and Santander, across the choppy Bay of Biscay. Armorica was the ancient Gaulish name for that French peninsula which features so often in Arthurian legends. An apt reminder of the cultural and ethnic links between Old and New Britain (as Geoffrey of Monmouth called Britanny).




L'Armorique ferry passes by

L’Armorique ferry passes by

Mike enjoyed coming to this place: as a child he’d spent many family holidays at the beach resorts nearby, and often visited Plymouth with his parents. I drove us to Cawsand, Kingsand and Whitsand Bay on one occasion when I came by car to meet him. We’d also visited Dartmoor – we liked the grim prison at Princetown, and once had a coffee in the dour café in the village.


Copthorne entranceCopthorne bar areaBack through the shopper-thronged precincts to the hotel bar, our more recent haunt while the Waterfront was rebuilt. It’s an unprepossessing concrete structure, but has a comfortable bar, and does adequate food. This is where my last obituary piece arose: the Sky News with sound off, subtitles scrolling, relating Cameron’s last PMQ session, and the forced jollity of the debating chamber’s farewell to the outgoing Prime Minister.

On the train home I considered whether this had been an uplifting pilgrimage, or morbid wallowing in sadness. On balance I think it was the former: cathartic. I felt his presence, like Eliot’s shadowy figure, the ‘third who walks always beside you’ from the Waste Land, and was able, in some way, to feel we’d communed.









Asides: manutergium, Isidore of Seville, words and etymologies

While I slowly work my way through the 19C Spanish novel La Regenta, by Leopoldo Alas – an immense work running to just over 700 pp in my Penguin Classics translation (but in tiny print, so would be well over a thousand if published in a normal size font) – here’s another rare word I collected a while back.

It can be seen as another example of the ecclesiastical/liturgical terminology that I featured in a recent post. Here’s the (edited) OED Online entry on the word of today:

manutergium, n.

‘ A towel on which a priest dries his hands after washing them before celebrating Mass.’

Etymology: <  post-classical Latin manutergium hand-towel, especially for liturgical purposes (early 5th cent.; from 7th cent. in British sources) <  classical Latin manus hand + terg-, stem of tergēre to wipe. Compare manuterge n. [a towel used in various liturgical contexts by the priest, such as after washing of hands before mass, before administering baptism, etc.]

1774  T. West Antiq. Furness Explan. Ground Plan sig. a2, The piscina, or cistern, at which the priest washed his hands before service..over it hung the manutergium.

It’s sometimes spelt ‘maniturgium’.

Google the word and there pop up a number of similar blog entries seemingly by Catholic priests. It’s traditional for a newly ordained priest to give his parents a gift after celebrating his first Mass. To his mother he gives the manutergium, which he’d used to wipe his hands. It’s a reminder of the shroud in which Jesus was entombed. It is presented to the priest’s mother because she was his first protector on earth, while it serves as an emblem of God’s protection of Christians and their priests.

When the priest’s mother dies, she is buried with the manutergium in her hands, as a sign in the anticipated afterlife that she has given birth to a priest. Mgr Charles Pope, in his blog Lost Liturgy File, posted a poignant piece attesting to this custom back in 2010. His definition is slightly different from the one above; he says it is

a long cloth that was wrapped around the hands of the newly ordained priest after the Bishop anointed his hands with the sacred Chrism (oil).  The purpose was to prevent excess oil from dripping onto vestments or the floor during the remainder of the ordination rites.’ (That term ‘chrism’ was noted in my previous post).

His post continues

The use of the manutergium was discontinued in the current Rite of Ordination. Currently, the newly ordained steps aside to a table after his hands are anointed and uses a purificator to wipe away any excess oil. While it is not technically called the manutergium nor is it exactly the same in design or usage, (for the hands are not wrapped by it), nevertheless this is still a cloth used to wipe away the excess Chrism.

The priest traditionally gives to his father the stole he wore when hearing his first confession. When his father dies, he is buried with the stole in his hands.

Footnotes: 1. Reference works such as Lewis and Short’s Latin Dictionary cite Isidore’s Origines (translated as ‘Etymologies’ in English) for an early definition.

'T and O' mappa mundi from Bk 14 of the Etymologies in its first printed edition, by Guntherus Zainer, Augsburg, 1472. Now in BL

‘T and O’ (or O-T) mappa mundi (orbis terrarum) from Bk 14 in its first printed edition, by Guntherus Zainer, Augsburg, 1472. Now in BL, G.7633 = IB5440 . Jerusalem is depicted at the centre of the globe’s northern hemisphere – the southern one was considered uninhabited or unreachable. The T divides the 3 continents: Asia at the top, twice the size of Europe and Asia. The O is the encircling ocean.

 Isidore of Seville, c. 560-636, compiled this encyclopedia of terms from the Seven Liberal Arts to legal jargon, agriculture and hundreds of other topics towards the end of his life. It was his attempt to preserve all the learning that could be gleaned from classical antiquity that he considered worthwhile. It was hugely influential until the Renaissance.

In Book 19 (of 20), ‘De Navibus, aedificiis et vestibus’ – Ships, buildings and clothing – among other items of clothing, subheaded ‘Bedspreads and other cloths that we use’, he writes:

Facietergium et manitergium a tergendo faciem vel manus vocatum. [online Latin text at]

The face towel (facietergium) and hand towel (manitergium) are named from wiping (tergere) the face (facies) or hands (manus). [online version of a translation by Stephen A. Barney et al., published by Cambridge UP]


  1. According to Wikipedia the Vatican considered naming Isidore the patron saint of the internet – an apt choice, given his massively eclectic and ‘complacently derivative’ textual enterprise (according to his translator Barney, quoted above).

Now back to La Regenta and scandalous provincial goings-on in Vetusta (Oviedo).



Asides: cockpits and cabins

In her entertainingly eclectic blog ‘Finding Time to Write’,Marina Sofia recently wrote a salutary post about blogging: she eschews the advice of ‘social media experts’ and ‘cookie-cutter’ advice from ‘experts’, and advocates her own approach, which is pretty much to write what she damn well likes, when she likes. I like this philosophy, and abide by it myself.

Jerry the dog in his Languedoc garden

Jerry the dog in his Languedoc garden, urging me to throw his frisbee


My regular reader will know that I’ve posted almost every day recently, since returning from my Euro travels (no pictures of elegantly crested parrots this summer, sadly, but I did meet a lovely dog called Jerry). This reflects the fact that I’m currently on leave from the paid job, and have more time to write for the blog.


Like most of those who commented on Marina’s piece, I know I risk alienating my readers by overwhelming them with material. I hope I don’t; readers are sensible people, and will skip items that don’t appeal. I just enjoy writing them, and hope you enjoy reading them.

So here I go. Yesterday I posted about some rather arcane ecclesiastical-liturgical words. Now for something more mundane…

A couple of words entered my mind on the flight home from Brussels. The First Officer, when giving his usual welcome announcement before take-off, referred to the cockpit of the plane. The flight attendant, during the flight, made an announcement about walking through the plane’s cabin. These words intrigued me.

Cockpit: why name that part of the plane after an arena for fighting game birds? I decided to explore…

OED online: (I’ve omitted much of the detail, and given a few of the more interesting [to me] historical references.)

1. A pit or enclosed area in which game-cocks are set to fight for sport; a place constructed for cock-fighting.

1587   T. Churchyard Worthines of Wales sig. N3v,   The Mountaynes stands..In roundnesse such, as it a Cockpit were.

b. Applied to a theatre; and to the pit of a theatre. Obs.

a1616   Shakespeare Henry V (1623) Prol. 11:

Can this Cock-Pit hold The vastie fields of France? Or may we cramme Within this Woodden O, the very Caskes That did affright the Ayre at Agincourt?

a1635   L. Digges in Shaks. Suppl. I. 71   Let but Beatrice And Benedict be seen; lo! in a trice, The cockpit, galleries, boxes, all are full.



Naut. The after part of the orlop deck of a man-of-war; forming ordinarily the quarters for the junior officers, and in action devoted to the reception and care of the wounded.


1706   Phillips’s New World of Words (ed. 6)    Cockpit, in a man of war, is a Place on the lower Floor, or Deck.

1769   W. Falconer Universal Dict. Marine   Cock-pit of a ship of war, the apartments of the surgeon and his mates, being the place where the wounded men are dressed.

1813   R. Southey Life Nelson II. 258   The cockpit was crowded with wounded and dying men; over whose bodies he was with some difficulty conveyed.

1834   F. Marryat Peter Simple I. x. 124   Send him down to the surgeon in the cockpit.


Now here’s the bit I was looking for:


  1. Aeronaut. In the fuselage of any kind of aircraft, or in the capsule of a space vehicle: the space occupied by a pilot, observer, astronaut, or (formerly) a passenger.

I suppose it’s obvious, then, that it’s used as a sort of spatial metaphor, signifying the rather cramped conditions and enclosed nature of the space where the pilot(s) sit…This would explain the next entry, for similar reasons:

Motor Racing. The space in a racing car occupied by the driver.

Next I turned to:

Online etymological dictionary

1580s, “a pit for fighting cocks,” from cock (n.1) + pit (n.1). Used in nautical sense (1706) for midshipmen’s compartment below decks; transferred to airplanes (1914) and to cars (1930s).


nacelle, n

late 15c., “small boat,” from Old French nacele “little boat, bark, skiff” (12c., Modern French nacelle), from Vulgar Latin *naucella, from Late Latin navicella “a little ship,” diminutive of navis “ship” (see naval). Meaning “gondola of an airship” is from 1901; extended to “cockpit of an aircraft” by 1914; later transferred to other similar housings and structures.

[I like that use of ‘gondola’ for the basket part of an airship. Poetic.]

Now for:


cabin, n. [OED online again]

 Etymology: Middle English cabane , < French cabane (= Provençal cabana , [etc.])< late Latin capanna


  1. A permanent habitation of rough or rudimentary construction; a poor dwelling.

Applied esp. to the mud or turf-built dwellings of slaves or impoverished peasantry, as distinguished from the more comfortable ‘cottage’ of working men, or from the ‘hut’ of traditional African homesteads, or the temporary ‘hut’ of travellers, explorers, etc.

c1440   Promptorium Parvulorum 57   Caban, lytylle howse, pretoriolum, capana.

3. A cell: e.g. of an anchorite or hermit, in a convent or prison; a cell of a honeycomb.

1362   Langland Piers Plowman A. xii. 35   Clergy in to a caban crepte.


  1. [Here we go: the aircraft usage]

 A room or compartment in a vessel for sleeping or eating in. An apartment or small room in a ship for officers or passengers. Also in an aircraft or spacecraft.

1382   Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) Ezek. xxvii. 6   Thi seetis of rowers..and thi litil cabans.

Ok, so it’s another spatial metaphor: the plane’s ‘cabin’ is of necessity confined, cribbed…of course! That’s why these words were niggling in my mind. I was thinking of Macbeth, and the line that’s become a cliché: back to OED online:

cabin, v.

 3. To shut up or confine within narrow and hampering bounds. (Mostly after Shakespeare [see, I was right].)

a1616   Shakespeare Macbeth (1623) iii. iv. 23   Now I am cabin’d, crib’d, confin’d, bound in.

1818   Byron Childe Harold: Canto IV cxxvi. 66   The faculty divine Is chain’d and tortured—cabin’d, cribb’d, confined.

1846   E. Bulwer-Lytton Lucretia III. ii. xviii. 116   [One who] had the authority to cabin his mind in the walls of form.

1871   E. A. Freeman Hist. Norman Conquest (1876) IV. xvii. 58   The newer foundation was cabined, cribbed, and confined  in a very narrow space between the Cathedral Church and the buildings of the City. [There’s the evidence of the cliché: it’s almost impossible to use ‘cabin’ as a verb without adding the other two synonyms used by Shakespeare]

So there we are: the two words are a consequence of our language’s fondness for metaphorical neologisms and coinages – especially when Shakespeare can be tapped into.

Let’s finish with another picture of my much-missed canine friend, Jerry:








Asides: aumbry, chrism, laver, accolade

Bottomley Abbeys cover Frank Bottomley’s The Explorer’s Guide to the Abbeys, Monasteries and Churches of Great Britain (Avenel Books, New York, 1984) was bought by me, according to an inscription on the flyleaf, in Windsor in 1987. It’s an alphabetical glossary of terms related to eccclesiastical and monastic terminology, especially architectural and liturgical. It’s fascinating, full of arcane stuff that appeals to the ex-medievalist in me, and has delightful, rather crude, line drawings. Weirdly the front cover has the author’s name spelt wrongly, as my picture shows.

I pulled it off the shelves this morning and found at random this entry, a term I’d forgotten (definition, etc., abridged from online OED):

aumbry, n.

Mid-13C aumbry, St Matthew's church, Langford, Oxon

Mid-13C aumbry, St Matthew’s church, Langford, Oxon

Etymology (abridged): < (i) Anglo-Norman almarie … (also OF, MF armaire, MF, French armoire) niche, cabinet, cupboard, closet, bookcase, library, chest (12th cent.), and its etymon (ii) classical Latin armārium cabinet, cupboard, bookcase, in post-classical Latin also recess in a wall (12th cent. in a British source), shelf (1440 in a British glossarial source) < arma gear, tools, arms + -ārium

Perhaps sometimes associated by folk etymology with ALMONRY n., as if a place for alms…

1. A container for storing books, a bookcase; (occas.) a room where books or other documents are stored, a library, an archive. Formerly also: †a repository or compendium of knowledge, such as a chronicle or commentary (obs.). Now hist. (chiefly in the form almery) and rare.
2. More generally.
a. A place for storing things, as a cupboard, locker, safe, press, etc.; a repository; (in later use) esp. a niche or recess in a wall used for storage. Formerly also (occas.): †a storeroom or storehouse (obs.).
Earliest recorded in attrib. use.

1886 R. L. STEVENSON Kidnapped iv. 37 ‘The blue phial,’ said he—‘in the aumry—the blue phial.’..I ran to the cupboard.
1972 B. MOORE Catholics ii. 77 The Abbot crossed the cloister to a bay where there was an ambry used for storing wood.

b. Christian Church. A cupboard, locker, or recess in the wall of a church or church building, to hold books, communion vessels, vestments, etc. This is the sense in which Bottomley uses it; he gives several examples of churches where they survive. They might have also been used for storage of ‘towels for laver’ (source of my surname? French ‘laverie’):

LAVER: monastic place for washing hands before meals ‘and for performing the morning toilet’. It would also be used in the ‘maundy’ – ritual footwashing (a symbol of fraternity and humility).


A chrismatory, German,1636, now in the V & A Museum, London

1555 W. WATERMAN tr. J. Boemus Fardle of Facions II. xii. 301 Upon the right hande of the highe aulter, that ther should be an almorie, either cutte into the walle, or framed vpon it: in the whiche thei would haue the Sacrament of the Lordes bodye, the holy oyle for the sicke, and the Chrismatorie, alwaie to be locked.

********   **********

Glass ambry for oil (chrism) of catechumens (candidates for baptism) and the sick

Glass ambry for oil (chrism) of catechumens (candidates for baptism) and the sick

Wikipedia points out (s.v. ‘ambry’) that it stored elements used in the Eucharistic ceremony; the pyx would also serve this purpose. In Catholic usage it is where the various holy oils are stored, including the splendidly named chrism (from the Greek for ‘anointing’ or ‘unction’). It us used in the ceremonies of Confirmation or chrismation, and the sacraments of baptism and Holy Orders; also for consecration of altars and churches. It’s made from olive oil infused with sweet perfume such as balsam.

These holy oils are stored in receptacles called chrismaria and they’re kept in…yes, an aumbry.

In the Confirmation ceremony, associated with the renewal of baptismal vows when a person has reached an age of sufficient maturity to choose to make the renewal, the bishop would accompany the final ‘pax tecum’ blessing with a touch on the cheek. The Roman Pontifical interpreted this as a ‘slap’ – a physical reminder to the recipient to be brave in the defence of the faith.

This is a concept related to the medieval chivalric accolade (from ‘col’, French for neck, Latin ‘collum’), originally a rite of passage ceremony to signify a young man’s achieving the formal status of mature knight, later coming to signify ‘embrace’ or ‘honour’. Today we’re most familiar with the gesture of ‘adoubement’ or dubbing the recipient with a tap on each shoulder with the flat blade of a sword (the English queen does this still when knighting people). There is some dispute about the earlier forms of this ritual; it seems a kiss or light blow (‘colée’) on the cheek or ear might have been originally used, and the dubbing with the sword replaced the gesture.

It is easier to face death than to face life: Ivy Compton-Burnett, ‘The Present and the Past’

Ivy Compton-Burnett, The Present and the Past (1953)

My previous posts on this novel have centred on ICB’s extraordinary dialogue, even from children’s mouths – epigrammatic, witty and caustic, usually serving to outsmart the self-absorbed or distracted adults around them. Here’s another example.

The children are discussing their father, Cassius, whose moods and selfishness have cast a pall over the family for some time. He is jealous that his two wives have become friends, and exclude him from their intimacy, and that his children do the same.

‘Is Father happy?’ said Guy.

‘He is often satisfied,’ said Megan. ‘You can see him having the satisfaction’


That use of ‘the’ is pure Henry James. The apparently irrelevant but deeply meaningful reply by Megan and her subtle progression from ‘satisfied’ to ‘the satisfaction’ suggests a shrewd, cynical but profoundly perceptive understanding of her father’s volatile, introspective character. Megan is seven years old!

The conversation continues:

‘There is a great deal about grown-up people that children cannot understand,’ said Miss Ridley [the governess].

‘And a great deal that they can,’ said Fabian. ‘That is where the danger lies.’

‘I don’t think there is much to understand about Father,’ said Megan. ‘When he is unhappy himself, he wants other people to be.’

‘You cannot judge human beings as simply as that,’ said Miss Ridley. ‘They are complex creatures with many conflicting qualities.’

‘Ah, your father never wants you to be unhappy, my little one,’ said Cassius, quickening his pace. ‘It is true that he is sometimes unhappy and uncertain, but he never wants to hurt his children.’

Given that the crisis of the novel comes when this father of five children, two by his first wife, Catherine, three by the second, attempts suicide because he feels ignored by his family, this is a revealing demonstration of his fragile, egotistical nature. Even more interesting is the insight into it that his children show here; Fabian, the oldest, is only 13, yet he talks like an Oscar Wilde wit, with his paradoxes and aphoristic tendency. The children are the ones who sound mature, reflective and sensible in this flawed but fascinating novel.

And all is done through dialogue. No narrative comment is necessary. This is a highly unusual technique, difficult to accomplish, but done with panache by ICB. All that’s lacking is a little variation in the tone: it tends to be all at this pitch, and can become wearing.

In this extract, as we have seen in my earlier posts, Miss Ridley, the starchy governess, is too limited and conventional in her view of how children should comport themselves – dull and obedient like dutiful, ignorant Victorian children – to be their ally against their father and his self-indulgent, self-pitying heedlessness. By patronising them she shows herself unequal to the task of teaching them how to deal with their inadequate parents.

That final, insincere speech by Cassius is chilling in its childishness, hypocrisy and duplicity. Almost every line of dialogue in this novel is resonant with such (often dark) significance and ambiguity.

To round off this short sequence of discussions of extracts from the novel, here’s one of the most memorable aphorisms:

‘It is easier to face death than to face life.’

This isn’t just clever word-play; it compresses into ten words the tragicomedy that is life as portrayed unflinchingly by ICB. It also shows up the breathtaking selfishness of Cassius.

Cover of my elderly PMC edition, with an illustration from Stanley Spencer, 'Villas at Cookham'

Cover of my elderly PMC edition, with an illustration from Stanley Spencer, ‘Villas at Cookham’

Other bloggers on ICB

If you’d like to learn more about her, I’d recommend a visit to the numerous posts in Simon Thomas’s excellent blog (full of plenty of other interesting pieces on lesser-known or neglected writers) – Stuck in a Book.

It has links to biographies, memoirs, etc., and examines most of the major novels, with recommendations where to start. Much more comprehensive than my first tentative explorations of this inimitable writer’s work.

Darwinian aphorisms from the mouths of babes: Ivy Compton-Burnett again

Yesterday I wrote about the biting wit in the dialogue of all the characters in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s 1953 novel The Present and the Past. Even the children talk with a maturity and poise that belies their years.

Cover of my elderly PMC edition, with an illustration from Stanley Spencer, 'Villas at Cookham'

Cover of my elderly PMC edition, with an illustration from Stanley Spencer, ‘Villas at Cookham’

Here’s another example, from pp. 32-33 of my battered PMC edition. Here the destructive behaviour of the smallest Clare child, Tobias, who is three, is being discussed. Henry is eight, Guy eleven; Cassius is the father, and Flavia his second wife (the mother of Fabian, who is 13, and Guy, was Cassius’ first wife, Catherine, who has suddenly reappeared after nine years, demanding access to her sons. Cassius and Flavia have had three children of their own).

Cassius has expressed his shock that Tobias doesn’t always speak the truth. When told by Fabian that the child is confused by having stories told to him, Cassius retorts that in future he should be told nothing but facts. Maybe, he muses, tales should not be told to children.

‘It would not be natural,’ said his son. [Fabian] ‘And it would not make any difference. The infant mind invents stories. All infancy is the same. In the infancy of the race tales were invented.’

‘Have we been wrong in deciding on a home education?’ said Flavia, smiling at her husband.

Such epigrammatic dialogue from young children is characteristic of ICB’s approach to fiction. It often involves this kind of witty generalisation arising from individual examples of human behaviour. Flavia’s admiringly bemused reaction is understandable.

The conversation moves on to the topic of the development of all five children:

‘I think the elder ones are of the higher type,’ said Cassius, in an even tone. ‘Especially if Guy’s backwardness is a passing phase.’

‘Well, their mother is a gifted woman. I have heard many people say so. It is natural that her children should take after her.’ [says Flavia]

‘Has she more gifts than you have?’ said Henry.

‘Yes, I think she probably has.’

‘Do children inherit only from mothers?’

‘No, from both their parents.’

‘Then Father might have some gifts for us to inherit.’

‘He hardly seems to think that you have inherited any.’

Eight-year-old Henry uses impeccable logic here to outwit the adults, managing to disparage his aloof, dismissive father (who is beginning to turn against Flavia, as he had against Catherine), while simultaneously defending his slighted mother. Cassius is exposed as the one behaving with childish egotism here.

ICB was much concerned with Darwinian evolution and related concepts of inheritance, as well as with the toxic relations that often flourished in the Edwardian upper-middle-class families that formed the basis of her cast of characters. She never lets such thematic matters interfere too much with the drama conveyed exclusively through dialogue. It somehow doesn’t seem to matter that real children don’t talk like this; nobody really talks like characters in novels. ICB’s characters talk exactly as she wants them to, and the fulminations, manoeuvrings and put-downs are highly entertaining.

Here the scene is being set for the comedy of manners to shade into domestic tragedy. It takes rare skill to pull off such transitions, and such dialogue.

Children wise beyond their years: dialogue in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s ‘The Present and the Past’

Ivy Compton-Burnett,  The Present and the Past, 1953

Last week I wrote from sweltering Berlin about Ivy Compton- Burnett’s 1953 novel The Present and the Past, showing how a description of a character’s clothes and appearance functioned to point up the mordant humour and enrich the narrative. Today, back in divided, rain-squally England, I shall turn to other aspects of this writer’s distinctive technique.

As noted previously, ICB writes novels consisting almost entirely of dialogue. This makes her prose fiction resemble playscripts; she’s on record as saying that this approach came naturally to her. She didn’t go in for descriptions of setting, furniture and so on; it was dialogue that she felt was the most natural way for her to develop plot and reveal relationships, motives and themes.

In The Present and the Past all the characters speak in a highly cultivated, witty way. Even the children – to whom I turn in this post.

Some context first: after five years of marriage, Cassius Clare divorced his wife Catherine, part of the settlement involving his retaining custody of their two boys – Fabian and Guy. Nine years later, and after three more children with his second wife, Flavia – Henry, Megan and Tobias (8, 7 and 3 respectively) – Catherine suddenly demands access to her sons, now aged 13 and 11. Flavia had selflessly brought up all of the children without distinction between her own offspring and her stepsons. When Catherine drops her bombshell, announcing her imminent visit – the first of many, she insists – the shockwaves profoundly disturb the Clare family.

Critics described ICB’s dialogue as ‘stylised’ or artificial – a charge she rejected, preferring to see it as ‘condensed’. She was likened to Congreve, Austen, Henry James and the Elizabethan ‘horror’ tragedians. I can see some of all of these in her writing, but also of the epigrammatic wit of Wilde in his plays, and Edith Wharton’s novel about a post-divorce dysfunctional family of step-siblings, The Children (about which I wrote recently).

Let’s begin with the first exchange between the children and their head nurse, Bennet, and Miss Ridley, their governess. The children had heard about the ‘trouble’ caused by the first Mrs Clare’s desire to see her sons again, and their blasé discussion of the effects on the family of Catherine’s return causes consternation in the adult servants, who expect the children to seem less worldly and knowing:

‘It is nothing for you to think about,’ said Bennet, in an easy tone that was belied by her eyes.
‘It is the only thing. What would anyone think about in our place?’ [this is Fabian]
‘You have your mother here.’
‘We have our stepmother.’
‘What is a real mother like?’ said Guy.
‘Like Mater to her own children,’ said his brother [they call Flavia ‘mater’, and Catherine ‘mother’]
‘You know that no difference is made,’ said Miss Ridley.
‘The difference is there. There is no need to make it.’ [Fabian again; ICB regularly omits the names of her speakers in stretches of multiple-participant dialogue, so it requires some effort to figure out who says what – this is part of the textured effect she is after]
‘Are all fathers like our father?’ said Guy.
‘No father is like him,’ said Fabian. ‘We have no normal parent.’
‘He is devoted to you in his way,’ said Miss Ridley.
‘I daresay a cat does the right thing to a mouse in its way.’
‘Doing things in your own way is not really doing them,’ said Megan.
‘Why, Fabian, what a conscious way of talking!’ said Miss Ridley. ‘And it leads others to copy you.’
‘Why should I talk like a child, when my life prevents me from being one?’

So much is going on in this short extract. We have the first intimation that Cassius is not the most successful or loving of fathers. Fabian, the oldest child, is revealed to be caustically witty and mature beyond his years, with a satiric insight into the weaknesses and shortcomings of the adults in his world. In this respect I find ICB’s a more satisfying ‘divorce novel’ than Edith Wharton’s.

Miss Bennet’s limitations, which I examined in my previous post, are pointedly revealed here, as she’s effortlessly outwitted by Fabian. She represents for him the adult world which has let him down, and is therefore a legitimate target for his excoriating wit. Her efforts to control and placate him and the other children are comically futile, and she’s shown to be both dim-witted and hopelessly, condescendingly conventional.

Guy is more sensitive and naive, and hero-worships his older brother – a relationship that has powerful repercussions later in the novel. Megan is clearly destined to become another  Fabian in terms of shrewdness and verbal acuity.

But all of these family and servant-child dynamics play a crucial role in the plot; this sample of sharp exchanges and verbal jousting is typical of ICB’s method throughout her work. That barbed aphorism of Fabian’s at the end is disarmingly funny, but also tinged with disingenuous cynicism and…what I can only call sadness. Fabian’s sadness makes me sad, too. His childhood has been tainted by the selfishness of his natural parents.

This discussion has already taken longer than I anticipated, and there are so many more such crackling exchanges I’d like to explore, so I’ll stop there with the hope that I’ll be able to return soon to ICB’s unique, subtle anatomising of this fractured, suffering family, with her inimitable blend of witty comedy of manners and sombre family tragedy.

A whole that conformed to nothing: clothes in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s ‘The Present and the Past’

I write this in Berlin and it’s 31 degrees and heavy humidity presages a thunderstorm, so this will have to be hastily done – especially as two young grandchildren need my attention soon.

I wrote recently about the significance of clothes in Anne Enright’s novel The Green Road, inspired by Moira’s blog Clothes in Books. Today I’ll look at a scene early in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s (1884-1969) 1953 novel The Present and the Past. Earlier this year I considered her 1939 novel A Family and a Fortune, and noted her extraordinary capacity for extended scenes written entirely in dialogue – more like a play script than conventional prose fiction. Her affinity with Jane Austen in this respect has often been noted (this includes her focus on upper middle-class families in a historical period slightly earlier than the one in which she wrote).


Cover of my elderly PMC edition, with an illustration from Stanley Spencer, 'Villas at Cookham'

Cover of my elderly PMC edition, with an illustration from Stanley Spencer, ‘Villas at Cookham’

In The Present and the Past the plot, such as it is, deals with the seismic effect on the Clare family of the paterfamilias Cassius’ first wife, Catherine, whom he divorced nine years earlier after five years of marriage, and two sons – Fabian, now 13, and Guy, 11 – reappearing with the announcement that she regrets her decision to yield custody of the boys to their father, and expressing the wish to be able to see them whenever she wishes. Cassius’ second wife, Flavia, is understandably unhappy with this development, but is generous enough in spirit to accede to the demand.

Early in the proceedings we see some of Compton-Burnett’s incisively drawn scenes in which the children talk and interact with each other with precocious poise. In these she throws satiric light on the foibles of the adults who squabble and fret around them.

Cassius and Flavia had three children of their own together: Henry, 8; Megan, 7 and Tobias, 3. In this passage we meet Miss Ridley, their stereotypically starchy governess. In the opening pages they outwit her by talking metaphysics in the context of the imminent death of a hen, moving on to demolish her limited attempt to explain Darwinist theories of evolution (a key feature in Compton-Burnett’s fiction, along with Nietzschean power struggles).

In a rare passage of narrative description, here’s how Miss Ridley is presented:

Miss Ridley was forty-seven and looked exactly that age. She wore neat, strong clothes that bore no affinity to those in current use, and wore, or had set on her head an old, best hat in place of a modern, ordinary one. She was fully gloved and booted for her hour in the garden. Her full, pale face, small, steady eyes, non-descript features and confident movements combined with her clothes to make a whole that conformed to nothing and offended no one. She made no mistakes in her dress, merely carried out her intentions.

The outward appearance is used to suggest the woman’s inner nature. The adjectives that describe her clothes – ‘neat’ and ‘strong’ – are satirically ambiguous, suggesting utility and durability, rather than aesthetic qualities, as the rest of that sentence goes on to show.

The note that her has is ‘set on her head’ rather than worn there further suggests a physical awkwardness and disjointedness with her time –  the added detail that it is outmoded reinforces this impression. Wearing her ‘old’ and ‘best’ hat in the garden tempers this slightly snobbish account by indicating that it’s probably her only hat; she’s poor. Our sympathy is now partially invoked, while we are shown at the same time her limitations of character and intellect.

Added to this is the detail that she’s ‘fully gloved and booted for her hour in the garden’: she’s more in thrall to propriety than to common sense or individuality of expression.

The next set of adjectives, about her face, eyes, ‘features’, ‘movements’ and ‘clothes’, do nothing to contradict this growing image of a narrow-minded, cribbed personality. The portrait is rounded off with that killer ending: the whole conforming to nothing and offending no one. She is deeply conventional and full of a conviction that she is just as she should be in her submissive role as governess – hence her inability to conform to anything, for this would be to commit herself to something, and her status and nature forbid her to do such a thing. She must be firm and narrow with the children, teaching them what she can from her limited range of knowledge, but ultimately remain inoffensive – and servile. Hence the lack of ‘mistakes’ in her ‘dress’: they signify the ‘intentions’ I’ve just outlined. She is in the invidious position of having to set an example but possessing no social identity.

I find this portrayal brilliantly suggestive. It seems at first sight a little cruel and patronising to a woman whose status at the period in which the novel was set, which seems to be Compton-Burnett’s favourite – late Edwardian or slightly later – would have been ambiguous: neither a servant, nor an equal to her employers. The children are astutely aware of this, and they regularly run rings round her emotionally and intellectually, as practice for their interactions with their trickier, more complicated parents (and contriving stepmother).

This description, then, isn’t just an ostentatious display of waspish, Austen-light character-sketching; it’s symptomatic of Compton-Burnett’s exploration of class and family dynamics. I hope to go on in later posts to examine other aspects of this interesting novel.


The world is merciless if you expose yourself to it: Michael Flay, ‘The Dancer’

I’ve written recently about the first two stories in Michael Flay’s 1999 collection Closed Doors; today I’d like to consider a story with a different theme and tone.

Flay Closed Doors Many of the stories in this collection are baleful protests at the consumerist culture of modern society: the fat-cat ‘businessmen’ who often appear are excoriated for their banal, depraved practices, their cultural blankness and their selfish, gloating boorishness. Their sense of superiority is repulsive, and the author’s rancour is corrosive. Male-female relations are just another form of commerce in this bleak world.

I’d like to look, by way of contrast, at some softer touches the author is capable of. In ‘The Dancer’ there’s a poignant love story, delicately conveyed. It’s one of a few stories set in Finland, where Michael Flay taught for a while back in the 90s – hence his imprint’s name: Polar Books.

The eponymous Finnish woman dancer is gifted and the unnamed male (English) protagonist is attracted, as this striking image indicates:

She was liquid, and he would like her to pour over him.

When she dances she can both express and lose herself – qualities he admires and perhaps envies:

In this she could be herself, beyond relationship for the time…[Later] She had revealed herself quite barely in the dance; there was something brave, insolent in the revelation.

The relationship is strained, however, largely because of the exigencies of their economic situations, the ‘systems’: both need to work at jobs that are deadening, unfulfilling – in his case, teaching at an institution that exploits its staff with contemptuous disdain; each day is ‘trivial’; the work ‘was taking him down’.

There’s a bleak, unforgiving polar setting (the words ‘ice’ and ‘snow’ are repeated frequently, along with related terms – ‘frozen’, ‘cold’, adjectives ‘desolate’, ‘black’, ‘dead’, sterile’, etc.) In spite of this, the man and the dancer had ‘come close’:

He had wanted to draw her into his conscious world, had tried also to show her himself. And she had almost seen, had wanted to see, but had not wanted to show herself so much.

Here the pervasive influence in all of Michael Flay’s work of his literary model – DH Lawrence –  is apparent, but he adapts the imagery to make it his own.

The man is forced to return to England to seek more temporary work (no permanent contracts in his academic world), and again the scene reflects the emotional temperature of the characters:

A grey drizzle fell across the dirty London sky…It was all [the ‘council estate’ with its boarded-up houses] nauseous and forlorn.

He’s surrounded by the more privileged, the ‘cash complacent’, drawling, refined ‘businessmen’ so often reviled, as I have shown, in these stories – ‘how had they come to run things?’, the man muses, disillusioned, as they scurry to their ‘bank blocks’ (a favourite Flay term). He lacks their commercial drive. But here the venomous portrayal serves as a counterpoint to the ‘tenderness’ between him and the dancer.

Their separation is bruising; the estranging world is ‘merciless if you expose yourself to it.’ Why should he, the man thinks, ‘dent her defences for the outside to come in?’ I find those images beautifully done.

I won’t reveal the outcome; it’s the tender depiction of the ‘contact’ these two otherwise thwarted, disconsolate, constrained characters are able to establish in a harsh, uncaring world that gives this story its lustre.

I’m off on holiday tomorrow, so may not get a chance to post here for a while. Have a good summer, and happy reading, happy living.



Aside: Onoto fountain pens

Onoto my pic 2 pen boxA diversion from books for today’s post. My wife bought me a lovely Mont Blanc fountain pen for a special birthday four years ago, and I became obsessive about fine writing instruments. I subsequently bought myself an Onoto (more on that shortly), and a beautiful red lacquered Nakaya Aki-tamenuri, made in Japan. The design at the top of my blog’s homepage is a photo of the first two of those pens. A handsome green Pelikan Souverän M800 followed on another birthday.

Here’s an account of the history of Onoto, adapted from their website (from where most of the images are taken).

In 1905 British company Thomas De La Rue, printers of stamps and banknotes, was approached by George Sweetser, an outstanding Mechanical Engineer and Inventor, with a self-filling safety fountain pen which he had recently patented.

The first Onoto – Sweetser’s original plunger-operated self-filling fountain pen guaranteed not to leak – was manufactured by the company in London in 1905.


The Onoto pens were an immediate success in the United Kingdom and internationally, and were one of the very few 100% British-made pens prior to WW1. Famous Onoto owners included Field Marshal Haig (the WWI military leader), Winston Churchill and the Japanese author Natsume Soseki.

The origin of the company name is disputed: it may derive from the name of a Japanese watchmaker, or it might simply be an invented word easy to pronounce in any language (like ‘Kodak’).

Advertisements for the Onoto pens were famous – they included an iconic red pillar box in many early examples: here’s one from the company’s website, dating from ‘Punch’ magazine, 1920; the second one I’m not sure of the date for, but it looks about the same period –





Ad-5c-small_NewInitially the pens were made in Bunhill Row, Islington, London, where coincidentally the HQ of my wife’s former employer is located. There’s a famous nonconformist graveyard nearby (the earliest tomb dates from 1666); buried there are John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe and William Blake, among other notable figures.


Onoto pen manufacture was transferred to Strathendry, Fife, Scotland in 1927 and continued there until 1958 when the factory closed its doors for the last time. After nearly 50 years Onoto production has started again.

Onoto my pic 1 I acquired my special edition Onoto a few years ago; it commemorates the 800th anniversary (in 2009) of Cambridge University, where I conducted my postgrad research. It has a stylish chevron pattern on the gold clip, a legacy of the company’s art deco days in the 30s, and the University’s crest on the top of the cap; my former college’s crest (Emmanuel) is at the other end

Onoto my pic 4 Emma crest

Onoto my pic 3 top


The nib is as beautiful as the pen:








And it writes as smoothly as could be; I derive enormous pleasure from writing with it and with my other fountain pens. Never thought I’d become a pen geek. I also like mechanical pencils, but that’s another story…