About Simon Lavery

Author, blogger.

River run

I’ve mentioned in previous posts about my rural walks with Mrs TD during lockdown that we’ve noticed little art objects left where walkers will see them. It turned out that the maker of these fairy houses, painted pebbles and so on was John Rowe. He told me in a comment that it was his way of commemorating a loved one, and of brightening the world in his memory. It seems to me as well that he’s celebrating humanity and the natural world.

From the back of our house we look over the river Kenwyn, which runs through a wooded valley into the city and the sea beyond. We often walked our dog along the banks, but haven’t done this walk much since she died. But we have noticed new wooden handpainted signs indicating this woodland, riverside walk. Locals have posted pictures on social media of little artworks that are obviously John’s work.

Not so long ago we passed a walker and got chatting about these lovely natural artefacts. He was John’s brother. He told us a little more about the project. He and his brother are keen birdwatchers. This would explain the delightful, brightly coloured images of kingfishers, perched on a branch above the rippling current of the river, dappled by bright sunlight under the canopy of trees.

When Mrs TD and I were walking home yesterday we noticed a city parks truck parked by the roadside. A young couple were walking back to it; he was wearing a city parks teeshirt. Mrs TD asked him if he was responsible for the recent arrivals in this little parkland area: a bug hotel, a walkway fringed by twigs and branches, bordered by wild and garden flowers; a bench beneath a bower of arched, living willow (I think); piles of logs that serve as havens for wildlife.

Yes, he said, this was all his work. He told us he’d also worked on developing the riverside woodland trails. His girlfriend had helped him with the design. They were a charming pair, and his delight and satisfaction in his job were palpable. He’d moved to Cornwall to be with his girlfriend, and was looking for any work he could find, but managed to get this one in his own field: forestry and parks. He couldn’t have been happier. What a lucky pair. And what a great job they’re doing.

So we took the riverside path for the first time in maybe a year. He’s done a fine job, and it was a perfect day to admire what he’d done. The sunlight was bright, and the river gleamed like a jewel. It’s shallow, because we’ve had so little rain this month.

The images of kingfishers are John Rowe’s work. The young man we spoke to said he’d chosen that spot because it’s near where kingfishers nest each year. I’ve yet to see a living kingfisher along this stretch of river, but Mrs TD has. I was going to say a little more about the legends around kingfishers, but maybe more about that next time.

On a sadder note, we decided for the first time in over two months not to join in the ‘clap for carers’ at 8 pm on Thursday. Not because we no longer value the contribution of key workers like delivery people, postal workers, shop workers, and all those who’ve continued while the rest of us are isolated, furloughed and socially distancing. We simply feel that it’s become a way of distracting attention from the need to reward and value such workers properly, with decent pay and safe working conditions.

I won’t start another rant about the despicable Cummings, but that affair, and the shameless, immoral rush to protect him by the PM and his senior ministers, has put us off any public display of solidarity with an initiative they endorse. I prefer to thank my postman, people who deliver parcels, checkout staff at the shops, and so on, in person.

Our daughter works in the NHS (they’re not heroes; they’re committed, caring and dedicated – qualities our leaders would do well to discover). Many staff at her hospital, as in the rest of the country, have become infected with the virus. She was tested earlier this week. We all spent a couple of worrying days waiting for the result. Fortunately it was negative.

It shouldn’t have taken nearly three months for her to get a test.

People like her need much more than our applause: they need proper protective equipment and less exhausting patterns of work. Paying them a decent wage and giving them better working conditions would also help. The public sector in this country has been starved of funds for a decade, which is partly why we have the second highest death rate from C-19 in the world, and one of the worst rates of mortality per capita. Bragging about ‘world-beating’ test and trace systems (which have still to materialise) doesn’t make it happen.

OK, kingfishers next time, and no politics or viruses.

Comfrey and peacocks

Rural walks continue to be a brief solace in days that resemble each other too closely during this lockdown. At least we can inject a bit of variety by taking different routes, explore new ones. But we’re running out of unexplored country lanes and paths, Mrs TD and I.

Peacock on fenceOne of our default walks takes us past the place where a group of peacocks live. I recently posted a picture of one with his magnificent tail fanned out as he slowly rotated to show himself off to best effect. A couple of days ago there he was – or one of his colleagues – perched rather glumly on a fence. It was a bright sunny day, but he was under trees in dappled shade, so my pictures don’t do justice to his shimmering petrol-blue/green plumage.Peacock on fence

When I checked the origin of the name at the OED online, I wasn’t surprised to see the ‘pea’ element has nothing to do with the legume. What did surprise me was that it derives ultimately from the Latin name, pavo. I recognised this as the modern Spanish for ‘turkey’. OK, so peacocks do slightly resemble these fan-tailed strutters – so what’s the Spanish for ‘peacock’? Turns out it’s ‘pavo real’ – royal turkey. Figures.

ComfreyAlong another lane I came across this pretty blue flower. My plant identifier app informed me it was comfrey.

I vaguely recalled hearing this plant was traditionally used medicinally; a quick search online confirmed this. Its old name was knitbone, alluding to its healing properties when used as a poultice for healing burns, sprains and broken bones. It is also said to be beneficial when taken internally as a potion to treat symptoms of stomach ailments. I was alarmed therefore to read that it also has toxic qualities, and this internal use has been banned in the USA.

Its name in Latin, according to the OED online, is consolida or conferva – reflecting its healing properties. The etymology of the English word is unknown, but the earliest citation from c. 1000 refers to it as confirma(n), and this might be where ‘comfrey’ derives from.

I liked this later OED citation:

1578    H. Lyte tr. R. Dodoens Niewe Herball  i. ciii. 145   The rootes of Comfery..healeth all inwarde woundes, and burstings.

I shudder to think what inward burstings are.

Also pleasing was the description in this OED entry of comfrey as a vulnerary – employed in healing wounds, or having curative properties in respect of external injuries. A useful word, as Dr Johnson might have said.

My reading progress is slow still. I’m up to p.160 of Anthony Trollope’s second Palliser novel, Phineas Finn. I’m enjoying it so far, especially the spooky parallels with modern political hypocrisy and chicanery. Nothing much has changed in the power elite. Recent events in Britain demonstrate that there’s still one set of rules for them, and another, harsher one for the plebs. Our political leaders feign caring for us, but have during this crisis increasingly failed to disguise their arrogant contempt for the ordinary people.

End of rant.

Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt

Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt. Tinder Press, 2020. First published in the USA 2019

NemesiaBefore I write about this novel, I’d just like to mention some flowers that are blooming happily in our front garden. They have pretty little pink and white petals, but it’s their scent that’s most notable. It’s a cross between vanilla and coconut. The fragrance wafts over us when we sit outside: like being next to an ice-cream factory.

My sister-in-law passed American Dirt on to Mrs TD, who recommended it to me when she’d finished it. I found it almost painful to read, as the subject is so harrowing, but it’s compelling.

It begins with a massacre in Acapulco, Mexico – sixteen members of the Pérez family who’d gathered for a birthday party are murdered by cartel gangsters. It’s a reprisal for the newspaper articles about the enigmatic cartel jefe written by Lydia Pérez’s journalist husband. He’s one of the few who hasn’t been bribed or threatened into complicity with the cartel’s vicious hold on the city.

Cummins American Dirt coverLydia and her eight-year-old son are the only survivors. She knows the killers will come after them, so she has to take off. She and young Luca join the hordes of migrantes heading north from all parts of central America for the USA and comparative safety. They are fleeing from the murderous cartels and poverty.

The novel traces Lydia and Luca’s perilous journey across Mexico: much of the time they walk, but they also have to learn how to leap aboard the Bestia – the freight train that heads north.

Along the way they witness some terrible things. They also encounter the kindness of strangers, and the bonds of love that survive even during the most hellish of experiences. If it weren’t for these humane moments the novel would be unbearable.

I heard the author interviewed on a radio book programme recently. She was asked about the criticism that had been levelled against her for a kind of cultural appropriation; she’s not of Mexican heritage. In a note at the end of the novel she explains why she felt it incumbent on her to research this migrant crisis and write about it.

In 2017, when she was finishing the novel, a migrant died on the US-Mexican border every twenty-one hours. Many more simply disappear. There were forty thousand people reported missing across Mexico at the time of writing, and mass graves are regularly found. ‘Mexico was the deadliest country in the world to be a journalist’. No wonder so many ordinary people like Lydia and her little boy risk their lives to get away from such an awful situation.

Of course I’d heard news stories about the migrants, and felt sympathy for them. Then came the punitive, vindictive policies of the current US president and his crazed obsession with his infamous Wall.

One of the most moving moments in the narrative comes when Lydia recalls listening to those same reports on the radio as she cooked the family’s evening meal. As we all do, she pauses and thinks how terrible it is that human beings have to endure such hardship and suffering; Lydia then realises she’s out of garlic, and her sympathy is forgotten as she wonders how to cope with this minor domestic crisis.

As we fret about Covid, it’s sobering to read this searing story about the cruelty humans are capable of displaying, and heartening to be reminded that even in the worst possible environments, we’re also capable of generosity and loving kindness.

Every one of those migrants has a heartbreaking story like Lydia’s. They’re not the rapists, murderers and drug dealers that they’re depicted as by this heartless president. I think Jeanine Cummins has done us all a service in telling this story.

Rose Aylmer, pineapples and peacocks

Peacock tail

I posted a picture recently of a peacock on a roof, seen on a walk. This week I caught him with his tail extended. Must have been pleased to see us

Some more scenes from rural rambles this week, but first a note I spotted in an old notebook of mine, about Rose Aylmer. It was a post from 2016 by Karen Stapley, curator of India Office Records, on the brilliant British Library blog Untold Lives – in which fascinating stories about largely forgotten people are retrieved from the BL archives (link HERE).

Rose was the only daughter of Sir Henry Aylmer, 4th Lord Aylmer, and Catherine Whitworth. Catherine remarried on the death of her husband and moved to Wales. There the teenager Rose met the aspiring poet Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864 – quite an innings for a Victorian).

The two young people apparently loved to roam the local hills together, but in 1798, at the age of 18, Rose was dispatched to join her aunt in Kolkota (known then as Calcutta), possibly to take her away from what was considered an unsuitable match. Two years later she died of cholera.

Ms Stapley posts a picture of Rose’s (rather hideous) memorial in a Kolkata cemetery, which is adorned with some lines of verse ascribed in the post to Landor. These lines sounded a bit lumberingly Augustan to me; a quick Google search came up with the actual poet: Edward Young (c.1683-1765), one of the less cheerful 18C poets. They’re from perhaps his best-known poem, known as Night-Thoughts (published in nine parts, 1742-45). It’s a long, lugubrious blank-verse lament for dead people he’d known, including his wife. It’s also known for the fine illustrations by Blake in an edition of 1797.

Landor did indeed write a short poem on Rose’s death (quoted in full in the blog post); it’s not his finest work – but then he’s not the best of Victorian poets. The first two lines should suffice to demonstrate this:

Ah what avails the sceptred race, 

Ah what the form divine! 

One of the least appropriate uses of an exclamation mark that I’ve seen. Mercifully, there are only six more lines of this. But he was obviously heartbroken, so it’s churlish of me to sneer at his elegy.

The cause of Rose’s death was locally ascribed to her eating too many pineapples. The blog post tells us that it was commonly believed in the Indian community at the time that excessive consumption of juicy fruits (watermelons were another suspicious one) was a cause of cholera. How could anyone eat more than one pineapple at a sitting? Or was this over time?

People then were just so credulous about causes and cures for infection; luckily our world’s leaders today are more enlightened – especially when it comes to possible treatments. Like bleach, or light. Now a couple more pictures of recent walks:

Daisy verge

These daisies (I think they’re ox-eyes) are springing up on a roadside verge just a few yards from my house.

 

Branch dog

I thought this dead branch on an oak tree looked like a grim lean dog’s head, or maybe the prow of a Viking boat

Broken love: Rosamond Lehmann, The Echoing Grove

Rosamond Lehmann, The Echoing Grove. PMC 1981. First published 1953.

In two 1930s novels, Rosamond Lehmann depicted the rivalry between two sisters as they searched for love. Kate settled for suburban domesticity and complacent motherhood, losing her glamorous looks and zest for life in the process. Olivia was more restless and unconventional, and chose an affair with a selfish man with no intention of leaving his wife.

I posted a few years ago on Invitation to the Waltz HERE, and The Weather in the Streets HERE and HERE

Twenty years later, after some stormy relationships of her own, elements of which seem to have inspired The Echoing Grove, Lehmann deals with similar themes and dynamics.

Rosamond Lehmann, The Echoing Grove

The cover image is from the painting ‘The Tea Table’, by Edward Le Bas (1904-66)

Rickie Masters (apt name), descendant of ‘landed gentry’, is married to Madeleine: sensible, beautiful, maternal and a little dull. He has a passionate affair with her bohemian, unconventional sister, Dinah. Later they all have affairs with other people. WWII intervenes, killing off some of them and their loved ones; others die of natural causes, probably resulting from the stresses of their complicated love lives.

That’s pretty much it in terms of plot. The novel consists almost entirely of these three characters, and later one or two more with whom they become romantically or erotically involved, engaging in interminable, convoluted conversations. About themselves, mostly.

It doesn’t sound very inviting, does it. But somehow it kept me engaged – though I flagged during one mammoth talking session set in the London Blitz, where Rickie manages to ramble on about his guilt and obsessions (mostly himself) for what seems like a hundred pages and years of war. It’s one night! The unfortunate woman who listens with admirable patience and forbearance just wants to have sex with this man with whom, for some unaccountable reason, she’s fallen in love. She’d seemed so sensible and clear-eyed.

The narrative is largely in an even edgier, more fragmentary free indirect style than the one Lehmann used to such good effect in those two earlier novels. There’s a complex chronology, with jumps forward and back in time, that often left me confused, and having to turn back to find the thread.

There are some acerbic (and ironic) statements about gender relations that are familiar from those earlier Lehmann novels. This example is from an early internal monologue of Madeleine’s; she’s thinking about Rickie’s poorly disguised guilt about getting entangled with her alluring sister again:

Poor Rickie. Must be kind, patient, wifely… Why could men never put a good face on? If they were tired they yawned in your face, if they were depressed they glowered: women were expected to lump it.

Pretty perceptive and hard-hitting, considering how pliant she’s being about her husband’s infidelity. Maybe she thinks he’s just a naughty boy, and will come back, tail between his legs, just a bit sulky (which he does, occasionally). He also shows some of the homoerotic impulses seen in The Weather in the Streets.

Later, when Madeleine has confronted her unfaithful husband about his affair with Dinah, she contemplates going to have it out with her sister. Rickie can’t handle all this female emotion, and doesn’t care for the role he’s being allotted. He says he’ll go to bed:

He dragged his heavy limbs upstairs, telling himself that women were formidable, really relentless; not a nerve in their bodies.

Not sensitive like him, that is. He dreams of resilience and elasticity. I’m not sure whose.

Why that title, The Echoing Grove? The phrase doesn’t appear in the text. The nearest to it is a quotation from a poem by Blake, aptly called ‘Broken Love’:

Root up the infernal grove

The sympathetic woman who’s listening to Rickie’s endless monologue supplies this supplement to two earlier lines from the poem that he’d remembered Dinah reading aloud to him:

And throughout all Eternity

I forgive you, you forgive me.

There are opportunities for forgiveness in the novel, some of them successfully negotiated. Rooting up this ‘infernal grove’ is a way for the man in the poem to ask his partner to ‘give up love’, as Rickie’s bed partner of the time puts it. Renunciation and selflessness aren’t what these characters have in abundance. They’d benefit from what medieval Provençal troubadours called ‘mezura’ (middle English ‘mesure’), meaning something like self-control, avoidance of excessive emotion or behaviour. Like a medicine taken to ward off a fever. But then there’d be no novels like this one, just poems about courtly love.

Kindness in war and peace

Last Friday was VE (Victory in Europe, WWII) day. Britain’s tabloid newspapers and some other media outlets delighted in escaping from the viral gloom of recent months to show images and disseminate stories of revellers in 1945 and today. It’s something to be celebrated – the end of terrible hostilities with a fascist axis (although the war in the Pacific continued for some months more). But I found something distasteful in the jingoistic and triumphalist tone of some reports: victory over Europe seemed to be the subtext. Plucky little Britain gives a V-sign to foreigners and shows we can go it alone.

It was a relief therefore to read a moving post at Bobby Seal’s Psychogeographic Review blog. He told the story of his father’s experiences of cruelty and suffering as a prisoner of war (POW) during the war, but more importantly of the kindness he was shown by a young Polish woman. There’s a link HERE

My dad was also a POW. He was serving as a sergeant in the artillery in the N. African desert when he was taken prisoner by the Germans. His unit had been surrounded by Rommel’s forces. His CO had told him the night before capture that the officers were all retreating to safety, but that he – my dad – as the senior non-commissioned soldier, was to hold his ground as the Germans advanced, to give his officers maximum time to make their escape. What a message to give the troops: you’re expendable, we’re invaluable.

In the morning he was thus left in command of this small unit of artillerymen. They fought as long as they could. My dad saw some terrible things as they were pounded by German tanks and artillery. Finally they destroyed their own guns as surrender became inevitable. The worst thing a gunner can do, dad told me: spike his own guns.

The survivors were marched for days across the scorching desert with little water or food. Many died on the way to the POW camp.

When Italy opted out of the war and their POW camp was about to be deserted by their Italian captors, the British officer responsible for discipline among the prisoners called the prisoners together. His orders were that they were to stay put in the camp until the Germans arrived to take over control of the camp. It later emerged that this was a direct order from Montgomery, commanding the invading Allied troops in Italy. He apparently didn’t want the roads and other lines of communication ‘clogged up’ with escaping British prisoners.

My dad walked out and made for the Apenines. For some months he was sheltered and fed by a variety of mountain farmers and their families. Finally one of them turned him in – but he never forgot the kindness most Italians showed him. (Eric Newby has a fascinating account of his own similar experiences there in Love and War in the Apennines.)

He was sent on to another camp in Italy. He escaped twice. On the second occasion he’d made it almost to the Allied lines; they were just across a river. As he entered the water to swim across he was spotted by a German patrol. They opened fire, and he was forced to surrender – just metres from freedom.

A young German soldier was assigned to take him back to a camp in the sidecar of his motorbike. After some hours of driving, the motorcyclist parked up to enter an inn for food and drink. He shut my dad into an unlocked outhouse, and gave him to understand with facial expressions and gestures that he was trusting him not to try to escape, while he fetched food and drink for them both. This he did. My dad was starving and thirsty: he opted to accept the soldier’s kindness.

He spent something like four years in prison camps, first in Italy, later in Germany. I remember as a child leafing through a book he’d brought home after the war. It contained articles, drawings and cartoons made by the prisoners for their camp’s “newspaper”. I didn’t understand as a child the significance of these pieces. There was little evidence of the horrors they were experiencing.

My dad rarely spoke of these years. It was only when I was in my late teens that he told me these stories. He was clearly scarred psychologically by what he’d gone through. He never found it easy to show affection to us kids. He was often distant, distracted.

I spoke to my sister about all this at the weekend, and asked her if she had anything else I could add here. She reminded me that our dad arrived back in England soon after VE day and was stationed in a sort of rehab camp in Sussex, on the south coast. My mother was living in Hastings – in that county – at that time. She met my dad at a dance in her town that the men were allowed to attend.

It was the classical whirlwind romance. They married a few months later. My brother was born in June 1946, six months later. It took him years to do the maths and realise he was conceived before our parents were married!

He remained in the military until I was six years old. The family followed him around the world to camps where he was stationed – I was born in Germany, lived in Egypt and Cyprus (where I attended my first school), then back to Germany, with brief returns to Britain in between.

My siblings and I attended dozens of different schools between us in our childhood – all very unsettling. Even when he left the army, dad tended to be restless, and we moved house many more times, often for no apparent reason, resulting in more changes of schools for us children.

I’d like to say that he was magnanimous in his later life about his former enemies. He didn’t hate them, but was always one of those who vaunted his own country and berated foreigners in general. I guess it was my teenage rebellion against this little-Englander attitude that made me the Europhile I now am. It took me a long time to understand why he was so xenophobic.

But it’s also why I can’t stand flag-waving ultra-nationalism. It’s what’s led to the catastrophe of Brexit. Probably explains why the UK has made such a mess of responding to the pandemic: we’re so great we don’t need to learn from anyone else, our leaders seem to believe.

I started this post with reference to a psychogeographical blog; I became interested in psychogeography when I taught a unit called Sense of Place in an English degree course. I’ve posted several pieces over the years about this, from DH Lawrence in Cornwall and Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project to a virtual dérive (link HERE).

On Iain Sinclair, the born-again flâneur, HERE

Foxglove and lion

I’m halfway through The Echoing Grove, so a post will be coming soon. Meanwhile, more lockdown chronicles.

Oak treeMy first picture is from yesterday’s walk, when the sun finally came out after a day’s monsoon conditions. The bottom of this valley, to the right of the handsome oak, was once the habitat of an enormous pig. She used to love to wallow in the muddy swamp. She’s long gone, but Mrs TD and I always refer to the lane beside this field as the Pig Lane, and the walk is the Pig Walk.

Lion gate postToday I walked alone down a lane I hadn’t previously tried (Mrs TD was doing her Zoom fitness class). Outside a large house was a pair of stately gateposts (I do like a good stone post), with an unimpressively diminutive lion on the top of each one. No wonder his expression is so morose.

More spring plants are bursting into flower and filling out the hedgerows. The cow parsley is shooting up fast. Robert MacFarlane in a recent tweet suggested that one of its alternative country names, mother-die, was to warn off children from picking it in case they mistook this harmless plant for the similar-looking and Lane with cowparsleypoisonous hemlock.

Foxgloves are springing up fast, and many are just beginning to flower.

The etymology of this attractive plant is unknown, but there have been many suggestions about the origins of the name. I’d recommend an article from the OUP blog by Anatoly Liberman (link HERE), who sifts through the various (unfounded) theories, and concludes that there is no definitive explanation.

It’s well known that the drug digitalis, used for treating heart conditions, comes from foxgloves. FoxgloveThis might explain why Leonhart Fuchs (1501-66), the German scholar and botanist, gave it the Latin name digitalis (meaning finger), as its bell-like flowers would fit neatly over a human digit. In German, according to one etymologist, it’s ‘fingerhut’, meaning ‘thimble’.

The OED’s earliest citation is from c. 1000: foxes clofe, so we can’t identify Fuchs as the source of the English name.

I still favour the folk etymology, which holds that foxes would wear the flowers as gloves over their paws to deaden the sound of their walking as they went out hunting.

Field with buttercupsA mile further on is another lane with this sloping field beside it. Buttercups are still abundant in the meadows, and bluebells, dampened by an early morning shower, are at their peak in the hedgerows and woods.

I’ve still not heard a cuckoo.

 

 

 

Surface and substance: Edith Wharton, The Reef

Edith Wharton, The Reef. Everyman’s Library, hardback, 1996. First published 1912

Anna Summers is a product of the convention-bound world of Old New York:

In the well-regulated, well-fed Summers world the unusual was regarded as either immoral or ill-bred, and people with emotions were not visited.

She’s aware of feelings and romantic aspirations deep inside her somewhere, but as a young woman under the influence of her parents and their prim social set, such stirrings would be considered improper. She has learned to regard ‘the substance of life’ as:

A mere canvas for the embroideries of poet and painter, and its little swept and fenced and tended surface as its actual substance. It was in the visioned region of action and emotion that her fullest hours were spent; but it hardly occurred to her that they might be translated into experience, or connected with anything likely to happen to a young lady living in West Fifty-fifth Street.

 Only love, she believes, could release her from ‘this spell of unreality,’ and construct ‘the magic bridge between West Fifty-fifth Street and life. George Darrow seems the ideal candidate: she feels an impulse of passion for him – but she’s incapable of indulging it, or to abandon the social poise and self-effacing tact so prized in her world. Darrow wants to kiss her, but she wants to talk to him about books and art. He turns to shallower, more compliant young women for dalliance, leaving Anna to berate herself for being so ‘cold’, such a ‘prude’. Being considered by envious mothers of such unbridled young women in her social set as a ‘model of lady-like repression’ is little consolation.

It’s difficult to say much about the subsequent plot without spoilers. On the rebound from Darrow, Anna marries another American, a dull, conventional bore called Leath. He takes her to live in a dismal French chateau that’s a ‘symbol of narrowness and monotony’. His widowed mother lives there with them, a representative of ‘the forces of order and tradition.’ Anna has chosen badly if she expected a fulfilled life. One set of desiccated conventions is replaced by another, older one.

Her trapped existence worsens: she’s desperately lonely and emotionally trammelled, even after the birth of her daughter. When her husband dies, Darrow re-enters her life after a twelve-year gap, and their romance seems set to resume – except this time she’s steeling herself to act more spontaneously, kindle her repressed sexuality, and not drive him away again with her unresponsiveness. Then all kinds of complications set in.

The title of the novel reveals that their love will not sail smoothly. The opening words indicate another kind of reef: ‘Unexpected obstacle.’ Anna has sent him a telegram just as he sets off by train from London to visit her in France. He’s frustrated and angry at yet another apparent snub from her. When a pretty young ingénue crosses his path, history repeats itself, and he turns (with rather cynical and calculated selfishness) to this natural, vibrant spirit, who acts with all the spontaneity, sensuality and joy of living that Anna so palpably fails to access or unleash in herself.

What follows is a slow-burning modern tragedy. Can love flourish when it hits the reef of distrust and infidelity? The more Darrow ducks and dives to avoid wrecking the fragile, sinking relationship with Anna, the more his lies and evasions smash her faith in him – and in love.

The Reef was much admired by Wharton’s friend Henry James, and it’s been described as her most Jamesian novel. It is, in the sense that there’s almost no surface ‘action’; the narrative consists largely of dialogue which the reader has to fathom delicately. Hardly anyone speaks their mind. True feeling is largely unspoken. All is (as Darrow himself puts it at one point), nuance. What lies beneath this apparently calm, sophisticated surface turns out to be the reef.

The first part of the novel is focalised on Darrow, and it’s his urbane world view that positions Anna as difficult and repressed. Then Anna’s consciousness takes centre stage (the novel has been filmed, though I haven’t seen it; it would lend itself, I’d have thought, to dramatization). I found myself sympathising increasingly with her as she struggled to overcome her inhibitions, to go with her instincts instead of her will for once, and to forgive Darrow his ‘moment of folly’, a ‘flash of madness’ with the young woman he’d met on his thwarted trip to visit Anna at the start of the novel.

She recoils from his glib self-justifications when he finally confesses. His masculine excuses are ‘a vision of debasing familiarity: it seemed to her that her thoughts would never again be pure.’

She wondered at his composure, his competence, at his knowing so exactly what to say. No doubt men often had to make such explanations: they had the formulas by heart… A leaden lassitude descended on her. She passed from flame and torment into a colourless cold world where everything surrounding her seemed equally indifferent and remote. For a moment she simply ceased to feel.

 Poor Anna. Just as she’d let go and started to allow herself to feel, he accuses her of being ‘too hard’ and ‘too fine’. The imminent wreck of their romance is all her fault, then. But the novel doesn’t end there.

I’ve just started reading Rosamond Lehmann’s 1953 novel The Echoing Grove; it looks set to chart similar reefs in the seas of sexual relations.

I’ve posted about nine other works of fiction by Edith Wharton: link HERE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Buttercups, jackdaws and Zoom

I’ve had some positive reactions to these recent posts on my lockdown rambles and experiences, so will keep them coming. As Jacqui said in a comment on the previous post, nature is a balm to the soul at the best of times – even more so now.

I get a huge amount of pleasure when out on my daily walks with Mrs TD in the countryside near our house to hear the birdsong, which echoes in the valleys and under the canopy of the trees as if we were in an avian cathedral. Today, after spring showers, the path through the trees was redolent of damp earth and young leaves. Cow parsley has started to flower, and copses have a low mist of bluebells.

ButtercupsOn both sides of the path – which is the route of an old mineral railway or tram route to the old docks on the river by the city centre, now long gone – the meadows were vivid green with grass, and shot through with golden yellow – a host of buttercups. My picture can’t do more than hint at the colour. Last time we walked this path, a buzzard stood sentry on a post in this field.

Last night we had the first in what will be a regular Saturday-night family quiz on Zoom. Our daughter was question-master, resplendent in a pink boa and paper bow tie made by her daughter. She looked like Judge Rinder channelling Ru Paul.

Her questions were stretching. Who knew that vanilla came from orchid seedpods? I didn’t.

I found some old seed packets (herbs and salad leaves) in the cellar (sell-by date 2011) and sowed them in a trough. After a week I’d given up on them, but after the recent rain they’ve started sprouting. I’m thrilled. The ones in pots by the kitchen window are still refusing to budge, though – but they were seeds from dried chillis from a local Cornish chilli farm, so I suppose it was a long shot.

I had my weekly Zoom exercise personal training session yesterday in the dining room, with the door open for coolness. A raucous horde of jackdaws gathered on my neighbour’s roof to watch and cackle derisively at my efforts. Mockingbirds. Surely not a sin to kill them.

I regularly stop in our local convenience store for a paper, eggs, or today, beer. The young woman serving there told me that the old man she often talks to outside is a daily visitor. He’s afraid to go inside, fearing infection (odd that he stands so close to her and other people outside), so she brings him out what he needs and chats. He’s obviously lonely; this is his only daily contact with living people.

Some days ago she told me he came inside for once and said he’d got some photos to show her: himself as a young man, in blue suede shoes. “I’m sorry,” she told him, “it’s busy at the moment. Pop outside and I’ll come and look at them when these customers have gone.”

She continued serving – and forgot about him for an hour. “I felt awful,” she told me. “A customer came in and told me there was an old chap outside who looked a bit lost. I went out to him and told him I was so sorry to have kept him waiting. He said not to worry, and showed me his pictures. He was lovely.”

Some people are being selfish and callous during this lockdown, but most, I like to think, are like this kind young woman, taking time out from her busy job to make a lonely old man’s day.

 

What we talk about when we talk about walking

Most of my recent posts have been about non-literary topics. I’ve been chronicling our rural walks during the UK lockdown, which has restricted our movement and curtailed travel – we’ve now missed two scheduled trips to Spain, and may not make it to my brother’s wedding in Cyprus in June. We hold socially distanced clandestine meetings with Mrs TD’s sister and her husband in the underground carpark of our local Marks and Spencer store.

Woodland pathHere’s the view of the start of the path through the woods near the end of our road. The whitebells at the top of the path are superseded lower down by bluebells. The leaves, which a week or so back were just green buds, have now burst into delicate shades of green, soft to the touch as a baby’s skin.

Kenwyn 40 stepsThe blue sky and sunshine just glimpsed through the canopy was replaced on this walk a couple of days ago by spring showers half an hour later.

Many of our walks take us past Kenwyn church, about which I’ve written several times lately. This next picture is the view from the edge of the churchyard down what’s known locally as The Forty Steps. Shame it wasn’t thirty-nine, so it could have had a literary connection.

PeacockFrom the bottom of the steps we walk towards the hamlet of Idless. There’s an excellent farm shop outlet there that has been a lifesaver lately: they deliver fresh local produce to our door. We’ve often heard the screams of peacocks on this lane. A couple of days ago I saw one of the culprits for the first time. He was perched on an outhouse roof. My picture is a bit blurred as I had to zoom in on him from 40 metres away. How can such a handsome creature emit such a raucous, ugly sound?!

Today’s walk took us towards the city Chestnut flowerhospital, past the golf course – still being kept immaculately mown, even though no-one is allowed to play any more. Overlooking the main road is a magnificent horse chestnut, which has just burst into flower. I’ve never noticed before just how beautiful these multiple blooms are. These are among the first trees to come into leaf and flower. Meanwhile the central reservation on this busy dual carriageway is beginning to turn multicoloured: golden poppies and marigolds are flowering, sown a couple of years ago as part of the Wild Truro initiative. It makes a bleak commuter rat-run into a natural haven. Soon the red poppies will be out.

As we walk, Mrs TD and I have discovered our topics of conversation have fallen into a pattern. For the first half hour or so we talk about the current crisis: the inept posturing and bluster of our politicians; the shortages of key equipment by the underpaid workers at what our rhetoric-loving leaders love to call ‘the front line’. By turning the virus into a hostile ‘enemy’ (or even ‘an invisible mugger’, of all things) they can portray themselves as heroic defenders of their people. Gunslingers in pinstripes.

FordThen we spend a half hour discussing what to have for lunch and/or dinner. This is a hot topic since we try not to go near supermarkets at present; even with social distancing measures in place, many people seem to ignore them. Our food stocks are therefore a little depleted, and we have to show some culinary ingenuity.

During and after these two topics we intertwine comments on the scenery we’re walking past. On today’s walk, for example, down a lane we’ve not explored before, we took a short detour to look at this pretty ford. An exotic, oriental-looking rhododendron was in glorious bloom just beyond – just glimpsed in my picture. The little bridge looks like the ones on Dartmoor. It must be very old.

In a previous post I mentioned seeing house martins for the first time this spring. Still no swallows. And I’ve still not heard a spring cuckoo for maybe a decade. This is the month to hear them.

Caroline at her blog Beauty is a Sleeping Cat is embarking on ‘Post a Day in May’; I doubt I’ll manage a daily post, but I’ll try to keep these lockdown chronicles going. There should be a book post soon: I’m just finishing Edith Wharton’s The Reef.