Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle – and recent walks

Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle. Vintage Books, 2004. First published in the USA, 1948

Not many novels make me laugh, but this one did, many times. Its narrative form is a sequence of entries in increasingly expensive notebook diaries written by its precocious 17-year-old protagonist, Cassandra Mortmain. They are quirky, intimate and ‘consciously naïve’ (as she’s piqued to overhear herself described as by one of the potential suitors who come on the scene).

Dodie Smith I Capture the Castle coverThe plot is a sort of mash-up of romantic-Gothic-silly aspects of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp – all of which are name-checked. The Mortmains are penniless, barely subsisting in their crumbling castle. The sisters’ negligent blocked novelist father spends his time shut in his room reading trashy detective stories; their stepmother is a flaky, impractical bohemian/It Girl (the novel seems to be set in the thirties).

Cassandra is shrewd and decent enough to despair of her pretty older sister Rose’s over-obvious flirting with the eligible rich American boys who take over the big house (and also become her family’s landlords – though they never pay rent). As gold-digging Rose admits early on, she’d ‘marry the Devil himself if he had some money’. But Cassandra is young, romantic and coquettish enough to fall for one of the young men herself.

These contrived entanglements are perhaps strung out too long, but it’s worth sticking with the novel for its constant stream of the ingenuous Cassandra’s humorous observations arising from bizarre situations in and around their crumbling castle. Some of these scenes try too hard (as when Rose is mistaken for a bear), but usually they work. Here are some tasters:

[Cassandra at the start of the novel is pondering what she and sister Rose are to do for money] Surely there is enough intelligence among us to earn some, or marry some – Rose, that is; for I would approach matrimony as cheerfully as I would the tomb and I cannot feel that I should give satisfaction.  

[The sisters have met the wealthy young Americans, and Rose has caught the eye of one them; her mercenary hopes are raised, and they decide to pray in earnest, as they go to bed one night, that Rose will genuinely fall in love with him so that she won’t be a miserable rich wife. Cassandra finishes her prayers, but Rose carries on longer] ‘That’ll do, Rose,’ I told her at last. ‘It’s enough just to mention things, you know. Long prayers are like nagging.’


Some good news for once: Mrs TD and I had our Pfizer vaccinations yesterday – no ill effects or discomfort so far, and all was well organised at our local doctors’ surgery. It’s the first thing the British government has managed well since the pandemic started – though the success of the rollout of vaccines is largely down to the energy and dedication and professionalism of the NHS staff and the volunteers who’ve assisted with the practicalities.

Mrs TD has applied to be one of those volunteers. She was very excited this morning when her high-viz tabard arrived in the mail. She intends to wear it everywhere, even though she hasn’t yet been called to help with the vaccination programme.

I’ll close with some remarks about recent walks. One cold day last week, while Mrs TD had her Zoom yoga class, I went out alone. On a remote lane, high on a hill where the wind was bitter, a well-wrapped-up man passed me: ‘Fresh this morning,’ he said.

This lingered with me for some time. One of those expressions that’s so context-bound. It could have been said by a fishmonger or greengrocer, extolling the qualities of their wares to a potential customer.

Indignant peacockAnother day, another walk, the two of us this time. We passed the smallholding where the group (flock?) of peacocks live; I’ve posted about them several times since our lockdown exercise walks became routine. Mrs TD took this picture of one of the birds perched on the sill of one of the house’s upstairs windows. It was peering in, indignant but also a bit desperate.

I often pass these stones. They lie in a field by the footpath – sheep are grazing there at the moment. They look a little forlorn, like a small, derelict Stonehenge. The sun that day cast shadows that made the scene even more desolate than usual.

Stones

Highsmith and lambs

Patricia Highsmith, The Glass Cell. Virago Modern Classics, 2014. First published in the USA, 1963

Patricia Highsmith Glass Cell coverThis wasn’t the most soothing choice of reading during Britain’s third lockdown, when Covid cases are soaring, hospitals are full and their staff almost overwhelmed, and the days are short and mostly wet and grey. So I shall give just a few thoughts about this typically disturbing novel by Patricia Highsmith, and append some more uplifting stuff from recent walks.

The first third of the novel tells of the brutal treatment in a grim prison in the south of the USA of a man singularly ill-equipped to deal with its regime. Phil Carter is an educated, affluent engineer/designer who’s been convicted of commercial fraud. He failed to read certain documents his crooked bosses gave him to sign, and these provided incriminating evidence at his trial.

As usual with Highsmith, the reader is never on firm ground. The story is told largely from Carter’s point of view. Was he really so carefree in business matters, naïve or gullible, too trusting? Were these bosses, who continue to converge on his life after his six-year sentence has been completed, as dodgy as we’re led to believe? Given how Carter develops (or unravels) in the second part of the novel, it’s difficult to believe he’s entirely innocent – about anything.

It’s a novel about the toxic nature of jealousy. Like Othello, Carter is worked on by one of these ex-bosses, keen to give him the ‘ocular proof’ that his beautiful wife Hazel, who has visited him regularly in jail, has been having an affair the whole time – and that it’s still going on when he’s released and they start a new life in New York. The consequences are explosive, and left me when I’d finished the novel with something resembling an acrid taste.

The world that Highsmith conjures up in those novels of hers that I’ve read (link HERE to previous posts about them) is twisted, and the characters who inhabit it are damaged by its tortuousness. Often they inflict some more on others. I find this is not the best of times to be reading her.

Hibernating snailsHere then are some reflections and images from recent rural walks.

First, a cluster of what I presume are hibernating snails. They were tightly packed inside a drainpipe embedded in a garden wall – it must have been blocked, otherwise they’d surely have been washed away after all the rain we’ve had here in Cornwall in recent weeks. (None of the snow, so far, that’s swept across the north and south-east of Britain over the weekend.)

The steps are outside a house near Kenwyn Church. As they don’t lead anywhere, I assume Stone stepsthey once functioned as a means of stowing things more easily into a cart or truck, or to make mounting a horse less arduous. I like the patterns made by lichens and mosses (not sure what the difference is).

 

 

We have had a few rare days of sunshine. At this time of year, clear skies mean very cold air. This fine butterfly –  a red admiral, I think – took advantage of the warming rays on an olive tree that sits in a pot in the sheltered south-facing front of our house.

Butterfly

Most days have been grey and damp. Mrs TD and I had our spirits lifted on a walk last week at the sight of a field of ewes with their skipping, frisking lambs . The farmer was just leaving through the gate, so we were able to ask her about them. She said the lambs were just three days old. When we passed that way again a few days later I was able to snap this delightful scene: the lamb enthusiastically feeding from its placid mother, its tail wagging like a spaniel’s.

 

Ewe and lambThe sky was grey, but this sight brightened our day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The destruction of the human soul: Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time

Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time. Vintage Books, 2017. First published 2016

Julian Barnes Noise of Time cover Can artists work without compromising themselves when living under a brutal dictator with a highly prescriptive set of strictures about what constitutes “acceptable” or proletarian art? That’s the dilemma faced by the protagonist of Julian Barnes’ fictional account of Dmitri Shostakovich under Stalin-era Soviet rule.

Barnes conveys particularly well the absurdity behind this autocratic ‘Power’: Stalin and his successors employ fanatical apparatchiks to enforce their doctrine, and any perceived deviation from it is dealt with savagely. During the opening section of the novel, Shostakovich stands outside his Leningrad apartment by the lift, waiting for its doors to open and emit the men from the ‘Big House’ who will take him away to the fate he knows has befallen so many of his friends (and countless strangers) – interrogation, the camps, or more likely a bullet to the back of the head.

His crime: to write an opera that Stalin considered bourgeois, cacophonous, and suspiciously like the odious capitalist western jazz.

He stands there night after night, hour after hour, to spare his wife the sight of his being hauled from his bed by these agents of terror.

Most of the novel consists of a highly plausible account of his inner conflict during his decades of fluctuating favour with Power. He sees himself as a coward when he kowtows to it. He signs his name to articles he hasn’t written, admissions of ‘crimes’ he knows he’s innocent of.

Even worse is the apparently softer regime under Stalin’s successors, when he finds himself having to make even more humiliating concessions and public shows of feigned allegiance to a system that’s still repressive and narrow-minded:

And when faced with criticism of his own work, his response was: look, I have a multiplicity of styles, just tell me which you would prefer me to use. He was proud of his facility – but that was not what was being asked of him. They didn’t want you to fake adherence to their banal taste and meaningless critical slogans – they wanted you to actually believe in them. They wanted your complicity, your compliance, your corruption.

The novel is well written, full of intriguing insights into this conflicted man’s anguish and dilemma. His genius is marred by certain human frailties and flaws – this is no hagiography.

I just didn’t find it as compelling as I thought I would. Maybe it’s just the lacklustre mood of these constrained times – it hinders my capacity to enter into these fictional worlds. Another time I’d have probably enjoyed this novel much more – but this exploration of ‘the destruction of the human soul’ is not what I need at present. And as another autocratic, narcissistic leader heads for the Florida golf courses, maybe life will take a turn for the better in this turbulent world.

Snowdrop

The first snowdrop of the year appeared in our garden last week

Meanwhile Mrs TD and I continue our daily walks. The other day as we turned from our street into the main road we were confronted by two power company vans and a group of workmen in high vis vests, standing around a large hole they’d just dug in the road, peering into its depths. Is there a problem? Mrs TD asked. “No, just a gas leak,” one of the workmen cheerily replied…

 

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.