Kathleen MacMahon, Nothing But Blue Sky

Kathleen MacMahon, Nothing But Blue Sky, Sandycove/Penguin Books, 2020

This was another recommendation of Mrs TD’s. I was sceptical during the first thirty or so pages, as a novel written from the point of view of a recently widowed middle-aged man, grieving for his wife of nearly twenty years, didn’t seem a particularly alluring topic.

MacMahon Blue Sky coverOnce the narrative hit its stride, however, the Irish author’s ability to create well-rounded central characters (many of the minor ones are more shadowy) won me over. I found myself warming to this emotionally bruised narrator, David. His childhood in Dublin had been hard: his father was what would now be called a coercive controller, who bullied and humiliated his children and forced his wife into submissive complicity.

The cold atmosphere of his house contrasted completely with the love and happiness he found in his friend Deborah’s, and later in that of his late wife, Mary Rose. He’d never heard members of his own family tell each other they loved anyone.

David and Mary Rose spent two weeks every summer in the Catalan seaside resort of Aiguaclara. They loved frequenting the same few bars and restaurants, where they were treated like locals. They enjoyed making up stories about the people on the beach.

After Mary Rose’s untimely death in a plane crash, David resolves to continue their tradition of these summer holidays. That is how a kind of healing process begins to take place.

What I found well done in this novel was the author’s ability to make David a quite unlikeable character. He’s cynical and buttoned-up, has a bit of a cruel streak, and can be enormously selfish. Mary Rose is the opposite: spontaneous, optimistic, extravert. David is so self-absorbed he fails to see how deeply upset she is at their inability to have children.

As he reflects on their marriage, the layers of insulation with which he had shielded himself from abrasive contact with emotional reality with Mary Rose and others are stripped away, and he’s able to discover the depths of humanity and love that he’d largely suppressed or rationed out during the marriage.

What prevents him from being unsympathetic is our being made privy to the stultifying upbringing inflicted on him by his callous, narrow-minded father. David’s emotional development was etiolated; this novel is about the ways in which it begins to flourish under the influence first of his late wife, and then by others who come into his life.

There isn’t much else in the way of plot – instead there are set pieces full of telling details. Like his old friend Deborah’s household when they were teenagers. Deborah had several sisters, and they all treated him like another girl: wrapping their damp towels round their drying hair after a shower and wandering in and out of siblings’ rooms to paint their toenails (using what David thought peculiar devices to separate the toes), paying no heed to his presence. In this way he learnt how to be around women. Also how to live as a social human being.

It’s an accomplished, slow-burning novel, told in an unadorned style (and with necessary touches of humour) that suits the subject. Mrs TD finished it, appropriately enough, as we sat on a beach in south Devon, watching our grandchildren romp in the sea, and surrounded by family. This novel is about the importance those kinds of experience represent, even when times like these are so hard, and what’s happened in our past has perhaps bent us a little out of shape.

Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes

Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes: a hidden inheritance. Vintage books paperback, 2011. First published 2010

I posted recently on the secret Cornish garden of some neighbour friends and their handsome Siamese cats. One of these friends lent me a copy of this book. I finished it with some powerful mixed feelings.

Edmund de Waal expresses some conflicting feelings about the book himself just a few pages from the end; he tells an acquaintance that he’s writing a book about…and stumbles to a halt:

I no longer know if this book is about my family, or memory, or myself, or is still a book about small Japanese things.

De Waal Hare Amber Eyes coverIt’s all of those things – uncategorizable. Ostensibly it is about the provenance of his collection of over 200 netsuke – the small ivory or wooden objects crafted by Japanese artists well over a century ago. Originally intended as ornamental but useful toggles to hang from cords attached to traditional dress, they became sought after objets d’art in late 19C Europe, during the Japonisme craze, when they first entered the collection of one of de Waal’s Ephrussi ancestors in Paris.

From there they migrated as a wedding present to another family member in Vienna. They subsequently travelled via Japan to England and were inherited by de Waal.

But this is not just a cute social history of Europe in 200 objects. It’s a profile of a wealthy, important Proustian family told not from the viewpoint of an academic historian, but by a person deeply connected emotionally and genetically to the subject – his own family.

His Jewish ancestors made their fortune originally in Odessa, importers and exporters of Russian grain. From there they expanded into banking, with branches in several major European capitals. But as a Jewish family based largely in Vienna, they were dangerously vulnerable to the vicious ‘final solution’ of the Nazis, culminating in the holocaust.

Another involuntary diaspora of the Ephrussi family ensued.

Hare netsuke

Hare netsuke from the collection, in the public domain via Wikimedia Images, attribution: Lostrobots / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

De Waal gives a highly personal, deeply moving account of this only too well-known tragic and shameful period of history. These are people he’s enabled us to get to know, with their love affairs and foibles, their poignant attempts to fit in to an Austrian society which only superficially accepts them, but ultimately despises them. They are outsiders, resented, and the Anschluss gives their bigoted, hypocritical Christian neighbours the opportunity to release all the pent-up animosity and envy that they’d harboured for decades.

I found the book a deeply moving and sometimes upsetting experience, but I admit to some misgivings in my response. It’s probably a kind of inverted snobbery to find the long descriptions of the sumptuous opulence of the Ephrussi palaces, packed with mismatched and priceless artworks, furniture and other stuff, and the fraternising with royalty, aristocracy and famous artists and writers, just a little too Downton Abbey at times.

This is not a noble response, I know, and this doesn’t diminish the horror I felt at the inevitable brutality of the persecutions, humiliations and terror the family underwent at the hands of the most despicable people Europe has known.

It’s gratifying to read about the last major Ephrussi that de Waal tells us about in detail: his much-loved great-uncle Iggy, living with increasing happiness with his Japanese companion, and finally restoring the netsuke to a home that appreciates them. As Edmund de Waal did himself when he inherited them.

He spends much of the last third of the book profiling his brilliant grandmother, Elisabeth. She was one of the first women to graduate from the University of Vienna, gained a doctorate and became a lawyer. In the twenties she married a Dutchman named Hendrik de Waal, and settled into domesticity in England in the thirties. She was a poet, corresponded with Rilke, and wrote five novels; one of these, a semi-autobiographical family history set in Vienna in the 1950s, and referred to frequently in The Hare, was published in 2013 as The Exiles Return, and is now available as a Persephone Books paperback.

 

Moths and Devon

I’ve been on holiday in south Devon with family, so there’s been a hiatus in my posting and commenting activity. We were having so much fun learning to paddle-board on the lake-flat sea, and kayaking, walking, and enjoying the Mediterranean weather, I didn’t manage much reading, either.

Just before we left for Devon I contacted ERCCIS – the Wildlife Trust & Environmental Records Centre for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly – to ask for help identifying two winged insects that I’d seen around my house.

Spotted magpie mothThe first was by the window of a bedroom. I wasn’t sure if it was a moth or a butterfly, but it was a handsome creature. After I took its picture I gently ushered it out of the window to freedom. Here’s what the helpful Wildlife Information Officer said about it in her prompt reply:

Your first sighting was of a Magpie moth Abraxas grossulariata. The magpie is a medium-sized moth which is quite butterfly-like with its striking appearance. These bold colours of the magpie warn predators that it is distasteful.

 

Ruby tiger mothThe second was sitting on the path outside the back door, looking rather dishevelled and sluggish:

The second sighting was a Ruby Tiger moth Phragmatobia fuliginosa although I think you are right, it looks as if its upper wing has been damaged. It is both a day and night flying moth, particularly in warm sunshine. Fairly widespread throughout Britain. It shows a gradual variation in colour, with the brightest individuals in the south, and much duller specimens in Scotland.

I’m very grateful to ERCCIS, and their officer’s suggestion to post these details and pictures on their online recording platform: ‘Information on even what may be perceived as relatively common species is vital in order to determine their distribution patterns and population densities.  By submitting records, you assist your local records centre keep biological records up to date.’

Back to Devon.

It was the first time Mrs TD and I had spent a night (let alone a week) away from our own home for over six months. It was so good to be in a different environment after this prolonged, enforced confinement. Also great to see family again, and get to re-establish contact with the grandchildren, who’ve changed so much in this short time. Lovely to see the fourteen-year-old enjoying playing uninhibitedly on the SUP, forgetting for once to look cool and detached. The family were all very impressed with the first semi-successful efforts of me and Mrs TD to stand up on the SUP (not at the same time, of course).

Cows keeping coolThe weather was beautifully sunny and very hot for most of the week. We went for a walk by the local river and saw these cows, sensibly keeping cool by standing in the water, in the shade.

On the edge of the village where we stayed was a wetlands nature reserve. We visited it a couple of times, looking at the waders, gulls and other water birds from the carefully positioned hides and viewing points around the site.

A colony of mallards was snoozing in the reeds by the path beside a pond. They were clearly accustomed to the proximity of passing visitors, for they made little attempt to move away, allowing us to view them at close quarters.

Duck family on pondOne female had a brood of very new fluffy ducklings – they only looked a few days old. She was more wary, and bustled them off into the water. Some local passers-by told us that badgers had eaten several of these families of ducklings in the recent past, so this mother was prudent to be elusive.

Later we saw her leading them up a grassy path to another safe spot. My picture shows them near one of the many wood carvings of wildlife that are placed around the reserve – this one a serene dragonfly.

Ducks dragonfly

The weather changed on our final day, so we walked around the nearest beach resort. The bathing beach end is a bit tacky, and visitors weren’t being good at social distancing, despite the signs everywhere, so we headed for the more picturesque river estuary and harbour under the Jurassic cliffs. We sat in an alcove designed to look like the prow of a boat, and admired the view. Even on an overcast, humid day, it was good to look out over the boats, the placid river and bay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bernard Walke, Twenty Years at St Hilary

Bernard Walke, Twenty Years at St Hilary. Truran, Mount Hawke, Cornwall, paperback, 2002. First published 1935

The friends with the beautiful Siamese cats, who’ve featured in a couple of recent posts, are active participants in the life of the city’s cathedral, and the charity that runs Epiphany House, which featured in one of my ‘local walks during lockdown’ posts (link HERE). In discussing some related topics, the life of Fr Bernard Walke came up. I hadn’t heard of him, so a copy of his book about his time as vicar of St Hilary, near Penzance, was duly reserved at the local library, now open for a click and collect service.

I’m not a religious person (my friends clearly are), but Fr Walke’s genial and charming humanity shine through every page of his memoir. His Anglo-Catholic faith is apparent, and he has that rare ability to make it seem natural and attractive.

Bernard Walke, Twenty Years at St Hilary coverHe’d been a curate at two other Cornish churches before St Hilary: first at St Ives, where he initiated his popular practice of taking mass outdoors onto the harbourside, and endeared himself to the ordinary townsfolk by joining the fishermen when they put to sea; then at Polruan, opposite Fowey, where he enjoyed occasionally accompanying the freighters carrying china clay to Europe and beyond.

Each chapter is packed with incident and experience. In the opening chapter he relates a typically endearing anecdote of the stray cat that adopted him and would trot after him to church when he celebrated mass. One day she was taken with the sparkling sequins decorating the mantle of a grande dame of the village in the front pew. She sprang from her usual spot on the pulpit lectern into the old lady’s lap. Next day Walke received an irate letter from his Vicar, enumerating his many ‘extravagances’ (code for ‘high church practices’) concluding with the cat’s ‘monstrous behaviour’ the previous night. One phrase stood out for him:

‘Your performing cat has made religion stink in the nostrils of the best people in Polruan.’

In his defensive reply Fr Walke adduced the example of St Philip Neri, whose cat always accompanied him ‘at his devotions’, but to no avail; the poor little cat was barred from the church.

Fr Walke arrived at St Hilary in 1913. His first impression of the village, just outside Penzance in rural west Cornwall, was not favourable. The church had been unsympathetically rebuilt in Victorian times, the landscape was rather bleak, and the village was blighted by what he thought rather ugly villas.

In his twenty years as vicar there, however, he became much loved by his parishioners and locals. There was hostility throughout that time from some to his catholic rites and adornments to the church, culminating in a violent incursion by Protestant activists near the end of his time there – an attack that almost broke his spirit and his already faltering health.

He began the memoir while being treated for TB in a sanatorium at Tehidy, then later in Gran Canaria when his health again deteriorated.

The memoir is dominated by his deep reverence for and love of nature: birds, trees, plants and animals are frequently befriended or described. He was particularly fond of donkeys, and would ride around the county in a ‘shay’, tolerating the wayward animals’ tendency to wander off the road. One had a habit when off duty of taking to the fields and causing mayhem, such as leading local horses into bad habits.

Fr Walke’s wife Annie was a noted member of the Newlyn community of artists. Many of this famous group populate the pages, and several of them contributed artworks to decorate the church: Harold and Laura Knight, Dod and Ernest Procter. Roger Fry did a reredos. Other well-known figures appear briefly, from AJ Munnings to GB Shaw.

This amiable country vicar’s warm heartedness wasn’t confined to love of nature: he was a great campaigner on behalf of the ordinary working people of his community. In St Hilary this was largely the pre-mechanised agricultural workers. Like all the greatest Christians, he practised what he preached, and strove to bring light and purpose into the lives of St Hilary’s people.

He is perhaps best known for the Christmas plays that he wrote and had performed in the church by the parishioners. A BBC friend persuaded him to have some of these broadcast on radio – the first ever outside broadcasts in the mid-1920s, continuing into the thirties.

He set up a local children’s home, and opened his own house up to a small group of Austrian refugees after WWI. The chapters set during that terrible war are particularly poignant. Fr Walke was a committed pacifist, and the already simmering hostility to his catholic tendencies was heated even further by his anti-war stance. There’s no mention of DH and Frieda Lawrence’s similar activity in nearby Zennor at this time (see my posts on DHL in Cornwall HERE).

His campaigning was also extended to an attempt to establish a new mining enterprise in the area; most of the mines had by this time closed, and many former miners who hadn’t joined the Cornish diaspora were unemployed.

I approached this memoir with some trepidation, since I don’t share the author’s faith. But I enjoyed it immensely; the author has a delightfully self-deprecating style, and his love of humanity is uplifting.

 

 

The intoxication of transformation: Stefan Zweig, The Post Office Girl

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), The Post Office Girl. Translated from the German by William Deresiewicz. Sort Of Books paperback, 2009. First published in German, 1982

Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity (1938) – my post about it is HERE – relates how a principled but naïve young officer learns painful truths about himself and others as ‘an emotional abyss’ opens in front of him after a humbling social gaffe. Christine Hoflehner, the eponymous protagonist of The Post Office Girl, undergoes a similarly life-changing transformation as the result of a momentous experience. (Btw, what is it with referring to grown women – Christine is 28 when the novel opens – as ‘girls’ in novel titles?)

Zweig PO Girl coverThis novel was found among Austrian author Zweig’s literary remains after his suicide, but wasn’t published until 1982, with a title that translates as ‘The Intoxication of Transformation’. The MS was in considerable disarray, and had been tinkered with by Zweig over a number of years, raising the question whether he intended it to be published at all. The ending is abrupt, and leaves Christine facing a momentous decision that could transform her life even more dramatically than the first time. I quite like that the story is left open-ended – a firm resolution would have been too mechanical and neat.

The possibly unfinished nature of the novel is also reflected in its uneven quality and structure. Nevertheless, in Part One Zweig brilliantly portrays the stultifying, soul-destroying tedium of Christine’s job in a squalid, rural backwater village post office – and the translator does a pretty good job of rendering it all into English (although I found some of the Americanisms a little intrusive). This tone is achieved from the opening paragraph, which describes these village post offices:

… their sad look of administrative stinginess is the same everywhere…they stubbornly retain that unmistakeable odor of old Austrian officialdom, a smell of stale tobacco and dusty files.

That post-WWI bureaucracy (the novel is set in 1926), the narrative indicates, is what cripples Austria and prevents it from progressing into modernity and vitality: ‘Orderly and by the book – that’s the official way of doing things.’ In Christine’s microcosm of this bureaucratic fossil world ‘the eternal law of growth and decline is suspended at the barrier of officialdom’. Nothing ever changes, and her dreary, soul-destroying routine is governed inexorably by the unforgiving clock on the wall, and the clamour of her morning alarm-clock.

Her status as ‘civil servant’ consigns Christine to ‘a lower census class’, exacerbated by her being a woman. She’s a nobody, with no future, trapped in a world where there’s no hope of escape; everything will remain, for years to come, ‘the same, the same, the same.’ Her life is a kind of ‘waking paralysis’ in ‘a sleeping world.’ The similarities to fairy tales like Cinderella and The Sleeping Beauty become increasingly apparent when the transforming event changes her life: an invitation from her wealthy aunt Claire to come and have a holiday with her in a posh Swiss hotel.

This aunt has a guilty secret that indirectly causes Christine’s brief glimpse of glamour and opulence to come to a shattering end. When she arrived at the hotel, Christine was dowdy and nervous, ashamed of her poverty and shabby appearance. Claire facilitates the transformation by lending her expensive, fashionable clothes, sending her to a smart hairdresser and beautician, so that the ugly duckling becomes a glittering, beautiful social swan.

This first part of the novel mercilessly exposes the shallowness and hypocrisy at the heart of this bourgeois, privileged world Christine has entered. She charms the smart young set with her ingenuous excitement and spontaneity, but this also brings about her downfall, when a jealous girlfriend takes revenge on Christine for turning the boyfriend’s head. The response of the hotel guests, previously so friendly to this innocent, unaffected young woman, is a reflection of its cruelty and moral corruption. Only a kind English general, a much older widower whose grieving heart is kindled into life by Christine’s naturalness, recognises her as what Henry James would call ‘the real thing’, and he gallantly stands up for her.

But the damage is done, and Christine is sent unceremoniously packing back to her former life of squalor and drudgery. The problem is now that she’s not just spiritually paralysed: she’s angry. She now knows what an alternative life looks like. Everything around her now fills her with ‘helpless hatred’:

Because suddenly she hates everyone and everything, herself and everyone else, wealth and poverty, everything about this hard, unendurable, incomprehensible life.

I was unsure where Zweig would take her from there. That quotation comes at the end of Part One of the novel, when there are another hundred pages of Part Two to come.

I found this second part overlong, but horribly powerful. Christine’s hatred seems to find a restorative outlet, and a glimmer of hope, recognition and romance appears – but that open ending leaves the outcome unsure.

The Post Office Girl has much of the bleak, existential angst of Eliot’s The Waste Land, with its setting of a war-blasted Europe in which some have prospered but many have become destitute and without hope, lost souls, hollow men. Inequality was fixed in the social system, and the indulgence and idleness of the privileged few was flaunted in the faces of the mass who had nothing, yet toiled hopelessly to enable the status quo to be maintained.

The anger that Zweig must have felt as a member of a Jewish family that was a victim of the persecution that followed in the wake of the post-war grief and social unrest is concentrated and unleashed in the form of Christine – a kind of working-class Emma Bovary with a much more justifiable motive to feel angry and unfulfilled.

That’s maybe where the weakness of the novel lies, too. It tends to preach. It’s a lesson that needs to be propagated, but it’s not done with much subtlety. But then, why should it be? Anger is rarely subtle. Injustice and inequality won’t be transformed as a result of polite debate; the forces that reject Christine from their elite world guard their exclusivity fiercely.

 

 

 

 

Flowers, etc.

I’m still mustering the energy and lucidity of thought to post about Zweig, so while waiting for enlightenment here’s a piece about recent walks and finds.

Igor Phoebe cats

Igor and Phoebe showing their beautiful blue eyes. The black dots are just a blemish in the reproduction of the original picture

In my previous post I wrote about our local friends’ handsome grey-point Siamese cats. In all of my pictures they had their eyes closed. On reading the post, the friends kindly sent me a picture of their own of the feline siblings soon after they arrived at the water-mill as youngsters, eight years ago. Here they are, eyes wide open.

Earlier in the summer, Mrs TD planted some seeds from a pack said to contain ‘meadow flowers’. The only ones to flower were these familiar yellow ones – I’ve often seen them in local fields.

Mustard

It’s not the most attractive of garden plants, but maybe it’ll produce enough seeds to use in cooking

My plant identifier says they’re mustard. Maybe they’ll set some seeds… Strange thing to see growing in our front garden wall.

Wheat field

Usually there are dozens of martins swooping acrobatically above these fields, but there were none this day

On yesterday’s long rural walk we took one of our regular routes, part of which is a footpath across two fields of crops – I think it’s barley. We’ve watched these fields develop from grassy green shoots a few months ago to bright green seed-heads; now they’re beautifully frondy, wavy golden-brown. As the breeze blows over them they wave like an animal’s fur, or a golden sea. I’m reminded of Melville’s description in Moby-Dick of a land-locked seaman, pining for the distant ocean, gazing at such a field as presenting the next best thing to billowing sea-waves.Wheat closeup

As we admired this sight, Mrs TD pointed out the ladybird pictured below, snoozing on a leaf. Or maybe meditating on the need to fly home to its imperilled home.

LadybirdAt our reduced anniversary celebration last weekend we were given a bunch of flowers by a friend. We liked this one, with long tapering spikes covered in delicate, tiny white petals. My plant identifier says it’s the splendidly named gooseneck loosestrife. Sounds like a minor comic character in a lost Shakespeare play. According to Wikipedia it’s a member of the primrose family.

OED online (thanks again, Cornwall Library service, for providing free access to this wonderful resource) supplies its interesting etymology:

Gooseneck loosestrifeThe form *λυσιμαχία (found only in Pliny’s Latin transliteration) would be correct Greek for ‘the action of loosing strife’. The misinterpretation of the word is ancient; Pliny, though stating that the plant was discovered by one Lysimachus, also says that oxen that are made to eat it are rendered more willing to draw together..

I wonder how you ‘make’ oxen eat something…

Last week as I sat on the patio in my back garden I saw in the trees across the lane behind our house a green woodpecker, the first I’ve ever seen here in Cornwall. It was behaving in typical woodpecker fashion, clinging to a tree trunk sideways on, shifting behind it to ensure it couldn’t be seen. They’re such shy birds. Now I hear its raucous screech quite often: it must have moved in locally. So it’s not all bad news at the moment.

Coffee in a Cornish secret garden

Mrs TD and I had planned a party last weekend to celebrate our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Friends and family were coming to us from as far away as Spain. It had to be cancelled, of course, because of the current restrictions – a big disappointment. We were able to see a couple of friends for a socially distanced mini-celebration, but it wasn’t what we’d been preparing for months.

This week I finished reading Stefan Zweig’s novel The Post Office Girl, but have yet to summon the energy to post about it. So today, the last day of July, scheduled to be the hottest day of the year in England, an aside about coffee with friends.

These old friends live in a lovely converted water mill just a few hundred metres along the country lane behind our house. They came for socially distanced coffee with us in our back garden a couple of weeks ago, on one of the rare days this month when the sun has shone in Cornwall, and it was our turn today to visit them.

Igor the Siamese cat

Igor the Siamese cat

We were greeted at their door by their imperious Siamese cat, Igor (named after Stravinsksy). In all the pictures I took of him he has his eyes tight shut – perhaps because of the bright sun, or maybe just out of feline disdain.

Our friends’ garden is a delight – a secret haven tucked out of sight down a private driveway, bordered on one side by a trilling river, and fringed on two sides by tall trees. There were butterflies – orange fritillaries and peacocks in particular –   attracted by the lilac and other flowering plants. A petrol blue-green dragonfly also perched briefly on a leaf near us, before zooming off like a psychedelic helicopter.

The old watermill wheel at the side of the house

The old watermill wheel at the side of the house

Over our coffees and biscuits we talked about the mill and lovely garden, the pandemic, inept politicians, local people, and books. When our friends  last visited us they recommended a book by a Cornish vicar of the pre-WWII era, Bernard Walke. I was able to pick up yesterday in our newly reopened city library (click and collect reservation service) a paperback reprint – post will follow when I finish it.

Igor sat contentedly on his own cushion beside the garden table, eyes still inscrutably closed. After a while he was joined by his dainty sister Phoebe, named after the Scots artist Phoebe Traquair (1852-1936).

Igor and Phoebe

Igor and Phoebe

 

 

Self portrait of Anna Traquair

Self portrait of Anna Traquair (By Stephencdickson – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40949859)

I came away with a borrowed copy of Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, a work I’ve always intended reading, and a sumptuous book about the painted churches of Cyprus. We’d discussed my postgrad research into St Mary of Egypt, and there are a number of frescoes depicting her and the monk Zosimas, who disseminated her story, in Cypriot churches.

I’d lent our friends a copy of Barbara Pym’s novel

Phoebe Traquair's murals at the Catholic Apostolic Church, Edinburgh

Phoebe Traquair’s murals at the Catholic Apostolic Church, Edinburgh

Some Tame Gazelle (not a huge hit, sadly – though I understand why she might not be to everyone’s taste); in return I’ve been lent a copy of her autobiography. So: a fruitful literary exchange.

Around noon, in typical Cornish fashion, the scorching sun was lost behind a bank of thick, sea-misty cloud. The thickening air encouraged flying insects out, followed by swooping flocks of twittering martins, gleefully picking them out of the sky. Back home I witnessed the annual emergence of hordes of flying ants from the cracks in our driveway.

As I write this, it’s started raining. The Cornish heatwave was short-lived.

 

Rosamund Lupton, Three Hours

Rosamund Lupton, Three Hours (Viking, 2020)

I recently watched the 2019 Patrick Vollrath film 7500, set almost entirely in the cockpit of a passenger plane attacked by terrorists. It’s a daring premise, and just about works as a nail-biting thriller. Rosamund Lupton’s new novel Three Hours is similarly constrained in terms of setting; hers is more expansive, but still has claustrophobic units within it – classrooms and a school theatre set within a huge woodland campus of a progressive school in rural Somerset. Her plot also deals with an imperilled group of adults in a position of care and responsibility for a vulnerable group, in this case the large body of pupils in the school, with ages ranging from five to eighteen, under attack from armed terrorists.

I heard about it on the BBC Radio 4 book programme A Good Read, and bought it for Mrs TD. She loved it, and recommended it to me.

Lupton Three Hours cover Penguin

Our copy of Three Hours has been passed on to another family member before I could photograph it, so this image is from the Penguin website

The central plot is taut and well handled: during the three hours of the attack, will the police forensic psychologist and her team of officers and counter-terrorism experts figure out who the masked gunmen are, and hence what their motives might be, so that a strategy for negotiation or extraction can be devised? There are several heart-stopping twists along the way, that make it impossible to say more without spoilers.

Mixed in are several entwined narratives involving individual groups of pupils and staff, each endangered and vulnerable in their own ways. Gradually a smaller group of key individuals emerges into focus, each one with their own neatly-drawn backstory, all of which contribute to the driving central narrative. It’s a nail-biting ride.

Most engaging and moving is the developing story of two young Syrian refugees, brothers Rafi and Basi, aged sixteen and six respectively. In flashbacks we learn the terrible experiences and ordeals they endured as they made their escape from their war-ravaged homeland. Rafi as a consequence suffers from PTSD, making his response to this new life-threatening menace even more raw and heartbreaking. Rafi’s selfless love for and commitment to protecting his traumatised little brother are movingly portrayed.

The overwhelming message that the novel leaves is that love is more powerful than hate, and the bonds that tie us – family, lovers, schoolmates, work colleagues – are the most important thing in human experience. Not the most original theme, perhaps, but it’s not too cheesily realised.

I could have done with a bit less of the rather laboured parallels with Macbeth.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that Rosamund Lupton has been a scriptwriter – it’s easy to imagine this novel becoming a successful film or tv series.

 

Jane Gardam, Old Filth – and Feock again

Jane Gardam, Old Filth. Abacus, 2018. First published 2004

Mrs TD and I discovered a new walk yesterday. It starts at Feock church, on a headland divided by branches of the River Fal by Carrick Roads. I’ve written before about this village, the sturdy little church, its obscure patron saint, and its fine lych-gate and venerable yew trees.

Jane Gardam Old Filth coverMrs TD passed on to me a book she’d just read, and what a good recommendation it was. Jane Gardam was born in a district of Redcar, N. Yorkshire – where I attended grammar school. Old Filth deals with the long life of a retired advocate and judge, Sir Edward Feathers, said to have invented the uncomplimentary acronym of the novel’s title: Failed in London, Try Hong Kong. After an undistinguished career as a jobbing lawyer in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, he’s given the opportunity to ‘try Hong Kong’ and the ‘Far Eastern Bar’, where he flourishes.

The novel deals mainly, however, with the ways Feathers’ childhood and youth scarred him emotionally and made him into the cipher he appeared as an adult to his contemporaries. The novel is bookended by dismissive, pejorative comments about his outwardly uneventful, unexciting and unimaginative life by some of his surviving legal community:

Being a modest man, they said, he had called himself a parvenu, a fraud, a carefree spirit…He was loved, however, admired, laughed at kindly and still much discussed many years after his retirement.

Gardam’s narrative demonstrates brilliantly and movingly how little we can know about a person’s depths – the truth of them – from the exterior they construct and present to the world.

His widower father showed him no affection, and had him shipped at the age of four back to England – like so many other ‘Raj orphans’. His foster mother in Wales treated him and the other children in her care with cruelty bordering on sadism. Other events in his early life show his capacity for hiding his emotional scars while searching desperately for the love and affection so long denied to him by those who should have cared for him.

The narrative is complex in structure, with frequent flashbacks to different stages of his development, each one subtly indicating what shaped him into the outwardly competent but aloof figure he became. We gain a gradually focusing picture of his loving but not entirely satisfactory relationship with his wife, Betty. At the novel’s start Eddie is in his eighties and Betty has recently died. As the narrative proceeds we hear about the secrets that haunt him, the relationships, heartbreaks and experiences that moulded him.

It’s a deeply felt portrayal of a conflicted, damaged life, and an indictment of the heartlessness of the powerful elite British who ran ‘the colonies’ of their former empire, ensuring they exploited every natural resource, while tainting the lives of all who came into contact with them.

Back to our walk yesterday. We followed a path down to the foreshore of a creek at Penpol and Point. A group of ten swans cruised majestically up the ebbing tide, then spoiled the elegant look by breaking up into aggressively lunging squabbles.

Penpol creekWe followed another, unknown path back across fields high above the creek. The views were lovely – on a rare day this summer in Cornwall of clear blue sky and sunshine we could see Carn Brea monument high above Camborne, some fifteen miles away.

Back at Feock we walked a little way across a field to gaze at Carrick Roads below. There were handsome but very large cows gazing at us inquisitively; Mrs TD isn’t keen on cows, so I went ahead alone to take the picture below. Earlier the footpath passed beside a field with glamorous-eyelashed alpacas, and again Mrs TD insisted on hurrying past, avoiding eye contact with them as they sauntered over to look at us. They looked affronted but amused.

Carrick cows

 

 

Elizabeth Bowen, Eva Trout

Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973, Eva Trout, or Changing Scenes. Vintage, 1999. First published 1968

I thought Irish-born Elizabeth Bowen’s final novel Eva Trout would be amusing/light relief after slogging through the hefty Trollope novel Phineas Finn. I was wrong.

Bowen, Eva Trout cover

The handsome 1950s Jaguar on the cover is similar to one Eva drives in the novel.

The writing style I found excessively mannered and florid. Characters are theatrical or caricatures (like the clergyman with dodgy sinuses). The syntax is often tortuous: there are oddly placed adverbs and clashing tones and registers. Purple descriptive passages intrude and interrupt the flow; random examples:

[Eva is in Paris] Viridian shadow clothed such trees as were not in the sun’s path.

Fresh-cut grass is said to have had its roots ‘exacerbated’ – a strangely fastidious usage; portraits of grand figures in an art gallery look out ‘lordlily’ – what a silly and awkward choice.

I’d concede that there are plenty of Bowen’s more familiar deft touches – there are also signs of her wittiness and humour, as when a bisexual game of cricket is proposed by Eva’s camp love interest Henry to his tomboy motor-cycle riding young sister, Catrina:

‘”Mixed,”‘ she corrected, ‘sex does not enter into cricket.’ ‘That is painfully evident.’ ‘If you’re so cross, why don’t you go to Italy?’

Too often the humour misfires.

The narrative takes us through the eponymous Eva’s life, from lonely, disrupted childhood to her sexually fluid thirties. She was orphaned at a young age when both parents died violently (partly as a consequence of their sexual incompatibility and dalliances). Her louche guardian Constantine shows little empathy towards his ward; she’s moved from country to country, school to school, and never learns to make friends or achieve emotional closeness with others. When she inherits her late father’s immense wealth at the age of 25 she becomes even more vulnerable and adrift, and more able to indulge her whims, secrets and fantasies.

This emotional immaturity and deficiency and sexual fuzziness is the cause of most of what subsequently happens to her – yet she’s also strangely innocent. She becomes fiercely attracted to several female figures, while most of the males who influence her are sexually ambiguous. She indulges in fantasies and deception to try to construct some kind of relationship out of these deceptive fragments. She’s unable to distinguish surface appearance from depth of character or authenticity of feeling. All this confusion gives rise to more disruption and pain for her and those near to her.

The most egregious of Eva’s deceptions involves the baby boy she claims to have given birth to illegitimately. The consequences of this are catastrophic for all she’s involved with.

Although Eva’s damaged personality has some psychological interest, I found her ultimately tiresome. The characters she’s drawn to are largely fey, affected, selfish and pompous.

It’s quite a while since I read her 1929 novel The Last September, set in the Irish war of independence, but I remember it being powerful and moving. The Heat of the Day I recall had a vivid evocation of wartime London. Last year I posted briefly on her novel Friends and Relations, and disliked it.  Eva Trout also left me unmoved and disappointed. It was shortlisted for the Booker in 1970 and won the James Tait Black memorial prize in 1969.