Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers – and in Cornwall

Clare Chambers, Small Pleasures. Weidenfeld & Nicholson, paperback, 2021. First published 2020

I bought this for Mrs TD, who so enjoyed it she urged me to read it when she’d finished. I was less enthusiastic.

Clare Chambers Small Pleasures cover I did enjoy the depiction of the central character, Jean, a middle-aged small-town newspaper journalist whose existence has shrunk to that of a Barbara Pym routine of longing for love and kindness while caring for an ungrateful, spiteful and embarrassingly rude old mother. When she does find a caring, sensitive man who returns her love, there’s a strong sense of fulfilment but also of foreboding.

This is the best element in the novel: a heartwarming and moving portrayal of the kind of woman not often given such scrupulous and sympathetic authorial attention.

The virgin birth plot is less satisfactory. Jean is investigating the extraordinary story of a woman who claimed she’d given birth to her daughter, now aged ten, without the intervention of a man. Chambers strings out this mystery for over 300 pages, and I felt she sort of lost interest in its outcome about a third of the way through.

There’s an early spoiler, too, which partly caused my lukewarm reaction to the central plot.

I’d recommend Small Pleasures, however, as a not too demanding and often very touching portrait of a woman who thought her chances of experiencing love and passion again had vanished. There’s always hope, even though life has ways of thwarting those chances.

Cove nr FalmouthI’ve been pretty busy with a work project lately, hence the silence of the blog. So I’ll finish with a few images of some recent small (summer) pleasures in Cornwall. Between work sessions I’ve been enjoying coastal walks with Mrs TD. This cove is near Pendennis Castle (built in Henry VIII’s reign) in Falmouth, where we went early this month. The footpath takes the walker past some smaller, less venerable and imposing military installations that would also have guarded the entrance to the Carrick Roads and Falmouth docks and harbour. Just before I took this picture of the pleasant cove a seal popped its head up and scrutinised us with what looked like a mix of interest and disappointment. He’d gone by the time I got my phone out, unfortunately.

Trevone The following week we went up the north coast beyond Padstow, now brimming with posh London tourists, to the less frequented and beautiful beach at Trevone. This picture shows the rocky foreshore nearby; the sandy beach is just to the right of it. We’d read about a rockpool a short walk along the coast. It turned out to be an ideal little natural swimming pool, without the currents and waves of the open sea. Three generations of families were enjoying it at the same time as us – there was a lovely sense of shared (small) pleasure.

Carbis Bay gull A few days later, during Britain’s week-long hot spell (aka summer), we returned to Carbis Bay with Mrs TD’s sister and brother-in-law. When I reported about this beach last month, just as the G7 conference was ending, it was closed to visitors; now it’s much busier – but still didn’t feel crowded. Here’s my usual picture of a truculent seagull, glaring at me for having the effrontery to take its picture without some sort of recompense. Godrevy lighthouse is just  visible in the background. This is the one that (partially) inspired Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse; as is well known, she and her family used to holiday regularly at St Ives, just round the headland from Carbis Bay.

Now we’re back to cooler weather and showers. But there are occasional swooping, screeching groups of swifts over our house to brighten the days.

 

The Internet meant death: Jonathan Franzen, Purity

Jonathan Franzen, Purity. Fourth Estate, London (2015). Hardback, 563 pp.

Jonathan Franzen Purity cover Near the end of this novel one of the main characters, Pip:

…was thinking about how terrible the world was, what an eternal struggle for power. Being needed was power. Power, power, power: how could the world be organized around the struggle for a thing so lonely and oppressive in the having of it? ( p.539)

 [Her mentor and possible love interest Andreas is becoming increasing paranoid about his past’s secrets coming out, so takes to researching his own history online] He was so immersed and implicated in the Internet, so enmeshed in its totalitarianism, that his online existence was coming to seem realer than his physical self…Private thoughts didn’t exist in the retrievable, disseminable and readable way that data did…The Internet meant death

The aim of the Internet and its associated technologies was to “liberate” humanity from the tasks – making things, learning things, remembering things – that had previously given meaning to life and thus had constituted life. Now it seemed as if the only task that meant anything was search-engine optimization.

Dystopian novels have always tended to be more or less veiled critiques of the abuse of power by those in authority, and of the need to halt their dangerous manipulation of the people over whom they wielded that power, usually by controlling the way they thought about the society they lived in, using, among other methods, the media of mass communication.

Early in the 21C a new theme emerged in this type of fiction to reflect the rise of technology and the ever-increasingly intrusive role of the internet and social media. In 2013 Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle, later made into a rather poor film, highlighted the corrosive effects on society of the ubiquity of self-presentation online, especially in social media, resulting in the end of ‘reality’, privacy and secrecy.

In popular culture the TV series by Charlie Brooker and others, ‘Black Mirror’, first screened on Britain’s Channel 4 in 2011-14, then by Netflix 2016-19, worked on similar themes. Its title refers to the screens of high-tech devices like smartphones, and the storylines involved dystopian depictions of incursions by corporations and governments on data privacy, increasing surveillance, VR, and so on. These sinister developments for the purposes of corporations gaining greater power and profits resulted in the alienation of the mass users of the tech. The cynical use of people’s desire to use tech to achieve happier, more successful and fulfilling lives was a means of  furthering these organisations’ own nefarious schemes.

Jonathan Franzen’s Purity has a complicated plot based on the attempts of young American Purity Tyler, known as Pip, to find a niche in the world, pay off her student debt, and find the identity of her father, whom she never knew, and about whom her eccentric, tech-averse and antisocial mother – who dotes on her only child – refuses to divulge any information.

Pip’s quest, like her namesake’s in Great Expectations, leads her into making many poor judgements about people’s intentions and integrity. The plot takes us into the grubby, state-controlled world of East Berlin before and shortly after the fall of the Wall, as we follow the career of Andreas Wolf from anti-communist youth worker, with a taste for bedding the troubled young girls he’s supposed to be helping, to an internationally famous and charismatic online whistle-blower and exposer of secrets – a sort of Robin Hood version of Julian Assange.

Pip gets drawn into devious schemes to spy on people she becomes fond of, and whose existence she begins to realise have an important role in her own murky history. Her gradual uncovering of the complex web of secrets and lies that have obscured her origins make for an engrossing read.

On the other hand there’s a void at the heart of this novel. The targets of Franzen’s criticism, seen in those quotations from the novel at the top of this post, are just too cartoonishly portrayed. Yes, this is a wicked world, and we place far too much trust in those who control social media and the internet’s capabilities for not always humanitarian ends. But I’m not sure this critique, wrapped up in an unwieldy and over-long plot with a large cast of not always well differentiated or sympathetic characters, merits nearly 600 pages of prose.

Franzen writes well, and I don’t mean to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy this novel. Its shifting viewpoints and long view of history and culture are handled skilfully, and there’s an assured poise in the use of language (despite a really dud musical metaphor about the ‘rock-and-roll’ effect of sunshine on a bay area fog).

Franzen is at his best when writing about families, their relationships and sex lives, and the intricate ways in which people attract, desire and repel each other. The dystopian IT chicanery seems comparatively contrived. There’s a good dog, but he doesn’t appear until near the end.

 

 

 

 

Fal cruise and a pen

We had friends stay for the weekend – it’s so good that we can mix socially again now, even though we’re still having to take precautions against infection. We’re all vaccinated, so that gives us some sense of security.

The banqueting table

The banqueting table

On Sunday we’d booked a cruise with lunch with Blue River Table, an enterprise started a few years ago by Charlotte and Jess. They have years of experience of sailing, crewing and cooking, and decided to combine these passions to offer gourmet eating for guests while enjoying the beautiful scenery of the Carrick Roads and Cornish creeks as they cruise on the River Fal.

Blue River Table boat Tethra

I didn’t take a picture of the Tethra, so this is my photo of their postcard, given to us a souvenir

Their boat, the Tethra, is a restored motor launch built in Looe as a fishing boat in the early 70s. On board, the eating area is almost filled by a magnificent chestnut banqueting table with a striking river-blue resin design swirling along its middle.

All the food is freshly prepared in the tiny galley, and sourced locally as much as possible, with baked fish and seafood caught that morning as the pièces de résistance.

Their food is influenced by the

Blue River Table food

This picture is taken from the Blue River Table website: https://www.bluerivertable.co.uk

cuisine of the places they’ve loved: the Med and the Middle East, so apart from the fish it’s vegetarian. There were huge sharing platters of salads, veg, tarts and dips. The fish served to us that day was baked sea bream and crab. Everything was absolutely delicious.

Just as we felt we could eat no more, Katherine, who was the chef that day, brought out a scrumptious chocolate torte. Even then we weren’t finished: there was a cheeseboard (all Cornish cheeses, of course) and tea or coffee.

The weather was a bit iffy, this being the south Cornish coast, with some heavy showers followed by bright sunshine. This didn’t dampen our spirits, though: Tethra has a canopy and transparent, removable ‘windows’ that sheltered us from the breeze, and the lovely views were unimpaired.

Three hats

We didn’t need our hats

Green undulating hills chequered with fields or woodland border the river system. Along the river we saw egrets and herons, cormorants and the ubiquitous gulls. No seals or dolphins, unfortunately, on this trip (though we’ve seen them around there previously). The famous itinerant walrus that’s popped up in the SW recently also failed to put in an appearance.

Mrs TD’s sister and her husband, who live nearby, joined us and our two friends from London. We all enjoyed the experience enormously. Jess and Katherine were delightful hosts. We anchored just offshore after our cruise to have lunch, then chugged back downriver to Mylor. A perfect way to spend a summer Sunday afternoon.

My new Pencole Pens fountain pen

PS During the week I visited the local market. I couldn’t resist indulging my love of fountain pens – I’ve posted in the past about my beautiful Namiki with crane and turtle (link HERE), my most recent indulgence – and bought this one. It’s made by Jonathan Arnold, a local craftsman, whose business is called Pencole Pens and Turnings. I’d bought myself a rollerball from his stall just before Christmas, and this pen matched it too well to pass by. It writes as well as it looks. I’m very pleased with it. I may have to get myself a larger pen case.

 

Antonia White, The Lost Traveller

Antonia White, The Lost Traveller. VMC paperback, 1993 (first edition 1979). First published by Eyre & Spottiswode, 1950

Antonia White The Lost Traveller coverThe cover image is a detail from ‘Elinor’ by Dod Procter (who was associated with the Newlyn school of artists in Cornwall. She and others in the Lamorna sub-group, including her husband Ernest, did some of the decorative paintings in St Hilary Church near Penzance, where Bernard Walke had been parish priest: see my post on his memoir HERE).

There was very little plot in Antonia White’s account of Nanda Grey’s four years in a catholic convent school (from the ages of nine to thirteen/fourteen) in Frost in May, about which I posted last time. This sequel is very different. There’s plenty of incident, and the narrative adopts a more traditional, adult omniscient voice, rather than focalising on the young protagonist. The style is more sophisticated, too, in keeping with the more mature Nanda: in The Lost Traveller her story continues from her leaving the convent to the age of seventeen.

This first of three sequels to FiM took seventeen years to appear. Antonia White apparently had a tough time during them: she had writer’s block, mental health problems, and was busy with work as a journalist, among other things during the war.

Although there’s much more incident in this sequel, I found it less engaging. Nanda has had a name change: she is now Clara Batchelor, and the names of the schools have also changed. Maybe this was to indicate that the novel is less autobiographical than FiM. This also might account for its less satisfactory impact.

Part of the problem is the depiction of Clara’s parents, which dominates much of the novel. Her father is decidedly unpleasant: a doctrinaire pedagogue with some unsavoury sexual inclinations. He teaches classics at the school to which Clara, very much a ‘daddy’s girl’, is moved after the convent school became too expensive.

Isabel, the languid mother, is a drama queen, always expressing how ‘sensitive’, romantic and artistic she is. This manifests itself in particular with serial flirting – an indulgence that leads her into dangerous territory.

Clara’s friendships made up the basis of FiM, and the same is the case in this novel. Here too they represent the most interesting and original aspect of the narrative. WWI takes its toll on the young and their families, and there are hints of the terrible fate of European Jewish people a few years in the future.

It’s inevitable as Clara grows up that she’ll become more engaged with the world, become interested in developing adult interests and relationships, including romantic or sexual ones, and this means the narrative takes on a rather more conventional bildungsroman quality.

There are some delightful portraits of her family in rural Sussex, where she and her parents spend their summer holidays. Her eccentric, warm-hearted maiden aunts love having the visitors, and Clara enjoys their affectionate hospitality, and walking in the picturesque downs.

Why this title? Well, Clara/Nanda is still a bit lost, desperate to find where she belongs. Her catholic faith is the foundation on which she believes she can build her life, but it’s a conviction that wavers under the stress of circumstances.

This sequel benefits from having less discussion of dogma and description of ritual, and the dilemma Clara experiences in the final section of the novel is well handled, and includes a truly shocking event that I hadn’t seen coming.

It might sound like I’m lukewarm about this novel, but I’m not. Maybe it’s just that it’s so different from FiM. It lacks some of the charm and innocence of that novel, but still satisfies as a portrait of a young woman’s painful growth out of her ‘awkward age’ into adulthood.

But those parents…It’s amazing Clara survived more or less intact.

 

 

 

 

Broken in by nuns: Antonia White, Frost in May

Antonia White, Frost In May. Virago Modern Classics no. 1, 1978 (my edition was from 1993). First published 1933.

Antonia White (1899-1980) began writing this autobiographical novel when she was just sixteen, but it wasn’t finished or published until almost two decades later. Frost In May famously kicked off the groundbreaking Virago imprint of modern classics, bringing back into the mainstream literature by women that had largely become neglected or overlooked.

Antonia White Frost In May cover The protagonist of Frost in May is Nanda (Fernanda) Grey, nine years old when she’s sent to the ‘rare, intense element’ of the convent school of the Five Wounds, at Lippington, near London. There she spends four of the most formative years of her life. Her experience is bitter-sweet.

She doesn’t entirely fit in – as is often the case with school novels. For a start, she wasn’t born a Catholic; she was only admitted a year earlier, when her father converted from being an agnostic/Protestant. He’s a teacher, so she’s one of the few middle-class girls at the school – most come from ancient, prestigious Catholic European families, and the friends she becomes closest to are a few years older than her.

There’s raffish Léonie, of French-German lineage, beautiful Rosario from Spain. Their relatives are found ‘in every embassy in Europe’, and during school holidays the girls attend ‘diplomatic dinners in Vienna and St Petersburg’.

Once or twice a term, they would go out together to a well-chaperoned tea at the Ritz, or a polo match at Ranelagh.

Clare is English, and also of Protestant stock, but she is less of an outsider than Nanda, because like most of the other pupils she comes from an upper-class family. These girls holiday in Paris, Biarritz and other swanky European locations, have governesses and dance with royalty. They and their older sisters are expected to make dazzling, dynastic marriage matches.

There’s a disturbing hint of the carnage of war to come – but this would have been WWI; in 1933 when the novel was published the same could have been said for what was building in Nazi Germany: the origins of WWII. Léonie points out that when she was in Berlin and Vienna during the school holidays (this would have been probably around 1911-12) there’d been ‘a lot of talk about [war]’. With her usual sharpness of tongue she suggests that the Prussian young man with whom Clare had said she’d had a flirtation that summer in a Leipzig art school ‘will get conscripted and one of your hearty brothers will probably put a bullet through his cropped head.’

It’s partly this dark humour and strange, intoxicating mix of intense, erotic attraction and fierce rivalries and jealousies between these lively, spirited, emotionally vulnerable schoolgirls that makes Frost In May such an engaging novel. It’s also the weirdly contradictory attitudes of these older girls to Catholic doctrine and the rigid discipline the nuns instil in them; while they all rail against both from time to time, they ultimately  accept placidly that they will become good, conformist Catholic mothers and homemakers.

The nuns are aware of these (as they see them) dangerous, intimate liaisons. When Nanda writes a letter home, gushing about the beauty and glamour of these older girls, it is as usual intercepted for censorship by the ever-watchful nuns. Mother Radcliffe, the scarily severe Mother of Discipline, upbraids the culprit:

The school rule does not approve of particular friendships. They are against charity, to begin with, and they lead moreover to dangerous and unhealthy indulgence of feeling. I do not think your father and mother will share your rather morbid interest in Clare Rockingham’s appearance.

She goes on to accuse Nanda of being wilful. When Nanda agrees, the nun lays out the school’s purpose uncompromisingly –

…no character is any good in this world unless that will has been broken completely. Broken and re-set in God’s own way. I don’t think your will has been quite broken, my dear child, do you?

Elsewhere Radcliffe tells the whole school that the school’s severity ‘which to the world seems harshness is bound up in the school rule…We work today to turn out, not accomplished young women, nor agreeable wives, but soldiers of Christ, accustomed to hardship and ridicule and ingratitude.’

Near the end, when Nanda’s career at the school is threatened because her unfinished, derivative bodice-ripper novel MS has been found during one of the nun’s usual searches of the girls’ desks, Radcliffe is merciless as she orders its destruction:

“God asks very hard things from us,” she said, “the sacrifice of what we love best and the sacrifice of our own wills. That is what it means to be a Christian…I had to break your will before your whole nature was deformed.”

It’s a ruthless system, designed to instil total obedience and submission, that reminds me of the depiction of the despotic drill sergeant’s breaking in of the young male marine recruits in the first half of Kubrick’s 1987 film Full Metal Jacket.

But this is more than just a story of a girl’s faltering attraction to and acceptance of this stern, austere Catholic dogma of self-denial, humility and self-mortification; it’s also a kunstlerroman: Nanda spends much of her time drafting that doomed novel and honing her writing and other aesthetic sensibilities – despite the school’s vigilant, often cruel efforts to crush them.

It’s not an entirely anti-school or -Catholic portrayal; when, at thirteen, Nanda’s father suggests taking her out of Lippington, she feels ‘overwhelmed’ by the revelation of her ‘dependance’ on the school and its ethos, and horrified at the prospect of moving to a more educationally sound, non-Catholic high school to prepare her for life at a Cambridge college and a career (for she will have to make a living when she grows up). She prefers the ‘cold, clear atmosphere’ and ‘sharper outline’ of things at Lippington to the ‘comfortable, shapeless, scrambling life outside’.

She rebels intermittently against the frigid, anti-romantic, authoritarian regime of the school, especially when her artistic impulses are crushed, but she always retains a romantic desire to belong in this harsh but alluring world. The discipline of Lippington does at times show a fanatical opposition to what its doctrine proscribes.

The bad news for Nanda is that this includes the spark of spirit with which she was born, an acute sense of individualism and aesthetic sensitivity. These are seen as incipient sins of pride by the nuns.

White’s prose has the lucidity and unadorned directness of her heroine’s character.

I’ve started reading the sequel.

 

 

 

Jakob Wassermann, Caspar Hauser

Jakob Wassermann, Caspar Hauser. Penguin Twentieth-century Classics, 1992. Paperback, 382 pp. Translated from the German by Michael Hulse. First published with the subtitle ‘Die Trägheit des Herzens’ (Inertia of the Heart), 1908

I remember feeling disturbed and puzzled by Werner Herzog’s 1974 film ‘The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser’ when it was released in England. It told the strange story of the ‘wolf boy’ or feral youth who wandered into the city of Nuremberg in 1828 bearing a letter requesting he be taken to the home of a local cavalry officer. He could speak just a little broken German, and seemed barely able to walk. With typical weirdness, Herzog cast an unknown street musician in his forties to play the teenage lead.

J Wassermann Caspar Hauser cover

The cover shows ‘Sleeping Schoolboy’ by Jean Baptiste Greuze

This novel by Jakob Wassermann includes most of the information known about Caspar Hauser’s life. When he was taken in and taught to read and write by a local schoolteacher, he was able to articulate his story. He claimed to have been incarcerated in a tiny cell for as long as he could remember. He was brought bread and water by a mysterious man who never revealed his face. He never saw the outside world, and had only a toy horse as company.

He became a minor celebrity. Rumours arose that he was a descendant of the dukes of Baden, and that he’d been imprisoned for reasons that gave rise to all kinds of speculation. Wassermann also shows that Caspar was suspected of being a fraud, and had made up this bizarre story – though it’s not clear why he would have done that.

Wassermann is less interested in providing a clear account of Caspar’s origins, or of the veracity of his story, than he is in the portrayal of a pure spirit, untainted by contact with corrupt humanity. In this account he’s a natural, an innocent, of the kind that intrigued the Romantic poets. He could also be seen as a sort of counterpart to the Frankenstein creature, but one created by Nature, not science.

For much of my teaching career I taught linguistics as well as literature. There’s a range of fascinating theories about child language acquisition. One of the most widely propounded (but not universally accepted) is Lenneberg’s theory (1967) of the ‘critical period’. This is the view that children are able to assimilate the language and behaviour they witness as they grow up, but this capacity diminishes once they pass a certain age, usually held to be around puberty. If deprived of such interaction, their cognitive ability doesn’t develop. This seems to be Caspar’s condition.

The sad case of the American girl known as Genie is often cited in this connection. At the age of thirteen she came to the attention of the welfare system of California. It emerged that she had been kept strapped for much of her life into a chair by her deranged father, who never spoke to her or allowed her to interact with others. When the authorities took over her upbringing, she acquired some basic social skills, but never became a fluent first language speaker – hence her importance for those who favour the critical period theory: she’d passed the age when language acquisition comes naturally.

I’ve seen two of my grandsons, now aged five and seven, become fluent in English, their father’s language, and Spanish, their mother’s. They attend a school just outside Barcelona where the teaching medium is Catalan; they’re now fluent speakers of that language, too. Yet adults usually struggle to become even partially proficient when learning a second language.

Caspar was 17 when he started to be socialised and taught language skills, so unless the critical period age limit is stretched implausibly, his case doesn’t really fit with the theory. On the contrary, his rapid acquisition of fluency in speaking and literacy would appear to support the views of the local sceptics who thought he was putting on an act.

Wassermann raises some of these issues, but ultimately prefers to focus on the young man’s astonishing sensitivity to stimuli, seemingly unfeigned intense emotional reactions to social and other situations, and apparent longing to find his mother. An English earl turns up and takes an unusual interest in him, and encourages Caspar to believe he will adopt him, take him back to England, and introduce him to his longed-for mother. Other events intervene, and dark forces exert strange influences on him – or is he a liar?

Quite a lot happens in Wassermann’s account of Caspar’s short life after his enigmatic appearance. Unfortunately, these dramatic incidents are widely spaced, with a great deal of rather ponderous intervening commentary and reflection on Caspar’s nature. The German author manages to render a fascinating story a bit stilted and wordy: I found the long narrative dragged, and had to skip sections.

This isn’t the fault of the translation by Michael Hulse. Wassermann writes in the mannered, verbose style of the previous century.

 

Recent events – and a grumpy gull

We’ve just said goodbye to our two English grandchildren, who came for their first visit in over a year. We hadn’t seen them since last August, so it was lovely to be together again. Lockdown restrictions eased recently, meaning we could start meeting other people indoors again. The weather was finally summery, and we were able to go to the beach. Mrs TD and the kids’ mum, who came for the final two days, went for a swim, joined by the 12-year-old granddaughter, but the water was a bit too cold for me.

Last week we paid our first social visit since before Christmas. Our friends who live nearby, the owners of those fine cats Iggy and Phoebe (they’ve featured a few times in the blog), invited us for coffee and cake. It was such a relief to mix with other people indoors, relax and enjoy stimulating conversation.

We admired their artworks, in particular a strange, vividly coloured crucifixion scene. They told us the artist was a Scot, Craigie Aitchison (1926-2009). They explained that the little dog looking up at the Christ figure, who returned its gaze, was the artist’s much loved Bedlington terrier. He features in many of his works, they told us.

Craigie Aitchison mural treeWe took the grandchildren to Truro cathedral during the week to seek out the four Aitchison murals our friends told us were to be seen there. The style is very distinctive, with vibrant bands of colour and stark, strangely mystical images of the crucifixion scene.

This first one appears to be a tree, perhaps the one that provided the timber for the cross on which the crucifixion took place.

To its left is the first of the scenes depicting Christ on the cross. The same vivid bands of colour form the basis of the image. At the foot of Craigie Aitchison mural cross and dogthe cross, instead of the usual human figures (mourners, soldiers), the little dog walks up to it, perky ears raised. The Christ figure appears to hang from one limp arm on the crossbeam, head bowed.

Next to this is the first image of the Christ figure looking straight out at the viewer. The dog now looks lovingly up at him. A star shines brightly in the sky above, and streaks of light or energy emanate from the figure on the cross. A blue bird – presumably symbolising the holy spirit, perches companionably next to the figure’s left hand.

Craigie Aitchison mural crucifixion

The mural on the far left of the four panels is a sort of mirror image of the first. This time the Christ figure’s right arm hangs over the crossbeam. The dog is no longer present.

Craigie Aitchison mural far leftI’m not sure how to read all the imagery, but each picture glows with a quiet energy. Despite the painful iconography, the simplicity and…I don’t know…charm of the scenes leaves me with a sense of happiness and hope. I’m not a Christian, but I can respond to the serenity of these images.

Grumpy gull FalmouthAfter our trip to the beach, we took the children to Falmouth docks, where we hoped to see the Estonian cruise ship that’s to be the floating hotel for some of the hundreds of extra police officers being brought in to police the area for the G7 conference. This takes place next week in Carbis Bay, near St Ives. The ship wasn’t there, but I liked the grumpy expression of this seagull perched on the railings above the docks.

Buttercup fieldWhen the children had left for home with our daughter yesterday we went for one of our local walks. Here to end this post is a view of the horses’ field that’s featured in previous posts, now a mass of shimmering yellow buttercups, with pink clover among them. A circling buzzard overhead isn’t discernible in my picture, but it’s good to know it was there, keeping an eye on things below. Despite the rather hazy focus, I hope it’s still possible to see the beauty of nature.

Back to books next time (probably).

 

 

 

Summer is come

This will probably be the last post of May: our two English grandchildren are coming to stay tomorrow – the first time we’ll have seen them for seven months.

This handsome great spotted woodpecker has become addicted to the fancy fatballs I’ve been putting in the bird feeder; he gets through one or two a day, costing me a fortune. The long-tailed tits like them, too. They come in little busy gangs.

Here then is a range of pictures taken yesterday, when here in Cornwall was the only part of the country covered in thick cloud. Elsewhere summer had finally arrived, after a miserably wet, cold month. It’s a week when our feckless PM’s sinister former adviser spilled the beans about the chaos and ineptitude our government has shown most of the time in dealing with the pandemic in the UK. Among his criticisms was the transparently false claim by the health minister that he’d put a ‘ring of steel’ round care homes, when infected elderly patients were being discharged without Covid tests into those same homes.

Let’s lighten the tone. First, the birds have been a constant source of delight during this unseasonably chilly late spring. I’ve still not seen any swallows, swifts or martins around my city, but I’ve posted recently about seeing some a little further afield.

Weeping tree umbrellaYesterday’s walk in the local park took me underneath this wonderful tree’s canopy. It’s a weeping something or other – beech?

Standing there felt like being in a green tent. Just a pity that the sky was grey, not blue.

These vivid yellow flowers grow in the hedge just down the road from our house. According to my plant identifier app they’re autumn hawkbit. I’m not sure about this: should they be flowering in late May, with a name like that?Autumn hawkbit

LilyAt the end of our road are some lovely gardens – I’ve posted pictures recently of some of the gorgeous spring blooms in them. These lovely lilies (I think they’re lilies of some kind) started flowering just over a week ago. What a colour!

 

A few houses away from us is this garden wall. I rather like this strange plant growing implausibly out of the mortar. I presume it’s some kind of lichen.

This morning the sun finally shone – though there are still some clouds around.

 These beautiful roses are growing in a pot outside our front door. The buds are pink and white, but the blooms are pure white when in full flower. So that’s it for this May. I’ve just finished reading Jakob Wasserman’s strange, gothic novel Caspar Hauser. When I’ve figured out if I was bored or enthralled by it I’ll post here – once the grandchildren have gone home next week.

I don’t want to marry a lighthouse keeper

Emma Stonex, The Lamplighters. Picador hardback, 2021, 355 pp.

This was another of the books I bought for Mrs TD for her recent birthday. After she’d read it she passed it on to her sister. They both had reservations about it, and asked me to read it so we could compare responses. I wasn’t impressed either.

Emma Stonex The Lamplighters cover The ‘lamp’ in the title is a fictitious tower lighthouse off SW Cornwall. Such lighthouses are more challenging for the keepers, as there’s no space around the tower as there is on an island lighthouse. This means the three men who tend the lamp are confined together in a claustrophobic atmosphere that becomes very charged.

The story is set in 1972, when the three keepers go missing. The relief boat’s occupants find the lighthouse empty. The door is locked and barred from the inside, and there’s a meal set on the kitchen table – it’s like the Marie Celeste. The two clocks have both stopped at 8:45.

The lighthouse on Eilean Mor

The lighthouse on Eilean Mor (Flannan Isles): attribution –
Marc Calhoun, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a classic ‘locked room (murder?) mystery’, then. With a hint of the supernatural: strange white birds seem to haunt the place. There’s an epigraph at the start from the 1912 poem by WW Gibson, ‘Flannan Isle’, about a similarly strange disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from a Victorian lighthouse off the Outer Hebrides. I remember reading it at school: it left a deep impression on me. The three black seabirds – too large to be shags, says the poem, hinting at something sinister – seem to be the vanished keepers transformed. They were never seen again.

Trident House, the organisation that administers the Cornish lighthouse, is intent on covering up what happened to the three men, and pays the widows hush money, admonishing them not to speak to outside investigators (like a local author, who has reasons of his own for investigating what happened). All kinds of outlandish theories about what happened to the men are aired, some of them as far-fetched as those that followed the Flannan Isle disappearance. Spectral figures and supernatural emanations are described – but these could also be a consequence of the keepers’ enforced solitude and increasingly fragile sanity.

There’s probably a good short story or novella in here somewhere. I found the novel much too long, however. It’s structured in alternating time periods: 1972, in which the events leading up to the disappearance are narrated, from the viewpoint of the three keepers, and 1992, when the local writer interviews the widows of the two older men, and the woman who’d been the youngest’s girlfriend at the time.

All three men have secrets and clandestine motives for either doing away with the others, or for feeling threatened by criminal or other menacing outside forces. A visit from a man purporting to be a repair engineer becomes a sort of demonic intrusion – he seems to know all their secrets. The women have tensions of their own between them too. Infidelity and jealousy are rife.

It should be a riveting thriller – but it’s often slack and unengaging. The narrative is flat and often tone deaf, despite some vivid descriptions of the seascapes. Dialogue is strangely listless. The boredom of the men’s routine seeps into the narrative in ways that renders it tedious.

If Emma Stonex had trimmed the length considerably this could have worked as a Stephen King kind of mystery with spooky overtones. It’s become a top ten bestseller. Maybe I’m missing something, but I’d rather read Barbara Pym or Anita Brookner.

PS The novel reminded me (incongruously, given the darkness of its plot) of that jaunty, cheesy song ‘I want to marry a lighthouse keeper’. I couldn’t remember who sang it; an online search brought up someone called Erika Eigen. Funny, I’d remembered it by someone more famous, but can’t recall who I had in mind. Apparently the song featured in Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange – but it’s so long ago that I saw that, I have no recollection of it there. Wikipedia suggests it’s used to show the shallow, trivial taste of Alex’s parents when he’s brought home after the horrific shock treatment to rid him of his violent tendencies. No more Beethoven for him.

Dangerous charmers: Anita Brookner, Look At Me

Anita Brookner, Look At Me. Penguin paperback, 2016. First published 1983

Friendship is the antidote to loneliness. Reciprocated love is an even more effective one. Frances is lonely, and craves the friendship and love she feels she deserves. After a humiliating, debasing affair with a married man – she’s naïve in some ways, but not ‘innocent’ – she ‘wanted contentment…the chance to be simple again.’ She thinks she’s found the stimulating acceptance she longs for when she’s taken up by the superficially charming, glamorous Fraser couple.

Anita Brookner Look At Me coverNick Fraser is a doctor, ‘distinguished by that grace and confidence of manner that assures success’. He’s a specialist in depression, who frequents the medical reference library where Frances works. Oddly, this library specialises in the cataloguing of images and texts about the ‘problems of human behaviour’. Frances ponders the disturbing visual representations (Dürer’s seems to be one of them) of melancholy (a condition with which Frances is acquainted) and madness.

There’s a good account of the novel in Jacqui’s review and the Backlisted podcast (links at the end). Frances is another of Brookner’s quietly spirited but diffident, lonely spinsters (‘well behaved and rather observant – a bad combination’ she remarks about herself, with characteristically shrewd deprecation), whose hopes for fulfilment are raised by the opportunities life seems to offer, only to have them dashed.

Frances is a writer, and Look At Me is as much a novel about ‘the business of writing’ as it is about the frustrations and bitterness of the lonely. She confides that she writes stories based on the eccentric characters she observes fastidiously at her library in ‘an attempt to reach others and to make them love you’. Only when she writes does she feel she has a voice.

But does she write also as a consequence of all the solitary days and hours she has to fill somehow? Or does the occupation of a writer require solitude?

It’s a dilemma that reminds me of Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott. This poem can be interpreted as a representation of the writer’s dilemma. The Lady is cursed to live alone and remote in a tower, doomed never to be able even to look directly at the living world outside her window, which she longs to participate in. Instead she has to resort to gazing at the reflection of life in her mirror. When she defies the curse and looks lovingly on the dazzling knight Lancelot, she inevitably dies, unloved.

The writer, then, is condemned (cursed) to live in a solitary panopticon, observing and anatomising the teeming life outside, but doomed never to participate fully in it. She can’t have it both ways. ‘Claustration’ is a key word in Frances’ vocabulary about her life.

If Look At Me were a Barbara Pym novel – for it shares many of the features of Pym’s fictional world, including the beautifully written prose and the wit and humour – there wouldn’t be such dire consequences of the protagonist’s misreadings and misunderstandings of her experiences with other people.

Alix, Nick’s ‘equally dazzling’ wife, is the crueller and more selfish of the manipulative, parasitic Fraser couple. They use people to create an audience that envies and thus validates their ersatz lives. Alix engineers a relationship between Frances and another of the doctors from the library, mostly it seems to amuse herself in watching two eager to please people she’s pushed into a budding romance in ways they barely comprehend or have the emotional equipment to cope with. She then destroys what she created, like a wanton boy with a fly.

In a scene late in the novel, when Frances realises that this possibility of love has been ruined for her by Alix’s cruel intervention, she’s torn between despair at the bleak, lonely prospect of her future life, now made worse by the sense of what might have been, and the self-destructive, childish desire to get herself back into Alix’s favour. Her walk home from the climactic disaster across a menacing London at night is described with terrifying force.

It’s the narrative voice that’s the most compelling aspect of this fine novel. Frances is a perceptive, critical observer of other people’s foibles, and gifted in turning them into the kind of witty, diverting fiction that ‘donnish’ types would enjoy. She acknowledges more than once that she has a ‘sharp tongue’ and a ‘moral stuffiness’, and seems proud of being considered ‘famous for my control’ – hinting at passion beneath this prim, austere surface. ‘I am thought to be unfeeling,’ she admits at one point, indicating those depths of feeling she conceals so well. But she’s hopeless at analysing or acknowledging her own feelings, or those of people who have most influence over her.I found this novel disturbing. This is because I think it dramatizes something we’ve surely all experienced: the desire to be liked, to be taken seriously, noticed (that touch of arrogance often found in undemonstrative people), to be looked at. Attention must be paid to your father, says Willy Loman’s wife at the end of Death of a Salesman to his sons, who despise what they see as his futile, thwarted life). Ironically, we all feel we deserve such attention, but are acutely aware of our deficiencies or inadequacies when it comes to inspiring it in other people. Frances doesn’t like being invisible.

Frances is a cleverer, more arrogant version of Prufrock, full of romantic impulses and desires, but lacking the self-confidence and self-esteem to bring them to life – to make friends, find love and hold on to it.

To read her half-aware, half-denying examination of how the events in the novel develop, and of their impact on her, is an emotionally bruising experience. It’s brilliantly done by Anita Brookner.

I’ll finish with a final quotation that reminded me chillingly of Britain’s current PM and his strange influence on the electorate. This is Frances early in the novel on her first impressions of doctor Nick, one of those shallow, shameless, dangerous charmers who attracts self-effacing, observant types like her:

…one’s instinctive reaction is one of admiration, indulgence, and, no doubt, if one is not very careful indeed, of supplication.

Jacquiwine’s post – she’s the one who recommended this for me to buy for Mrs TD – HERE

Backlisted podcast of Sept. 2017 HERE