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.

O, lucky Finn. Anthony Trollope, Phineas Finn

Anthony Trollope, Phineas Finn, the Irish member. Oxford World’s Classics (1991?) First published as a magazine serial, 1867-68; first book edition, illustrated by Millais (not his best work), 1869

It took me a month to read this huge novel, and another to summon the energy to post about it. Energy was something Anthony Trollope must have had enormous quantities of – he published his first novel in 1847 at the age of 32, and many more followed, sometimes several per year (there were two more, for example, in 1869, when Phineas Finn came out in book form).

The phenomenal rate at which Trollope produced prose fiction came at the cost at times of subtlety and originality. There’s the usual large cast of characters in this novel, but quite a few of them could have been dispensed with at little damage to the fabric or structure of the whole – especially the lower-class characters, who lack the sense of familiarity and sympathy of another prolific Victorian, Dickens.

The cover is from ‘In the Conservatory’ by James Tissot

What I found the most interesting and topical aspect of PF was the portrayal of political life, and in particular of parliamentary life in reform-era England and Ireland. In his Autobiography (1883) Trollope expressed regret at having made his protagonist Irish; this probably reflects the way in which Irish-British politics had become more divisive and volatile in the years that had elapsed after 1869. It’s important for the novel that Phineas is the son of an Irish country doctor, and that his political career suffers its first major crisis as a consequence of his discovery of strong radical convictions about tenant rights and land tenure in his homeland – treated then as a primitive, submissive colony of Britain, another outpost of the exploited Empire.

Politics, then. As early as vol.1, p. 26 (this OWC edition preserves the two-volume structure of the original), Phineas’s cynical politician friend, Fitzgibbon, tells his callow fellow countryman (Phineas is only 25 at the start of the novel), about to set out on his political career, some home truths about the parliamentary system. As Liberals, the two are discussing the faults and merits of their Tory opponents, who at that time held a majority in the Commons. Phineas had objected that under a Tory government, the country got nothing done:

‘As to that, it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other [retorts Fitzgibbon]. I never knew a government yet that wanted to do anything. Give a government a real strong majority, as the Tories used to have half a century since, and as a matter of course it will do nothing. Why should it? Doing things, as you call it, is only bidding for power, – for patronage and pay.’

Much of the political element of the novel (the other element is a tangled web of love and marriage plots, including a duel between two male rivals for a pretty woman – plus a bit of the usual tedious Trollope obsession, fox-hunting) depicts the gradual coming of age of Phineas in this callous, factional world of party politics. He comes to realise that party has to come before principles if he’s to rise to a senior post that paid a salary (MPs at that time were unpaid, hence they had to be rich landowning gentry, or have wealthy sponsors) – a struggle that ultimately forces him to make a self-destructive choice.

That cynical view of British (and American) politics still applies today. During the present crisis it’s apparent that many in government are more interested in keeping in office and eyeing their standing in the polls than in ‘doing something’ for the country.

Phineas is a lucky rather than talented young man. He has little apart from his good looks and pleasant manner to recommend him. He’s fortunate to fall into a ‘pocket borough’ constituency where its aristocratic patron can guarantee his election: ‘The use of a little borough of his own…is a convenience to a great peer’, our narrator says of this as yet unreformed trait of the electoral system in mid-Victorian times.

This luck stays with him for most of the novel – until those pesky convictions enter his head: ‘Could a man be honest in Parliament, and yet abandon all idea of independence?’ is the problem he confronts. “But what is a man to do?” he asks an MP colleague late in the novel: “He can’t smother his convictions.” The reply he’s given is witheringly dismissive of such convictions in a young MP – this is the worst of all possible defects, he’s advised.

He’s less lucky in his love life. He falls in love with several women in the course of the narrative, is rejected twice, more successful twice – but again he has to balance expediency or ‘business’ (meaning money to support his career) against romance. One of the women who turns him down does so for similar reasons: she marries a dull but wealthy man to extricate her profligate brother from debt. As a consequence she denies herself a potentially happy love match with Phineas.

It has to be said that his broken heart heals remarkably quickly, and he’s soon in pursuit of another quarry.

The final part of the novel ties up the numerous loose ends in what looks like a hasty and poorly conceived way, and I tended to agree with one of the women who turned down Phineas’s proposal of marriage: his character lacks depth.

The women characters are more interesting (as they were in Can You Forgive Her?). They face the usual dilemma of spirited, intelligent women of the time: their role in society was largelyrestricted to that of domestic goddess and mother. Although Trollope stops short of promoting a ‘new woman’ or suffragist heroine, he shows a great deal of sympathy for the submissive, unfulfilling life that was such women’s destiny. Characters like Phineas’s first love, Lady Laura, yearn to be able to be ‘useful’ and ‘politically powerful’ – but their capacity to be so is denied them.

Despite the rather silly duel and some flimsy characterisation and clunky plotting, this novel is worth reading for the insight into nascent and much needed political reform.

 

 

 

 

June – July in Cornwall and procrastination

I’ve been quite busy with a longstanding work project lately, hence the lack of posts for a while. The other reason for the hiatus has been procrastination: I finished Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn a couple of weeks ago, but haven’t summoned the energy to post about it yet.

Meanwhile I’ve almost finished Elizabeth Bowen’s novel Eva Trout. I chose it as a contrast with the Trollope, but it turned out to be something I’ve not enjoyed much, so I’m not sure I have a post in me about that one, either. Maybe next week I’ll feel more energetic or inspired.

So today some updates on recent walks. Now that the UK lockdown has been relaxed a little we’ve continued, Mrs TD and I, to take walks a short drive away (but the local ones have continued too).

Poppies at PentireLast week the sun shone for two whole days in a row – this hasn’t happened much since May. We took advantage of an afternoon at one of our favourite beaches: Polly Joke. The poppies on the headland above are just coming out; soon the fields there will be a blaze of scarlet and gold (the meadow marigolds). It’s a spiritually uplifting sight.

The surf in this north coast cove was fairly wild after the unsettled weather earlier in the week – and month. It wasn’t exactly a glorious June for weather. The water was very cold.

Surf

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spaniel swimming

Spaniel about to emerge after his marathon swim

Yesterday we went to the Roseland peninsula on the south coast. There the sea is always more sedate – not so good for surfing. Also not quite so cold. After a cloudy start, the day turned beautifully sunny about four o’clock. We sat and had a picnic lunch on Porthcurnick beach (near the famous Hidden Hut café). A young man in a wetsuit walked into the water near us followed by his black-and-white spaniel. We thought the dog would turn round and swim back once the guy had swum so far, but he didn’t. We watched in amazement as the pair swam further and further. Right across the bay – and back. A distance of about a mile each way. The owner told us they do this a few times a week. The dog loves it, he said, but not when he was a pup.

PortscathoWe walked back along the coastal path to the nearby village of Portscatho. By this time the cloud was starting to disperse and the water was crystal clear.

We drove on to Carne beach. Like Porthcurnick, it was almost deserted. Two children played in the shallows, watched by their grandmother and parents. No doubt this will all change after Saturday, which our media insists on calling Super Saturday. Hospital EDs are bracing themselves for carnage similar to what they experience usually on New Year’s Eve, as the pubs officially reopen that day. Our doughty prime minister has helped to calm the situation by exhorting us all to go out and enjoy ourselves. Hibernation is over, he crowed. Yaroo.

We no longer need to keep two metres apart: the virus is beaten, defeated. Even though we still have over a thousand new cases a day. The ring of steel around our care homes has done the trick – maybe the virus is just running out of people to infect in them. Pubs and restaurants are safe to open, but not schools, yet. Makes sense, in the minds of our PM, and his Rasputin chief aide, the rule-breaker.

I won’t indulge in another rant. Here’s a picture of Carne instead.

Carne