About Simon Lavery

Author, blogger.

Sennen, Geevor, a tin miner and DH Lawrence

A week ago I drove with Mrs TD down to my favourite part of Cornwall, west Penwith, for one of our regular visits to these remote and beautiful moors and coasts. There’s a point on the A30 when the road crests a rise and a couple of miles below you see the magnificent sweep of Mount’s Bay, with the dark turrets of St Michael’s Mount in front, and the graceful crescent of the bay curving round to Penzance and beyond (I’ve posted about this, and St Mary of Egypt, here.)

Sennen Cove harbour

We headed further on this road, past Penzance, to Sennen Cove. We wanted to see again another lovely Cornish bay – not as spectacular as Mount’s Bay, but still lovely. It’s a popular destination for summer holidaymakers, and on a lovely August day the beach was busy with surfers, swimmers and watchful lifeguards (but not, sadly, the famous Newfoundland surf lifesaver dog, whose name I forget; there’s a book about him.)

The cliffs loom above the cream-coloured sand of the beach, giving the bay a sense of being protected by a tremendous elemental force: furrowed and fissured black granite.

We wandered through the village, heading for the art gallery: the Capstan and Round House. It’s a wonderful old building, with an ancient capstan wheel in the basement; there’s just room to walk around its perimeter and admire the artworks on the walls and surfaces.

Geevor entrance flags

Entrance to the Geevor Mine site

The owner was charming: Colin Caffell (his partner runs the gallery upstairs). He told us about his commission a few years ago to make a memorial statue to Cornish miners. He started with the clay model, then handed it on to the people who specialise in casting. He also told us about the garden in which the statue stands, at the entrance to Geevor Mine, a few miles along the coast road just outside Pendeen, which of course we had to drive on and visit (it’s only been there since 2015, and we’ve somehow never been in before).

This north Cornish coastline is spectacularly beautiful: more rugged and forbidding than the south, just a few miles across the moors of this narrowest part of the peninsula. I’ve posted before about Cape Cornwall, nearby, with its dangerous offshore rocks and iconic community of red-legged, red-billed choughs. Also nearby is the surprisingly large town of St Just, home of the gallery of one of my favourite artists: Kurt Jackson.

 On his website the sculptor Colin explains his intentions: he wanted to position the seven-foot bronze resin statue in a garden containing grasses and plants from all of the continents to which the intrepid Cornish hard rock miners took their skills: the Americas, Australasia, Africa and Asia. The colour scheme he was aiming for, the blues, oranges and reds, were intended to evoke the sunset over the Atlantic. He wanted this garden to become a ‘place for quiet reflection.’ It is.

Of course the plants had to be hardy enough to survive the salty winds blowing off the ocean. He goes on to say that the plants do better than one might expect; the artist Patrick Heron managed to create his own exotic garden where he lived not far along the coast.

The plaque beneath the statue reads:

Hard rock breeds hard men

Who slip between earth’s cracks for a living,

The dark chasm which closes around you,

Tight like a fist, draws you down

Into the mine’s gullet, the belly of the beast

Hewn out of granite, the ledger of tin,

The ingot of tradition, a labyrinth of strong voices

That still chisel the dark, the rich seam,

A stream that runs through each generation,

A lode that anchors a man’s life

From ‘The Wheal of Hope’ by James Crowden.

The memorial was ‘raised and funded by the community of the St Just Mining District in honour of the courageous men who worked the narrow lodes in hazardous conditions far below the land and sea in the mines of this district; and the women and children who toiled on the surface crushing and dressing ore. As pioneers, many of these Cornish families took this skill and expertise to the far corners of the world as new mining opportunities emerged.’ [from the same plaque]

That last point is perhaps a little romanticised. The diaspora of Cornish miners – the hard rock specialists who’d learned to extract every kind of valuable mineral from the granite under the moors of west Penwith and the rest of the county (or duchy) – had to emigrate when the mines became less competitive than their counterparts in other ‘far corners of the world.’ They had little choice, in other words.

In 2016 I wrote some posts on the Man Engine (here, and here) the massive mechanical puppet that toured the county and beyond, commemorating these hardy miners – many of whom died or suffered terrible injuries, working in dangerous, unpleasant conditions. The Levant disaster was just one such terrible event.

View from the moors above Zennor

View from the moors above Zennor

We drove on for lunch at the Tinners Arms, Zennor. I usually aim to have a pint of Tinners Ale here, the inn where DH Lawrence stayed briefly while searching for a place to rent in what he optimistically considered his ‘promised land’. He eventually found the small, basic cottage complex at Higher Tregerthen just outside the village. I’ve posted several times before about his stay in west Cornwall, trying to create a utopian community, Rananim, starting with John Middleton Murry and his wife Katherine Mansfield – but they disappointed him by moving to the ‘softer’ part of the county, to less basic accommodation.

A comment on a related post last August, about the sale of this remote cottage by a local estate agent, elicited a comment today from Julie Warries (thanks, Julie), who said she’s particularly interested in Lawrence’s time in Cornwall and the letters he wrote there. She added a charming aside: when she visited the Tinners Arms she asked a barman for directions to Higher Tregerthen. He didn’t know, but added that she wasn’t the first person to ask that!

Mrs TD thinks I should start a ‘DH Lawrence tours in Cornwall’ agency…Who knows.

Virginia Woolf’s libraries

John Passmore Edwards

Earlier this month there was an interesting comment by Anthea Arnold on my post from July last year about Virginia Woolf’s essay collection The Common Reader, vol. 1, and in particular her essay ‘Lives of the Obscure’. Anthea pointed out that when picturing herself reading obscure books in an ‘out-of-date, obsolete library’, Woolf seemed to be conflating three different ones.

Passmore Edwards library facade

Inscription reads: Passmore Edwards Free…The library underwent major renovations in 2010

Anthea went on to give outline histories of all three. One of them particularly caught my attention. She said that St Ives Library in Cornwall was opened by John Passmore Edwards in 1897. This reminded me of the library in my own city of Truro. I’ve seen his name emblazoned on its side countless times, without paying it much attention. I decided to research him a bit more.

John Passmore Edwards (1823-1911) was born in Blackwater, near Truro in Cornwall. After making his fortune as a journalist and writer, he dedicated his life and wealth to charitable and philanthropic causes. Between 1889 and 1903 he donated over 250,000 pounds to various such causes and established over seventy institutions all over the country, many of them in London, including libraries, cottage hospitals, convalescent homes, schools and art galleries – and even drinking fountains, so that the working classes would be able to drink uncontaminated water.

Edwards supported the abolition of capital punishment, the suppression of the opium trade and the abolition of flogging in the services. He also helped direct the Political Reform Association, and published and edited various magazines, promoting among other things peace and temperance.

He was offered a knighthood twice, but declined the honour.

Edwards facade Library

Inscription: Library

The Passmore Edwards library in Truro was built by local firm Clemens and Battershill to a design by Silvanus Trevail (see below) of Plymouth limestone with Bath stone dressings on a granite base. The foundation stone was laid on May 24th, 1895, and the building was opened with a great ceremony on April 30th, 1896: ‘thousands of people thronged the gaily decorated streets’. It was described as ‘a gift of Mr Passmore Edwards to the citizens of Truro without distinction as to creed or financial status’. In a speech he stated that he was planning to open nineteen institutions in Cornwall, as there were nineteen letters in his name. The three-storey Central Technical Schools for Cornwall were built on to the library in 1899.

Edwards foundation stone

The library foundation stone commemorates Passmore Edwards

Edwards was a delegate for the London Peace Society to various Peace Conferences, 1848 -1850, and stood unsuccessfully as an Independent parliamentary candidate for Truro in 1868. In 1880 he was elected Liberal Party MP for Salisbury, an office he held for five years.

Some of his major beneficiaries were the Whitechapel Art Gallery and the London School of Economics. I remember friends from my undergraduate days who lived in an LSE student hall of residence named in his honour.

Silvanus Trevail (1851-1903), the Truro library architect, was born in the parish of Luxulyan, just outside St Austell in Cornwall. After training as an architect in London he returned to his native county, where he went on to design some fifty of the new ‘board schools’ as a result of the 1872 Education Act, which broadened the need for compulsory education for children. He also designed the St Lawrence Hospital in Bodmin and some of the most prestigious hotels in Cornwall, including the magnificent terracotta-coloured Headland in Newquay, and the Carbis Bay Hotel just outside St Ives. He designed many of the Passmore Edwards buildings in Cornwall and London, for he shared that philanthropist’s passion for improving the living conditions and welfare of the working classes.

He participated actively in Cornish local politics as a councillor, and became Mayor of Truro. He was elected Fellow of the RIBA, Vice President of the Society of Architects in 1896 and President in 1901 – a position he still held when he died.

He apparently suffered from depression, and shot himself on a train as it approached Bodmin Road station in 1903.

Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman #WITMonth

Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman. Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori. Granta Books, 2019. First Japanese edition 2016

I’ve said here before that Mrs TD believes I read too many ‘morose’ books. I should read something more cheerful.

I emailed David McKay, the translator of Multatuli and J. Slauerhof, whose novels I posted on here recently, to tell him my posts had been published at T. Days. I said I was hoping to read another of his translations, War and Turpentine (by Flemish Belgian author Stefan Hertmans), but was needing something ‘more cheerful’. He recommended this short novel by Sayaka Murata, ‘which has moments of dark humour and sinister overtones but is a very funny, charming character sketch on the whole,’ he wrote.

He was right.

Murata Convenience Store Woman cover Keiko Furukura is 36 and has worked in the same convenience store since it opened in a railway station mall eighteen years earlier. She seems to be on the autistic spectrum; we’re told of some disturbing incidents in her childhood where her tendency to fail to interpret people’s implied meanings, but to take their words horribly literally, gets her into trouble and causes her mother deep consternation.

She feels people don’t think she’s normal, so tries hard to imitate the intonations and conversational gambits of women around her, even the way they dress; that way she almost goes unnoticed.

Only at the convenience store does she feel at peace. She’s in tune with its sounds and rituals. She likes the predictable, unchanging routine. True, the staff and customers come and go, but the pulse of the store is reassuringly repetitive, predictable.

#WITMonth logoKeeping herself fit and alert enough to work there each day gives her life purpose; otherwise she’d be just an animal, and carnal urges slightly disgust her. At the store she can tune in to its mechanistic hum, merge and forget trying to be human.

When an equally strange young man joins the workforce and enters her life, she’s in danger of having to start behaving like a human, not a ‘foreign body’. The store reclaims her.

It’s not what I’d call a particularly cheerful novel. It does have a bizarrely humorous air: that deadpan narrative voice with its lack of affect, the narrator’s baffled fluster at the mysterious ways of humans, places her in the world of AI ‘characters’ in recent sci-fi fiction. She tries to interpret the world, but ultimately prefers the regularity of stock control and parroting the scripted greetings her team are drilled in every morning before they start work.

It’s a satire, I suppose, on the regimented world of Japanese corporate and commercial enterprise, and the strict requirements of a hierarchical culture – especially for women. Keiko is repeatedly reminded that she’s a freak largely because she conforms neither to the economic stereotype that makes other people comfortable: career progression, acquire more consumables (why drudge at a dead-end part-time job in a store, friends and family wonder), nor to the gender stereotype: get married, reproduce, spread her and genes.

She flirts with this last idea, repellent as she finds its animality, but is easily dissuaded from getting pregnant, in one of the funniest scenes in the novel.

Despite the dark humour I found I was most frequently reminded by this novel’s tone and effect of Kafka, and in particular of ‘Metamorphosis’. Keiko’s vague awareness that she’s not like everyone else around her causes her to want to transform and conform, but ultimately she’s only happy to be who she knows she really is – not ‘one of us’.

I enjoyed the book, and zoomed through it in a couple of hours. The translation is deftly done, and reads rapidly and smoothly. It was amusing and diverting to read, and not morose, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it.

Any other suggestions for something cheerful? Not Angela Thirkell, please.

 

 

 

 

Sylvie Chaput, Isabelle’s Notebooks. #WITMonth

Sylvie Chaput, Isabelle’s Notebooks. Translated from the French by Peter Vranckx and Daniel Sloate. Guernica Editions, Canada, 2002; 1996

#WITMonth logo I came across this novel, by an author and in an imprint I’d not heard of, in a charity bookshop last week. As I’ve enjoyed the output of titles by QC Fiction of French Canadian/Québec literature, and I saw from the blurb of its dustjacket that Isabelle’s Notebooks was by a writer based in Québec – I bought it. (I see from their website that Guernica have a highly varied and interesting-looking catalogue.)

I also needed something new for Women In Translation Month; my previous post was my first in August’s #WITMonth initiative hosted at Bibliobio blog: Continents, by the Finnish novelist Anja Snellman.

Set in the troubled British colony of Canada mostly in the 1830s, and ending in 1845, the novel consists of the fictional notebooks of Isabelle Forest, an aspiring artist. Orphaned at a young age she’s brought up by a distinguished professional artist and collector, her uncle Joseph Légaré. As the author’s note informs us at the end of the book, most of the characters and events narrated are based on real life. Chaput uses these fictional notebooks as an entry into a vividly imagined recreation of that turbulent period in the history of Canada, a ‘new country’ struggling for independence, and of Canadian women, engaged in their own struggle against the patriarchy.

Chaput Isabelle's Notebooks coverThere’s a journalistic edge to the style and content that reminded me of Defoe; like his Journal of a Plague Year this novel graphically and memorably conveys the devastation of the city of Québec in 1832 by a cholera epidemic, and later by two terrible fires that take their toll on the narrator’s own household.

I found myself skimming the long central sections, which gave an over-detailed account of the numerous contending political factions, their multitude of key players, and frequent broiling protests of the radical Patriotes and others in their fight for autonomy from their European rulers. These sections showed signs of the meticulous historical research too overtly.

As a British reader I felt ashamed of the brutal repression of the Canadians by my countrymen, and reprisals meted out to these early fighters for freedom from tyranny. The current events in Hong Kong are a reminder of what’s at stake for such people.

More interesting was the representation of Isabelle’s rite of passage into selfhood and her own kind of autonomy: as a girl she becomes interested in drawing and her uncle is pleased to take her on as a pupil. But she quickly concedes that for ‘the fairer sex’ to which she belongs ‘painting remains purely a leisure activity.’

But I strenuously objected to the notion of my serving as a mere ornament. And yet that is precisely what I risked becoming if I simply stopped painting. I had to continue my efforts, even if they were on a modest scale.

Her quest for independent identity is paralleled in her intensifying love for young firebrand patriot Philippe. She falls in love in a romantic impulse of admiration for his heroic, quixotic rebellion. At first his protest is political but it rapidly becomes personal and literary when he defends his first novel against what he sees as ill-informed criticism. Isabelle is intrigued and troubled by his strange novel: a disturbing account of a brutal murder, with a background of alchemy.

William Blake's Death on a Pale Horse

Blake’s ‘Death on a Pale Horse’, from illustrations to the Book of Revelation. Currently in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Public Domain: Wikimedia Commons

And alchemy becomes a key theme in this novel, along with art and painting; a watercolour of Death riding a pale horse by William Blake plays a significant part. It’s one of many striking, enigmatic symbols and images that punctuate and illuminate the narrative.

As Isabelle learns to love and live through Philippe, she’s too soon introduced to the pain and anguish of separation and loss.

There’s a striking image in the final pages involving an artwork and its ability to outlive attempts at erasure. It’s worth persevering with this sometimes ponderous novel for the high points and flashes of originality that depict this love affair’s tempestuous progress and the awakening of the spirited young woman protagonist as a consequence of it, and for images like that closing one. The alchemy I found less compelling.

Sylvie Chaput is an essayist, novelist and translator specialising in literature, art and philosophy; she has translated works by Emerson, Thoreau and Margaret Fuller (from the Guernica Editions website).

 

 

Anja Snellman, Continents. #WITMonth

Anja Snellman, Continents: A Love Story. New Terrain Press, 2018. Translated from the Finnish by Timo Luhtanen. 20051 #WITMonth

#WITMonth logoI was sent this novel via fellow blogger Liz Dexter’s site ‘Adventures in reading, running and working from home’ as a giveaway from the publisher for responding to her review: my thanks to Liz and New Terrain for introducing me to this author. It’s also my first contribution to #WomenInTranslation Month (aka #WITMonth), curated annually by Meytal Radzinski at the Bibliobio blog.

According to Anja Snellman’s website she’s been a writer for nearly forty years, and has published 25 novels which have been translated into twenty languages. Her first novel, Sonia O. Was Here, remains the highest-selling Finnish debut so far.

The basic theme of Continents is simple; Oona and Alex are at first passionately in love; they’ve started their map life together, as Oona sees it, on the continent of Asia:

Their Asia was pure enchantment – it lasted for their first summer and the following one, if not longer. That first summer, they were busy making their first child on the smooth cliff by his grandmother’s villa.

Snellman Continents coverOona sees yellow for days afterwards, a sort of poetic afterburn from the sunshine in those idyllic times. That perhaps gives a flavour of Snellman’s method: a generic portrait in geographical images, locations, sensations, of the stages of a relationship (‘every couple has their Asia’ – usually but not necessarily at the start of their relationship), with highly personal details and poetic analogies and images from the daily lives and experience of this particular couple to animate it.

Here’s a typically sensuous account of life in steamy ‘Asia’:

Touches set off tremors of excitement and pleasure, and skin glows and smells of water lilies…In Asia, couples burn candles and incense, and write random lists about things they have in common. …They keep misplacing their keys and watches, forget the pizza box on the roof of the car, and accidentally lock the cat in the wardrobe.

I enjoy the way Anja Snellman conveys the delirious excitement of this erotically charged, blissful and intimate stage of a marriage, while showing it grounded in the humdrum and everyday. Their passionate intensity and mutual absorption is even slightly comical when described from the outside like that. That’s well observed.

Oona is very like the protagonist of her cartoon strips (she’s an artist-illustrator), a ‘quirky hippy girl’ called Rainbow. Alex, a journalist in ‘real’ life, is represented by her cartoon boyfriend, Scoop – also a writer.

Ominous signs are apparent even from the start. When Alex asks why Rainbow holds a daisy while Scoop has a pen behind his ear, and whether this brings them together or drives them apart, Oona answers honestly that she doesn’t know:

She thought he might not yet understand the combination of uninhibited and sad, bold and ambiguous, and blatant and shy, but he would learn.

Would he really? Alex is representative of a certain common type of man (I’m allowed to say that, being male): kind, generous but lacking in insight into himself and others, short of empathy. He’s quick to get jealous when Oona’s ex-boyfriends are discussed. He doesn’t share Oona’s generous, intuitive abandon, her untidy joie de vivre:

She lights up his life. When they get to the continent of Africa, Alex begins to wonder if her light is too bright.

Australia is remembered by Oona as ‘remote, with a peculiar outline and long distances, and not particularly attractive at first.’ But it was also a time of happiness, even though ‘the scent of a man was often replaced by that of a baby, and she had trouble sleeping for different reasons than before.’ More warning signs appear starkly: ‘isolation looms in Australia, so couples need to find ways to connect with the rest of the world.’

There’s that portentous, omniscient narrative voice, anatomising the situation while presenting the particulars: they think about making love, ‘with abandon, for hours’, but then they ‘yawned and shrugged, and the idea was left hibernating, or perhaps smoldering.’

Another good, salutary joke.

Anyone who’s been in a long relationship will recognise with a frisson this occasionally comical, deadly serious way of charting the stages of a relationship, in this case a marriage. Can passion survive parenthood, domesticity, promotions and pressures of work and career, rivalries and tensions in the dynamic between the two partners? It’s an ancient question, and Snellman doesn’t shirk exploring their resolutions, as this couple ‘slip, slide and slither’ through the continents to the icy wastes of Greenland and Antarctica.

Thanks again to Liz and New Terrain Press – an imprint that specialises in translations of Nordic works of literature – for introducing me to this bright literary voice. I agree with Liz, who says in her review that it’s ‘impeccably translated’, and skewers the achingly cool social circle of this couple unerringly. They just don’t do emotion and love too well. Still, who does?

Turns out, Oona does.

I hope to post a French-Canadian #WITMonth contribution next. Thanks again to Liz and Bibliobio for the nudge into – no, inspiration for – reading more women writers in translation, and my first ever Finnish novel.

 

 

 

J. Slauerhoff, Adrift in the Middle Kingdom

J. Slauerhoff, Adrift in the Middle Kingdom. Translated from the Dutch by David McKay. Handheld Press (Bath, England), 2019: Handheld Classic, 9. Introduction by Arie Pos and Wendy Gan. 19341

I posted on another Dutch classic, Max Havelaar, by Multatuli, back in May. Its co-translator, David McKay, offered review copies of his newest translation – today’s subject – via the GoodReads/NYRB Classics online group discussion, and he kindly arranged for this small westcountry imprint to send me a copy.

Jan Jacob Slauerhoff (1898-1936) served as a ship’s doctor in south-east Asia, experience on which he drew for Adrift in the Middle Kingdom. This is its first English translation. The narrator is an Ulsterman called Cameron, a radio operator on cargo ships plying between Indonesia and other Asian ports and China. The cargo often includes contraband, including opium, which brings him and his ship into abrasive, dangerous contact with criminal smugglers and dealers.

They also transport exhausted migrant workers, their health shattered by working in slave-like conditions in the plantations of Java, returning home for whatever short time remains of their lives. They’ve hoarded what little capital they might have scraped together in the long years of toil.

Slauerhoff Adrift in the Middle Kingdom coverUnlike some other novels by westerners at this period, the picture given of the inhabitants of these oriental countries is not patronisingly exotic and romanticised. This is largely the sinister, darker side of the far east, a place of seedy opium dens and sordid dockside brothels and bars catering for the sailors and merchants intent on indulging their sensual appetites after long suffering and voyages, or lucrative deals (‘whooping and shouting to drown out your own despair, your shame and your transgressions, for the sake of mere survival’, as Cameron wearily characterises it).

But most of the indigenous inhabitants endure a life of hardship and deprivation. The treatment they receive from westerners as well as their own people is often heartless and exploitative.

Here is Cameron’s sardonic view of Taihai, China’s ‘largest port’:

where out of three million people at least two don’t know if tomorrow they’ll eat or die.

We also see the unnaturally opulent side, especially the French concession, occupied by the western entrepreneurs and colonialists, and also some wealthy Chinese who are essentially gangsters or drug lords and gun-runners. It was a zone notorious for its hedonism and criminality, according to the writers of the useful Introductions to this edition.

At that decadent, multinational port of Taihai (a thinly disguised version of Shanghai) Cameron jumps ship, intent on losing himself in the ‘middle kingdom’, a literal translation of the ancient Chinese name for their country. His quest can be seen as an oriental equivalent of Marlow’s journey into the Congo’s heart of darkness, but Cameron resembles not so much stolid, judgemental European Marlow as a less demonic Kurtz figure, attracted by this alternative culture as superior to or more enlightened than the atrophied, stultifying version offered by the west.

Cameron is an intriguing figure. He’s Melville’s Ishmael in reverse. He’s grown to hate the life of a seaman, and seems to be suffering from a Sartrean identity crisis. In this sense the novel is a strange amalgam of Buddhist fantasy-allegory – a quest for spiritual enlightenment – and an existential quest for some kind of authenticity in a meaningless world, an escape from ennui and terror.

The quest takes Cameron, after a relatively fulfilling time with a simple but starving watchmaker’s family, on a long trip across the forbidding hinterland of China at the bidding of an obese, amoral boss of a crime syndicate. Their cargo is modern European guns and munitions, carried in a bizarre camel train to the distant city of Chungking. Along the way Cameron had fallen in (and out) with a range of marginal, corrupt characters, symbolically representative of Russian, French and other decadent European cultures.

At Chungking, a traditional Chinese city whose rulers detest and resist modern western influence, the clash between western industrial capitalism and militarism with Zen Buddhism comes to its climax. It’s expressed in terms of a modernist European alienation narrative, and comes to its hallucinatory, mystical conclusion in a kind of Chinese-Elysian poppyfield of earthly-heavenly delights. Cameron desperately seeks to join the enigmatic, alluring figure of Buddhist Tibetan monk Wan Chen, beckoning him from a shifting, distant mountain peak.

This possibly sounds a bit of a dog’s dinner, but it somehow works. The novel’s tone and style reminded me weirdly of the prose and poetry of the 19C French Symbolists and decadents, and the Beats – who discovered the attractions of drug-enhanced mystical escape a couple of decades later. But the tendency towards self-indulgent egotism by the likes of Kerouac is tempered by a moral seriousness more reminiscent of Kafka and Camus.

 

 

Plymouth pilgrimage again

Every summer I take the train to Plymouth to re-enact my regular trips there to meet one of my oldest friends, Mike Flay. He died in May 2016, so this was the third  time I’d made this special journey, having started the pilgrimages that summer of 2016.

Great Western Railways now operates smart new Hitachi trains, which are a big improvement on the old ‘HS 125’ bone shakers that had been in service since about 1902. They have electrically operated doors, so you no longer have to slide down the door’s window and lean out to open with the handle on the outside of the door.

Plymouth Drake statue

The plaque under the statue shows that the statue actually commemorates Drake’s circumnavigation of the earth in the 1570s, some years before the Spanish Armada – hence the globe beside him. That sword is implausibly long and must have made walking about problematic

As usual I headed for the Hoe, where Sir Francis Drake allegedly played bowls while the Spanish Armada sailed towards its intended attack on England. A slightly camp statue of him stands on a column on the highest point of the Hoe, and he looks out over the Sound, as if searching for more Spanish battle ships.

Mike and I usually had lunch at a pub restaurant down on the waterfront. He invariably had a burger and a posh Italian lager. I favour English real ale. They no longer seem to do Jail Ale, so this year it was Proper Job – named after that quaint Cornish/Devonian expression of general approbation.


In previous visits there’s usually been a ship of some kind passing out of the docks into the Sound. This year a huge vessel was being towed out by two tugs, that looked too tiny to shift it – like ants lugging a dead mouse.

After another pint at our customary final pit stop, the colonial Copthorne hotel, the bar of which is now pretentiously named a brasserie, but still has a corporate air, I headed back to the station.

On the train home to Cornwall I resumed my reading of the novel about an Irishman adrift in China; I’ll be posting about it shortly. So that was this year’s pilgrimage over. Happy memories, Mike.Plymouth ship tugs

Angela Thirkell, Wild Strawberries

Angela Thirkell, Wild Strawberries. Virago Modern Classics, 2012. 19341

Europe was at a turning point in 1934, when this light romantic comedy was published. This was the year Hitler became Führer of Germany, having been made Chancellor the previous year. Mussolini had been increasing his grip as Il Duce in Italy from the 1920s. Britain was still bruised from the effects of WWI, and wary of political engagement with the rest of the continent – a condition it has recently found attractive again, when ‘foreigner’ means ‘not one of us’. We don’t seem to learn from the lessons of history.

Thirkell Wild Strawberries coverWild Strawberries is the second of Thirkell’s almost thirty ‘Barsetshire’ novels, set in a fictional province of England that’s loosely based on Trollope’s world. I read and posted about the first, High Rising, last October. She wrote for money, hence her prolific output. As I said about her novelist protagonist Laura in High Rising, she was unabashed in her role as running a production line of middle-brow, undemanding romantic comedies of dubious and, according to some accounts, uneven literary quality; they were very successful.

I read this one because I was due to undergo tests in hospital and anticipated long waits and delays. I needed something light and diverting. Thirkell is perfect for such situations.

I enjoyed the comedy. There are some very funny situations and jokes (the butler’s name is Gudgeon, which I find implausibly funny). Some of these involve charming, feral small children and their excessively doting mother – though her monomania became tiresome after a while.

Some of the characters produce some engaging humour, too. Lady Emily Leslie, daughter of an earl, is the eccentric matriarch of Rushwater House, the large country seat of her family. She is capable of producing chaos in the most orderly of households; her constant mislaying of her spectacles and other personal items resonated with me – I have a pair of reading glasses in every room to overcome this forgetful tendency.

Her husband is more problematic; he reminds me of the boorish xenophobe Uncle Matthew in Nancy Mitford’s Pursuit of Love and its sequels. We’re supposed, I think, to find his implacable antipathy to foreigners amusing. It isn’t.

Thirkell tends to produce characters with just one defining characteristic, like Lady Leslie’s meddlesome vagueness. This works for Dickens, who also produces more fully rounded characters to offset these caricatures. In Thirkell’s novel of 275 pages the effect is wearing. None of the characters has sufficient gravitas or depth to carry a plot.

And the plot is gossamer light. Will penniless Mary, a cousin by marriage (not a blood relative) of the eligible bachelor Leslies, succumb to the gigolo charms of handsome but feckless, selfish David, or for the more stolid decency of boring widower brother John? I thought it was pretty obvious from the outset what would happen, and didn’t really care either way.

I did find the depiction of ingenuous, inexperienced Mary’s infatuation with debonaire charmer David well done; the narrator makes no bones about his egotism and cruel flirtatiousness. Yet the more caddish and careless his treatment of her, the more she longs for him. Who hasn’t fallen for the wrong person at some point?

The novel works fairly well, as a whole, as an entertaining diversion (but see my conclusions below). I can’t agree with Alexander McCall Smith’s claim in the introduction that this is a different world from Wodehouse’s: these people have jobs, he says, and ‘they do not spend their time in an endless whirl of silliness.’ Really?

Take David, who’s so rich he doesn’t have to work. He goes for an audition with the BBC, and ruins his chances by having an attack of giggles. He doesn’t need the job, and is disdainful of this outcome – instead he launches a campaign in pursuit of the bluestocking young woman who’d have been his boss in that job. One of the high points of the narrative, for me, was when she told him, as his advances became tiresome, to get lost.

There’s a slight element of seriousness that adds a bit of substance to this frothy tale: the death of one of the Leslie sons as an officer in WWI still casts a shadow over the family, and the pain of his loss in the carnage of that war is still with them. ‘The War broke up the happy life of county England,’ the narrator tells us at one point. But this refers to the social whirl, the complacent luxury of the upper classes; Thirkell has no interest in wider issues – unless we count the dabbling among the younger generation of characters with French Royalism. And this could easily tip over into some further politically dodgy attitudes. Fortunately Thirkell loses interest in this plot line – as she does with all the others, and the novel fizzles out into a disappointing, predictable ending.

Ultimately the novel is marred for me, and I find I can’t recommend it, because of the casual xenophobia and racism. Smith, in that introduction, concedes some of the language ‘offends the modern ear’, but it ‘merely reflects the attitudes of the time.’ I see this excuse so often, and I find that I don’t agree that this condones these attitudes.

It did take my mind off the hospital appointments, so it served its purpose.

PS update/afterthought. I meant to mention, in relation to the rise of fascism at the time of this novel’s publication, that Thirkell includes a chilling moment in the narrative. Some of our main characters are at the railway station when a train from the city arrives and disgorges hordes of young people dressed in hiking clothes, out for a ramble in the country. As they pass our young toffs they give a fascist salute. Thirkell simply relates this and passes on, unperturbed – no comment, nothing. I found this very disturbing: the salute, and the lack of authorial comment.

Tears and immolation: Elizabeth Taylor, Blaming

Elizabeth Taylor, Blaming. Virago Modern Classics, 2007. 19761

Middle-aged Englishwoman Amy Henderson meets Martha, an American writer who seems to be about thirty, on a cruise. Disaster strikes when their ship is docked at Istanbul, and this eccentric, impulsive American whom she’d not really liked looks after her and takes her home.

Amy’s lack of affect, her inability to connect with others – instead she shows a catlike indifference, even spitefulness – or to reciprocate the kindness Martha had shown her when she needs it, brings about the situation where Amy’s self-recrimination sets in, too late to stave off further disaster. Hence the blame in the title. With blame come guilt and pain.

Elizabeth Taylor’s final novel, published posthumously, was completed while she knew she was dying of cancer. It’s not surprising that death, mortality and bereavement are central features in the narrative.

Taylor is as usual interested mostly in the behaviour of middle-class women like Amy, refined but emotionally stunted, finding herself in situations where emotional intelligence is required of her, and she is unable to summon it up. Instead she’s judgemental, aloof, indifferent and solitary. She looks up one of Martha’s novels in the library – a rare sign of curiosity in another person. She ‘skipped through it’:

And thought what a stifling little world it was, of a love affair gone wrong, of sleeping pills and contraceptives, tears, immolation.

This tells us a great deal about free-spirited, prodigal Martha, with her rather hippy-ish dress sense, brusque manners and frank American inquisitiveness about other people – qualities the exact opposite of this buttoned-up English ‘Memsahib’, as Martha’s lover Simon, her implausibly ‘quiet American’, sees Amy when he finally meets her.

It’s more revealing about Amy. Her dismissal of Martha’s fictional themes suggests she’s wary and scornful of such messy living, with its exposures, pain and evasions, and of such effusive openness, with which comes a vulnerability she deplores. The narrator’s astuteness consists in her withholding judgement or analysis: we’re simply shown the scene, and trusted to savour the ironies and implications.

Martha’s relationship with the rather bland, needy Simon is interesting, and reveals some of the contradictions in her. She says she’s drawn to quiet men like him, yet has a brash manner herself; she likens him to a cat. She appears to pity him rather than love him – she’s drawn to lonely people like him and Amy. “Like you, he can’t make friends,” she tells Amy. That’s Martha’s mission, it seems: to try to help people connect when they’re struggling to do so. It’s her way of making her own human connections in a world full of misconstrued motives and misinterpretations of the words and actions of others.

Taylor is sharp-eyed about these complexities and contradictions in character, these occlusions in social intercourse. Beneath the unaffected, confident manner, Martha is in her own way troubled and lonely. And that, as I’ve said before about other works of fiction by Elizabeth Taylor (novels and short stories: links at the end of this post), is one of her central themes: the loneliness of the middle-class, middle-aged woman.

In Amy’s case it’s largely self-induced. Martha takes her to task about it: ‘” You’re simply not interested in other people”’. Amy is so typically English, she thinks, when she observes Amy saying things like “Terribly good, don’t you think?”: the manner of talking with ‘all syllables articulate, the disposition quite detached.’ Taylor the observant novelist, observing this observer.

Secondary characters are also well drawn. Ernie, Martha’s camp ‘housekeeper’ (in earlier times he’d have been called a butler, a down-market, hypochondriac Jeeves), obsessed with his new false teeth and women wrestlers, making mysterious visits on his evenings off to a jazz club, of all places. He’s both too servile and too familiar, Simon thinks.

Amy’s son and daughter-in-law, Maggie, are brilliantly done: their selfishness and irritation with Amy are palpable in a scene which Jonathan Keates in his Introduction to this edition compares with a similar one in Sense and Sensibility. Maggie delivers the most devastatingly chilling line in the novel – but I won’t quote it here because it’s a bit of a spoiler. It reveals how Amy doesn’t do intimacy, inspiring little affection in those around her as a consequence. Martha’s attentiveness to Amy in extremity and afterwards is thus rendered more touching (though she too has her own not entirely selfless motives for having ‘intruded’, as Amy sees it, into her life).

Another of Taylor’s areas of genius is her depiction of children; Amy’s two granddaughters are one of the highlights of a novel that at times needed a little more brightness. The four-year-old is a monster, her elder sister, a prissy goody-two-shoes.

As with Jane Austen, much of the reading pleasure in an Elizabeth Taylor novel comes from the dialogue. Amy’s repressed Englishness is shown both in sentences we hear her utter, as Martha notes – but also in the narrative comments. Early on, during the cruise, for example, she has an exchange with Martha that’s represented as almost painfully clipped, evasive and elided. ‘Very taut this conversation’, our narrator deftly summarises at its end.

Given the circumstances in which this novel was written, it’s a remarkable achievement. Not Taylor’s finest, but still superior to much else being done at the time. The novel left me feeling a little bleak and bereft, despite the moments of light humour.

My previous Elizabeth Taylor posts:

The Complete Short Stories

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Angel

The Soul of Kindness

In a Summer Season

 

“Text” or “texted”?

In family conversation recently someone said, “I hate it when people say ‘I texted her yesterday. It should be text”.

As a former teacher of various linguistics courses I had to resist the temptation to go into lecturer mode – prescriptive v. descriptive attitudes, misguided notions of “correctness” in language and grammar, etc. (This is not a temptation I’m noted for resisting, but hey, this was family.)

I always say “texted”, on the grounds that the simple past tense in regular verbs (if there is such a thing) is usually (but not always!) formed by adding –ed. The nearest equivalent I can think of is “test, tested” and all those other verbs that end –est in the present tense form.

English language is so inconsistent and full of exceptions, however, that it’s not a clincher to point to parallels with which to assimilate (compare ‘live/lived’, ‘give/gave’ and ‘dive/dived’ – or should that be ‘dove’?!)

What if “next” were used as a verb (which it isn’t, but all English syntax is more flexible, especially in informal, conversational use, than pedants like to believe – put that in your clay pipe and smoke it, Jacob Rees-Mogg, in your monocle and plus-fours)? I think I’d say “I nexted her” – ok, not impossible, if one thinks of the innovative ‘verbing’ and nominalisation of the conjunction “but” in ‘but me not buts’ – as first used in an obscure text of 1709, but made popular by Scott in The Antiquary (1816) – not Shakespeare, as is often asserted; so one could imagine ‘next me no nexts’ (imperative). Just a short step from there to: ‘I nexted her’, ie I used “next” as a verb to her some time in the past. I don’t think I’d say ‘I next her’.

I would have turned to David Crystal for insight into or clarification of this problem; I’m sure his book on the language of the internet/IT would have covered it (he’s a big fan of the playful inventiveness of text message language, for example, though this is largely outdated now by the ubiquity of smartphones), but I donated my copy to my college English dept when I finished teaching there this summer – I’m now officially retired (well, made redundant, but that’s another story).

A quick online search found that this “text” v. “texted” is a common language question.

Chicago Manual of Style Online:

Texted is correct. Adding ed is the standard way to make a verb past tense, so with a new verb like text, that’s the default. With increased usage, a nonstandard past tense could eventually establish itself, but until then, use the standard verb form.

At OED online (edited) entry on ‘text’ as a verb:

Now rare.

1.  A.  transitive. To inscribe, write, or print in a text-hand or in capital or large letters. Also figurativeObsolete.

1600    Shakespeare Much Ado about Nothing  v. i. 179 [this is Claudio speaking]   Yea and text vnder-neath, here dwells Benedick the married man.

1607    T. Dekker Whore of Babylon sig. I4   Vowes haue I writ so deepe,..So texted them in characters capitall, I cannot race them.

1621    J. Fletcher et al.  Trag. of Thierry & Theodoret  ii. i. sig. D1   Condemne me, for A most malicions [sic] slanderer: nay, texdeit Vpon my forehead.

1624    T. Heywood Γυναικεῖον  vii. 315   That such as..past.. might read them as perfectly and distinctly, as if they had beene textedin Capitall Letters.

[My note: That Shakespearean usage is interesting; it looks to me, in context, that it’s the future form, for Claudio characteristically continues the chaffing at Benedick’s expense, started in the previous speech by Don Pedro: ‘But when shall we set the savage bull’s horns on the sensible Benedick’s head?’ i.e. ‘[when shall we] text underneath…’; so, not the past tense. Interestingly, those citations from Dekker, Fletcher and Heywood all have the –ted ending. But this is a different semantic sense from the modern ‘messaging’, so not really comparable. But it does at least establish that the –ted ending was considered acceptable at that time.]

 [OED] Draft additions March 2004 to ‘text’ as verb: transitiveTelecommunications. To send (a text message) to a person, mobile phone, etc.; to send a text message to. Also intransitive: to communicate by sending text messages…

2001    Leicester Mercury (Electronic ed.) 31 July   I texted my mother and my friends when I got my results.

Hardly a canonical citation, but worthy of note.

OED also has:

texted, adj.

Obsolete.

  1. Skilled or learned in ‘texts’ or authors. rare.(In this sense texted wel (v.r. text wel) appears in one group of Chaucer MSS., where another has textuel. The latter was probably the original reading, but the change in some MSS. perhaps implies that texted was known.)

14..    Chaucer’s Manciple’s T. (Harl.) 131   But for I am a man not texted wel [so Corp.; Lansd. texed, Petworth text; 3 MSS. textuel] I wil not telle of textes neuer a del.

14..    Chaucer’s Manciple’s T. 212   But as I sayd, I am nought tixted wel [Corp., Petworth, Lansd. text; 3 MSS. textuel, -eel, tixt-].

2. Written in text-hand or text-letters; engrossed.

1620    T. Dekker Dreame sig. A2   They beg nothing, the Texted Past-bord talkes all; and if nothing be giuen, nothing is spoken.

1695    London Gaz. No. 3125/4   Texted Indentures for Attorneys.

To sum up: most people defend their usage of one or other of these forms, “text” or “texted”, by saying: ‘it just sounds right’. Each to his (or her) own, I say. Let’s just not be prescriptive or pedantic about it.