About Simon Lavery

Author, blogger.

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

 

 

Georges Perec, I Remember: a personal memory

I just read a fascinating review by Karen at Shiny New Books, via her own blog, Kaggsysbookishramblings (link to her review there) of the French Oulipan writer Georges Perec’s idiosyncratic autobiographical I Remember. It was published in 1978, and consists of 480 short sentences, each beginning with the phrase ‘I remember’. In this way a sort of fragmentary picture of his life emerges.

There’s a link to her post HERE.

She says that Perec’s text ends with blank pages, with an invitation for the reader to fill in some sentences, structured the same way, of their own. My immediate thought was a conversation I had with my brother on Sunday.

He lives in Cyprus, so we converse on Skype. As I read Karen’s review, I was thinking, I wonder if Perec really is recounting memories, or are they something else. My recollections of my past, especially of my childhood – which is becoming further back in time than I like to acknowledge – are often hazy and dreamlike. In fact, I can’t distinguish between distant memories, that I’m not sure actually happened, and may in fact be dreams – or what might be called ‘real’ memories of events that did happen.

The ones that came up in conversation with my brother were about Cyprus. We both lived there as children (our father was in the army, and had been posted there around the time of the Greek EOKA ‘uprising’). I had memories (or dream recollections) of several mishaps that befell me while there (I was about five).

In the first, I fell into a lime pit. That’s it. I don’t know how I came to fall in, or how I got out – or even if I was injured.

The next involved my wandering away from our house and ending up with a group of (I think) Turkish guys, sitting on the floor of a cottage and drinking coffee. At least, they were drinking coffee; I don’t know if or what I drank. I also recall a flustered British MP rushing in and scooping me up and away. Potential terrorists, perhaps. So maybe they were Greek. If this happened.

Finally, there was a huge pig. Probably a sow. I either fell into her pen, or something else untoward happened with this pig and me.

My brother confirmed the lime pit incident, but had no more detail to add to my own partial memory. He didn’t remember the coffee-drinking episode. But there was a memory of his own about the huge pig:

He said he and a group of his young friends (he’s six years older than me) were hanging around near this pig’s pen, when the owner, an elderly Greek man, said he was going to slaughter it, if they wanted to watch. Of course, they did.

He said the guy then took a metal wrench, like the ones car mechanics use, and proceeded to beat the pig to death with it. ‘It was pretty brutal,’ my brother said.

He didn’t recall my falling into the pig’s pen.

So: to go back to Perec. I remember the lime pit. I remember the coffee-drinking rescue. I remember the pig and my peril. I don’t remember what happened.

Whether they really happened or never did doesn’t matter. Memories distort over time, refract or bleed into other memories – or dreams. It’s the place, perhaps, where memory intersects with fiction or fantasy. It’s such stuff we’re made on, to paraphrase another magician of memories, Prospero.

Fingle, hirundines, navelwort and squirrels

Our government relaxed the lockdown regulations a little last week. We took advantage and met with our daughter, son-in-law and their two children yesterday.

Fingle Bridge

Fingle Bridge

We met at a place roughly equidistant: Fingle Bridge, just outside Exeter. The River Teign runs through a beautiful wooded valley. The bridge arches over the tea-brown waters of a River Teign from the bridgeriver stained by the peaty soil of Dartmoor. The building in the background of my picture is a picturesque pub, closed during the pandemic, but serving takeaway drinks and food from a stall outside.

It was lovely to see the family: February was the last time we saw each other face-to-face. We walked through the woods, socially distancing, and watched an exuberant black labrador leaping gleefully into the water after sticks thrown by his owner.

After a month of almost daily sunshine in May, June has been wet, grey and blustery. We drove up the A30 through squally showers, but fortunately the sun came out during our reunion, and we had a picnic beside the river.

CalfToday the exiled routine returned to normal. A long walk in the country this morning. Saw this serene little calf, wearing what looked like yellow earrings.

The foxgloves are nearly finished, but the pale yellow spires of navelwort are springing up. It’s another wild plant that’s said to have medicinal properties. The 17C book by Culpeper on such matters claimed navelwort (or it might have been something similar) was good for curing St Anthony’s fire or ergotism, a common ailment in the middle ages. Also known as ergotism, it was caused by a fungus that grows on rye grass, and was ingested in the bread made with infected flour. Its sufferers went mad, hallucinating and writhing in agony.

Like comfrey, mentioned in a recent post, it is also a vulnerary.Navelwort

Hirundines have arrived: swallows, martins and swifts. I remember when I was much younger there was a brand of cheap French wine that tried hard to appear sophisticated by sporting the  gallic name ‘Hirondelle’. The wine was disgusting.

Another summer without hearing a cuckoo. I still haven’t spotted a kingfisher on riverside walks this year, but have seen several dippers, with their weird bobbing curtsey and darting flight. Grey wagtails, too, busily exploring the shallow water and tapping their tails (surely ‘wagging’ would be side to side, like a dog’s tail, not up and down?) Taptail would be an apter name.

My squirrel skirmishes continue. I remonstrated with one the other day for sitting on top of the pole from which my bird feeders are suspended, and trying to unhook one of the feeders. It ran off half-heartedly, turned as it perched on the fence and flounced its tail, like an English bowman taunting the French at Agincourt, chattering its squirrel insults at me.

 

Kingfishers, halcyon days, and walks

Last time I mentioned the painted kingfishers on a branch above the river just below my house. In Greek mythology, the bird is known as halcyon. Our expression ‘halcyon days’ derives from the legend that Alkyone or Alcyone and her husband Ceyx angered Zeus by setting themselves up as his equal. Zeus wrecked Ceyx’s ship while he was at sea and he drowned. When she heard the news his wife drowned herself. The gods took pity on them and transformed the couple into kingfishers.

According to other legends, the halcyon laid her eggs on sea rocks or the beach during the winter solstice. Alcyone called upon her father Aeolus, god of the winds (hence Aeolian harp) to produce this period of calm to enable her to care for her brood safely. The expression therefore referred originally to any period of calm weather, then, by extension, to any period of calm and tranquillity.

It’s the feeling we get when we witness a scene like the river in those pictures in my previous post.

A few days ago, when our government in its wisdom relaxed lockdown constraints to allow us to drive to remote places for our walks, I went with Mrs TD to Goss Moor, some ten miles away. It’s a nature reserve on the edge of the area where china clay was once extracted, leaving the landscape scarred with quarries and spoil heaps. This moor is a huge, Fluffy seed headsswampy, pool-filled area of wilderness: lichen-draped trees, reeds and wildlife abound.

It’s a popular cycle and walking trail, being so flat. We saw plenty of these strange fluffy bundles like cotton wool balls. They seem to be the seed heads of certain kinds of reed.

My trusty plant identifier app confidently informs me that the pretty purple-violet flower here is a marsh orchid.marsh orchid

Another day we drove a shorter distance for a walk to one of the tidal creeks on the coast. Not quite the sea, but almost. Many of the neighbourhood houses were guarded by these peculiar plants that resemble miniature Thai temples. They’re called echium pininana, aka giant viper’s bugloss. This popular name apparently derives from the alleged Echiumresemblance of parts of the flowering stem (a favourite haunt of bees) to the head of this snake.

They flourish here in Cornwall, but are more striking than handsome, in my view.

Today we ventured further down the county and had our first walk by the sea since lockdown. This area of dunes is called the Towans. The lighthouse is Godrevy, across the bay from St Ives. This is the one that Virginia Woolf and her family would see from their holiday home Godrevythere. In her novel To the Lighthouse she transposed it to Scotland.

The beautiful weather of the last weeks (halcyon days during the pandemic?) has gone, and it was grey, blustery and much cooler. Still lovely to see the surf and breathe the ozone. A handsome stonechat sat on a gorse bush a few feet from us and sang us a song.

I’m still making glacial progress through Phineas Finn. Just reached one of those tedious foxhunting scenes that Trollope is so fond of. Wish he’d stick to the more interesting parliamentary shenanigans.

Which takes me seamlessly to our illustrious leader of the house of commons, the unctuous Rees-Mogg. He insists on returning to physical co-presence during parliamentary debates, risking the lives of the MPs, and disenfranchising those who have to isolate or who can’t attend for other reasons (carers, etc.). It’s his way of trying to cover up the haplessness of the PM, which has been badly exposed while the chamber is nearly empty for sessions to ensure social distancing, and when the usual braying claque of sycophantic Tory toadies can’t drown out opposition while cheering on the inane blustering of their leader.

With solipsistic narcissists in charge, who will care for the people?

 

 

River run

I’ve mentioned in previous posts about my rural walks with Mrs TD during lockdown that we’ve noticed little art objects left where walkers will see them. It turned out that the maker of these fairy houses, painted pebbles and so on was John Rowe. He told me in a comment that it was his way of commemorating a loved one, and of brightening the world in his memory. It seems to me as well that he’s celebrating humanity and the natural world.

From the back of our house we look over the river Kenwyn, which runs through a wooded valley into the city and the sea beyond. We often walked our dog along the banks, but haven’t done this walk much since she died. But we have noticed new wooden handpainted signs indicating this woodland, riverside walk. Locals have posted pictures on social media of little artworks that are obviously John’s work.

Not so long ago we passed a walker and got chatting about these lovely natural artefacts. He was John’s brother. He told us a little more about the project. He and his brother are keen birdwatchers. This would explain the delightful, brightly coloured images of kingfishers, perched on a branch above the rippling current of the river, dappled by bright sunlight under the canopy of trees.

When Mrs TD and I were walking home yesterday we noticed a city parks truck parked by the roadside. A young couple were walking back to it; he was wearing a city parks teeshirt. Mrs TD asked him if he was responsible for the recent arrivals in this little parkland area: a bug hotel, a walkway fringed by twigs and branches, bordered by wild and garden flowers; a bench beneath a bower of arched, living willow (I think); piles of logs that serve as havens for wildlife.

Yes, he said, this was all his work. He told us he’d also worked on developing the riverside woodland trails. His girlfriend had helped him with the design. They were a charming pair, and his delight and satisfaction in his job were palpable. He’d moved to Cornwall to be with his girlfriend, and was looking for any work he could find, but managed to get this one in his own field: forestry and parks. He couldn’t have been happier. What a lucky pair. And what a great job they’re doing.

So we took the riverside path for the first time in maybe a year. He’s done a fine job, and it was a perfect day to admire what he’d done. The sunlight was bright, and the river gleamed like a jewel. It’s shallow, because we’ve had so little rain this month.

The images of kingfishers are John Rowe’s work. The young man we spoke to said he’d chosen that spot because it’s near where kingfishers nest each year. I’ve yet to see a living kingfisher along this stretch of river, but Mrs TD has. I was going to say a little more about the legends around kingfishers, but maybe more about that next time.

On a sadder note, we decided for the first time in over two months not to join in the ‘clap for carers’ at 8 pm on Thursday. Not because we no longer value the contribution of key workers like delivery people, postal workers, shop workers, and all those who’ve continued while the rest of us are isolated, furloughed and socially distancing. We simply feel that it’s become a way of distracting attention from the need to reward and value such workers properly, with decent pay and safe working conditions.

I won’t start another rant about the despicable Cummings, but that affair, and the shameless, immoral rush to protect him by the PM and his senior ministers, has put us off any public display of solidarity with an initiative they endorse. I prefer to thank my postman, people who deliver parcels, checkout staff at the shops, and so on, in person.

Our daughter works in the NHS (they’re not heroes; they’re committed, caring and dedicated – qualities our leaders would do well to discover). Many staff at her hospital, as in the rest of the country, have become infected with the virus. She was tested earlier this week. We all spent a couple of worrying days waiting for the result. Fortunately it was negative.

It shouldn’t have taken nearly three months for her to get a test.

People like her need much more than our applause: they need proper protective equipment and less exhausting patterns of work. Paying them a decent wage and giving them better working conditions would also help. The public sector in this country has been starved of funds for a decade, which is partly why we have the second highest death rate from C-19 in the world, and one of the worst rates of mortality per capita. Bragging about ‘world-beating’ test and trace systems (which have still to materialise) doesn’t make it happen.

OK, kingfishers next time, and no politics or viruses.

Comfrey and peacocks

Rural walks continue to be a brief solace in days that resemble each other too closely during this lockdown. At least we can inject a bit of variety by taking different routes, explore new ones. But we’re running out of unexplored country lanes and paths, Mrs TD and I.

Peacock on fenceOne of our default walks takes us past the place where a group of peacocks live. I recently posted a picture of one with his magnificent tail fanned out as he slowly rotated to show himself off to best effect. A couple of days ago there he was – or one of his colleagues – perched rather glumly on a fence. It was a bright sunny day, but he was under trees in dappled shade, so my pictures don’t do justice to his shimmering petrol-blue/green plumage.Peacock on fence

When I checked the origin of the name at the OED online, I wasn’t surprised to see the ‘pea’ element has nothing to do with the legume. What did surprise me was that it derives ultimately from the Latin name, pavo. I recognised this as the modern Spanish for ‘turkey’. OK, so peacocks do slightly resemble these fan-tailed strutters – so what’s the Spanish for ‘peacock’? Turns out it’s ‘pavo real’ – royal turkey. Figures.

ComfreyAlong another lane I came across this pretty blue flower. My plant identifier app informed me it was comfrey.

I vaguely recalled hearing this plant was traditionally used medicinally; a quick search online confirmed this. Its old name was knitbone, alluding to its healing properties when used as a poultice for healing burns, sprains and broken bones. It is also said to be beneficial when taken internally as a potion to treat symptoms of stomach ailments. I was alarmed therefore to read that it also has toxic qualities, and this internal use has been banned in the USA.

Its name in Latin, according to the OED online, is consolida or conferva – reflecting its healing properties. The etymology of the English word is unknown, but the earliest citation from c. 1000 refers to it as confirma(n), and this might be where ‘comfrey’ derives from.

I liked this later OED citation:

1578    H. Lyte tr. R. Dodoens Niewe Herball  i. ciii. 145   The rootes of Comfery..healeth all inwarde woundes, and burstings.

I shudder to think what inward burstings are.

Also pleasing was the description in this OED entry of comfrey as a vulnerary – employed in healing wounds, or having curative properties in respect of external injuries. A useful word, as Dr Johnson might have said.

My reading progress is slow still. I’m up to p.160 of Anthony Trollope’s second Palliser novel, Phineas Finn. I’m enjoying it so far, especially the spooky parallels with modern political hypocrisy and chicanery. Nothing much has changed in the power elite. Recent events in Britain demonstrate that there’s still one set of rules for them, and another, harsher one for the plebs. Our political leaders feign caring for us, but have during this crisis increasingly failed to disguise their arrogant contempt for the ordinary people.

End of rant.

Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt

Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt. Tinder Press, 2020. First published in the USA 2019

NemesiaBefore I write about this novel, I’d just like to mention some flowers that are blooming happily in our front garden. They have pretty little pink and white petals, but it’s their scent that’s most notable. It’s a cross between vanilla and coconut. The fragrance wafts over us when we sit outside: like being next to an ice-cream factory.

My sister-in-law passed American Dirt on to Mrs TD, who recommended it to me when she’d finished it. I found it almost painful to read, as the subject is so harrowing, but it’s compelling.

It begins with a massacre in Acapulco, Mexico – sixteen members of the Pérez family who’d gathered for a birthday party are murdered by cartel gangsters. It’s a reprisal for the newspaper articles about the enigmatic cartel jefe written by Lydia Pérez’s journalist husband. He’s one of the few who hasn’t been bribed or threatened into complicity with the cartel’s vicious hold on the city.

Cummins American Dirt coverLydia and her eight-year-old son are the only survivors. She knows the killers will come after them, so she has to take off. She and young Luca join the hordes of migrantes heading north from all parts of central America for the USA and comparative safety. They are fleeing from the murderous cartels and poverty.

The novel traces Lydia and Luca’s perilous journey across Mexico: much of the time they walk, but they also have to learn how to leap aboard the Bestia – the freight train that heads north.

Along the way they witness some terrible things. They also encounter the kindness of strangers, and the bonds of love that survive even during the most hellish of experiences. If it weren’t for these humane moments the novel would be unbearable.

I heard the author interviewed on a radio book programme recently. She was asked about the criticism that had been levelled against her for a kind of cultural appropriation; she’s not of Mexican heritage. In a note at the end of the novel she explains why she felt it incumbent on her to research this migrant crisis and write about it.

In 2017, when she was finishing the novel, a migrant died on the US-Mexican border every twenty-one hours. Many more simply disappear. There were forty thousand people reported missing across Mexico at the time of writing, and mass graves are regularly found. ‘Mexico was the deadliest country in the world to be a journalist’. No wonder so many ordinary people like Lydia and her little boy risk their lives to get away from such an awful situation.

Of course I’d heard news stories about the migrants, and felt sympathy for them. Then came the punitive, vindictive policies of the current US president and his crazed obsession with his infamous Wall.

One of the most moving moments in the narrative comes when Lydia recalls listening to those same reports on the radio as she cooked the family’s evening meal. As we all do, she pauses and thinks how terrible it is that human beings have to endure such hardship and suffering; Lydia then realises she’s out of garlic, and her sympathy is forgotten as she wonders how to cope with this minor domestic crisis.

As we fret about Covid, it’s sobering to read this searing story about the cruelty humans are capable of displaying, and heartening to be reminded that even in the worst possible environments, we’re also capable of generosity and loving kindness.

Every one of those migrants has a heartbreaking story like Lydia’s. They’re not the rapists, murderers and drug dealers that they’re depicted as by this heartless president. I think Jeanine Cummins has done us all a service in telling this story.

Rose Aylmer, pineapples and peacocks

Peacock tail

I posted a picture recently of a peacock on a roof, seen on a walk. This week I caught him with his tail extended. Must have been pleased to see us

Some more scenes from rural rambles this week, but first a note I spotted in an old notebook of mine, about Rose Aylmer. It was a post from 2016 by Karen Stapley, curator of India Office Records, on the brilliant British Library blog Untold Lives – in which fascinating stories about largely forgotten people are retrieved from the BL archives (link HERE).

Rose was the only daughter of Sir Henry Aylmer, 4th Lord Aylmer, and Catherine Whitworth. Catherine remarried on the death of her husband and moved to Wales. There the teenager Rose met the aspiring poet Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864 – quite an innings for a Victorian).

The two young people apparently loved to roam the local hills together, but in 1798, at the age of 18, Rose was dispatched to join her aunt in Kolkota (known then as Calcutta), possibly to take her away from what was considered an unsuitable match. Two years later she died of cholera.

Ms Stapley posts a picture of Rose’s (rather hideous) memorial in a Kolkata cemetery, which is adorned with some lines of verse ascribed in the post to Landor. These lines sounded a bit lumberingly Augustan to me; a quick Google search came up with the actual poet: Edward Young (c.1683-1765), one of the less cheerful 18C poets. They’re from perhaps his best-known poem, known as Night-Thoughts (published in nine parts, 1742-45). It’s a long, lugubrious blank-verse lament for dead people he’d known, including his wife. It’s also known for the fine illustrations by Blake in an edition of 1797.

Landor did indeed write a short poem on Rose’s death (quoted in full in the blog post); it’s not his finest work – but then he’s not the best of Victorian poets. The first two lines should suffice to demonstrate this:

Ah what avails the sceptred race, 

Ah what the form divine! 

One of the least appropriate uses of an exclamation mark that I’ve seen. Mercifully, there are only six more lines of this. But he was obviously heartbroken, so it’s churlish of me to sneer at his elegy.

The cause of Rose’s death was locally ascribed to her eating too many pineapples. The blog post tells us that it was commonly believed in the Indian community at the time that excessive consumption of juicy fruits (watermelons were another suspicious one) was a cause of cholera. How could anyone eat more than one pineapple at a sitting? Or was this over time?

People then were just so credulous about causes and cures for infection; luckily our world’s leaders today are more enlightened – especially when it comes to possible treatments. Like bleach, or light. Now a couple more pictures of recent walks:

Daisy verge

These daisies (I think they’re ox-eyes) are springing up on a roadside verge just a few yards from my house.

 

Branch dog

I thought this dead branch on an oak tree looked like a grim lean dog’s head, or maybe the prow of a Viking boat

Broken love: Rosamond Lehmann, The Echoing Grove

Rosamond Lehmann, The Echoing Grove. PMC 1981. First published 1953.

In two 1930s novels, Rosamond Lehmann depicted the rivalry between two sisters as they searched for love. Kate settled for suburban domesticity and complacent motherhood, losing her glamorous looks and zest for life in the process. Olivia was more restless and unconventional, and chose an affair with a selfish man with no intention of leaving his wife.

I posted a few years ago on Invitation to the Waltz HERE, and The Weather in the Streets HERE and HERE

Twenty years later, after some stormy relationships of her own, elements of which seem to have inspired The Echoing Grove, Lehmann deals with similar themes and dynamics.

Rosamond Lehmann, The Echoing Grove

The cover image is from the painting ‘The Tea Table’, by Edward Le Bas (1904-66)

Rickie Masters (apt name), descendant of ‘landed gentry’, is married to Madeleine: sensible, beautiful, maternal and a little dull. He has a passionate affair with her bohemian, unconventional sister, Dinah. Later they all have affairs with other people. WWII intervenes, killing off some of them and their loved ones; others die of natural causes, probably resulting from the stresses of their complicated love lives.

That’s pretty much it in terms of plot. The novel consists almost entirely of these three characters, and later one or two more with whom they become romantically or erotically involved, engaging in interminable, convoluted conversations. About themselves, mostly.

It doesn’t sound very inviting, does it. But somehow it kept me engaged – though I flagged during one mammoth talking session set in the London Blitz, where Rickie manages to ramble on about his guilt and obsessions (mostly himself) for what seems like a hundred pages and years of war. It’s one night! The unfortunate woman who listens with admirable patience and forbearance just wants to have sex with this man with whom, for some unaccountable reason, she’s fallen in love. She’d seemed so sensible and clear-eyed.

The narrative is largely in an even edgier, more fragmentary free indirect style than the one Lehmann used to such good effect in those two earlier novels. There’s a complex chronology, with jumps forward and back in time, that often left me confused, and having to turn back to find the thread.

There are some acerbic (and ironic) statements about gender relations that are familiar from those earlier Lehmann novels. This example is from an early internal monologue of Madeleine’s; she’s thinking about Rickie’s poorly disguised guilt about getting entangled with her alluring sister again:

Poor Rickie. Must be kind, patient, wifely… Why could men never put a good face on? If they were tired they yawned in your face, if they were depressed they glowered: women were expected to lump it.

Pretty perceptive and hard-hitting, considering how pliant she’s being about her husband’s infidelity. Maybe she thinks he’s just a naughty boy, and will come back, tail between his legs, just a bit sulky (which he does, occasionally). He also shows some of the homoerotic impulses seen in The Weather in the Streets.

Later, when Madeleine has confronted her unfaithful husband about his affair with Dinah, she contemplates going to have it out with her sister. Rickie can’t handle all this female emotion, and doesn’t care for the role he’s being allotted. He says he’ll go to bed:

He dragged his heavy limbs upstairs, telling himself that women were formidable, really relentless; not a nerve in their bodies.

Not sensitive like him, that is. He dreams of resilience and elasticity. I’m not sure whose.

Why that title, The Echoing Grove? The phrase doesn’t appear in the text. The nearest to it is a quotation from a poem by Blake, aptly called ‘Broken Love’:

Root up the infernal grove

The sympathetic woman who’s listening to Rickie’s endless monologue supplies this supplement to two earlier lines from the poem that he’d remembered Dinah reading aloud to him:

And throughout all Eternity

I forgive you, you forgive me.

There are opportunities for forgiveness in the novel, some of them successfully negotiated. Rooting up this ‘infernal grove’ is a way for the man in the poem to ask his partner to ‘give up love’, as Rickie’s bed partner of the time puts it. Renunciation and selflessness aren’t what these characters have in abundance. They’d benefit from what medieval Provençal troubadours called ‘mezura’ (middle English ‘mesure’), meaning something like self-control, avoidance of excessive emotion or behaviour. Like a medicine taken to ward off a fever. But then there’d be no novels like this one, just poems about courtly love.

Kindness in war and peace

Last Friday was VE (Victory in Europe, WWII) day. Britain’s tabloid newspapers and some other media outlets delighted in escaping from the viral gloom of recent months to show images and disseminate stories of revellers in 1945 and today. It’s something to be celebrated – the end of terrible hostilities with a fascist axis (although the war in the Pacific continued for some months more). But I found something distasteful in the jingoistic and triumphalist tone of some reports: victory over Europe seemed to be the subtext. Plucky little Britain gives a V-sign to foreigners and shows we can go it alone.

It was a relief therefore to read a moving post at Bobby Seal’s Psychogeographic Review blog. He told the story of his father’s experiences of cruelty and suffering as a prisoner of war (POW) during the war, but more importantly of the kindness he was shown by a young Polish woman. There’s a link HERE

My dad was also a POW. He was serving as a sergeant in the artillery in the N. African desert when he was taken prisoner by the Germans. His unit had been surrounded by Rommel’s forces. His CO had told him the night before capture that the officers were all retreating to safety, but that he – my dad – as the senior non-commissioned soldier, was to hold his ground as the Germans advanced, to give his officers maximum time to make their escape. What a message to give the troops: you’re expendable, we’re invaluable.

In the morning he was thus left in command of this small unit of artillerymen. They fought as long as they could. My dad saw some terrible things as they were pounded by German tanks and artillery. Finally they destroyed their own guns as surrender became inevitable. The worst thing a gunner can do, dad told me: spike his own guns.

The survivors were marched for days across the scorching desert with little water or food. Many died on the way to the POW camp.

When Italy opted out of the war and their POW camp was about to be deserted by their Italian captors, the British officer responsible for discipline among the prisoners called the prisoners together. His orders were that they were to stay put in the camp until the Germans arrived to take over control of the camp. It later emerged that this was a direct order from Montgomery, commanding the invading Allied troops in Italy. He apparently didn’t want the roads and other lines of communication ‘clogged up’ with escaping British prisoners.

My dad walked out and made for the Apenines. For some months he was sheltered and fed by a variety of mountain farmers and their families. Finally one of them turned him in – but he never forgot the kindness most Italians showed him. (Eric Newby has a fascinating account of his own similar experiences there in Love and War in the Apennines.)

He was sent on to another camp in Italy. He escaped twice. On the second occasion he’d made it almost to the Allied lines; they were just across a river. As he entered the water to swim across he was spotted by a German patrol. They opened fire, and he was forced to surrender – just metres from freedom.

A young German soldier was assigned to take him back to a camp in the sidecar of his motorbike. After some hours of driving, the motorcyclist parked up to enter an inn for food and drink. He shut my dad into an unlocked outhouse, and gave him to understand with facial expressions and gestures that he was trusting him not to try to escape, while he fetched food and drink for them both. This he did. My dad was starving and thirsty: he opted to accept the soldier’s kindness.

He spent something like four years in prison camps, first in Italy, later in Germany. I remember as a child leafing through a book he’d brought home after the war. It contained articles, drawings and cartoons made by the prisoners for their camp’s “newspaper”. I didn’t understand as a child the significance of these pieces. There was little evidence of the horrors they were experiencing.

My dad rarely spoke of these years. It was only when I was in my late teens that he told me these stories. He was clearly scarred psychologically by what he’d gone through. He never found it easy to show affection to us kids. He was often distant, distracted.

I spoke to my sister about all this at the weekend, and asked her if she had anything else I could add here. She reminded me that our dad arrived back in England soon after VE day and was stationed in a sort of rehab camp in Sussex, on the south coast. My mother was living in Hastings – in that county – at that time. She met my dad at a dance in her town that the men were allowed to attend.

It was the classical whirlwind romance. They married a few months later. My brother was born in June 1946, six months later. It took him years to do the maths and realise he was conceived before our parents were married!

He remained in the military until I was six years old. The family followed him around the world to camps where he was stationed – I was born in Germany, lived in Egypt and Cyprus (where I attended my first school), then back to Germany, with brief returns to Britain in between.

My siblings and I attended dozens of different schools between us in our childhood – all very unsettling. Even when he left the army, dad tended to be restless, and we moved house many more times, often for no apparent reason, resulting in more changes of schools for us children.

I’d like to say that he was magnanimous in his later life about his former enemies. He didn’t hate them, but was always one of those who vaunted his own country and berated foreigners in general. I guess it was my teenage rebellion against this little-Englander attitude that made me the Europhile I now am. It took me a long time to understand why he was so xenophobic.

But it’s also why I can’t stand flag-waving ultra-nationalism. It’s what’s led to the catastrophe of Brexit. Probably explains why the UK has made such a mess of responding to the pandemic: we’re so great we don’t need to learn from anyone else, our leaders seem to believe.

I started this post with reference to a psychogeographical blog; I became interested in psychogeography when I taught a unit called Sense of Place in an English degree course. I’ve posted several pieces over the years about this, from DH Lawrence in Cornwall and Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project to a virtual dérive (link HERE).

On Iain Sinclair, the born-again flâneur, HERE