Posts Tagged ‘Alexandra Harris’

All Passion Spent

July 3, 2012

I read Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent in a completely heavenly way. I was recovering from a Friday night hangover and the husband had vanished off to lug a load of sandbags around in an architectural manner. I made a pot of coffee, a huge bowl of muesli (my Achilles’ heel, see my last post) dotted with leftover strawberries from the night before, and climbed back into bed where I lay reading All Passion Spent from start to finish, as the sun streamed through the windows and my headache gently evaporated. I can think of no better way of spending a Saturday morning.

I came to All Passion Spent with a feeling of relief, of at last, finally, phew. I have wanted to read something by Vita Sackville-West for such a long time. First at university, when studying Woolf, there she was, endlessly popping up her elegant head and begging for a little more attention than there was time for. Then for my literary hen party (more details here) we had a beautiful afternoon strolling around her home, Sissinghurst. I since learnt that we were taken for a troop of literary lesbians, come to pay our respects to this ultimate literary lesbian. Apparently they get quite a few such groups, and rather fewer hen parties.

The gardens at Sissinghurst are famously beautiful, and they are definitely the most beautiful gardens I’ve seen anywhere in the world. They make the little rusty bathtub with its heroic raspberry bush on my windswept roof terrace look rather miserable, actually, but no matter. To go there is to enter garden heaven. I remember reading about Vita Sackville-West’s gardening in Alexandra Harris’s remarkable book Romantic Moderns:

To plant bulbs in the middle of a war was to assert one’s firm belief in the future. She made a point of planting a slow-growing magnolia in spring 1939, wanting to believe that there would be someone there to see it in a hundred years time.

I think it’s a wonderful – and a very feminine – way of asserting one’s defiance.

So it was with joy that I climbed back into bed with my copy of All Passion Spent and a feast of a breakfast. Every page, sentence and word were a delight to read.

The book opens with the death of Lord Slane, a great statesman, leaving his children, who are mostly in their sixties and perfectly ghastly, deciding what to do with their newly-widowed mother, Lady Slane. They devise a frightful scheme whereby she will be parcelled off between them, paying each of them for her keep for a few months of the year. Lady Slane, ‘the very incarnation of placidity’, quietly defies them and plants a slow-growing magnolia.

Not really. She quietly defies them and says she’s going to move into a little house up in Hampstead. Back then, in 1931, Hampstead was rather less chi-chi and rather more bohemian than it is today, and to these residents of Chelsea’s Elm Park Gardens, it might as well have been Peckham. We get a lovely scene of Lady Slane shuffling off on the underground (she is eighty-eight after all) up to Hampstead, her mind running off along little paths as the stops go by.

Lady Slane saw the house thirty years ago, but by some miracle, it is still there, waiting – as it were – for her to rent it. The eccentric Mr Bucktrout, owner and agent, is happy for her to rent it, so long as he can come round for tea once a week. So Lady Slane settles down up in Hampstead, and the rest of the book is given over to this quiet ending of her days, with the company of Mr Bucktrout, her loyal French maid, a jack-of-all-trades, and Mr Fitz-George – a long-lost acquaintance who first met her when she was the very beautiful Vicereine of India.

You’ve probably gathered that there’s not a tremendous amount of action. Most of the narrative is given over to Lady Slane’s memories, as she sifts through parts of her life, making her peace with it, looking back at who she was and what she’s become. This reflective nature of the prose allows for some interesting meanderings on various ideas. For instance, we get this on happiness:

But what was happiness? Had she been happy? That was a strange, clicking word to have coined – meaning something definite to the whole English-speaking race – a strange clicking word with its short vowel and its spitting double p’s and its pert tip-tilted y at the end, to express in two syllables a whole summary of life. Happy. But one was happy at one moment, unhappy two minutes later, and neither for any good reason; so what did it mean? It meant, if it meant anything at all, that some uneasy desire wanted black to be black, and white, white; it meant that in the jungle of the terrors of life, the tiny creeping creatures sought reassurance in a formula …

That night, I stayed up embarrassingly late leafing through a volume of my (heavenly) collection of Virginia Woolf’s letters, picking out the ones to Vita Sackville-West written at around the time of All Passion Spent. For, as well as being her lover, Woolf was Vita Sackville-West’s publisher; indeed, the Hogarth Press made quite a sum of money from both All Passion Spent and her previous novel The Edwardians, which were both bestsellers. I hoped Virginia Woolf might have written some thoughts on All Passion Spent, or offered some advice, one writer to another. But then I found the following letter to Vita on Friday 25th April 1930, sent from Monk’s House:

“I don’t think I can stand, even the Nicolsons, on happiness for three quarters of an hour” I said at 8.15.

“Well, we can always shut them off” said Leonard. At 9 I leapt to my feet and cried out,

“By God, I call that first rate!” having listened to every word.

This is (for a wonder) literally true. How on earth have you mastered the art of being subtle, profound, humorous, arch, coy, satirical, affectionate, intimate, profane, colloquial, solemn, sensible, poetical and a dear old shaggy sheep dog – on the wireless? We thought it a triumph: Harold’s too.

Evidently, Vita and her husband Harold Nicolson were on the BBC radio discussing happiness. I suspect that some of the ideas they talked about then, might have seeped into her musings on happiness in All Passion Spent. And Woolf’s litany of affectionate praise for Vita Sackville-West’s art on the wireless is, I think, apt for her writing as well.

I could go on about All Passion Spent for yonks – her thoughts on growing old, on being young, on being a woman, on frustrated dreams, on money, on family … but I shall confine myself to one last particularly lovely passage. Do forgive the very long quotation, but as Virginia Woolf said, she is ‘a dear old shaggy sheep dog’ and it is a very very long sentence which needs to be written out in full. I think it one of the most beautiful passages I’ve ever read:

She remembered how, crossing the Persian desert with Henry, their cart had been escorted by flocks of butterflies, white and yellow, which danced on either side and overhead and all around them, now flying ahead in a concerted movement, now returning to accompany them, amused as it were to restrain their swift frivolity to a flitting around this lumbering conveyance, but still unable to suit their pace to such sobriety, so, to relieve their impatience, soaring up into the air, or dipping between the very axles, coming out on the other side before the horses had had time to put down another hoof; making, all the while, little smuts of shadow on the sand, like little black anchors dropped, tethering them by invisible cables to earth, but dragged about with the same capricious swiftness, obliged to follow; and she remembered thinking, lulled by the monotonous progression that trailed after the sun from dawn to dusk, like a plough that should pursue the sun in one straight slow furrow round and round the world – she remembered thinking that this was something like her own life, following Henry Holland like the sun, but every now and then moving into a cloud of butterflies which were her own irreverent, irrelevant thoughts, darting and dancing, but altering the pace of the progression not by one tittle; never brushing the carriage with their wings; flickering always, and evading; sometimes rushing on ahead, but returning again to tease and to show off, darting between the axles; having an independent and a lovely life; a flock of ragamuffins skimming above the surface of the desert and around the trundling wagon; but Henry, who was travelling on a tour of investigation, could only say ‘Terrible, the ophthalmia among these people – I must really do something about it,’ and, knowing that he was right and would speak to the missionaries, she had withdrawn her attention from the butterflies and transferred it to her duty, determining that when they reached Yezd or Shiraz, or wherever it might be, she also would take the missionaries’ wives to task about the ophthalmia in the villages and would make arrangements for a further supply of boracic to be sent out from England.

But, perversely, the flittering of the butterflies had always remained more important.

All Passion Spent is in many ways a fictional counterpart to Woolf’s polemic A Room of One’s Own, in which Woolf argues, among other things, that a woman cannot write fiction without money and a room of her own. She also writes about how the literary tradition is male rather than female and complains that the very sentence which was used so effectively by men was ‘unsuited for a woman’s use’. She argues that a woman’s experience is different from man’s, that what women want to write is different from what men want to write and so they need to find new tools of expression, ‘knocking that into shape for herself’.

Woolf wrote of the moment as ‘an incessant shower of innumerable atoms’, but I rather prefer Vita Sackville-West’s expression of it as ‘the flittering of the butterflies’, darting beautifully and playfully around the male cart which presses ever directly onwards.

And indeed we find this image of the butterfly moment appearing elsewhere in Vita Sackville-West’s writing. Here it is, in Twelve Days in Persia, which she wrote a couple of years earlier:

It is necessary to write if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clasp the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone. That is where the writer scores over his fellows: he catches the changes of his mind on the hop.

Fine inspiration for any writer.


Virginia Woolf

October 3, 2011

‘I don’t know why you bother reading such long books,’ said a customer to her boyfriend, the other day in the bookshop. He was reading the back cover of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, which is, admittedly, rather long. ‘I only read short books,’ she declared to the shop at large.

What a wally, I thought. Surely some of the greatest books are some of the lengthiest? Bleak HouseUlyssesMiddlemarch … and if those seem too snotty, then what about all those thick George Martin books which seem to be the nation’s current obsession?

But now I reflect upon it, perhaps there is something to be said for brevity. Reading a short book is an altogether different experience to reading a long one. A long book is a trusty, constant companion for a few weeks, sometimes even a month. Reading is a gradual, gentle process of absorption. The characters come alive in the margins of the day; they’re there, always, but they’re rarely insistent, they don’t come barging in and demand a whole morning of one’s time.

Reading a short book, on the other hand, can be startlingly intense. I read Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending in three sittings, most of it taking place across one afternoon. It was completely involving, and when I’d finished, I felt almost dazed. A short book can be a sharp, breathless experience.

This weekend, I read another very short, very enjoyable book. You might remember my writing about Alexandra Harris in previous posts, where I’ve discussed her marvellous (long) book Romantic Moderns. So it was with a great deal of anticipation that I greeted her new book Virginia Woolf. Especially as I have such a soft spot for Virginia Woolf, having specialised in her at university.

The Harris/Woolf combo really is a bit of a winner. And it is a combo. For Harris has rather neatly entwined her life of Woolf with Woolf’s writing, and there are a great many quotations. I’m going to choose this one as an example – Woolf’s ‘most important memory’ – as it’s one of my own favourites:

It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach; and then breaking, one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind. It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out. It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here, of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive.

I love this piece of writing. I think it is an instance of Woolf at her finest. Really it’s not so intellectually complicated and obtuse as people unfairly make out! I like it for the quiet yet insistent rhythm of the words – the repeated ‘it is’ and ‘one, two’. The build up and repetition of gerunds – lying and hearing, culminating in that repeated feeling. And there is the perfect amount of attention to visual detail. Rather than trying to list absolutely everything, there is just a general scene, with a few tiny bits picked out – the yellow blind and its acorn, the splash of water on the beach. It is a perfect description of a moment, and, as Alexandra Harris points out:

It is one of those hidden revelations that Woolf’s fiction would propose as the structuring principles of our lives.

I love this idea of Woolf’s of ‘moments of being’, and it seems as though Harris has taken this, rather pleasingly, as the principle of her life of Virginia Woolf. For rather than it being an exhaustive (and exhausting) biography, stretching on for hundreds of pages, going into minute detail about each moment of every single day, every passage of each piece of writing, she glides over the surface of Woolf’s life, dipping down for occasional, significant moments of depth.

In her account of Woolf’s childhood, for instance, Harris glances at her relationships with her mother, father and siblings, her education, and summer trips to St Ives all within the space of ten pages. But the overriding event of her childhood – and the one on which Harris concentrates – is the death of her mother. This is the important moment, and this is what will crop up again and again in Woolf’s novels.

More often than not, Harris concentrates on Woolf as she is writing her novels. Here is Woolf having a breakdown, dangerously ill, before The Voyage Out is published … and here she is busy and excited and happy while writing Jacob’s Room. (‘[I] an really very busy, very happy, & only want to say Time, stand still here.’) While this is against a backdrop of friendships, houses, and world events, the foreground focuses on her writing. And, frankly, while Bloomsbury life was undoubtedly bohemian and exciting and interesting in a gossipy sort of a way, how much more fascinating it is to read about a woman in light of her work rather than in light of her friends.

Which is perhaps why what this book makes me want to do more than anything, with all these new pockets of light shed upon moments of Woolf’s writing life … is to reread some Virginia Woolf. Goody!

A Literary A-Z

May 31, 2011


Just over a year or so ago, I’d have found G a bit tricky. There’s Graham Greene (of course) and also Amitav Ghosh – I was mildly obsessed with his books, when I was at university. And, thinking back to children’s books, there’s also Ursula le Guin, who wrote the absolute classic Earthsea books, featuring Sparrowhawk, a wizard with whom, as a ten-year-old, I was completely in love.

But all this was before I discovered Jane Gardam. It was before a strange two weeks, last March, when I was recovering from having my tonsils removed – a time spent moving between bed and sofa, alternating between severe pain and being smacked out on Codeine, when it took half an hour to nibble a piece of toast. A colleague had recommended reading A Long Way from Verona. She said it was one of her favourite books – comforting, funny, and brilliant enough to make anyone want to become a writer. Indeed, she gushed about it so much, I felt like I couldn’t very well say no. (Now, I worry that I have the same unnerving effect when recommending Jane Gardam to unsuspecting customers.)

Reading A Long Way from Verona was absolute bliss. It was everything I’d hoped for and more – silly and clever and touching and altogether brilliant and, best of all, utterly eccentric. Set in wartime Yorkshire, it’s written from the point of view of Jessica Vye, a rather precocious thirteen-year-old girl, who is determined to be a writer. (For more, see this earlier post.)

Subsequently, I read The Man in the Wooden Hat (see this post) and then Old Filth, both of which confirmed my view of her as one of the finest writers I’ve ever read. (And these two were read without any codeine at all.) Jane Gardam manages to be so terribly clever in such a light-hearted, delicate, precise way. Everything is very funny yet also quietly poignant; it all seems slightly mad, yet is so perfectly observed. I cannot recommend her highly enough. G is definitely for Gardam.


I cannot resist bringing in a terrific tale from the bookshop. Somebody’s favourite author is Roger Hargreaves, he who wrote the Mr Men books. I say ‘somebody’, because until last week we didn’t know who he or she was. We have a recurrent problem in that every couple of months, ALL our Mr Men and Little Miss books – so that’s around a hundred of them – would disappear. Despite our most vigilant efforts, no one had managed to catch sight of the thief. Until last week, that is, when my colleague and I were involved in a pretty exciting car chase.

Well, perhaps that’s an exaggeration. I came out of the stock room and instantly noticed that the Mr Mens were gone. I told my colleague – I shall call him, enigmatically, ‘C’ – and C said, ‘Oh my god, it was that woman, she’s only just left.’ He raced out of the shop, accosting her, asking her about the books, asking if he could look in her, suddenly rather suspiciously capacious, bag. She refused to stop, hurried across the road, with him in hot pursuit, and jumped into her getaway car. Yes! She really had a getaway car, with a driver inside. Quick-thinking C, wrote the number plate down on his hand, as they sped off towards the horizon. We phoned the police. We got to use the funny Charlie Foxtrot Tango code. The police said they’d try and catch em. But they didn’t. They just suggested we got CCTV. And that was that.

But, Mr Men thief, if you were to happen to read this. BE WARNED. We know who you are now! Don’t ever come near our shop again.

There are some good Hs. There’s Joseph Heller of Catch 22 fame, Hemmingway and Siri Husvedt. I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t yet read anything by her. I must put that right, as several people have told me how fantastic she is. I suppose the correct choice should be Hemmingway, but, for some reason I’ve never been quite as wild about him as I feel I ought. My favourite Hemmingway moment is that really naf bit in the film City of Angels when Nicolas Cage asks Meg Ryan to describe a pear like Hemingway:

Sweet…juicy. Soft on your tongue. Grainy … like sugary sand that dissolves in your mouth.

I suppose it’s actually quite good, but watching it feels cringingly terrible.

But for my real favourite H I’ve got to hop over to non-fiction and say Alexandra Harris. What a hero. Her book, Romantic Moderns, is completely wonderful. (I’ve written about it here and here.) She shares Jane Gardam’s eccentric tone and lightness of touch. What comes across more than anything in this beautiful book, is quite how much she knows, yet quite how lightly she wears her knowledge. Rather than wading through millions of dates and dry facts, the book is a feast of gleeful anecdotes. My favourite one is in her chapter entitled, ‘An Hour in the Garden’, when she writes about how flowers became a kind of protest against the utilitarianism and rationing of war. In 1943 The Transport of Flowers Order (yes, really!) banned the transit of flowers by rail and, consequently, tales of flower smuggling bloomed. People used to scoop the hearts out of cauliflowers and fill them with anemones. Extraordinary!

Harris has a magpie’s eye for the sparkling anecdote that brings an idea brilliantly to life. Romantic Moderns is a marvellous book that has got to be in my non-fiction Top 3, and definitely the winner for H.


I is a troublesome letter for an author’s surname. I haven’t read anything by John Irving, which makes me feel, rather resignedly that perhaps, just by default, due to the paucity of authors whose last names begin with I, it might have to go to Ishiguro. Even though I think he’s not really all that. Izzo is supposed to be a great French crime writer, but I haven’t read him either. I suppose I could be precocious and a bit witty and say, aha, ‘I’ am my favourite writer. But that’s, frankly, a bit too nauseatingly self-satisfied.

I was about to give up on this one and just say ok, Ishiguro’s good enough, but, by a tremendous piece of luch, I’ve been saved by a splendid theatre trip on Saturday night. I’m not sure if I’ve yet mentioned The Rosemary Branch on EmilyBooks. It’s a sweet little theatre pub, just round the corner from me, which happens to be playing rather a large part in the novel I’m writing. By happy coincidence a friend has been acting there in I am a Camera – a play based on Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin.

First of all, let me just say, that there are few things better than a night out at a theatre pub, especially if it’s local. It feels a bit like going back to the fifties. All the punters are very friendly and jolly. The landlady knows pretty much everyone by name. There’s a lot of sitting around, drinking and gassing in the interval and afterwards, that you definitely don’t get in a theatre that offers only an expensive, crowded bar, rather than a spacious, welcoming pub.

And the play itself was fantastic. It’s had brilliant reviews, which is not particularly common for Fringe theatre. The acting was top notch, and the story was brilliant, following the escapades of Isherwood and Sally Bowles – two English expats – in 1930s Berlin. The title is from the first line in Isherwood’s book:

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.

Good first line.

I know that a play based on a book by an author is somewhat tenuous ground to claim that he’s the best author for I, but well, sorry, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. (I have seen the film of The Single Man, based on another of his books, too.) Anyway, I fully intend on reading Goodbye to Berlin as soon as poss – then I’ll have something a bit more solid as backup – but, even in the meantime, Christopher Isherwood wins for I.

Bath-time with the Bowens

March 21, 2011

I’ve just had rather an unusual experience of reading a book.

It began with Alexandra Harris’s utterly wonderful Romantic Moderns. I’ve blogged about this one before, but in case your memory needs refreshing, Harris meanders around several English writers and artists from the first half or so of the twentieth century, showing how their work is rooted in the past and the countryside. It isn’t all John Betjeman, rather she looks at how the modernism of Woolf, Piper, Brandt, Waugh (and many more) has more in common than Betjeman and his ilk than many people would care to admit. Encyclopaedic knowledge is dispensed with wit, charm and a rather endearing British eccentricity.

I adored every single moment of reading Romantic Moderns, but the added benefit, which I’m only beginning to reap, is the desire to read or re-read some of the books that attracted her attention.

First of all, I re-read Rebecca. That was one of the best reads of last year. What a wonderful novel! As I’d last read it when I was fifteen or so, it yielded rather a lot from a re-reading. I even gave copies to my Granny and my fiancé, and, feeling rather impassioned, hand-sold around ten copies the following week, desperate for others to share the pleasure. And one lady actually came back into the bookshop a few days later to tell me how much she absolutely loved it! (Both my Granny and fiancé enjoyed it too – I’m not sure quite what that means.)

And, most recently, I’ve just read Bowen’s Court by Elizabeth Bowen.

Elizabeth Bowen is one of those names that’s always floating around the literary ether. But, for some reason, I’ve only ever caught her name out of the corner of my eye, as it were. She’s mentioned in an interview with an author, for instance, or is dropped in as a comparison in a book review. She never came up in the course of my English degree at Oxford, and, in the bookshop, I’ve never sold any of her books.

So I was intrigued to read about Elizabeth Bowen’s Bowen’s Court in Romantic Moderns. Alexandra Harris argues that Bowen’s intricate detailing of a building gains significance from the fact that it was written during the Second World War, when buildings were being blitzed to smithereens:

Bowen’s Court resists fragmentation and builds something solid over the “broken surface” of the present … Stones, bricks, mortar plead against transience.

My own writing, at the moment, is rather preoccupied with houses, so I was quite excited about reading Bowen’s Court – which promised to be quite a big, quite a brilliant, personal history of a house. And it’s now out of print, so I also had a somewhat geeky sense of academic adventure. As though I might be about to discover a ‘lost classic’.

But I have to be completely honest here and say that, when I started reading Bowen’s Court, I found it a bit boring. And – even worse – as I continued to read it, I still found bits a bit boring.

You see, Bowen’s Court isn’t just an intricate detailing of a house, it is a history of the English in Ireland, and the Bowen family’s part in that history. In many ways, in fact, it’s not dissimilar to The Hare with Amber Eyes in its movement between the microcosm of the family history and the macro of the country’s. And it was tempting to skim through long passages about Irish history or long extracts from old family wills. I want to know more about the house, I kept telling myself, and – aside from the first chapter’s description of it – Bowen’s Court itself doesn’t enter the book until 140 or so pages in, when it was built.

But then this peculiar thing happened. Despite finding it a bit boring, I began to feel a strange tie to the book. It became a source of comfort. As soon as I opened it up and started reading, a calmness descended upon me, together with a smile and an odd feeling like a warm glow.

What a weird feeling to have while reading a history book!

This feeling was entirely down to Elizabeth Bowen herself. She wrote Bowen’s Court in such a personal way that she utterly endeared herself to me. I know this sounds unforgivably naf, but I felt like I’d made friends with her. I felt almost as though I were sitting down for a cuppa and a natter with a best friend.

She may be telling the stories of her ancestors (and, by proxy, the story of Bowen’s Court and the history of Ireland) but it is always, undoubtedly, Elizabeth Bowen – the ever-present ‘I think, I shall tell, I want, I do not want, I have shown, I feel quite sure …’ in the book – who is telling these stories. Take, for instance, her introduction of the first major character in the book:

[Henry] was the first of our Bowens to die in Ireland, he was the founder of the Bowen’s Court family, so from now on I shall call him Henry I.

Oh ok, Henry I it is, then. And, as the book goes on, we get all the way up to Henry VI!

Another idiosyncratic moment is in the story of Miss St. Leger and the Freemasons:

In a small alcoved room in Doneraile Court, a Miss St. Leger became the only lady Free Mason. The popular story is that she hid in a clock, her family say she happened to fall asleep on a couch: anyhow, whether by design or accident, she overheard what the Free Masons were saying, so they made her one of their number.  In her portrait the lady, who later married an Aldworth, has a dogged, impassible face.  I support the idea of the clock.

We get a place – the ‘small alcoved room in Doneraile Court’, the two versions of the story – clock and couch, a bit of Debrett’s-style placing of families – ‘who later married an Aldworth’, a very personal interpretation of her portrait –‘ dogged, impassible face’. And finally, most personal of all, Bowen’s choice of stories: ‘I support the idea of the clock.’

The prose is littered with little asides and anecdotes like this. It’s a very colloquial style, chatty and intimate. I wish it didn’t sound so patronising and disparaging to call it ‘tea-time writing’, only because I feel as though Elizabeth Bowen is leaning over her teacup, having just scoffed a biscuit, a few crumbs on her jacket, to whisper about the clock quite conspiratorially.

Perhaps it’s a bit gossipy and ever so juicy with it. But I also felt that in her writing of the book, in her telling of the stories, Bowen was trying to make sense of them, set things straight in her head. So in the Miss St. Leger and the Freemasons story, we get rather a brisk: ‘anyhow, whether by design or accident’ before coming down in favour of the clock version. There are endless summings-up, ‘What happened was this,’ or, ‘it was no doubt …’ or ‘in fact.’ It’s another way in which it feels like a conversation, as though the story is being finalised, a particular version of events settled upon, in her telling of it.

Bowen’s Court is quite a long book – 450 pages or so – and so I spent a good couple of weeks in Elizabeth Bowen’s company. My favourite time for it was bath-time, after dinner on a quite work-night, disappearing into a hot tub with a whisky and Elizabeth Bowen for an hour or so at a time. I imagine she might have preferred this description to the tea-time one. I felt increasingly fond of her as time went on.

But, the funny thing is, now I’ve finished the book, I don’t feel particularly bereft. Perhaps because it wasn’t really the end of a story. I don’t feel as though the characters have been extinguished, rather that there’s now a pause after several long conversations about them. It’s as though she’s gone away on holiday for a short while and will be back soon with more tales to tell. I can’t wait!


November 15, 2010

Last Monday was my birthday. Hence the absence of a post up here. (That and the fact that my energies had gone into a post for the Spectator, which you can read here).

I spent my birthday going on walks – one across Hampstead Heath in beautiful sunshine; the other along part of the London LOOP in the sheeting rain.

‘Which way are we going?’ everyone asked me as we gathered by a corner of Hampstead Heath, bleary-eyed, clutching a thermos of hot toddy, early on Sunday afternoon. I had no idea, so we set off kind of diagonally right, and wandered more-or-less aimlessly, half-hoping to find Kenwood.

It was such fun stomping around the Heath, nattering away, letting conversations meander along whichever bendy course our thoughts seemed to be following. And, of course, there are the views. Whenever one gets up on a hill, away from the centre of London, it’s stunning. It was heaven standing on top of Parliament Hill, eating chocolate biscuits, looking at the greying sky over London’s skyscrapers after sunset. Then someone said, ‘My socks are wet, where’s the pub?’

Out on the London LOOP, we walked through woods with stunning geometric displays of straight-trunked hornbeams, endless piles of autumn leaves, and toddled alongside pretty muddy streams, even a Medieval moat.

It seemed to be an uncanny coincidence (see this old post for more on the nature of coincidence) that, when I got home from the rather wet, windy walk, while still half-thinking about how wonderful walks are, I sat down to read a book and saw the following:

Rambling was a favourite metaphor for thinking and writing … It suggested a leisurely excursion without a distinct goal, and with time to take in the view. It was a principled opposition to the stern linear progress Lytton Strachey so admired in Edward Gibbon, whose readers were not invited ‘to stop and wander, or camp out, or make friends with the natives’ and it opposed, too, the straight lines and rigid grids that had come to define modern design.

This is from the charming, beautiful, and strangely addictive Romantic Moderns by Alexandra Harris, which has pleasingly just been shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. In this particular instance, Harris is writing about a talk that Virginia Woolf gave for the BBC in 1937, which Woolf titled, ‘A Ramble Round Words’.

It seemed so serendipitous to be reading about the word and idea of ‘Rambling’, when just returning from birthday walks, which were really rambles – leisurely excursions without distinct goals and with time to take in the views.

Of course, Woolf meant rambling in a metaphorical sense. Her diverting walk is around words, not woods – hers is a meandering path of thoughts. But one of the best things about going on an actual ramble, is that then one’s thoughts ramble along as well.

Etymologically, rambling meant travelling from place to place, without a fixed aim, ‘roving’, slightly before it meant to wander aimlessly in thought. But there is a mere sixteen years in it – from 1624 to 1640. Perhaps it was during this time that people began to appreciate the link between aimless walks and aimless thoughts.

It is a relief to see that Woolf, with her Romantic sensibilities, lifted ‘rambling’ up, away from other rather pejorative meanings of ‘rambling’ – first of all, in 1551, ‘irregular in shape’, and then in around 1645 ‘inelegant’, ‘disjointed’, ‘loose’.  Woolf evidently saw ‘rambling’ as something to be celebrated, to be encouraged. And irregularity in shape does, as Harris points out, utterly oppose the ‘straight lines and rigid grids that had come to define modern design’.

It wasn’t until 1700 that ‘rambling’ was used in association with madness, in the sense of ‘delirious’, ‘raving’. And this is a meaning that Harris doesn’t pick up, in her saner appreciation of the word.

Perhaps the ultimate rambling book is Adam Foulds’ The Quickening Maze. I don’t mean rambling in the 1693 sense of ‘waffling’, ‘loquacious’ – his is a short, neat little book, which one might well expect from an author who is also a poet. Although its shape masquerades as regular – split into different seasons – within these section breaks are numerous small disjunctures as the narrative jumps from one character to another. Irregular in shape in a marvellously creative way.

But what makes The Quickening Maze such a wonderful rambling novel is Foulds’ magnificent portrayal of patients in a lunatic asylum, including John Clare. Foulds avoids clichés and glib generalisations, giving each individual a unique, resonant voice. Here he is on a patient who refuses to eat:

to eat was to join the ordinary world of bodies and murder, of lust and destruction, was to swim through the world like a worm through soil

It’s certainly the most poetic description of an aversion to food that I’ve ever read.

The ramblings of mad minds are most keenly distilled in Foulds’ portrayal of John Clare. Clare, famously the ‘peasant poet’, loved nature and in The Quickening Maze he goes for walks in Epping Forest, which surrounds the lunatic asylum.

As he rambles through the forest, he scrutinises it – taking in the view. Rather than needing a panorama, microscopic focus is shown to be just as astonishing. Clare passes, for instance, a blackbird with its ‘daffodil-yellow beak, sharp as tweezers’, or notices ‘the glaring, hooked darkness of holly buses, the long whips and shabby leaves of brambles beneath them’.

And Clare’s mind wanders, rambles, just like his feet. But Foulds shows that these rambles aren’t always pleasant meanders; they are increasingly extreme flashes of madness. Clare thinks he is Byron, is periodically overwhelmed by the desire to fight, is convinced he has two wives … he is definitely mad.

I don’t think that my ramblings around the London LOOP, or Hampstead Heath had the same intensity of Clare’s. I was too busy shoving biscuits into my own beak to notice the tweezer-like beak of a blackbird. Perhaps that’s a relief. I don’t think I want to be rambling in a mad way. But although I was too late for blackberries (picking one, he ‘ate it so tart it made his palate itch’) we did pick a generous pocketful of sloes to add to gin. And, well, perhaps, wet and exhausted after our measly four miles or so on the LOOP, our walk echoed Clare’s final walk in The Quickening Maze, where he leaves the asylum and heads towards his home, Helpston, Peterborough:

He just had to keep walking, boring through, shouldering the distance with the low grunting strength of a badger.

Who knew once one reached the horrid age of twenty-seven, badgerdom would be so close?