Posts Tagged ‘England’

Bantering through The Remains of the Day

June 17, 2013

The Remains of the DayVery excitingly I will be hosting a book club at the Southbank Centre on Thursday night, where we will be discussing The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.

I was talking to a friend yesterday, who I shall call, somewhat cryptically, ‘S’, when the book came to my mind as being particularly apt. S was saying how extraordinary it is that men share a common bond of football. Her new husband, for instance, can talk to her father for ages about it. It’s true, I reflected, football is a remarkable common ground, which means that whenever men come across each other – in a shop, in a bar, in a taxi, at work – they have something light and bantering to say to each other.

We women don’t have an equivalent bantering common ground. At best, we can exchange a comment or two about clothes (I really love your jacket / thanks, your dress is very pretty / thanks, where’s your handbag from? …), which is somewhat limited and involves a weird sucky-uppy personal dynamic which is altogether absent from football banter. I wish that we women could find more common ground for the sisterhood! It’s a real absence. Perhaps books? We do, after all, read far more novels than men.

It seems, however, that this masculine aptitude for banter did not always come so easily. In The Remains of the Day, Mr Stevens – the butler and narrator – is forever lamenting his uselessness with banter. While he hadn’t needed to exchange bantering remarks in the glory days of Darlington Hall before the Second World War, now, in 1956, his new employer – Mr Farraday, who is, needless to say an American – indulges his bantering habit rather often. Stevens is thrown by this, doubly anxious because he can’t do it and because he thinks it might be one of his new professional duties:

It is quite possible, then, that my employer fully expects me to respond to his bantering in a like manner, and considers my failure to do so a form of negligence. This is, as I say, a matter which has given me much concern. But I must say this business of bantering is not a duty I feel I can ever discharge with enthusiasm. It is all very well, in these changing times, to adapt one’s work to take in duties not traditionally within one’s realm but bantering is of another dimension altogether. For one thing, how would one know for sure that at any given moment a response of the bantering sort is truly what is expected? One need hardly dwell on the catastrophic possibility of uttering a bantering remark only to discover it wholly inappropriate.

As you can see, poor Stevens is utterly at sea in this new post-War world of bantering.

Before the War, it was ‘dignity’ that Stevens strove for, emulating his father with his unwavering loyalty to his employer and conscientious hard work. There was no need to say much at all, aiming to be a near-invisible presence existing only to aid the smooth running of the house. Stevens’s desire to be as dignified as possible is put to great comic effect when Lord Darlington asks him to explain the facts of life to his twenty-three-year-old godson. Stevens tries to broach this rather undignified subject, ‘ladies and gentlemen differ in several key respects,’ and of course the godson fails to understand his euphemism, which is his attempt to dispatch the task with dignity. Oh if only they had some banter to fall back on!

Back to 1956, when a certain Mr Harry Smith tries to discuss politics with Stevens in a village, where Stevens is marooned for the night after his car breaks down. Smith gives a markedly different definition of ‘dignity’:

…it’s one of the privileges of being born English that no matter who you are, no matter if you’re rich or poor, you’re born free and you’re born so that you can express your opinion freely, and vote in your Member of Parliament or vote him out. That’s what dignity’s really about…

Stevens disagrees with this opinion, seeing dignity as tied to knowing one’s place, respecting one’s betters and being utterly loyal to one’s employer. That Lord Darlington ended up acting in such a thoroughly undignified way (I don’t want to spoil the plot for you so I won’t go into details) gives a sad irony to Stevens’s unflinching loyalty towards him.

‘Dignity’ has changed but Stevens hasn’t. The world has changed, and yet Stevens clings to the past. He is an anachronism. Yet, even Stevens can see the remarkable power of this new phenomenon of ‘banter’, observing at the novel’s end that: ‘in bantering lies the key to human warmth’.

Today, Stevens’s idea of dignity is almost entirely lost, sacrificed, perhaps, to this great masculine art of banter.

Daphne with The Remains of the Day

Here is my very beautiful Folio Society  edition of The Remains of the Day (now sadly out-of-print). Need I remind you that Daphne is a highly intelligent and very dignified tortoise, even if she offers little by way of banter.


River writing

June 3, 2013

To the River by Olivia LaingLast week, I was lucky enough to chair a talk about river writing. The speakers were Olivia Laing, who was talking about her beautiful book To the River (which I wrote about here), and Charles Rangeley-Wilson, who spoke about his fascinating search for a lost river, Silt Road. I really enjoyed listening to them discuss the many parallels in their experiences of these chalk streams – The Ouse and The (High Wycombe) Wye. Both wrote a great deal about fossils, love, death, and also stories.

These folk stories were some of my favourite moments of their books – amidst the lyrical nature writing and illuminating history – and seem to me to be perfect instances of landscape influencing imagination. Olivia told the story of Cherry of Zennor, which she came across in a collection of essays by Edward Thomas, who found it in the mid-nineteenth-century Popular Romances of the West of England. Charles wrote about a magical trout. I shall, briefly, fill you in on these tales:

Cherry of Zennor

Cherry, a sixteen-year-old girl, left her family in Cornwall to go into service. She was sitting on the Downs crying with homesickness, when a gentleman came towards her. He offered her a job working for him and looking after his son.

Cherry didn’t understand everything he said, for he spoke in a flowery way, but she decided to take the job.

They went together down a long sloping lane shaded with trees, so that the sun was barely visible. At length they came to a stream of clear dark water that ran across the road. Cherry didn’t know how she’d ford this brook, but the gentleman slipped an arm about her waist and scooped her up, so she wouldn’t wet her feet.

Every day, Cherry had to take his son to a spring in the garden, wash him, and anoint his eyes with ointment. She was told not to touch her own eyes with the ointment. Then she got on with the rest of the work – milking the cow and weeding the garden. Cherry felt suspicious of this ointment and so:

One morning… taking a crumb of ointment, she put it in her eye. How it burned! She ran to the stream to wash away the smarting and there she saw at the bottom of the water hundreds of little people dancing, and there was her master, as small as the others, dancing with them and kissing the ladies as they passed.

It’s not long before her faery master finds out she’s taken the ointment and sends her packing.

The magical trout

Silt RoadCharles Rangeley-Wilson recounts the story as told by a mysterious old lady to the early nineteenth-century Irish songwriter Samuel Lover. Here it is:

There was once a very long time ago, a beautiful young girl who lived in the castle by the lough. She was betrothed to a king’s son, but the story goes that the prince was murdered and thrown into the lough and that she went out of her mind, the poor, tender-hearted girl, and pined for him until at last, so it was thought, the fairies took her away. But then, this white trout appeared in the stream, though it had never been seen before, and there it has remained for years and years, longer than I can express, and beyond the memory of even the oldest hereabouts, until at last the people came to believe that the white trout was a fairy, and so it was treasured and no harm was ever done to it. None, that is, until a band of wicked soldiers came to these parts and laughed and gibed [at] the people for thinking like this and one of the soldiers said he would catch the trout and eat it for his supper. Well he caught it and took it home and the trout cried out when he pitched it into the frying pan, though it would not cook no matter which way he turned the fish or how hot he made the fire, until in exasperation the soldier lunged at the trout with a fork and there came a murdering screech such as you’ve never heard before and the trout jumped out of the pan and on to the floor and out of the spot where it fell rose up the most beautiful lady you’ve ever seen, all dressed in white with a band of gold in her hair and a stream of blood running down her arm. “Look where you cut me you villain,” said the girl. “Why did you not leave me watching out for my true love? For he is coming for me by the river, and if he comes while I am away and I miss him I’ll hunt you down for evermore, so long as grass grows and water runs.” And no sooner had she spoken than the girl vanished and there on the kitchen floor was the white trout and the soldier picked up the bleeding fish and rushed with it to the river. He ran and ran for fear her lover would come while she was away, and descending into this cavern he threw her back into the river and there she has stayed evermore and to this day the trout is marked with red spots where the fork pierced its side.

white trout

I hadn’t known that fairies and rivers were so closely linked. I love the thought of little fairies dancing and kissing each other in the stream. Perhaps that’s why the water feels so cool and tickly when you paddle in it.

Lore of the LandIntrigued by these stories, I went to my very reliable tome of English folklore, The Lore of the Land, to see if there were more tales about rivers and fairies. Endearingly there is no entry for ‘rivers’ in the index of The Lore of the Land, only:

river-spirits … see also mermaids, freshwater

The stories of river-spirits are sinister. The spirit of the River Dart called out ‘Jan Coo! Jan Coo!’ until Jan ran towards it, his friend powerless to stop him, and then Jan was never seen again. There is Peg Powler of the Tees:

one of the most formidable of the many river-spirits lurking in rivers and streams, waiting their chance to drown women and children.

Just as sad is the story of how the River Severn came to be named. The story is traced to the account given by Geoffrey of Monmouth (c.1136) – an old story indeed. An ancient legendery king, Locrine, fell in love with the beautiful Estrildis but was forced by his father to marry Gwendolen. Locrine still loved Estrildis so hid her in an underground chamber where he visited her in secret. This went on for seven years, during which time she bore him a daughter Sabrina. Eventually, Locrine deserted Gwendolen and raised Estrildis to be his queen. Gwendolen, understandably furious, gathered an army in Cornwall and in the ensuing battle Locrine was killed. Gwendolen resumed the throne and ordered that:

Estrildis and Sabrina her daugher be flung into the river that is now called Severn, issuing an edict throughout all Britain that the river should be called by the damsel’s name … whereby it cometh to pass that even to this day the river in the British tongue is called Sabren, which by corruption in other speech is called Severn.

Sad stories of rivers abound. I dutifully looked up freshwater mermaids, but found that they aren’t any more gentle than these river-spirits, and lurk in rivers, pits and pools to lure children beneath to their death.

I’m struck by the darkness felt in these stories, an unnatural sinister edge to the natural beauty of a river. Rivers give life but also bring death. Perhaps only something other-worldy can begin to explain the strange pull of a river, its magnetism that is strong enough to pull you out of this world altogether. Perhaps it was comforting to blame the many drownings on the fairies rather than natural force, or human error. Was Virginia Woolf lured by a mermaid or a river-spirit into the Ouse? I doubt that Leonard would have found comfort in this.

To me, these stories of ill-meaning river-spirits suggest the anarchy of a river, its stubborn wilfulness and refusal to be governed by man. Charles Rangeley-Wilson, whose book hopes for the re-emergence of the River Wye – now buried under a shopping mall – should take courage from these tales.

Midsummer’s Eve is just around the corner – a time when, legend has it, the gap narrows between human and fairy worlds. Beware the river-spirits and freshwater mermaids! It is also the time that Olivia Laing walked along the River Ouse for her book. Did she, like Shakespeare’s Hermia and Cherry of Zennor “see things with parted eye”?  At least she escaped the clutches of the fairies and mermaids and returned to tell her tales. I’d be quite happy for fairies to dance around my paddling feet, although I have to confess, I feel a little wary of getting too close to a river right now, just in case a mermaid were to pull me under. It is, for sure, at least a fine time to read about them.


Ravilious in the rain

March 6, 2012

The first picture that struck me in the gorgeous new Ravilious book, Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist, was Wet Afternoon. That’s Edward Thomas, I thought, looking at the man strolling down the muddy hedge-lined track, the green-grey sky streaked with stripes of rain.

Well, of course it isn’t Edward Thomas. He was long dead by 1938, the year Ravilious painted it. And yet there is something about the watercolour that summons the spirit of Thomas so much. It makes me think of the first stanza of Thomas’s poem, ‘Like the touch of rain’:

Like the touch of rain she was

On a man’s flesh and hair and eyes

When the joy of walking thus

Has taken him by surprise:

For there is certainly something joyful about the man in the picture, who looks to be almost hopping or skipping, or at least walking jauntily, undeterred by the inclement weather. Perhaps it is Thomas’s ghost. Perhaps it is Ravilious himself. Or perhaps he is just one anonymous man in a long line of Englishmen who delight in treading through the countryside, most happy and himself with the damp bluster of English air on his face and mud on his boots. As Thomas points out in his striking simile, however awful it seems to be walking in the rain at first, suddenly, surprisingly, one can find it rather wonderful.

But James Russell points out in his introduction to A Travelling Artist that Ravilious found the rain could be a bit of a pain, forcing him indoors when he’d far sooner be out in the landscape, using his watercolours. One of the happy side-effects of the rain-forced retreats are the interiors he was forced to paint. I like the way these often show a preoccupation of the outside world, as experienced from the inside.

Both November 5th and River Thames give the feeling of being an onlooker, of looking on a scene from the vantage point of a window above. Yet the dynamism of the scenes is infectious, crossing the barrier of the window and into the quiet room inside. (Incidentally I gave rather a lot of thought to windows in this post about Mrs Dalloway and the Tate Modern.)

My favourite of Ravilious’s inside/outside pictures are where the window itself is actually shown, such as in Room at the ‘William the Conqueror’ and Belle Tout Lighthouse. The first is intriguing in any case due to the strange dark patch in the middle of the foreground, where Ravilious had initially painted a chair. I expect most of you know by now of my preoccupation with the stories held in houses, how much history can be written in such small traces. Well here is rather an interesting trace. A chair was here, and then it wasn’t, yet it’s left its mark, its imprint. Looking at that patch, it’s impossible not to imagine Ravilious moving the chair there and then perhaps a friend coming in and sitting on it for a while, talking to him over a beer which he found ‘as good as any I ever tasted’.

But, aside from this intriguing dark patch, what I love about these two paintings are the way the outside and inside influence each other. The colours are continued – the bluey grey of the exterior landscape in Room is echoed in the curtains and the floor mimics the sea, both in the colour and in the long lines.

The outside colours are inside too in Belle Tout Lighthouse. Here I love the way the light streams in, making the window frames cast shadows that remind one of the path outside. And, despite the brilliant sunshine, you can image the cold wind blowing outside, the exposure of being out there. Inside, however, you are protected. Perhaps you can hear the wind whistling, yet you are able to bask in the filtered sunlight.

The windows of the lighthouse are quite similar to those in my flat and all yesterday morning I felt the same effect here. It was cold, the wind was howling, rattling the windows, and yet the flat was incredibly bright. There was the same feeling of being connected to the outside and yet protected from it. When one’s view is so taken up with what’s outside, it can be uncanny to feel somehow separated; part of it and yet removed from it. The table at which I’m sitting, for instance, looks out on sunny roofs outside. My view of the roofs and chimneys is utterly connected to my table, to my experience of being in my flat. And yet, those roofs are far away and separated not only by distance but by windows too. Sometimes the connection can make one forget the separation, and to be reminded of it so forcefully in Ravilious’s paintings feels somewhat shocking.

Sometimes this outside/inside tension is extended to strange places that seem to be both outside and inside at once. Most striking, to me, is Strawberry Bed, in which Ravilious portrays a space that is outdoors, yet also undercover, the netting forming a permeable barrier between the sky and the ground. Russell points out the ‘hallucinatory detail’ of the nets and also ‘the peculiar quality of the space beneath’. It really is an extraordinary picture. There is a similar feel to his painting Geraniums and Carnations which is filled with diffuse grey-white light but this time the effect is from a glasshouse. And, again, it is the ceiling of the glasshouse where the eye is drawn; this point of connection and separation is where the pillars are pointing and the flowers are climbing towards.

I’m sure you’ll find your own points of intrigue and fascination in this book. It really is a lovely thing, wonderful to leaf through, full of beautifully-reproduced paintings at which one can happily stare and dream over for hours.

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again

June 13, 2011

Well, to be honest, I didn’t actually dream about Manderley. I dreamt that my novel had just been published and it left me with the best feeling ever.

But dreams are funny things. Especially when it comes to writing.

It is probably to ease the monotony of reading a million stories ending with ‘and then I woke up’, but, from a young age, we are instructed by teachers never to write a story that ends with the realisation that it was all a dream.

I suppose it is a huge let-down for the reader. It’s not ideal for them to be dragged into a plot, to empathise with the characters, to believe in what’s happening, only to finish with the anticlimax that none of it was real at all. Of course they know it’s not really real, as it’s a story, but fictional worlds need to have their own version of reality, and being told that it’s not even up to that, is definitely a bit crap.

And yet I can see why using dreams as a device is so tempting. Dreams are incredibly real. As well as being told, as children, not to end our stories with ‘and it was all a dream’, we’re comforted from nightmares by being told, ‘it’s only a dream’. Nightmares can feel so real, can evoke such horrid feelings of terror, that they can be utterly distressing. And, as well as the reality, there’s always something eerily unreal about dreams. Perhaps it’s the combination of the extraordinary – being able to fly, for instance – with the ordinary – looking down from your broomstick and seeing your back garden, or Regent’s Park – that make them so disconcerting and so enchanting.

I’ve written about dreams and poetry here, but I haven’t yet written about dreams and novels. And, when I think about dreams and novels, the first thing that comes to mind is:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

In Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier uses the dream truly brilliantly. And her English teacher wouldn’t have been all that upset, as du Maurier makes it clear from the very fourth word that ‘it’s all a dream’, and the dream only lasts for the first chapter, rather than encompassing the whole story.

In her dream, she is walking along the drive to the house, Manderley, but finds that ‘nature …with long, tenacious fingers’ has taken over the pretty drive to create a nightmarish vision of ‘tortured elms’ and ‘monster shrubs’. As she nears the house:

Nettles were everywhere, the vanguard of the army. They choked the terrace, they sprawled about the paths, they leant, vulgar and lanky, against the very windows of the house.

The house is just about to fall prey to the ravages of nature. Where is James Lees-Milne when you need him?

Then she imagines the house itself, its rooms:

bear witness to our presence … cushions, with the imprint of our heads upon them, lolling in the chairs; the charred embers of our log fire still smouldering against the morning.

Daphne du Maurier opens her novel with a detailed description of a place. And yet this description is within a dream, the dream of Mrs de Winter. While dreams might prey on our subconscious fears – and there is definitely something nightmarish about this particular dream – they can also reveal our desires. It is clear that Mrs de Winter desires Manderley more than anything.

For, as the story unfolds, it is obvious that the rooms won’t bear witness to her presence, for they continue to be haunted by Rebecca. It is Rebecca’s handkerchief that she will find in a coat pocket, rather than, as she dreams, ‘my handkerchief on the table beside the bowl of autumn roses’. Rebecca is everywhere in the house, her elegant initial on everything, her ghost still served by Mrs Danvers the housekeeper.

But why should Mrs de Winter desire Manderley so much, when it is exposed, eventually, as no more than a façade for Rebecca’s terrible sexual exploits? Max de Winter says how wrong his love for Manderley is. He says,

it does not prosper, that sort of love. They don’t preach about it in the churches. Christ said nothing about stones, bricks, and walls.

So why does Manderley still haunt Mrs de Winter’s dreams? Why is it that at the start of the novel, which happens at the very end of the story, Mrs de Winter still wants the house?

Mrs de Winter’s creator was obsessed with Menabilly, the house on which Manderley was based. She was fascinated by it as a child and, later on in life, with her earnings from the Hitchcock film, du Maurier rented it for twenty years.

Blake Morrison in the Guardian (here) manages to turn pretty much every English country house literary myth on its head, but I for one think there is something incredibly special about a grand country house. Bowen’s Court is an astonishing document of Elizabeth Bowen’s love for her ancestral home (more on this here), and for those, like Daphne du Maurier, or Mrs de Winter, or indeed me, who weren’t born into such grand surroundings, in which each wood panel feels redolent of an ancestor’s touch and has a family tale to tell, then it’s easy to see why they might envy it.

And, before one feel quite smugly above all this very passé envy of the aristos, perhaps one should remember how addicted one might have been to Downton Abbey … 

… and dream on.