Posts Tagged ‘Port Eliot’

Walking and Talking at Port Eliot

July 23, 2012

I have just returned from a glorious few days at Port Eliot festival in Cornwall. What a fun time we had! Beautiful landscape, inspiring talks, dancing-a-plenty – made all the better by being, for the most part, blessed with sunshine.

I was at Port Eliot to do my walking book club – which involves going for a walk and talking about a book.

In this instance, I did one walk for The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley and another for Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, both books that fitted in nicely with Port Eliot’s big house and beautiful grounds. Quite thrillingly Radio 4 were interested in the idea and broadcast a report on it on The World Tonight. Here it is – the piece about the walking book club is 37 minutes in.

It was probably because I was there to walk, but I found that walking greatly influenced my experience of the festival. As well as gleaning walkerish thoughts from Robert Macfarlane (barefoot on red sandstone is a winner) and Juliet Nicolson (her grandfather Harold Nicolson went on a rather more highbrow walking book club in France), I went on a literary walk with Duncan Minshull, who has edited a treasure trove of a book about walking. A group of us walked down a pretty path to a field golden with wheat, stopping every now and then for Duncan to read us a thought on walking from someone literary.

My favourite was a letter from Soren Kirkegaard to his sister-in-law:

Do not on any account cease to take pleasure in walking: I walk every day to preserve my well-being and walk away from every sickness; I have walked my best thoughts into existence, and I know of no thought so heavy that one cannot walk away from it.

Apparently she was something of a couch potato and he was trying to coax her into taking a little more exercise.

Duncan also pointed out how walks are often written into literature, as a writerly device. Think Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy, for instance. Of course my mind was abuzz with thoughts about The Go-Between and Rebecca and yet, somewhat idiotically, I hadn’t yet stopped to think about how much walking goes on in them. Of course Leo is a prince of walkers, traipsing less and less merrily between Brandham Hall and Ted Burgess’ farm, carrying messages between Marian and Ted. There is also rather a good walk from the Hall to the Church. Leo trots alongside Marian, when he sees Trimingham approaching:

I felt compelled to say: “Triminham’s coming after us,” as if he were a disease, or a misfortune, or the police.

“Oh is he?” she said, and turned her head, but she didn’t call to him, or make a sign, and his pace slackened off, and when he did come abreast of us he passed us, to my great relief, with a smile, and joined the people who were walking in front.

Could Marian be any more tepid in her feelings towards Trimingham? Especially when compared to the passionate ‘Darling, darling, darling’ written to lowly farmer Ted. Trimingham comes across as every bit the noble gentleman, his pride may be wounded and yet he masks it with a smile. The marriage planned between Marian and Trimingham – her money for his title – is certainly one of convenience, not motivated by love or affection. All this conveyed in a walk.

Of course in Rebecca it is while walking with Maxim in the grounds of Manderley that the new Mrs de Winter first comes across Rebecca’s fateful boathouse. Maxim is furious with her for following the dog over there, and strides crossly up the hill, back to the house for tea, revealing that the boathouse is every bit as sinister as she fears.

Rather luckily there is a boathouse at Port Eliot, so for the Walking Book Club we wandered down there, paused in our discussion and regrouped. I thought it a good spot to read out Daphne du Maurier’s description of Rebecca’s boathouse, when the new Mrs de Winter first sees it on her walk.

We all collectively shivered in spite of the warm sunshine at the description of the ‘damp and chill’, ‘dark and oppressive’ boathouse, with its rat-nibbled sofas, cobwebs and ‘queer musty smell’.

We moved on, wandering along the estuary, wondering aloud whether or not Rebecca really is the villain that Maxim de Winter says she is.

Many of us found a new respect for Rebecca. Plenty of us found ourselves irritated beyond belief with the new Mrs de Winter. Someone said she was desperate to shake some sense into her. Maxim de Winter was accused of being vile and dreadful, although not without his attractions.

But my greatest surprise was hearing someone say that she quite liked Mrs Danvers. Oh, Mrs Danvers, ghoul of my nightmares! Feeling that I needed du Maurier’s own words to back up my case, I waited until we were gathered by the house before reading out a scene thick with horror, to my mind one of the most ghastly scenes in all of literature.

The ball is about to begin, and the new Mrs de Winter has overcome her habitual, irritating shyness to get dressed up, rather excitedly, after one of the family portraits … thanks to Mrs Danvers’ suggestion. Standing in the shadow of the house, it was easy to look up to the upper windows, and imagine the young new Mrs de Winter up there, giggling with her maid as she got dressed. Then she walked along the corridor and told the drummer to announce her. And then:

I came forward to the head of the stairs and stood there, smiling, my hat in my hand, like the girl in the picture. I waited for the clapping and laughter that would follow as I walked slowly down the stairs. Nobody clapped, nobody moved.

They all stared at me like dumb things. Beatrice uttered a little cry and put her hand to her mouth. I went on smiling, I put one hand on the banister.

“How do you do, Mr de Winter,” I said.

Maxim had not moved. He stared up at me, his glass in his hand. There was no colour in his face. It was ashen white. I saw Frank go to him as though he would speak, but Maxim shook him off. I hesitated, one foot already on the stairs. Something was wrong, they had not understood. Why was Maxim looking like that? Why did they all stand like dummies, like people in a trance?

It continues along these lines until …

Then I saw that the door leading to the west wing was open wide, and that someone was standing there.

It was Mrs Danvers. I shall never forget the expression on her face, loathsome, triumphant. The face of an exulting devil. She stood there smiling at me.

And then I ran from her, down the long narrow passage to my own room, tripping, stumbling over the flounces of my dress.

What a haunting piece of writing, and how wonderful to be haunted by it standing there, by the wall of a house that might as well have been Manderley itself.

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Re-reading: The Go-Between and Rebecca

July 18, 2012

 I am terribly excited to be going to Port Eliot Festival tomorrow. I will be hosting my Walking Book Club, first to discuss The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley and then Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. They are two of my very favourite books and, in preparation for Port Eliot, I’ve had rather a wonderful week re-reading them.

Re-reading a book is so very different to reading something for the first time. Second time round you know, more-or-less, what’s going to happen, roughly how everything will end up. This time I pay much more attention to what the writer’s doing. Oh that’s clever, I think, noticing a little trick of the narrative, yes that’s just what’s needed. You know where the story’s going so it’s all the more fascinating to see how the author’s going to get there. I suppose it feels closer to writing the novel yourself. Your knowledge is more aligned with the author than the characters – you tend to know what will happen before they do.

The funny coincidence with Rebecca and The Go-Between is that they are both told by a narrator who is looking back over past events. Rebecca opens with that infamous dream of Manderley, and then we join the narrator as she recollects herself, back then, when she ‘drove to Manderley for the first time, hopeful and eager’:

I can see myself now, memory spanning the years like a bridge

The whole book is one long memory, and every now and then we get reminded that it’s all in the past, it’s all happened once already, the events have unfolded before.

In The Go-Between it is Leo who revisits the past – that ‘different country’, in another infamous first line – when he opens his diary kept for decades in his old red collar box.

If you’re reading these books for the first time you are at a narrative disadvantage – the narrators know what’s going to happen and you don’t. But if you’ve read it already, really you’re not so different from the narrators, you could almost be telling the story yourself.

What I like most about re-reading is seeing what different things lodge themselves in my mind, compared to the last time.

When I last read Rebecca a year ago, I was obsessed with Manderley, the house in it. Perhaps rightly so, for the house is described in so much detail, conveys such hope and such menace by turn, that it is in many ways a character in its own right. As some of you might remember, I’m also writing a novel about a derelict house, which was in part why I was re-reading Rebecca and so my eyes stared all the wider whenever a ‘house bit’ came up.

When I read The Go-Between, I was working very low down at a very big publishing house, and I was very much in awe of my boss. He told me to read it and so read it I did. I raced through it thinking it must certainly be a work of genius if he thought so. I remember thinking hard about all the classical allusions, the ‘Golden Age’, the ‘delenda est belladonna’, being very impressed with all the French passages – telling myself that my boss wouldn’t have to look up any translations in the notes – and part of me wondered if my boss had been at all like Leo as a boy, slightly awkward, keen to get things right, intelligent in a bit of an odd-ball way. Of course I didn’t say that to him, but I mined the text for what I hoped might be little parallels and clues.

I suppose what you notice in a book says rather a lot more about you than the book. (That’s why the Walking Book Club – where all sorts of different people discuss the book in a very relaxed, meandering fashion – is such fun!) So this time round, older, wiser, having written more myself, what did I notice?

For one thing I felt rather envious of Daphne du Maurier’s masterful building of suspense. Having recently spent a while thinking about Hitchcock for my novel,I wonder if the reason he made films out of so many of her books was because he spotted a fellow master of it. I also noticed how devastatingly effective the ending of The Go-Between is by the shocking thing (I’m not going to give it away, don’t worry) being mentioned so quickly, in just a single sentence which is set as a paragraph on its own. It reminded me a little of the end of A River Runs Through It. Less is more, I tell my writerly self, fiercely.

I noticed the weather. All this grey rain we’ve been having made me long for the scorching summer of The Go-Between, and Leo’s obsession with checking the thermometer chimes with my endlessly checking the BBC weather website for signs of improvement. In Rebecca, it’s raining when the narrator drives down with Maxim to Manderley for the first time. But Maxim assures her:

“This is London rain … you wait, the sun will be shining for you when we come to Manderley’’; and he was right, for the clouds left us at Exeter, they rolled away behind us, leaving a great blue sky abover our heads and a white road in front of us.

Please God let that be the case when we drive down to Port Eliot tomorrow! There’s also the smothering fog that causes the fateful crash of the ship and that wonderful thunderstorm near the end, with the weather building and refusing to break and then the rain falling just as everything threatens to fall apart …

But above all, I’m rather ashamed to admit that I’ve noticed tea. Not tea, as in a cup of, but tea as in high tea, with all the trimmings. Both novels are set in big country houses around a hundred years ago, when tea was nearly as important a meal as lunch.

In Rebecca, tea at Manderley is served at precisely half-past four. This is so fixed that, on returning from a walk, the narrator thinks:

I would ask Robert to bring me my tea under the chestnut tree. I glanced at my watch. It was earlier than I thought, not yet four. I would have to wait a bit. It was not the routine at Manderley to have tea before half past.

When tea is not under the chestnut tree, it is served in the library, ‘a stately little performance’:

The solemn ritual went forward as it always did, day after day, the leaves of the table pulled out, the legs adjusted, the laying of the snowy cloth, the putting down of the silver tea-pot and the kettle with the little flame beneath. Scones, sandwiches, three different sorts of cake.

At other times there are ‘dripping crumpets … tiny crisp wedges of toast … that very special gingerbread’ and ‘angel cake, that melted in the mouth, and his rather stodgier companion, bursting with peel and raisins.’

YUM!

The teas in The Go-Between aren’t described in the same sort of gluttonous detail but they still play an important role. On a seminal visit to Ted, Leo is anxious about missing tea at ‘the Hall’ but in the end stays and has tea with him in his cottage, with tea-cups:

deep and cream-coloured, with a plain gold line round the outside and inside at the bottom, worn by much stirring, a gold flower. I thought them rather common-looking … It was odd to see a man laying the table, though of course the footman did it at the Hall.

It would seem that how one has one’s tea reveals rather a lot.

Oh how I long to live a life where tea was served everyday at 4.30, which I find is just the time one feels a little peckish. How I would love to be brought a buttery crumpet and a cuppa to stave off the tummy rumbles until a late, civilised dinner, rather than resorting (as I too often do) to gobbling a Tracker bar on the way to meet a friend for an after-work drink. I’d settle for tea not even being served to me, on a special cloth-covered table, but having the time and inclination to make it for myself. Even a piece of toast would do it.

All week I’ve been feeling faintly resentful of this yummy, sensible old English tradition being more-or-less wiped out, at least from my life. But then, this morning, I realised there’s nothing to stop me from having tea if I so desire. And today, at half-past four, this is what I concocted:

Not remotely up to Manderley’s standards, but it was still perfectly delicious. Long may the noble and terribly literary tradition continue!

Heroes

July 27, 2010

There’s nothing more juvenile than having a hero.

At least that’s what I’ve always told myself as consolation for never being able to think of one when reading those silly celebrity questionnaires. ‘Who do you most respect and why?’ ‘If you could have dinner with anyone at all, alive or dead, who would it be?’ ‘Who’s your greatest inspiration?’

My mind has a habit of emptying itself pretty quickly when put on the spot in such a – well, shall we say juvenile? please? – way. Before job interviews I always try to think of an appropriate answer. One that would make me look both supremely knowledgeable yet also humble and somewhat irreverently witty. But I’ve never ever managed to come up with a good one … and that inevitably makes me spiral into paranoid collapse (Oh my god, they’re going to ask me it and I’ll say someone like Virginia Woolf and they’ll think that’s really naf and then they won’t want me. Argh…).

On reading Kelis’s answer to the question: ‘What living person do you most admire and why?’ in the Guardian (here), what little respect I had for her completely vanished. ‘My mom. She has been a fashion designer and run a catering business.’ I mean, come on …

So, now I find myself in something of a quandary. Because now I realise I have a hero. It’s so juvenile. It’s so silly and daft, and it’s so pathetic that I feel the only way to make it at least half-way bearable is to write about it, because that might be a way of making it into something slightly more useful.

I only realised I had a hero, when he walked past me at Port Eliot festival on Saturday afternoon just after he’d given a phenomenal talk. I told him that I thought it was fantastic and he said some suitably humble, charming replies before running off to the bookshop to sign more copies of his book, which was – of course – in high demand. I was standing with my cousin, who hadn’t seen the talk. Who didn’t suspect me at all of my hero-worship.

‘Who’s that?’ she asked. So innocent.

And then I knew that he could only be described in one way. ‘That’s my hero.’

I sighed. She laughed. Then I explained.

So, for those of you who haven’t guessed, he is Edmund de Waal, a potter and the author of The Hare with Amber Eyes, which I’ve banged on about here and here already.

I met him when I was about a third of the way through reading his book. He was giving a talk at the bookshop, and I asked him a few questions before everyone turned up. Why had he written it in the present tense? Had he found it hard to drag himself out of this incredible world of his ancestors? Was it difficult to avoid falling into the nostalgia trap?

He was utterly charming, humble and articulate – both when talking to me and when addressing a crowded room. He seemed nervous about giving a talk, grateful that people liked his book. He said he couldn’t believe its success, and wanted to go around writing ‘thank you’ in everyone’s copy. (He actually wrote it in mine!)

I too was nervous before the talk. Although I wasn’t even half-way through The Hare with Amber Eyes, I knew it was going to be one of the best books I had ever read. And I was going to meet its author. What if he were ghastly? What if he were really stuck-up and seemed like a real plonker? It would be so upsetting. It would detract from this magnificent book, and make me feel like a bit of an idiot for believing in it so strongly.

But he was wonderful. And the rest of the book was all the more wonderful for having met him.

So it was a very happy surprise when, having just arrived at Port Eliot, standing gormlessly near some tipis in a field with my fiancé, I saw Edmund de Waal. I said hello and immediately thought maybe I shouldn’t have. Oh god, I thought, how dreadful, I bet he doesn’t remember me at all. He thinks I’m someone who looks slightly familiar, who might be a friend of a friend of a friend or something. I introduced him to my fiancé, and then, to try and smooth over any awkwardness, reminded him that I’m Emily.

‘I know, I know.’ He said he remembered me from the bookshop. We chatted amiably about Port Eliot, how excited we were about going for a Wild Swim with Kate Rew, how pretty it all looked and how many interesting talks there would be. I asked him if there was a particular talk he was really excited about, and he said Diana Athill.

Anyway, off I trotted, pleased as punch that he – my HERO (although I had not yet reached this epiphany) – knew who I was.

His talk, the following day, was brilliant. In fact it was almost better than the one at the bookshop. Edmund de Waal (I don’t think I can call him just Edmund) had told me, in our little chat outside the tipi, that he was going to be given various objects from the big stately home an hour before the talk, which he would then have to talk about. And he managed it with great aplomb. He talked about books and the touch of different grades of paper, and ceramics, and – of course – netsuke spontaneously and effervescently and the whole room was set alight.

Ah. Well. I have my hero. I shall just have to get over it. I suppose the only consolation is that he has his heroes too. And, indeed, heroines. Like, perhaps, Diana Athill.

He had said how much he was looking forward to Diana Athill’s talk, so you can imagine my glee when I made a discovery that evening … I was chatting to a friend who, by some strange twist of fate, had given Diana Athill a lift down to the festival. En route they were nattering away and Diana Athill had said that she’d just read the most marvellous book – The Hare with the Amber Eyes. Yes, really!

How I longed to bump into Edmund de Waal again and tell him that Diana Athill loved his book, that his heroine thinks of him with just as much respect. But I didn’t have to, because at his talk she was sitting right at the front. How incredible that must have been for him. And how terrifying!

It must be extraordinary when someone who you think of as completely amazing, someone who is balanced on a pedestal way up there, swaps places with you. Just imagine them sitting down at your feet to hear what you have to say. And then imagine what might happen next? I spotted Grayson Perry and Jarvis Cocker hobnobbing over a cone of chips. Perhaps Diana Athill and Edmund de Waal were going to head off for a cuppa. Imagine chatting to your hero so easily on such level, if muddy, ground. Perhaps then they might fall from hero status a little bit and be more of a friend. Or perhaps you would be more of a hero yourself.

Well, perhaps if and when I have a book launch/give erudite yet entertaining talks/am on the radio, he might be there listening. Then I might say to him afterwards, over a whisky, ‘Oh yes, I remember reading your book. It was quite marvellous.’ But I’d say it in rather a nonchalant fashion, not in a juvenile way at all. I certainly wouldn’t let on to anything about heroes. And then, for sure, I’d feel that I’d made it.