Posts Tagged ‘Richard Mabey’

A Far Cry from Kensington

April 18, 2011

There’s something about this title which sounds unbelievably posh. Probably because it contains ‘Kensington’ and the phrase ‘a far cry’, which I can’t read without hearing rather a stout granny exclaim it in a wavering, operatic voice.

But A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark is not a posh book. Kensington isn’t the Sloaney/French Wholefoods-loving camp that it is today. We are taken back to the 1950s, when Mrs Hawkins – the main character – is living in a ‘rooming house’ filled with odd characters. Much of London is taken up with ‘bomb-gap’:

The rubble had been cleared away, but strange grasses and wild herbs had sprung up where the war-demolished houses had been.

This is a bit of a digression, but I thought I’d point out that Richard Mabey writes about something similar in his marvellous The Unofficial Countryside. (Especially as he writes about ‘defiant sparks’ and this is a book written by another defiant Spark.)

It was not until the Luftwaffe began ploughing up our city centres that conditions were right for its [rosebay’s] spread. Suddenly there was a vast wilderness of scorched, devastated earth, laid open to the light for perhaps the first time in centuries. The first summer after the Blitz there were rosebays flowering on over three-quarters of the bombed sites in London, defiant sparks of life amongst the desolation. By the end of the war there was scarcely a single piece of waste ground in the City that was not ablaze in August with their purple flowers.

It’s got to be one of the most positive spins on the Blitz I’ve ever come across. (There’s more about this magnificent book in an earlier post here. For now I better return to magnificent Muriel.)

Muriel Spark writes about these strange bomb-provoked patches of wildlife in the context of Mrs Hawkins having lost her job and filling her days with long bus rides around suburban London. It’s pretty bleak, ‘I spent my days after days on the top of buses staring out of the window and watching with discreet eyes my fellow passengers, most of them shabby’. But perhaps there is something of Mabey’s ‘defiant sparks of life’ in these grasses and herbs. Mrs Hawkins is a fiercely defiant character, and one who, like these plants, is constantly regenerating herself, flowering amidst the desolation of her rooming house.

But there is also something of an alien dreamscape in these ‘strange grasses and wild herbs … sprung up’ instead of houses. And this brings us to rather an excellent quirk of the novel, that it essentially consists of the thoughts and recollections of an insomniac.

Rather than telling the story of Mrs Hawkins, Wanda, Hector Bartlett et al in a simple third-person narrative, Muriel Spark has made Mrs Hawkins the storyteller. And Mrs Hawkins isn’t telling the story as it happens, she is lying in bed at night, ‘looking at the darkness, listening to the silence,’ thirty years later. She tells us, ‘it is a far cry from Kensington and the early 1950s, this scene of my night-watch’.

There is something dreamlike, or, rather, nightmarish about the story as it unfolds:

Suddenly, from Wanda’s room came a long, loud, high-pitched cry which diminished into a sustained, distant and still audible ululation.

This ‘cry from Kensington’ is horrific. It is the piercing cry which wakens one from a nightmare. And it is described with precise detail, as though it has scratched itself on to Mrs Hawkins’ memory so that she will never forget it. It is this cry, and the events that will follow, that still keep her awake, thirty years later.

The other thing about telling the story as the memories of an insomniac, is that a peculiar kind of pre-figuring often happens. Mrs Hawkins digresses about something that is about to happen, but hasn’t quite happened yet. So we learn early on, when she describes herself as ‘massive in size, strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, with wide hips, hefty long legs, a bulging belly and fat backside’, that she is going to lose a great deal of weight: ‘It was not till later, when I decided to be thin, that right away I noticed that people didn’t confide their thoughts to me so much.’ And then follows the most eccentric piece of advice in the entire book:

If there is nothing wrong with you except fat it is easy to get thin. You eat and drink the same as always, only half.

The getting thin doesn’t occur till much later, and is tied up with the plot in more ways than one might imagine. Yet Muriel Spark has already let it slip. My favourite example of this letting things slip is when Mrs Hawkins goes to a very posh dinner party. We first get an inkling of what’s to come when she says, ‘after dinner I forgot, being too puzzled and in the disarray of wondering if I had done the wrong thing about something else.’

The reader, of course, wonders what this something else might be. Then we get a little digression on quite how ‘formal and upper-class’ this dinner party was, but that, in spite of this, Mrs Hawkins had thought that she was ‘quite up to it’:

I didn’t think upper-class habits were so very different from any other English habits. It is true that I had read in novels about such eccentricities as ‘the ladies left the men at the table with their port’ but I didn’t attach these performances to real life.

And then we learn what happens:

At a certain moment there was a hush, not quite a silence. Lady Philippa was looking at me very intensely, and I hadn’t the slightest idea why … Suddenly Lady Philippa got up as if someone had said something that touched her on a tender spot; I thought she was going to make a scene about it. The other women got up, too. But I didn’t see what the men had done wrong that the women should leave them like that, haughty and swan-like, sailing out of the room. I would have liked to advise them to pull themselves together. The men shuffled to their feet and looked at me curiously, as if they couldn’t believe that I, too, wasn’t offended … Lady Philippa murmured, as she passed my chair, ‘Are you coming?’

While Mrs Hawkins at the time ‘hadn’t the slightest idea’ why there was this peculiar atmosphere and all the women were leaving the men, she has already told us exactly why. We are in the know, which makes the scene all the funnier – much funnier than if we too shared her naivete and had no idea what was going on.

So, really, you can see from her hopelessness at such a posh dinner party that it isn’t a posh book at all. It’s about someone very fat who loses a lot of weight, while working for various tiny publishing houses that are full of people who are completely mad. And it’s about a time when she terms a terrible hack, Hector Bartlett, a ‘pisseur de copie’, and the extraordinary consequences this will have on her life.

On the face of it, it’s funny, light and frivolous.

But it’s also about blackmail, suicide, poverty and terrible violence. Like dreams, horrific dark depths lurk beneath this colourful, silly surface. It may be a very funny book, but it’s also terribly unsettling. And it’s this strange, nightmarish combination that makes it such a brilliant book. No wonder poor Mrs Hawkins can’t sleep.

Pansies, orchids, Triffids and O’Keefe

June 25, 2010

The pansies on my balcony are really freaking me out.

When I bought them from the garden centre, they looked quite sweet and inoffensive. Three small tubs, each containing three little purple-and-yellow fat-cheeked faces.

A few weeks of sunshine and regular visits from the watering can and they have multiplied into a swarm. There are over a hundred of them. All their faces point the same way towards the sunshine; each face is identical. A colony of clones.

There is something alien about flowers. Georgia O’Keefe, flower artist extraordinaire, said:

When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment.

And this certainly comes across in her paintings – the enormous petals curving outwards, which make the flowers look so inviting, beckoning the eye inside where it will be enveloped in the new floral world.

Everyone is quick to point out the sex in O’Keefe’s pictures. And there is something threatening about their seductiveness. The flower becomes your world – it cocoons you, wraps you up, takes you over. She says it’s just for a moment, but what if that moment threatens not to end? What if instead of being your world, the flower takes you back to its alien world … forever?

The most threatening flowers I know are John Wyndham’s Triffids. Although I read The Day of the Triffids when I was twelve, I’ve never been able to forget their whip-like sting, with which they attack, and their tripod-like mobility. Terrifying. And Triffids are from the Soviet Union – the Second World in Cold War terminology – so they really are alien.

I have recently been given a pair of yellow orchids. They are beautiful, but there is something unsettling about them, something uncanny, sexual, abject, alien …

In Richard Mabey’s wondrous The Unofficial Countryside (which I’ve written about here), he explains how orchids grow. Unlike most plants that sprout upwards, propelled by the energy in their seed until they make leaves with which they can photosynthesise, orchids are unable to rely on the energy in their seeds, because their seeds are almost devoid of nutrients. Orchid seeds lie sterile in the earth until a fungus comes along and tries to gobble them up. Somehow the orchid and fungus mesh together incredibly intricately while the fungus is trying to steal the orchid’s nutrients. And this meshing together means that the orchid then begins to leech nutrients off the fungus too. The fungus counter-attacks and so on. A vicious tussle ensues which can last for up to fifteen years. Several orchids succumb to the fungus attack, but a few manage to win the battle and grow far enough to push their leaf shoots out of the ground – safety. It is an astonishing fact, but best of all is Mabey’s analogy:

one of those bitter but intense marriages where the more intimate and fierce their fighting, the more the partners seem to prosper, preying off each other’s renewing strength.

I’m sure fans of Georgia O’Keefe would appreciate such an anthropomorphic simile. There is something sexual and vicious about flowers after all. Well certainly about orchids.

And perhaps the orchid–fungus relationship helps to cast some light on the Triffids too. In The Day of the Triffids, the strange plants are cultivated by humans because their extracts are superior to normal vegetable oils. Humans use the Triffids, just as the fungus uses the orchid – they take its nutrients. But all along, the Triffids are really using the Humans, happy to be cultivated so that eventually they are able to turn against the humans and try to take over the world. It is like the orchid pretending to be of use to the fungus only to then fight back, gaining ascendancy.

I just hope that my pansies aren’t trying to take over my terrace. Because once they’ve done that, there’s the whole of North London, and then the world …

Well Mabey I won’t go to the party

May 31, 2010

‘So doesn’t working in a bookshop all day mean that the last thing you want to do in your free time is read?’

The question was posed to me by a stockbroker at a rather smart drinks party where I was one of about three people there who weren’t bankers or lawyers. This question came after the stockbroker had already said how boring it must be to work in a bookshop and that he only read five or six books a year – all of them thrillers (‘like John Grisham’) and ‘only when I’m on holiday on a beach somewhere’.

So, given that it was more than clear that the last thing he wanted to do in his free time was read a proper book, even though his job wasn’t anything like working in a bookshop (although ‘it’s really interesting, it means I get to meet all these really important people and grill them about their companies’), I’m not really sure from whence his logic sprang.

He used the comparison of working in a biscuit shop, and no longer wanting to eat biscuits. I pointed out that if one worked somewhere like Harrod’s Food Hall, one would still want to eat lots of delicious food. And how could he imply that all books were as similar to each other as biscuits? (Although, to be fair, if he is used to only reading thrillers for two weeks a year, that might explain it.)

Last night was a peculiarly apt time for him to ask me that question. I shall try to explain why working in a bookshop makes me want to read more than anything else.

In yesterday’s lunchbreak, I finished reading the Review section, left over from Saturday’s Guardian. I’m sure I’ve already mentioned that this is my favourite bit of newspaper in the world ever. As I was coming to the end, I stumbled upon a phenomenal review by Ian Sinclair of Richard Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside, reissued for the first time since the early 1970s. It’s a fascinating article; you can read it here.

This book is an investigation into the wildness of London – marginal sites of dereliction where nature can once again take hold. And not always so marginal – Sinclair quotes Mabey, ‘The first summer after the blitz there were rosebays flowering on over three-quarters of the bombed sites in London, defiant sparks of life amongst the desolation.’ He describes The Unofficial Countryside as a ‘pivot’ between nature writing and psychogeography. A combination of walking and writing, exploring and documenting.

I jumped up after lunch incredibly excited. I had glanced the book in the shop and couldn’t wait to get back and have a closer look. A mere two minutes after reading the review, I held the book in my hands. It’s smooth cover was decorated with a pleasingly grimy picture of an electricity pylon surrounded by grey-green land. I flicked through – thick paper, several hand-drawn illustrations. I skimmed a few paragraphs of the prologue – Mabey’s account of the book’s origination, on finding un unexpected scattering of countryside by a canal in London’s suburbia, after ‘what they call a normal working day. Bitching at the office, brooding over lunch.’ He drew comfort from ‘a brilliant spike of purple loosestrife’, and the incongruously peaceful atmosphere that made it feel natural to exchange greetings with a bicycling worker, ‘as if we had been in a country lane’.

My excitement soared. Gosh what a beautiful object I held in my hands. How perfectly written. How hopeful. ‘The trees can live next to the cranes’, he writes. This is probably going to be one of the best books I will ever read. I rushed straight up to the till and bought it, with my generous staff discount.

I didn’t even go and stash the book away in my bag downstairs, but kept it out, next to the till, reminding me of what was waiting for me as soon as I finished work.

But, of course, I couldn’t hurry straight back home and read my new book. I had to go to this drinks party, on the other side of London. Can I really be bothered? I asked myself. Do I really need to go? I’m sure I’ll see everyone soon in any case. And wouldn’t it be just heaven to go home and read this book? Wouldn’t I learn more from reading it? Wouldn’t I enjoy it more than making small talk for a couple of hours?

No no no … I was firm with myself. It is ridiculous to not show up at a party at the last minute, with only the excuse of needing to read a book. I’d be giving up an evening of seeing my friends, of chatting to them, catching up, discussing ideas, gaining my own experiences rather than living vicariously through someone else’s.

And so I went to the party. And I got chatting to this stockbroker. And he really thought that being surrounded by books all day was boring. That talking about books all day was nothing much. And that spending so much time breathing in the books meant that I’d be desperate to escape them. If only he knew that I’d much rather have been reading the book I’d just bought. And that I was able to own this book – this magnificent, life-enriching object – so soon after discovering its existence, entirely thanks to working next to it all day long. I can only hope that he feels the same about buying and selling equity.