Posts Tagged ‘Stella Gibbons’

Reading in South Africa

January 23, 2012

Gosh it has been such a long time since my last post. I do hope it’s not too late to wish the dear and forgiving reader a Happy New Year.

My excuse – perhaps a little feeble – is that I’ve been on holiday. On my honeymoon, in fact. So I thought it fair enough to have a little break. And before that our roof and car broke. And before that it was Christmas … and … ummm … the dog ate it.

I have not, however, had a break from reading.

Christmas was a spent grazing on some of Stella Gibbons’s short stories, winningly republished by Vintage as Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm. Perfect for the Reading-Gassing Challenge. And I read Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson, which was utterly delightful and spurred a New Year’s Resolution to read more children’s books.

Indeed, I wrote rather an irreverent piece for the Spectator about New Year’s Reading Resolutions – which you can read here. One of my suggestions was to read geographically, which I expect many of you know is a firm belief of mine. So it’s a great shame that I didn’t follow my own advice when it came to picking books for my honeymoon in South Africa.

I had been reading The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen over New Year.

It is a magnificent book, about a love affair in wartime London. Ever since I so enjoyed Elizabeth Bowen’s book about her family home in Ireland, Bowen’s Court (see this piece here), I longed to read more, and I thought that Christmas was a good time for such a treat.

I won’t go on about Bowen too much – as otherwise I’ll never get up to the South Africa bit of this post, which is what it’s supposed to be about. I should quickly warn you that it’s a bit of a tricky book to get into. It’s full of long sentences with clauses that seem to come in rather a peculiar order:

She had left a lamp alight on the stool beside him: the watery circle on the ceiling seemed for the moment to swell or tremble – so earthquake stories begin; but this could be only London giving one of her sleepy galvanic shudders, of which an echo ran through his relaxed limbs.

It’s a beautiful sentence which makes perfect sense, but wow does it meander along. And the language and inflection does seem curiously dated, sounding less natural now than it might have in the forties.

But I loved it. There are two passages in particular that are some of the best writing I’ve read anywhere. In fact, I reached the first one on the sleeper train up to Inverness just before New Year’s Eve. I lay in my bunk reading it in a sort of dream, absolutely spellbound. It was only when the steward came in, looked shocked to see me still there and told me we’d been at the station for the past fifteen minutes, that I realised it really was something else!

As far as books go, I was still in that sleepy, holidaying, Christmassy mode when it came to choosing what to read during my honeymoon in South Africa. That first week of January was quite dreadful for me. Everything in London went horribly wrong and our car broke and the balcony was leaking and we had to do all sorts of exhausting things like rip up decking and lug trees around and phone up insurance companies, so I momentarily stopped reading anything whatsoever – there wasn’t a spare moment to read anything other than terrifying To Do lists.

So, although I eyed up a couple of Damon Galguts and Coetzees, I simply didn’t want to buy them. I still yearned for the indulgent reads of Christmas – the pleasure of reading sure-fire hits, books that I knew I’d love and had been longing to read for ages. Which is why I ignored the geographical rule…

I packed Matthew Hollis’s biography of Edward Thomas, which I suspect will win the Costa Prize tomorrow. (Some of you might remember my lusting after the hardback, which prompted my reading Hollis’s new edition of Thomas’s poetry, written about here.) I also took along New Finnish Grammar, which turned up rather fortuitously in my stocking, and, finally, Maurice by Forster, as I’ve wanted to read it ever since getting drunk one night at university and somebody telling me it was one of the best books he’d ever read. I do love E.M. Forster.

In short, I was a nincompoop.

Of course I got to South Africa and found the experience of reading Elizabeth Bowen on safari far too strange. How could I spend from 5am to 9am being driven around, looking at lions and giraffe and other amazing creatures in the boiling beauty of the Kalahari desert, only to return to the room and read about London being bombed? Well I managed it, but it was such a shame to force this disconnect between the different worlds. Rather than them enhancing each other, I had to enjoy them as separate things, each one an escape from the other. I’d much rather have read it in London, where I am 99% of the time.

After our amazing few days on safari – how I could go on about the giraffe in particular, but I shall spare you – we went to Cape Town. On finishing Elizabeth Bowen, I discovered that I had no desire whatsoever to read anything I’d packed. I wanted to learn more about South Africa. I was there and so of course wanted to try and make sense of it. I wanted to read about the big things like their very troubled history and about the little things like people making ‘brais’ all the time (barbecues – they’re obsessed). I knew that I couldn’t let my brain be taken over by Edward Thomas, E.M. Forster or anyone else who wasn’t South African, while I was there.

So I found myself in the idiotic situation of needing to find a bookshop as soon as possible. Talk about a busman’s holiday.

But we found a very nice bookshop, had a good little browse, and in the end I settled for a newish memoir by André Brink, A Fork in the Road. Gosh I was cross that I hadn’t bought it from my own bookshop!

To be completely honest, I don’t think it was the best choice. It was definitely quite good. And I was pleased to read it out there. Having just seen springboks bounding through the desert, I could immediately identify the one on the cover.

It was particularly interesting to read about Brink’s childhood, growing up in a small village, and learning about the unquestioned separation of the whites from the blacks – even when they played together as children:

As the daylight faded, we would disperse and go to our different homes: we, the white boys, to the sprawling homestead of the farmer, the black boys to their huts and hovels. This was never discussed. It didn’t even occur to us to do so. It was how the world functioned, according to the same immutable laws that governed the rising or setting of sun and moon…

Brink writes very well about fear. He uses the striking image of his childhood fear of there being a black man under the bed to crystallise a major issue for the country. (Please somebody write a thesis about the black man under the bed compared to the madwoman in the attic.) He also writes well about there being so much violence:

Somewhere in the background there always lurks something vaguely sinister or overtly menacing, something violent, something inexplicable. A sense of sin and menace without which no village could survive.

The instances of violence from his childhood are shocking and appallingly well-rendered, haunting stories that mean I’ll never forget the ‘blood-streaked face’ and the ‘dull smacking sound of those blows’.

On the back cover, the Literary Review is quoted saying that Brink is ‘at his considerable best’ in ‘the first sixty pages of his autobiography’. And I’m inclined to agree – the first sixty pages really are stunningly good. And there are some more good bits later. His account of being followed by the Special Branch police force during the seventies, when Apartheid rule was at its peak, is chilling to say the least.

But there are also endless digressions about all the women he’s loved. Ingrid, H, Alta, Karina … one beautiful poetic tragic nymph is lined up after another, which I’m afraid left me feeling bored and a little nauseous. And there’s rather a lot of Brink placing himself at the centre of a literary and artistic scene, which at its worst feels like long chunks of name-dropping.

And – dare I say it? In my exceedingly humble opinion, I thought there were quite a few passages that were very pretentious. They are mostly while he’s off gallivanting around Europe. For instance, there’s a terrible bit about  seeing some Picassos at the Tate:

… a spiritual tsunami. Never before this day had I fully realised that the impact of Picasso was comparable to that of Michelangelo, or Rembrandt, or Beethoven.

That kind of writing is just not my cup of tea. I kept wanting to shout: ‘Shut up and get back to South Africa and write about how it was growing up and being a liberal writer under the Apartheid regime!’ Because those bits really are good. Oh well, as one would say in South Africa, ‘shame’.

Well I now have a rather pleasing South African hangover in the form of The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut and Black Diamond by Zakes Mda. Now they are sitting by my bed in London, next to the as-yet-unread Matthew Hollis, E.M. Forster and Diego Marani, newly-plucked from my suitcase, and a few others that have been jostling for my attention at the end of last year. And, I have to say, it feels pleasantly exciting to know there’s a stack of good books to keep me going through the winter. I feel a little like a squirrel with a stash of hazelnuts. The only tricky thing is choosing which to read first.


September 27, 2011

Well I said I wanted to read a book set on Hampstead Heath, so that’s exactly what I’ve done.

Westwood begins with Margaret Steggles walking on the Heath in September. So really, what with timing and location, I couldn’t be reading anything more appropriate. Bye bye Gerald Brenan and your hot Andalucian scrub, hello the Heath, ‘all gorgeous in deep colours softened by the mist’.

I have to say from the outset that this book is a sheer delight. It is rather quaint, very old-fashioned, terribly English, and marvellously funny. I began it on a train, when I managed to thoroughly irritate the fiancé with my frequent badly-stifled chortles.

‘But just listen to this,’ I said, continuing before he had time to protest…

Before the Second World War Lukeborough had a population of some seventy thousand, being smaller than Northampton and larger than Luton, its nearest comparable neighbours to the north and south. Evacuees from London and war-workers drafted into its new factories from the Midlands and the North had increased its numbers to nearly eighty thousand by the fourth year of the War, and its natural ugliness and dullness were enhanced by overcrowding in its streets and shops and cinemas, and a chronic shortage of those small delicacies that make life in war-time a little brighter.

‘Don’t you think it’s brilliant?’ I asked, as the fiancé stared blankly back at me.

‘Not particularly. Now shut up.’

Harrumph, I thought. I’d even picked a bit that was vaguely about architecture in the hope that that might engage him.

I find Gibbons’s description of Lukeborough very funny, and quite typical of her style. She is utterly dead-pan. Perfectly understated. Lukeborough’s ‘natural ugliness and dullness’. That is just the way it is. It is similar to her portrayal of the main character, Margaret Steggles (who is rather wonderfully misnomered by others among the cast of characters as ‘Struggles’ and ‘Mutt’). She is plain and bookish and she must simply make the best of it. I suppose in that respect Gibbons’s writing is quite like Jane Gardam’s, that other heroine of mine.

Gibbons’s language is full of words like ‘dismal’, ‘goody’, ‘shriek’ and ‘frightful’. They are woven together to create something along the lines of: ‘Oh goody,’ she shrieked. ‘With such dismal weather, we’re bound to get frightful colds.’ Terrific!

Westwood follows Margaret Steggles as she and her unhappily-married parents move from the dismal Lukeborough to Highgate, towards the end of the Second World War. Margaret happens upon a dropped ration book on Hampstead Heath and returns it to its owner, a certain Mrs Hebe Niland, wife of a famous artist, who lives in Hampstead, and daughter of a posh playwright, who lives in a big grand house – Westwood – in Highgate. Margaret manages to entwine herself in the lives of the households, befriending the German refugee maid Zita, obsessing over the posh playwright and hatefully envying Hebe Niland. But the plot is, of course, thicker than this, and there are subplots involving a lonely older man, American army officers, a kind wise lady, a school, the pretty jolly-hockey-sticks Hilda, and so on. I don’t want to give too much of it away.

One of the particularly clever things about Westwood is how Gibbons writes about the War. The War is very much part of the scenery, from the opening description of war-time London – a surprisingly cheerful city of ruins – to the frequent mentions of blackout and air-raid sirens, to the characters such as the American officers and Zita, the German refugee. But while the War is undoubtedly going on, the characters’ lives refuse to be dominated by it.

The artist Alexander Niland, for instance, spends the air-raids up on the roof, ‘wrapped up in an airman’s kit which belonged to a friend who would fly no more’ making sketches for a painting:

The noise was unpleasant and he did not like it when large pieces of shrapnel fell on the roof, but it was not possible to make satisfactory sketches of the night sky during an air-raid without such events. Hebe, who had never been afraid of anything in her life, found his new experiment as amusing as it was natural.

The air-raids have become a form of artistic inspiration for Alexander and a source of mild entertainment for his wife. For most characters they are more an inconvenience than anything else, somewhat tiresome interruptions to normal life that must be tolerated.

So the War isn’t ignored in the book, rather it is confined to the margins. None of the characters lets it creep too far into the page. This is not the War of dramas and tragedies and terror. This is a War that is annoying because of the limitations of one’s sweet ration, and the inconvenient risk of one’s torch battery dying during the blackout. There seems something peculiarly British about it.

And in her refusing to give too much attention or drama to the War, Gibbons reminds me of the poet Edward Thomas. Yes, different wars, I know, but there’s something about the way his poetry studiously ignores the trenches in favour of train stations, fields and flowers, that seems similar in its obstinacy. For Gibbons too writes about nature. There are the many beautiful descriptions of the Heath, Hampstead and Highgate, and also of the countryside, such as this scene when Margaret has to wait by a railway station – that might as well be called Adlestrop:

She crossed the road and sat down on the heavenly bank, where there were moon-daisies and buttercups growing in the long grass and a mosaic of yet flowerless green plants, ivy and ragged robin and goose-grass and many others, growing in the hedge; the main body of it appeared to be hawthorn, for there was white may-blossom showing among the rest and that faint scent, too fairylike to be completely pleasant, mingled with the scents breathed out by the other flowers and plants and just traced upon the warm air.


And willows, willow-herb, and grass,

And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry …

They’re not so different are they?

For all this nature, this green and pleasant land, is, after all, what is being fought for.

So, going back to that early description of ghastly Lukeborough, with its ‘natural ugliness and dullness’, perhaps there is a fondness there for such a shabby town, not so much in spite of its shortcomings but because of them. It may be a horrid town, but it is a very English one, with its Corn Exchange and grey skies, and one that is placed firmly in Bedfordshire. Perhaps Britain needs her Lukeboroughs; for every Lukeborough, there is a ‘heavenly bank’. Just as for every plain, bookish, earnest Margaret there is a pretty, happy, jolly Hilda.

Each character is ever so different from the next, and each one is portrayed sympathetically and with a little mischievous humour that prevents one from taking any of them too seriously. And as with each character, so with each place.

What this book does as well as the best of them is portray a loving and cheerful view of war-time Britain. It is hard to read it without feeling a wistful longing for a faded world. I, for one, am going to increase my use of the word ‘goody’, try to replace the lost apostrophe in front of ’phone and indulge in that great British predilection for afternoon tea. I can only urge you to read it and do the same.