‘High Rising’ by Angela Thirkell

A friend put me on to Angela Thirkell a couple of weeks ago, and I eagerly bought a copy of ‘High Rising’, prepared to savour it over the Christmas holidays.

Thirkell wrote prolifically and with – some have suggested – moderate success, but ‘High Rising’ has garnered a reputation as being a fine example of a kind of comedy peculiar to English writers. I can see why. The story is set in the splendidly named village of High Rising – situated, unsurprisingly, next to Low Rising. Laura Morland of High Rising is a vivacious, beautiful and rather eccentric widow and mother of four boys. She also earns her living by writing sensational novels about the fashion industry, in which dastardly mannequin dealers, innocent young fashion designers and cocaine smugglers suffer various misadventures. Endearingly she knows almost nothing about fashion and relies on her faithful secretary, Anne Todd, to help her with the finer sartorial details. Her Low Rising neighbour George Knox is an acclaimed author of historical tomes with a fondness for the sound of his own voice, remarkable loquacity and charmingly bumbling personality. George has managed to employ an attractive but unhinged secretary who loathes Laura and appears determined to ensnare her employer in holy matrimony. Set against a backdrop of village romances, literary aspirations and the unassailable social hierarchies of the 1930s, Laura and her friends set about averting this impending matrimonial disaster.

I must confess that I did not enjoy ‘High Rising’ quite as much as I hoped I would – the Wildean one-liners are not as effective or memorable as in other English comedies of this sort, and the occasional lapses into the bigotries of the period can be jarring. This is not, for me at least, on a par with something like ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ or ‘Love in a Cold Climate.’ That being said, I did find myself laughing out loud more than once, and the characters and wonderfully vivid. Laura is perfectly drawn as the rather eccentric mother and writer, strewing hair-pins in her wake and constantly struggling with her sea of hair. She is eminently practical, refreshingly dismissive of her smallest son’s obsession with trains, good-humoured and kind; and completely at ease with her status as an increasingly matronly widow – no husband-hunting for her. The book is best, I think, when it is slightly dotty – the one-liners might not stand up to scrutiny but the plots of Laura’s novels are wonderfully mad, and George Knox’s rambling monologues are a delight. When Thirkell abandons any attempt to ape a kind of sophisticated, Noel Coward repartee (which is particularly prevalent in the opening pages) and gives herself up to her own idiosyncrasies, she is terrific. It is huge fun to be transported into her world for a few hours, and I had grown very fond of her colourful cast by the end of the book. She might not have become one of my favourite writers, but I am very glad to have found her, and look forward to reading ‘Wild Strawberries.’

“Jeeves and the Wedding Bells” by Sebastian Faulks

There are few things in this life which inspire a sense of giddy happiness as readily as an encounter with Jeeves and Wooster. P.G Wodehouse is a nonpareil storyteller; Bertie Wooster is utterly charming, warm-hearted and mad as a brush, and Jeeves is the unflappable deus ex machine, guiding his dotty master through the perils of 1920s high society with a deft and perfectly discreet touch. Wodehouse’s language is delicious, and offers us a glimpse of a version of England which we can only hope truly existed; even if we, his readers, cannot drift from country-house to country-house with our man-servants in tow, quaffing zonkers and extricating ourselves from an endless series of ill-advised engagements, it is strangely comforting to think that there was a time when a portion of the English did exactly that.

In “Jeeves and the Wedding Bells,” Sebastian Faulks has produced a hugely entertaining, and very brave, homage to Wodehouse’s beloved characters. The story begins with Bertie and Jeeves enjoying a spell on the French Riviera, where Bertie encounters a beautiful editor called Georgiana, with “eyes as deep as the Bermuda Triangle,” and a shocking inability to drive which causes the French to eye her “with a measure of respect: they recognised one of their own.” The pair hit it off and spend a happy fortnight bolting around the countryside eating langoustines, but, inevitably, chaos ensues once they arrive back in England. Georgiana is engaged to another man; the engagement between Woody Beeching (one of Bertie’s oldest chums) and Georgiana’s surrogate sister appears to be on the rocks; and Aunt Agatha has threatened to descend upon Bertie’s flat in London for an extended visit. As you would expect this precipitates an anarchic comedy of errors, which finds Jeeves temporarily elevated to the status of “Lord Etringham” and Bertie posing as his man-servant as they stay with Georgiana’s uncle in the country, determined to heal the rift between Woody and Amelia and to procure the obligatory happy ending.

Faulks gives Bertie plenty of room to stretch his legs and make an adorable ass of himself: there are cricket-matches; trysts on the tennis-court; bungled burglaries and even a village-hall production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Jeeves of course orchestrates the whole with his uncanny prescience, and is even rewarded by Faulks with a romantic interlude of his own. It is perhaps impossible to imitate Wodehouse’s voice to perfection, but Faulks does a very fine job; the madcap similes and juicy slang are in excellent form, and both Jeeves and Wooster shine in this final outing. Faulks is even brave enough to add some of his own DNA to the tale – when Bertie asks Jeeves about a relation of his who once played cricket for Worcestershire, Jeeves responds:

     “Warwickshire, sir. A distant relation. I believe he took four wickets for the Players against the Gentlemen at Lord’s in 1914. Alas, it was to be his swansong.”

    “What a shame. Retire, did he?”

    “No, sir, he volunteered.”

    “I see. And….That was it, was it?”

    “The Battle of the Somme, sir. He was in C Company of the 15th Royal Warwicks. The assault on High Wood.”

    “Bad show,” said Woody.

    It was quiet for a moment; you could hear the rooks chattering in the elms and cedars.

What a delicate touch of pathos. I has halfway through reading “Jeeves and the Wedding Bells” when I picked up my boyfriend’s December issue of “The Nightwatchman”, a glorious quarterly cricket magazine created by Wisden. In the midst of a host of typically idiosyncratic articles was one entitled “Jeeves and the Impending Doom”: according to the article’s author, Wodehouse’s “Jeeves” was in fact named after a talented young English cricketer who sported “immaculate conduct and attire,” and showed great promise during his sadly brief career. Wodehouse, an ardent cricket fan, saw Percy Jeeves play in Cheltenham in 1913, and was enchanted; subsequently when he was creating Bertie’s man-servant three years later, Percy’s name and his cricketing action sprung to mind. Tragically, and just as Jeeves explains, Percy was killed at High Wood in 1916. It is a haunting touch from the author of “Birdsong,” then, to build this echo into the story. Purists may not like the detour from Wodehouse’s unfailingly joyful voice, but it is so lightly done, and actually so appropriate, that I found it to be a wholly welcome nod to Wodehouse and his inspiration.

Whether you are already a Wodehouse devotee and are hoping to spend some time with the characters you love, or whether this is your first introduction to the glorious world of Jeeves and Wooster, I would highly recommend Sebastian Faulks’ addition to the collection – the world is a far brighter place for having Jeeves and Wooster in it, and I would advocate spending as much time with them as possible. Toodle-pip!

cricket 1913

“The Narrow Road to the Deep North” Richard Flanagan

During the second world war, Richard Flanagan’s father was one of the many thousands of Anzac prisoners forced to work on the Death Railway by the Japanese. “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” is, in part, his story – a picture of cruelty; insanity; and the pain that bound a body of men so closely that they became a single, tortured, surviving organism. Both inside and outside the PoW camps, however, it is also a story about the strange pairings in life: the unsettling way in which we can be at our best during times of great suffering; the fact that the deepest love is so often paid for by the sharpest grief; and beauty’s way of flourishing even in the more hopeless circumstances.

Poetry is the artery of the novel. Dorrigo Evans, the flawed hero of the story, is a man who loves words because they were the “first beautiful thing” he knew. His Japanese nemeses, the brutal men who run the camps and mete pain out so readily, also love poetry – in particular haiku and the death-poems of their nation’s greatest poets. We are told that it used to be customary for great Japanese poets to compose a final poem shortly before their death: when asked to write his own death-poem, the poet Shinsui simply drew a circle. Flanagan sets his story around this idea of an endless cycle; life repeats, echoes itself, and ends where it begins. 

At the beginning of the story, then, Dorrigo becomes a doctor, enlists and prepares for war. He meets a young woman called Amy in a bookshop one afternoon when he is on leave, noticing the beauty-spot above her lip and the dust motes in the air, and feels as though something fundamental has passed between them. It transpires some time later that she is in fact married to an uncle of his, and the pair embark on a passionate affair. It is not a typical tale of forbidden love, however – even in the time Dorrigo and Amy spend together, when they are intoxicated and caught up with the newness of their relationship, they remain distinct and individual. The first time they make love on the beach by Amy’s home, they are interrupted by a dog with a dead fairy penguin in its mouth. “Their understanding of each other had been greater than that of God’s. And a moment later it had vanished.” Flanagan does not allow them to merge – Dorrigo and Amy, even if it looks as though they are falling in love, do not become “twins”, as Plato would have had it. They are not two halves of a whole – they are each complete and almost lonely despite their intimacy.

    During the war and once he has been parted from Amy, Dorrigo finds himself protecting a group of Australian men in a Japanese prisoner of war camp; his status as a doctor and his innate ability to lead set him apart, and the soldiers grow to depend on him. The horrors of the camps are vividly drawn, and the men’s ulcerous, diseased bodies are described in awful detail. Some of the Australians display heart-breaking selflessness in a bid to keep their friends alive, whilst others show a propensity to sacrifice their comrades so that they might live. Above all, though, Flanagan tells us that these broken men, forged together in the heat of this terrible suffering, become like “a single organism.”

“And the only answer they could make to it was this: they had each other. For them, forever after, there could be no I or me, only we and us.” 

Like the monstrous bodies in so many Greek tragedies, these men are transformed into something unreal and beyond human. And the separatedness between Amy and Dorrigo, which I at first had written off as a depiction of love I could not relate to, suddenly made sense as I read these passages: infatuation and sex are not as powerful a glue as endurance. By the same token, one of the most exquisite descriptions of love I have ever read is given to a widow talking to Dorrigo after the war who barely had time to get to know her husband before he was lost to her in a foreign jungle. 

“…one day she was telling me how every room has a note. You just have to find it. She just started warbling away, up and down. And suddenly one note came back to us, just bounced back off the walls and rose from the floor and filled the place with this perfect hum. This beautiful sound. Like you’ve thrown a plum and an orchard comes back at you…..We didn’t really know each other. I’m not sure if I liked everything about him. I suppose some things about me annoyed him. But I was the that room and he was that note and now he’s gone. And everything is silent.”

Culturally, we might value romantic love above all; but here it is not the pinnacle of human unity. To feel infatuation is easy – our ability to cling on to life and to find something beautiful in times of hardship or loss, though – that, Flanagan shows us, is truly remarkable.

    It is a symptom of these strange, paradoxical pairings of life and death, beauty and pain that nobody in the novel is permitted to be either “good” or “bad”. Dorrigo is mercurial, intelligent and brave, and dedicates himself to saving as many lives as he can when he leads the men in the camp. After the war, though, we are told that he is a womaniser; that he drinks too much; that he has pioneered a spurious new surgical method; and that he is cold to the wife who loves him. The lead Japanese guard, Nakamura, is addicted to amphetamines as a way of surviving the horrors of his camp; loves poetry; and experiences flashes of something approaching shame as he tries to comprehend the level of suffering he has been asked to inflict in the name of the Emperor. Yet he is also monstrous, presides over endless murders, and often feels proud of what he has done. The thing that binds them, these flawed survivors, is that civilian life after the war is a trial both to the prisoners and their guards – in a perverse way their lives felt the most meaningful when they were trapped in their tropical nightmare. Adversity brings out the best in us, the podgy War Graves Commission officer sitting next to him had said….It’s everyday living that does us in.” It is not a new sentiment, the idea that you can feel most alive when closest to death – but Flanagan gives it such force and meaning. Like the extraordinarily tender description of love delivered by a woman who barely had a chance to feel it, peace is perhaps not the prize the men thought it would be. Life, Flanagan shows us, is certainly never easy to comprehend, and cannot be reduced into neat parcels of right and wrong.

    Ultimately, the novel ends where it begins – with light, a church, and the proximity of childhood and death. This generation of flawed heroes and their torturers may have all but disappeared now, but life continues, and recycles. A new generation will love, and suffer, feel loneliness and perhaps the bonds of a shared ordeal; and in a sense that is what the novel leaves you with – the power of words to document these circles of vitality and to find the beauty in every aspect of our transient, bewildering lives. It is an extraordinary novel, and fully deserves the praise it has earned.

He was in any case hurtling backwards into an ever faster swirling maelstrom of people, things, places, backwards and round and deeper and deeper and deeper into the growing, grieving, dancing storm of things forgotten or half-remembered…”

Montaigne “On Books” – translated by J.M Cohen

I’m in that dip that often follows a good book – nothing looks tempting enough to distract you from the grumpy withdrawal, and you wonder how there can be so little to read in a flat full of novels. So, while my boyfriend was watching snooker last night I lazily flicked through my copy of Montaigne’s essays, only half-reading the one entitled “On Books” (and admittedly, feeling a little pretentious).

And then I started to enjoy myself as I realised, not for the first time, that people haven’t changed in the least since the sixteenth century – readers now are at heart exactly the same as readers then. At one point, Montaigne admits that, “though I am a man of some reading, I am one who retains nothing.” That is so familiar – a week after I’ve finished a novel I can tell you what I felt about it, but would almost certainly struggle to name the characters; and as for quoting from the text – forget it. Of course, Montaigne then goes on to talk about a number of Greek philosophers at length – so evidently something is sinking in – but later on he explains that, “I have adopted the habit for some time now of noting at the end of every book…the date when I finished it and the opinion I had formed of it as a whole…” Well, that sounds very much like a blog to me. Montaigne, no doubt, would be a master of WordPress.

And then he turns to commentators. Early on in the essay, he permits himself a Coriolanus moment and decries “modern” critics, saying, “I have sometimes deliberately omitted to name my source, in order to check the rashness of those hasty critics who pounce on writings of every sort, especially on new books by men still living, written in the vulgar tongue: a practice which permits the whole world to comment, and seemingly to prove that their conception and design are vulgar also.” Obviously as an amateur reviewer I would be caught under his umbrella of scorn; nevertheless I can certainly recognise what he’s saying. Deliberately caustic reviews in a broadsheet are one thing, but social media now allows any of us who speak the “vulgar tongue” to have our say; which can be both a wonderful expression of free speech, a way of enabling an entirely new, fundamentally democratic self-publishing industry, but also a scene of critical disasters. One wonders what Montaigne would have made of the campaign signed by authors like Anne Rice to remove the anonymity of reviewers on Amazon (https://www.change.org) in a bid to protect them from bullying; I sense he would have approved!

Montaigne

“Ted And I: A Brother’s Memoir” by Gerald Hughes

So we stood, alive in the river of light

     Among the creatures of light, creatures of light.” Ted Hughes

The artist Gerald Hughes is the poet Ted Hughes’ older brother, and his senior by ten years. I knew his name from “The Letters of Ted Hughes”, but I had never read anything about their relationship, or indeed any substantive description of Ted Hughes’ life “before Plath”. This, then, is Gerald’s description of his relationship with Ted; their shared childhood; his own time in the RAF during the second world war; and ultimately Ted’s premature death.

I approached the book with some trepidation. Every since stumbling across “The Birthday Letters” when I was sixteen, quite by chance and without knowing anything about the fraught context in which the collection had been written, Ted Hughes’ poetry has been a constant presence in my life. His unique voice, so infused as it is with mythology, growling energy, and scenes from a Britain which seems to be disappearing, was a formative discovery – as Seamus Heaney said, he was a “guardian spirit of the land and language”, and his poetry instilled in me an even greater love of words and of the ancient country I live in. It has therefore always been very important to me not to feel as though I am pawing over his remains, or sucking up any biographical detail that I can – sifting for clues as to Hughes and Plath’s relationship like some kind of cynical prospector. The assumptions some commentators have made, the condemnation a number of feminists heaped on Hughes for Plath’s death, and the mythologizing of their relationship is not something I wish to participate in. I am as interested in their personalities as I would be of any writer I hold dear, but they are poets, and people – not emblems in some kind of cruelly extrapolated narrative.

Climbing down from my soapbox, then, this is a jewel of a book. Even if the gentle, curious, sociable little boy Gerald was describing had not grown up to be one of the finest poet’s in the English language, this would be a beautiful evocation of a lost time. Rather like “A Fortnight in September”, Gerald Hughes draws a picture of an idyllic pre-war England. The two brothers spent most of their time roaming the Yorkshire countryside in search of wildlife and likely camping spots, and the Hughes family is shown to be close-knit and loving. Ted, we learn, followed Gerald everywhere, asking his big brother an endless stream of questions which forced the older boy to start reading in earnest in a bid to supply answers.

By the time Gerald left for war and as a result of his tutelage, Ted could shoot and fish, and was already employing his creative mind to fashion lifelike jaguars out of clay. They were incredibly close, and the separation caused first by Gerald’s service in the RAF, and later by his employment away from home, seems to have haunted Ted. It is strange that I should have read this so soon after “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” – a novel which represents sibling separation so effectively – as Gerald’s story shows very gently and with great love how difficult Ted found it to bear the lifelong distance from his brother.

    “”It had indeed been a long time since our previous visit and being together again had made him wish we were nearer – and naturally I shared those sentiments. “If you were,” he concluded, “I’m sure my life wouldn’t be half so silly.””

Gerald tells his story with an unshakable air of calm, and a kind of stoical restraint which is so recognizable of that special generation which lived through the war. When he returns from service in Africa, for example, having been in a war-zone for a number of years and a long way from any kind of normality, the only glimpse he gives us into how difficult it must have been to re-adjust is to say, “Indeed, I wondered how I was going to fit back into a family that was ticking over so comfortably.” He deals with the many sorrows in Ted’s life with the same moderation and kindness – he is never shocked or emotional, just eternally reliable and supportive. It is easy to see why Ted was so fond of him.

And in that, this also echoed “Unbroken” for me – Louis and Pete, Ted and Gerald – how important siblings are! Whether you are fan of Ted’s poetry (or indeed Gerald’s art), or whether you would simply enjoy a very English story of family love, I can recommend this wholeheartedly.

    “This memoir, therefore, is a personal effort to take hold of a few of the past’s memorable moments, when we were joined with it, and part of it, and knew it, and my way of touching it, however briefly, before it, too, is lost.”

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A photo I took when visiting Ted Hughes’ memorial stone on Dartmoor earlier this year.

“We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” by Karen Joy Fowler

An apple, cleft in two, is not more twin
Than these two creatures.
   I can’t say too much about “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves”, as it is almost impossible to do so without giving away the twist. What I can say, though, is that this is one of the few novels I can think of which deals head-on with the separation of siblings. So often stories of loss focus on romance – but the ache of being kept apart from a sibling creates its own, unique kind of grief. I remember being struck by “The Mill on the Floss” when I first read it many years ago for the same reason – the idea of being at odds with my brother, or not knowing where he was, filled me with alarm.
    That is in large part why I love “Twelfth Night” so much – because underpinning the farcical comedy are two stories of sibling loss. Olivia is grieving for her brother at the beginning of the play, and Viola’s line, “And what should I do in Illyria? My brother, he is in Elysium,” hauntingly sums up her confusion and deep sense of bereavement. It is telling that Viola and Sebastian are not permitted to embrace when they eventually find one another at the end – not until I am restored to my woman’s clothes, Viola says; Shakespeare’s twins, once torn asunder, are never fully reunited. Instead they become Olivia’s husband and Orsino’s wife.
    Amongst all the dry humour in “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves”, sharp insight into the way we conduct scientific and social experiments, and Larkin-esque sense of “they fuck you up, your mum and dad,” is this skilfully drawn disruption of three siblings – a pair of twins and their brother. Like Viola and Sebastian, the twins Rosemary and Fern are eventually denied the comfort of an embrace, and for Rosemary at least the separation from her sister causes a chasm which she has been unable to heal. In that respect there is a vein of irremediable sadness running though Fowler’s novel, but I enjoyed it no less for that. I couldn’t entirely get to grips with Rosemary, or feel for her as much as I would have hoped to – but perhaps that’s the point. Without Fern she is only half of the self she might have been. William_Hamilton,_A_Scene_from_Twelfth_Night

#Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

    Occasionally, you are lucky enough to stumble across a human story so inspiring that it has the potential to change your view of the world. “Unbroken” is exactly that kind of a book, so full of life and hope that it has stayed with me from the moment I started reading the first page. At its heart, it is the story of a man whose belief in himself and his family gives him the strength, stubbornness and moral fortitude to survive great hardships and live an extraordinary life. I picked it up in an airport last week, tired, far from home and looking for something to keep me going for the eight hours it would take to get back to London. I had no expectation of finding something which would get under my skin so profoundly, and remind me of people I have loved and the qualities of theirs, and Louis’, which I cherish.
    Karen Hillenbrand introduces us to Louis Zamperini when he is a warm-hearted but wayward boy – the thefts and fights which once marked him out as a naughty child are threatening to limit his life as a man until his beloved brother Pete intervenes, and forces him to channel his wild energy into running. Through a combination of hard-work, grit and innate talent Louis fast becomes one of the most impressive runners of his generation – the figure whom many thought would break the elusive four minute-mile long two decades before Roger Bannister eventually managed to do so. Hillenbrand makes it beautifully apparent how much of Louis’ success was down to his ability to push his body to its limits through sheer force of will, as well as Pete’s unshakable faith in a little brother so many had written off as a juvenile delinquent; the Zamperini brothers are presented as an unbeatable team, and a testament to the way in which the path of a troubled child can be changed by faith and patience.
    It is when Louis is just beginning to realize the greatness he could achieve on the track that he finds himself embroiled in the Second World War, in his capacity as a bombardier for the U.S. Air Force. I was desperate for him to get through it unscathed not just because I had grown to be so very fond of him but because I wanted him to find out how much he could achieve as an athlete. As it continues, though, Louis’ story inevitably forces you to put his abilities into perspective: his athleticism was a symptom of those things which made him such an extraordinary and special man, but it did not limit or define him. The fortitude and love of life which had given him wings as a runner also carried him through innumerable, impossible challenges during the war – it is a humbling experience, bearing witness to the trials he was asked to endure.
    That fortitude is essentially the focus of the third act of the book, in which Louis is held in a Japanese prisoner of war camp having survived an astonishing forty-seven days adrift at sea on a life-raft. Hillenbrand states, with a complete lack of vitriol or sensationalism, exactly what Louis and so many other PoWs suffered in these hellish camps, and the reality of their suffering is so horrifying that I had to pause after every page or so. I urgently needed to know whether each man singled out for Hillenbrand’s attention survived, but it simply was not possible to turn the pages without pausing in sorrow and respect for the way in which these men held on to their dignity in the face of such insanity – and also their humour; the PoW’s many acts of defiance were wonderfully inventive, and bound the men together in the numerous conspiracies which so often seemed to have sustained them. As an Olympian, Louis was hunted down and subjected to particularly brutal  treatment by a Japanese soldier called the Bird, a man driven to the brink of madness by Louis’ physical prowess and indomitable spirit. Even after the war’s end this man would haunt Louis’ dreams, and it is thanks to Hillenbrand’s sensitive writing that, like Louis, you are by the end able to move beyond simply hating the Bird. He is ultimately a complicated figure of pity, so consumed by his own sense of ill-treatment and grandeur that he is unable to accept Louis’ remarkable offer of forgiveness.
    He may not have been broken by the war but Louis was, like so many others, damaged in innumerable invisible ways – and to an extent this is the part of his story I found hardest to bear. Haunted by the Japanese camps, unable to run and driven to alcohol in a bid to forget, Louis reaches his nadir – at one point waking in the middle of the night to find himself strangling his pregnant wife, thinking that she is the Bird. In the end it is his family and a new-found faith in God which help Louis to rise above these impossible traumas and find peace. Whatever your faith, or lack thereof, this religious awakening only enhanced my sense of Louis’ invincibility: he was unbreakable in part because he had an ability to connect to something larger than himself; whether that be his brother’s love, his faithfulness to the men he served with, his vivid memories of home, or, ultimately, his Christianity. Multiple bonds are harder to break than one; Louis Zamperini was an exceptional man who seemed to find happiness through belonging to something greater than himself. I know that from now on his story will become one of the touchstones by which I measure my own life.