“The Fountain Overflows” by Rebecca West

The Fountain Overflows is Rebecca West’s novel about an eccentric, highly musical family, shepherded through a series of crises by their overwrought mother as their charming, but utterly selfish, father keeps them mired in poverty. It covers a lot of ground during its four hundred odd pages – feminism; poverty; unhappy marriages; murder; poltergeists; and the recipe for the perfect pork pie – and is an engrossing, idiosyncratic read. I had suspected that this would be a wholly whimsical book, in the mode of something like the Cazalets or I Capture the Castle – and there is certainly whimsy to be found, as the children taste rain drops, wear magnificent costumes, and talk to their imaginary horses in the stables. But it is a whimsy laced with something bitter, as barely-suppressed violence and sadness ripple beneath.

The novel starts with the artistic, shabby-genteel family of five making ready to move to a new house – this time in the London suburbs – as their journalist father has been ousted from yet another job. The story is told from the point of view of one of the Aubrey children, Rose, who, along with her sister Mary, is training to be a pianist under the strict tutelage of their mother. Rose is bright, passionate, and incisive, and, like her siblings, adores her mercurial father whilst conspiring to support her beleaguered mother. Mrs Aubrey, was, we are told, once a world-class concert pianist, but has been reduced to premature old age and ragged nerves by her husband’s selfish indifference to the comforts of his family. The oldest of the four Aubrey children is Cordelia, a repellent girl who imagines herself to be possessed of a great musical talent; although, to the anguish of her family, she is entirely devoid of true musical feeling. The youngest of the children is the exquisite Richard Quinn, who bounces through the novel with an irrepressible happiness, bringing constant joy to the Aubrey women.

Several stories weave through the novel – and, in essence, they all follow the Aubrey women as they emancipate themselves from their “shabby Prospero” of a father/husband, each in her own way. It is a curious journey, filled with surreal, almost Dickensian interludes. In one scene, for example, Rose, her cousin Rosamund and their respective mothers expel a poltergeist from a tormented town house. In another, Rose causes a stir at a children’s party by appearing to be clairvoyant. In an extended section, Mr Aubrey attempts to save a woman accused of poisoning her husband from being hanged –reminiscent of Bleak House in the way in which it reveals the vagaries of the judicial system through his campaign: “You must have three judges acting together, so that each can think  of the system, which he will do chiefly to abash the other, but which will nevertheless compel them to the proper service of the law.” And through it all, Mrs Aubrey has the Herculean task of dealing with her husband’s multitude of creditors, whilst trying to communicate her own musical ability to her children in order to give them a way of making a living.

The novel is, in that way, rather like quicksilver; impossible to pin down as it drifts through the Aubreys’ world. For me, that was both its great quality, and the thing which somehow prevented me from loving it absolutely. The characters are certainly drawn with a shrewd, witty, brutally honest eye: “She [Cordelia] was sitting limp before the mirror, breathing languidly while Miss Beevor applied pads soaked in eau-de-Cologne to her temples, and she was playing for an unseen audience as well, by giving tiny indications that Miss Beevor was not being  as neat-handed as she might have been, and that she herself was exhibiting the possession of moral as well as artistic gifts of a high order by not expressing impatience.” It is masterfully written, and extraordinary as a record of a childhood lived in an artistic home, and that singular relationship between a child and her parents. “Because I was his daughter I could not have known all of him, there was that continent in which I could not travel, the waste of time before I was born and he already existed. I could not have been with him and his brother when they knelt on the dry red beech-leaves, with their laughing faces pressed against the pulsing silken necks of their crouched and panting ponies, the tree trunks rising sharp silver above them to the blue October haze.” I loved the constant pulse of feminism, too: the heroism of the impractical Mrs Aubrey who, despite it all, keeps her eccentric brood afloat and generally content; the sense that the women will make a living as musicians rather than as wives; and wry observations regarding women’s fashion: “We were still not fully enfranchised from the load of textiles that our sex had been condemned to wear, but we were transformed, so far as the weight we had to carry and our agility, from cows to the heavier kind of antelope.” Indeed it is perhaps testament to Mrs Aubrey’s irrepressible maternal spirit that you, the reader, weather the book’s storms with comparative ease; for no matter how bleak their prospects may seem at times, you never really lose the belief that life is essentially good and that art has the power to elevate.

As I say, though, my only reservation is that I found the quicksilver alienating, to a degree. I had the sensation of looking at the strange succession of scenes through a film of gauze; and although their creative sensibility allows the girls to rise above their circumstances, I found myself wishing there was something grounding them – something more earthy and visceral. Less blind hero-worship of the errant men, and more tears of frustration, or outright condemnation. Fewer wry asides, and more belly-laughs. Something less ethereal – a bit of grit in the oyster. In any case, that is entirely subjective and I can’t even quite put my finger on the source of my reservation. Luckily this is up for discussion in my book-group in a couple of weeks’ time, and I very much look forward to hearing some other opinions. If you’ve read it, I’d really welcome your thoughts, too!

The Fountain Overflows

People’s March: 28 and 29 November 2015

The climate change conversation has taken on almost cartoonish proportions this week. In the red corner, we have Volkswagen – the car manufacturing behemoth which has admitted to cheating on US emissions tests, thereby producing engines which, according to the BBC, emitted nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times above what is allowed in the US. They have totally screwed up admitted their US boss, but that doesn’t come close to addressing the outrage which has greeted the “diesel dupe”. It now looks as though this may be an endemic issue internationally, that diesel fuel isn’t the good-news story it has been disingenuously offered up as, and that – perhaps unsurprisingly – big business has been fiddling the system in order to avoid awkward environmental regulations. As George Monbiot put it so excellently:

Volkswagen’s rigging of its pollution tests is an assault on our lungs, our hearts, our brains. It is a classic example of externalisation: the dumping of costs that businesses should carry onto other people. The air that should have been filtered by its engines is filtered by our lungs instead. We have become the scrubbing devices it failed to install.

In the blue corner we have the Pope, who has just delivered an unusually political, wholly unambiguous message of support for environmentalists. In a speech given on the White House South Lawn, he talked about an environment devastated by man’s predatory relationship with nature; he quoted Rev Martin Luther King; he told his audience this could no longer be left as a problem for future generations. It was inspiring, timely and brilliant. An allegedly corrupt multinational v. a Pope who has placed the environment very high on his agenda; it’s like a surreal spaghetti western out there – and it really isn’t difficult to pick a team.

This flurry of activity is happening just a few short weeks before the COP21 Paris climate change talks in early December. As Pope Francis intimated in his speech yesterday, we really cannot underestimate the importance of that Conference – it will set the green political agenda for the coming years, and determine how we respond en mass to an urgent global threat.

It will, of course, be the politicians sitting around the table in December, arguing over targets, actions, and global commitments. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t all have our say. Whatever you think of the Conservative Party’s approach to environmentalism – which, for my money, languishes in the “woeful” category – we need to make sure that those delegates have the voices of their countrymen and women ringing in their ears when they make these decisions. They need to know how much we care, and that that they cannot fudge an outcome with something non-binding like the Copenhagen Accord. As Naomi Klein puts it in her extraordinary book, This Changes Everything:

Slavery wasn’t a crisis for British and American elites until abolitionism turned it into one. Racial discrimination wasn’t a crisis until the civil rights movement turned it into one. Sex discrimination wasn’t a crisis until feminism turned it into one. Apartheid wasn’t a crisis until the anti-apartheid movement turned it into one.

Climate change is already a crisis – now we need to demand that our politicians do something about it.

In Edinburgh and Cardiff on 28 November, and London and Belfast on 29 November, thousands of people will be turning out for the People’s March, to draw attention to the importance of achieving a strong international climate deal in anticipation of December’s Conference. The Woodland Trust will be there to march for woods and trees, along with the Climate Coalition. They are asking people to join them for what’s sure to be a brilliant day; let’s demonstrate how important this is, and prove that we will be holding our politicians accountable.


Articles and blogs referred to:


Smoke and Mirrors


“H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald

I had my copy of H is for Hawk for about six months, before I felt ready to read it. It is – very famously, now – the story of how Helen Macdonald trained a goshawk whilst grieving for her father, in amongst numerous other, interwoven elements: an understanding of wildness; the history of falconry; and a study of the author T H White (author of Sword in the Stone).

I’m always rather wary of stories about grief, particularly daughters grieving for their fathers. My own died a few months after I left university, after six years of battling cancer and various other illnesses, and,  at the risk of sounding melodramatic, it really broke me. I spent a lot of time at parties with people I didn’t know, or screaming into pillows, and I believed for some time that my personality had disintegrated completely with his death. It was lonely and chaotic, and although I can look back it all now fairly neutrally, I didn’t feel very proud of myself for a very long time.

Rather than raking over that experience in a painful way, though, I found HM’s book incredibly comforting – like finding a kindred spirit. The way she articulates her loss is simultaneously deeply personal and universal. It is very much her story, about her relationship with her father, and as such it cannot be used as a shorthand description of anyone else’s grief. Having said that, there is so much that is recognisable about the raging, loving, insightful way she expresses her loss. The fact that grief happens to everyone but that you feel it alone; it is not even really something to be shared with the members of your family, each of whom will experience their own pain, which may be very different to yours. She describes how she was ravenous for material, for love, for anything to stop the loss, which led her to falling in love with a man who ran a mile when he worked out how broken I was. She talks about that horrifying moment when you realise with a thump that you will never see the dead person again, or hear them speak – the sudden permanence of it. She says that, Ever since my father died, I’d had these bouts of derealisation, strange episodes where the world became unrecognisable, like Alice falling down the rabbit-hole into darkness. Her spatial awareness disappears, she finds herself crashing her father’s car again and again, and occasionally wonders if she might be going mad. That was all very familiar, and I have never see it articulated so well before: I remember very clearly walking through remote parts of London in the early hours of the morning, looking around in detachment and feeling like the city was entirely surreal, nothing to do with me, and that I’d lost my place in the world. She puts it all into words in a way I wish I’d been able to.

Layered on top of that like a piece of tracing paper is HM’s relationship with her goshawk, Mabel. In the first few pages, she recalls a day her father took her to look for sparrowhawks when she was nine, and taught her about the importance of patience. As a child she poured over books about the art of falconry, learning the lexicon and modelling herself on aristocratic men from centuries gone by who had tamed hunting birds and forged that link between the human world and the wild. Shortly after her father’s death and blind with pain, she decides to train a goshawk of her own. It is not a bird she has always had a natural affinity with, she says – there is something alien, reptilian and murderous about them – and when she first encounters the giant hawk which she had requested in a windy Scottish car park, she balks. Instead she pleads with the breeder, asking if she can take the smaller hawk which was meant for someone else, and with which she felt an instant connection. He agrees, and she takes her hawk – Mabel – home.

What follows is a thrilling account of the painstaking process of taming a goshawk; a story about how crucial Mabel becomes to Helen’s re-entry to the world after her father’s death; and a loving, funny, respectful description of Mabel herself – not anthropomorphised, but confounding HM’s expectations of a sulky, serious hunting bird by playing with balls of paper, and displaying recognisably happy “moods”. Their relationship is fascinating; HM describes how she had found herself become more hawk-like in Mabel’s company, more wild and less willing to engage with people. Hawks have, she says, always been linked to that liminal space between life and death – messengers between the two realms. Perhaps her proximity to Mabel was a way to find her father, and perhaps it was a way of annihilating her human identity in a bid to manage the pain of loss. Either way their lives are knit together, and they fly through the book in tandem, and occasionally – dangerously – as a single entity.

Also layered across the book is a study of T.H White, famous for writing The Sword in the Stone, and the less well-known The Goshawk. HM had first read The Goshawk as a child, and finds herself revisiting the book as Mabel comes into her life. In the most simple terms, the story of White and his hawk, Gos, unfolds in parallel to the burgeoning relationship between HM and Mabel. White was a deeply tortured figure: he had a violent and miserable childhood which gave way to sadistic tendencies in his adult life. He poured all of his frustrations and longing for affection into his flawed, often cruel, training of Gos, and in doing so enacted what HM identifies as being a classic tragedy. Her portrait of him is clear-sighted, frank, and tender – and instinctively informs her own journey with Mabel, which, you hope, will follow an entirely different trajectory.

More than anything, and notwithstanding her proximity to the wilderness, HM comes across as a humane, funny, resilient woman. This may be about grief, but I can’t stress enough that this is not a miserable book. It is of course difficult to be in such close proximity to someone’s suffering, but it is such an intelligent, strange, vital story, given wings by HM’s turn of phrase, and the omnipresent Mabel. Grief can be a dehumanising, lonely thing, and I loved the idea of HM inhabiting a goshawk as a way to cope with it; before bringing herself back to earth to live among people once again.

H is for Hawk

“The Man Who Planted Trees” by Jean Giono

Neil’s mum had a big birthday a few weeks ago, and asked people coming to her party not to bring gifts, but instead to bring a book that meant something to them. It was such a lovely idea, and now means that she has a small library from friends and family, with a bookplate in the front cover of each title explaining its importance to the giver. When we were looking through them all recently, Neil spotted a thin book called The Man Who Planted Trees, beautifully published by The Harvill Press, which he thought I might like. One look at the quote from Henry Miller on the back, the description of the story, and the wood engravings by Harry Brockway and I was determined to track down a copy for myself.

It is a gorgeous story of about 4,000 words, which takes no time at all to read. As a young man, the narrator tells us that he found himself stranded in a bare and monotonous region of France, desperate for food and water. The area is a wasteland; villages are largely deserted; angry charcoal burners are the only inhabitants; There are epidemics of suicide and many cases of madness, usually homicidal. He stumbles towards what he thinks is a tree only to discover that the figure is in fact a shepherd called Elzéard Bouffier, who offers him help. Elzéard doesn’t say a great deal but takes the narrator back to his perfectly appointed little house, where the wind in the tiles made a sound like the sea on the shore. During the course of the evening, the young man looks on as the shepherd carefully selects one hundred perfect acorns. The following day, the shepherd leaves his flock to graze and plants the acorns in the ground. The land is not his, he says, and he is not interested in the views of the people who may own it and who have abandoned it entirely. Instead, having lost his family and intent on enjoying a quiet life with his animals, it struck him that this part of the country was dying for a lack of trees, and having nothing much else to do he decided to put things right.

The young man is taken away from the region for the next five years, as the First World War engulfs Europe. When he finally returns, it is to see a carpet of oak trees covering the landscape, and a sea of birch plantations where the shepherd had fancied there would be water. We are told that this new life has kick-started a chain-reaction – water has returned to ancient brooks, and seeds have travelled on the wind, creating meadows, gardens, flowers, some reason for living. Gradually the authorities notice the new woodland, and assume it must be “natural”. Delegations are sent to inspect it, and forest wardens put in place. Happily, the narrator is able to ensure that bureaucracy does not interfere with the shepherd’s work, and the trees continue to flourish, inviting new life to the once-barren region.

What a timely story for anyone with an interest in our country’s woodland, and the threats to our countryside. What Jean Giono shows so beautifully with his simple parable is life’s connectivity; our reliance on inter-dependences we barely pay heed to; and the happiness to be found in a life spent outdoors. Whether intended or not there is an obvious parallel to be drawn between the wretched charcoal burners and the fossil fuel industry, and it is implied that the barrenness of the landscape at the beginning is the result of human over-exploitation and neglect. In Giono’s story a single man is able to remedy these ills – the shepherd, Elzéard Bouffier, is of course entirely fictional, yet since the story was first published people around the world have been desperate to track down the village he repaired and to tell his story. As Giono’s daughter says in the Afterword, for years readers assumed, or wanted to believe, that Bouffier was real.

It put me in mind of two things in particular. The first is Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, which I have just finished (and will be reviewing shortly!) Towards the end of his fascinating and very readable book, Diamond explains that global power essentially shifted from the Fertile Crescent (the cradle of modern civilisation) to Europe because, They [ the inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent and eastern Mediterranean societies] committed ecological suicide by destroying their own resource base….Northern and western Europe has been spared this fate, not because its inhabitants have been wiser but because they have had the good luck to live in a more robust environment with higher rainfall, in which vegetation regrows quickly. To summarise that very crudely, if a society undermines its environment to the extent that agriculture become unsustainable, it is essentially guaranteeing the loss of its political importance. We may well live in a more robust climate, but that does not mean that soil erosion, the clearance of woodland and climate change will not eventually put us in a similar position. The parable of the tree-growing shepherd is compelling not just because of its charm, but because we want to believe in the fact that someone will have the grace and will-power bring us back from the brink and regenerate our wildlife when we need them to.

Secondly, and as I have mentioned before, the Woodland Trust is campaigning about this very issue at the moment with the help of its excellent video about the NPPF. Not only do we not have the benefit of an Elzéard Bouffier planting new forests, we are barely able to protect what we already have. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pu3zT3oYJ-M In a gentle, poetic way, Giono help us to remember why that matters.

Henry Miller described this little story as the song of the world. It is certainly very beautiful, full of hope, and a welcome reminder of the way in which we ought to treat the world around us.

The man who planted trees