“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

“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

“Kilvert’s Diary”: A Selection Edited and Introduced by William Plomer

Why do I keep this voluminous journal? I can hardly tell. Partly because life appears to me such a curious and wonderful thing that it almost seems a pity that even such a humble and uneventful life as mine should pass altogether away without some such record as this, and partly too because I think the record may amuse and interest some who come after me.

Kilvert’s Diary is another work I have to thank Susan Hill for (https://annabarbermyartisliving.wordpress.com/tag/susan-hill/). It is a treasure: an affectionate, vivid portrait of rural life in England and Wales in the latter half of the nineteenth century written by Reverend Francis Kilvert. Kilvert kept the diary in the nine years preceding his premature death, and in it records the almost fairytale qualities of his life with sensitivity, humour, and a deep love of the natural world. It is a great shame that much of it is now lost, thanks in part to the edits undertaken by Kilvert’s wife, and more significantly because a descendant – herself a minor novelist – burned most of his notebooks in the 1950s. What remains was expertly edited by the poet, William Plomer – and happily there is still a huge amount to enjoy.

My 1980 Penguin edition begins with the entry for Tuesday 8 February, 1870. Rather wonderfully, this first passage describes the misadventures of one Miss Child, who had tried to spend a night in a London hotel with a brown wood owl. The owl hooted all night in spite of their putting it up the chimney, before the looking glass, under the bedclothes, and in a circle of lighted candles which they hoped it would mistake for the sun. What a brilliantly batty introduction to our diarist – proving that, as is so often the way, real life is invariably stranger than fiction. There are several passages like this that demonstrate a keen sense of humour – the one which is frequently quoted being the description of a relation’s funeral, during which the weighty coffin nearly crushed the poor bearers. Once or twice I thought the whole mass of men must have been down together with the coffin atop of them and someone killed or maimed at least. But now came the time of the fat chief mourner… Throughout his diary, Reverend Kilvert demonstrates a love of life in all its strangeness and absurdity, and though he is generally extremely affectionate, he is not above gently pocking fun at his fellow man: High tea at 7 just before which someone managed to shoot a chicken with an arrow, or it was said so, and Margaret Oswald told me that as I put my head through the railings to rake a croquet ball out of the field on to the lawn, my head looked so tempting that she felt greatly inclined to shoot at it. Certainly there would have been this comfort that if she had shot at me I should have been very much safer than if she had not, because wherever else the arrow might have gone it certainly would not have hit me.

I loved the almost gothic strangeness of many of the vignettes, in a world in which life and death walked so closely together. There are descriptions of suicides and murder; winds so ferocious that it takes four men to carry a lady safely indoors from a carriage; ship-wrecks; Miss Sylvester, who has legs like a frog; soldiers scaring off wolves by snapping the locks of their flint muskets; and an old woman who punishes a dairy thief by making him sit by her fire with a hot ale in his hand, so that the stolen butter seeps through his hat and into his eyes. On Easter Eve, the entire village makes its way to the graveyard to dress the graves of loved-ones with flowers. The sun went down in glory behind the dingle, but still the work of love went on through the twilight and into the dusk until the moon rose full and splendid. People believe in fairies and ghosts; the distinction between the real and the supernatural is blurred at best, and Reverend Kilvert observes it all with fascination and love. There’s almost something Mervyn Peake-like about some of the more bizarre details – One day, Perch skinned an owl in London and from midnight till one o’clock he roamed about the streets seeking where he might bestow the body of the owl, fearing that the carcase of the owl might be found and described in the papers as the body of a fine full grown male child. Eventually he whirled the corpse over a garden wall. What a wonderfully strange tapestry.

In keeping with that vivid appreciation for life’s oddities, Kilvert also seemed to live his life at an extraordinary emotional pitch. Several times through the diary he declares himself to be desperately in love, feeling as though his world has been thrown upside down by an encounter with a pretty woman. He spends “feverish” nights fretting about his love for Daisy, and then Kathleen, and at one point describes himself as being exhausted with emotion. He nearly breaks down in Church when the King is ill, and when giving his final sermon in Clyro, gives himself up to his tears. It is unusual and bewitching to read the words of a man who felt everything so keenly – his orbit may have been narrow in some ways, but that does not mean that he did not experience things on a grand scale. Rather like Jane Austen, he demonstrates perfectly that there is nothing automatically limiting about a small community or a parochial life.

The only issue I had with that flood of feeling was the way in which Kilvert appeared to experience female, particularly pre-pubescent, beauty. Generally speaking this is mentioned by reviewers as being a sometimes awkward susceptibility, but I have to confess I found it more difficult than that. Perhaps it is because I am a product of my time as much as he is a product of his, but the way he lingers over descriptions of schoolgirls or young, naked bathers occasionally made me deeply uncomfortable. The fact that he was so ready to share his diaries with others suggests that he felt he had nothing to hide, and the descriptions never stray beyond a kind of breathless wonder at the girls’ innocent perfection, but still – it isn’t always easy reading. I think every reader probably has to find a way of fitting these passages into the context of the diary, and to make up his or her own mind about what they say about the man.

Putting that slight hesitation to one side, for me the most captivating thing about these diaries is the way in which Kilvert experienced, and talked about nature. The combination of his eye for detail and lyrical turn of phrase result in some truly exquisite passages. I love the description of his beard freezing to his mackintosh after a February walk; trees dripping from early showers, the tears of the morning; the sound of frogs croaking, snoring and bubbling in the pool under the full moon; and his assertion that it was a positive luxury to be alive. A tender haze brooded melting over the beautiful landscape, and the peaceful silence was only broken by the chuckling and grumbling of a squirrel leaping among the acacia boughs overhead, and the clear sweet solitary notes of a robin singing from the copper beech. Rather like Laurie Lee, Kilvert is extremely good at holding a mirror up to the British countryside, and showing us what treasures we are surrounded by if we will only stuff our pockets with biscuits and flasks of wine, and stride out into the hills.

“Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure” by Artemis Cooper

In her biography, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, Artemis Cooper has achieved something very special – to transmit the effervescent charm and joie de vivre of her subject in such a way as to give the reader a very real sense of having experienced it first-hand. It is an affectionate, fast-paced and entirely non-judgmental portrait of an extraordinary life. As Robert Macfarlane puts it, PLF appears at the end more glorious for the faint tarnish he acquires in its course. There is tarnish; flaws are revealed unflinchingly – and the heroic figure who has been mythologised since he strode out across Europe emerges as an extraordinarily gifted, rather fragile, swashbuckling buccaneer.

When I first read A Time of Gifts earlier this year, I conjured a very clear image in my mind of what PLF must have been like. Magnificent, charming, perhaps a little naive, striding through pre-War Europe with almost no money and nothing to recommend him but his irresistible personality. There is always that sense of mystery, too – he never reveals more than would be chivalrous about the women he encounters, and whilst one gets the impression that his childhood was not necessarily an easy one, his consequent insecurities are not examined. Artemis Cooper gives flesh to this literary persona in the most affectionate way; reading her book is to feel entirely immersed in both PLF’s world and his character.

It is self-evident from the network of generous friends he made throughout Europe that he was possessed of the kind of enchanting, extrovert charm which endeared him to (most) people. What Artermis Cooper does so successfully, though, is to reveal a personality of light and shade. His experiences at school, coupled with an absent father and the manically inconsistent affections of his mother, left him with fundamental insecurities as a young man. Despite his eidetic memory and hungry intelligence he had been convinced that his peculiar cocktail of bookishness and boisterous was worth very little – it was only by abandoning England entirely and setting off across Europe that he began to relish his abilities and to satisfy his appetite for living. It was during these travels that he forged friendships with the noble families of a dying Europe (connections which would colour the rest of his life) and fell in love for the first time, with a woman sixteen years his senior. As AC puts it, Balasha was touched by Paddy’s youth, and saw that his erratic brilliance was in need of some polish. His love of a party and willingness to become embroiled in a pace of life he could not afford did not appeal to everyone – Somerset Maugham once witheringly described him as that middle class gigolo for upper-class women – and his fondness for fun made him careless with other people’s feelings on occasion. Without either fighting his corner or passing judgment, Cooper demonstrates that this was perhaps the inevitable accompaniment to the force of his personality – a man who shone with joy is a thing of extremes.

On the other side of that exuberant coin were bouts of depression. His gorgeously dense prose did not always come easily, and the difficulty he had in finishing his books exacerbated those periods of melancholy. The early pages of A Time to Keep Silence articulate that beautifully. What that book doesn’t mention, though, is Paddy’s reliance not just on monastic solitude, but also on his wife Joan when it came to managing his depression.

The description of their relationship is lovingly, but very honestly, drawn. Like Basha, Joan was older than Paddy – the Wendy to his Peter Pan, as AC puts it – and although an adventurous, independent sole in her own right, and a very talented photographer, she was a steadier soul. AC describes how she would sit in a bar, contentedly wrapped in her own thoughts, whilst PLF held court during long drinking sessions. Her scrupulously catalogued photographs were crucial prompts for his writing, and she almost always insisted in being written out of his stories. They didn’t marry for many years and never had children – and, in the strictest sense, their relationship was not truly exclusive until they finally wed in 1963, despite the fact that she essentially funded this life-style from her own trust fund in the years before he was making any real money from his writing. There is a wonderful dit about them finding the Mediterranean heat too strong one evening as they were trying to dine, prompting them to carry their table into the sea until they were sitting waist-deep in cool water. It comes across as a unique,very loving relationship, seemingly founded on loyalty and a shared sense of fun – I would thoroughly enjoy reading a book dedicated to their shared story.

AC’s book is as exciting and full of anecdotes as Paddy’s life, built upon interviews with his friends, private letters, PLF’s writing, and her own meticulous research. He famously captured a German General during the War; was fundamental to the Cretan resistance; scaled Peruvian mountains in his 50s; waged war on tongue cancer; and swam the Hellespont when he was 69. There are reams of hilarious and heart-warming tales, and above all Paddy emerges as a man who felt an imperative to wring joy from every moment. It is a masterclass in turning one’s own story into an adventure. We may not all be able to match his feats of courage or his vivacity, but PLF, channelled by AC, certainly inspires you to try.

“The Wallcreeper” by Nell Zink

By the time I turned to the first page of The Wallcreeper, I was (unfairly) already primed to be pretty defensive. Nell Zink, an American expatriate in Berlin and protégé of Jonathan Franzen, has been hailed as being a kind of post-punk, zeitgeist genius. People are saying she’s a modern Kafka. She emailed The Guardian a naked picture of herself to accompany a recent interview. For me, an essentially square Englishwoman, it all felt a bit melodramatic; a little constructed. And I have to say, the opening line of, “I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage” didn’t do much to set my mind at ease. There’s a kind of jarring baldness to some of the early phrases (and some fairly graphic sex) which made me crunch my teeth: “It was hot and dry. (I mean my brain)” or “Objectifying my body saved him from objectifying my mind.” I wondered if reading the novel was going to feel like walking into a hyper-academic college bar and over-hearing earnest conversations about Nietzsche or Post-Structuralism – not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it’s definitely not my frequency.

I was still intrigued, though – there’s something strange and compelling about The Wallcreeper from the very beginning, and it moves at such a lick that you’re soon being pulled into Tiff’s weird, off-beat train of thought. It didn’t take me too long to put my prejudices back in their box either, and realize that the narrator isn’t contrived – she’s incredibly smart and also very lazy, which is in part what makes it all feel so off-kilter. When Stephen swerves the car and occasions Tiff’s miscarriage, he is doing it to avoid hitting a wallcreeper. The bird comes back to live with them, which not only kick-starts Tiff’s apathetic involvement with environmentalism, but also seems to account for the pace of her recollection; like a wallcreeper flitting from nook to cranny, Tiff hops across the story – with short sentences, snatches of stilted dialogue, and nuggets of contradiction. In amongst that, though, are vivid descriptions and flashes of intellectual brilliance – I loved the image of Stephen’s “awkward hands” pawing at her like “the flames around Joan of Arc at the stake”; of a failed affair feeling like “generations of bluesmen whining about women they shot to death”; of grumbling geese sounding like couples squabbling over blankets; and the moment where she stands in the dark “as though rooted to the ground, or rather as though connected to everything around me by guy-wires in three dimensions.” Tiff may be lazy, and a complete freeloader for much of the novel, but she’s pretty sparkling when she wants to be.

The story whizzes past you in a half-realized haze. Stephen and Tiff married after a very short courtship, knowing almost nothing about one another. Tiff immediately quits work and slouches around, sometimes pregnant, sometimes not, avoiding any kind of work other than her extra-marital affairs. Stephen starts out working in R&D, before deciding to pursue his passion for birds and music with bursts of frenetic energy. He has affairs, too, and may or may not be taking significant quantities of drugs. Their lovers guide them towards environmental activism, and Stephen starts working for the Global Rivers Alliance, whilst Tiff decides to free the Elbe and flood the struggling tree reservation nearby by sabotaging the river’s man-made banks. This is all relayed in disjointed snap-shots until entirely unexpectedly, a traditional novel emerges out of the final few pages – when there is suddenly a crisis, signs of self-improvement and intelligent resolution. By the end Tiff has shed her work-shy passivism to become an independent trail-blazer, and her environmentalism suddenly seems real, and coherent. It is brilliant.

It’s also very shrewd about the importance of environmental activism, and the way NGOs hamstring themselves. Without being even vaguely preachy, Tiff morphs from being both a classic consumerist nightmare and a representation of the plundered planet – “I had been treating myself as resources to be mined. Now I know I am the soil where I grow” – into a force for real good. It must be one of the only novels with a genuinely potent political message which includes a line like, “I shrank at the vulgarity of raptures over beauty, nature’s most irrelevant and unnecessary quality.” I love the passage where Stephen, as a representative of the Global Rivers Alliance, slips into a pointless social media wormhole – “His task now was to strike a jaunty pose from which to launch scathing witticisms about the energy industry. Instead of preaching to the converted, he would sit on the couch with them watching the news and make snide remarks. But they still wanted clever new aphorisms every day.”

This is a novel which really shocks you out of apathy. It isn’t easy and isn’t always likeable, but it is seriously clever, and wears its smarts easily. There’s also a feeling of stealth tenderness – Stephen and Tiff don’t treat one another kindly and she almost clinically avoids sentimentality, but the absence of naturally expressed feeling doesn’t prevent it from rippling through the story. I’m sure I’ve missed things and misinterpreted others – it definitely encourages more than one reading – but it is wonderfully different, and certainly fascinating.

the wallcreeper

“Rogue Male” by Geoffrey Household

The behaviour of a rogue may fairly be described as individual, separation from its fellows appearing to increase both cunning and ferocity.

Roger Deakin mentions Rogue Male a number of times throughout Notes from Walnut Tree Farm – I think it would be impossible to finish Deakin’s book without feeling compelled to read Geoffrey Household’s most famous offering at the earliest opportunity.

It is an absolute gem of a novel – with all of the ingredients required for a classic adventure story paired with a fascinating psychological study of the classic British gentleman. The enigmatic hero, who is never named, is clearly the prototype for characters like James Bond; maverick Brits of a certain class who tear up the rule book for the sake of Queen and Country. And yet one of fundamental features of this story is that our man is not motivated by patriotism – he is a true rogue with an independent will. As he says towards the end, “I distrust patriotism; the reasonable man can find little these days that is worth dying for. But dying against – there’s enough iniquity in Europe to carry the most urbane or decadent into battle.” This prototype is arguably more nuanced than any of his later reincarnations, and far more dangerous and intriguing as a result.

The novel – written in the first person, as the hero records his experiences in a notebook – opens with a failed assassination. Our protagonist, half-convinced that he is stalking his prey out of a love of the sport rather than with any intent to kill, is caught aiming his rifle at a European dictator bearing more than a passing resemblance to Adolf Hitler. When he is interrogated by the dictator’s lackeys, he argues that he is nothing more than an eccentric sportsman who wanted to know whether it might be possible to shoot his prey if he so wished; unsurprisingly this doesn’t wash, and our nameless hero is brutally tortured. The scene is entirely left to the imagination and, like all the thrillers, the reader has to conjure the punishments for herself – suffice to say that by the time the hero is hurled from a cliff, one eye is burnt and swollen, his nails have been removed, his fingers crushed, and the masticated flesh of the back of his legs is in a dire state. Rather than dying in the marshland below as his torturers had intended, however, the figure crawls out of the slime like a primordial beast, dragging himself to the safety of some nearby woodland. Through his ingenuity and grit, our man finds himself back in England, now being hunted both by the (let’s call them German) spies, and the English police. Whilst we are not told his name, we know that he is very well known to his countrymen as a result of past exploits in foreign lands – in addition to having a very recognisably wounded eye. He therefore decides that he must go to ground to evade his would-be captors, and chooses Dorset as his refuge.

The plot would be enticing enough; and then there is the quality of the writing itself. Household, speaking through his narrator, is shrewd and full of insight; “I felt I had come home –  a half-melancholy sense of slippered relaxation.”  You, the reader, are invited to play with the idea of espionage, piecing together an image of the protagonist from the scant facts he reveals. We know he is relatively famous, or infamous in England; that he is in his late 30s; that his family home is centuries old, suggesting he is an aristocrat; we know he has travelled widely; and that he likes big-game hunting. These pieces of information are revealed gradually over the course of the novel and as circumstances demand; they are not offered on a plate, but neither are they obscured. The same is true of the protagonist’s thoughts – he is relatively open about his opinions (“A hideous word, hiker. It has nothing to do with the gentle souls of my youth who wandered in tweeds and stout shoes from pub to pub”; “The only periods, I suspect, when a man feels captain of his soul are those when he has not the slightest need of such an organ”), but his motivations are concealed even from him. We do not know why he was aiming a gun at the dictator; he is not an agent of the state, and keeps telling himself that he did not mean to pull the trigger. But, through the course of the novel, and as our man is physically tortured, interrogated, and even buried alive, he accesses feelings he had been suppressing, and in doing so gradually reveals himself to us. “By writing of him I become him for the time.”

I won’t tell you exactly what he discovers about himself as he presses his cold body into a burrow in Dorset, other than to say that it certainly cements his heroic status. What is even better is that, as Robert Macfarlane’s excellent introduction explains, Household’s career during the Second World War almost rivalled his creation’s in resourcefulness and courage.  A rip-roaring, intelligent yarn; thank you, Roger Deakin.

“Notes from Walnut Tree Farm” by Roger Deakin

I read about Notes from Walnut Tree Farm on the excellent So Many Books (So Many Books),and couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. Once again, Roger Deakin is one of those writers I can’t believe I’d never come across before – and is yet another reason I’m so delighted I made the decision to start exploring book review blogging earlier this year. So far, it’s led me to Patrick Leigh Fermor; Nick Wood; Gladys Mitchell; and Roger Deakin. That’s some reading list.

For the last six years of his life, Roger Deakin, a writer, broadcaster and passionate advocate of wild-swimming, recorded his thoughts in a series of notebooks. This is a very finely edited collection of those writings, presented as a sequence of entries over the course of a single year. In these notes, Deakin observes the world around him; offers snatches of poetry and philosophy; relives encounters with friends; and muses on the way the habitat around the farm was being transformed by the mania for tidiness in rural areas and the invasion of urbanites in their four-wheel drives. It is a glimpse into a passionate, kind, intelligent, questing mind.

One of the many things I’ve been discovering as I’ve read more non-fiction this year – particularly in relation to travel, wildlife and environmentalism – is how these genres offer such consistently vivid, lyrical prose. It is a vast generalisation, of course, but one which seems to holds true; something about being so bound to the natural world, to paths and trees and wildness, gives the best of these writers an intense acuity. The same is true of the finest cricket writing, by the way – focusing on a tangible, physical narrative offers commentators the freedom to riff over the top of the scene, to describe images with occasionally outrageous sharpness and delight. It is some of the best prose writing I have ever come across, a world of astonishing poetry which is invisible if you dedicate yourself to fiction (as I have tended to do). (Really, I would urge any aspiring writer to read Neville Cardus – even if the game itself isn’t your thing, it’s a complete joy.) I don’t know what Roger Deakin might have felt about the cricket – he mentions in Walnut Farm that he doesn’t know who Phil Tufnell is, so I assume he wasn’t a fan! – but his writing certainly supports my nascent theory. He relishes language and its relationship to the Suffolk wildlife he loved so deeply; combining poetry with a remarkably shrewd eye for detail.

I walk up the field to investigate. Little haloes of stamens’ ruffed courtiers (as all the plantains flower, like tiny courtiers’ ruffs, all bowing and nodding to each other.

Moorhens sound like a cork twisting in a wet bottleneck.

And perhaps my favourite – We pitched the pup-tents side by side on an almost-level sward and slept soundly in the silence under a mackerel-sky perforated by stars.

“Mackerel-sky” – what a perfect image! I’d never come across the description before, but apparently a “mackerel-sky” is a sky dappled with rows of small white fleecy…clouds, like the pattern on a mackerel’s back (Oxford Dictionaries Online). In any case, descriptions like that come think and fast here – sources of rivers are the tear-ducts of the earth; an insect frantically washes its legs like Lady Macbeth – perfect little jewels, the kind of keepsakes you find in Ted Hughes or John Clare, and which compel you to scribble incessantly in the margin, adding stars and exclamation marks.

Notes from Walnut Tree Farm gives a very special insight into Deakin’s curious, irreverent mind. There’s something in the format which fosters real intimacy, lets you feel as though you are making a friend – a bit like reading Montaigne’s essays. The occasionally insights into the fact that he believed his love of conservation came from the death of his father when he was only seventeen are particularly moving, appearing like sudden bolts in the middle of the rippling narrative.

I returned to school still wearing a black armband, as people did in 1960, and my embarrassed friends avoided my eye. It was almost as though I myself had died, so ghostly, so invisible did I feel. Thus did I acquire my sense of loss – a deep-seated feeling that has followed me around all my life and that I’ve never shaken off.

Deakin’s anecdotes, like his descriptions, twinkle on the page, and his boyish enthusiasm runs through the text like an artery. (He makes frequent references to a novel called Rogue Male for example, a classic 1939 thriller which I have now acquired and very much look forward to reading.) One of the things he laments about the many changes to the English countryside is the fact that people no long acknowledge one another when they’re out walking. I will make a point of always doing so from now on, as a way of honouring Deakin, and to attempt to recapture some of the rural spirit he knew we were losing.

John Armstrong’s “Conditions of Love: the Philosophy of Intimacy”

I’m not sure how it started – it’s not our usual 11 am fare – but during a coffee break at work last week a new colleague of mine started talking about a book he’d once read about love. As we wandered back to our desks he said that love changes from culture to culture, and that it has assumed a dangerous importance in modern life: we fetishize it, and believe we cannot truly be happy until we have found “the one.”

I immediately ordered a copy of the book he’d been talking about – Conditions of Love: the Philosophy of Intimacy by John Armstrong. It’s a short volume – only 160 pages – but it covers a lot of extremely interesting ground, and is a wonderful antidote to the way in which our culture does indeed put the first blaze of adoration on a pedestal; often relegating long-term, mature love to a much lower status in the process.

There’s so much here to think about. Rather like How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell, which explains various schools of philosophy in a highly entertaining and accessible way, Armstrong looks at examples taken from (amongst others) Tolstoy; Plato; Stendhal; Freud; and Shakespeare to explore the many faces of love, and its importance within Western culture. Aristotle tells us we must be virtuous to be loved, for example, whereas St. Paul tells us we must look for the good in people concealed by their failings. Stendhal tells us that a lover’s imagination crystallises the object of his affection, transforming her into an unreal ideal. Psychoanalysts have told us that our childhood relationships with our parents predetermine our relationships with our lovers, and that we can therefore be guilty of tracking childhood trauma into adult relationships. What I found most interesting, however, was the idea of responsibility that runs throughout the book.

One the problems with believing that there is one person out there who is destined for us (as Plato would have it) is that, as Armstrong wryly points out, it turns love into a treasure hunt. Love is not something which happens to us when we stumble across our perfect mate; nobody is perfect, and love has to be earned and worked for. And that is what romantic literature can sometimes entice us to forget – real love isn’t frozen forever at the point at which we first fall for someone, and it isn’t a right. As the weeks, months and years pass, love grows up with us – it is not, in Armstrong’s words, “a kind of garment which merely goes on top of, and does not in any way change, the inner person.” It takes work – a combination of all of those things championed by love’s literary mouthpieces – and it can’t feel the same forever, because we don’t stay a certain way for the duration of our lives. I particularly enjoyed his description of katabasis in this context (which I’ve now learnt means a descent of some kind):

“In the moment of katabasis we come down from the ordinary plateau of indifference, we recognize the dark background of existence – its loneliness, disappointment, fragility – and from here we see clearly just how much we really need (like the emerging melody) the hesitant tenderness of another person.”

If you have loved the same person for many years, and been loved in return, those small moments of “hesitant tenderness” might be as precious as the first flush of infatuation when you met.

It’s also very funny: John Armstrong is brilliant at poking fun at our lofty romantic ideals.

“We desire the perfect counterpart of our soul, the person who will always understand and respond. All we can actually get is someone who is, intermittently, pretty sympathetic and fairly interested and understanding – provided they have not had a hard day.”

That’s not to say he’s cynical, though. As a die-hard romantic, the two things I took away from this are that first, love is not properly personified by youthful passion. It is a fundamental need which somehow needs to find its place in our humdrum lives and changing moods; and that often isn’t very easy, because human beings are a mass of tensions and “closeness always brings us face to face with something other than we expected.” When Catullus said “odi et amo”, he was right on the money – and as such the hard-won love which has lasted through the years, no matter how many times it has had to transform itself to survive, is a very special thing indeed and should be celebrated. Secondly, love is an achievement, something you earn through cultivating your own best qualities. It doesn’t just happen to you, and it won’t feel the same forever – which isn’t a tragedy, or a diminishing of Keats’ “bright star”, it’s just a quiet inevitability.

Finally, just as an aside if you haven’t read Don Paterson’s poem, Poetry: A Version of Antonio Machado (which I came across in my 2015 Faber & Faber Poetry Diary), I’d certainly recommend it – especially in the context of what Armstrong is saying here. He beautifully expresses the fact that love poems tend to speak of “the atom” of love rather than its “later heat”, and closes with the lines:

Beneath the blue oblivious sky, the water
sings of nothing, not your name, not mine.

That feels like a fitting conclusion to a book which ends by saying that the search for love shouldn’t be motivated by vanity; instead “we might make a loving from a loveless life – if only we can find the right sort of talk.”

‘Left of the Bang’ by Claire Lowdon

Left of the bang: a military term for the build-up to an explosion. On a left-right time line, preparation and prevention are left of the bang; right of the bang refers to the aftermath.’

In her highly accomplished first novel, Claire Lowdon tells the story of a quartet of twenty-something Londoners trying to work their way through disastrous sex, brittle relationships, and a realization of their own failings. There is Tamsin, the musician realizing that she will never be great and who is still deeply scarred by the fact that she saw her father kissing another woman when she was a little girl. Tamsin is in a relationship with Callum, a kind, multi-talented history teacher from Glasgow who suffers from various sexual problems, which darken and escalate as the novel progresses. Callum lives with Leah, a beautiful and aloof young woman with an eating disorder, painful eczema, mania for minimalism and sexual problems of her own. And finally Chris, the bantering army officer who strives to be chivalrous and heroic, and whose aborted romantic encounter with Tamsin when they were teenagers has since led him to fixate on her as a a vision of purity, beauty and perfect womanhood.

This is a very difficult novel to pin down – it is satirical, incredibly funny, dark, honest and in places very sad; many things at once without obviously sitting in a genre. The characters themselves are a carefully-balanced blend of what you might expect from their age and environment – they are so recognizable to anyone of my generation who has spent time in London, yet at the same time almost hyper-real, exaggerated just enough to be alienating and therefore ripe for teasing. It’s a tricky balance to strike, and Claire Lowdon does it with ease.

First, the comedy. I am the same age as the author and spent most of my twenties in London, so found myself chuckling frequently in recognition (and, yes, some shame) at her skewering of a twenty-five year old’s attempts at sophistication. I’m sure that I, like so many of my contemporaries, have described Gordon’s wine bar to friends as “a real gem of a place”, as though initiating someone into a well-kept secret. I’ve spent nights in the seedy armpit of Inferno’s night-club in Clapham, and have been to parties where people have told me about their start-up company which supposedly ‘un-clutters peoples’ lives and helps them achieve minimalism’. I know for sure that I was guilty of rattling on about it when the first intake of university students who were born in the nineties appeared, as well as the fact that I once owned a pager in the dark ages before mobiles. Lowdon handles this brilliantly, though – not with an eye-rolling “weren’t we crass” sort of satire – she simply puts the words in the mouth of her characters, and lets you take from them what you will. For me, as I say, it was a delighted recognition, but the humour is by no means restricted to in-jokes for former Londoners (precisely the sort of thing which would have been sent up here). It really comes from her very astute observations – anyone who has ever been twenty-something and trying to turn themselves into a functioning, socially acceptable adult will find plenty to enjoy in that respect.

Those powers of observation, incidentally, are also used to wonderful lyrical effect here. I loved the image of a “histrionic tableau” of tulips and, on the opening page, a “bleeding toenail, open like a birthday card.” The narrative voice is almost a character of its own here – commenting, qualifying behaviour or offering insights, imbuing the story with shrewd intelligence and style. It is so assured, and full of poise – the author’s credentials as a reviewer and editor are writ large in her own novel.

And then the creeping sense of doom as the novel progresses. The characters are likeable enough to be engaging, but I don’t think the intention is that the reader will champion them. They are often vain, selfish and self-serving – in the way we would probably all be, to an extent, if our internal monologues were unveiled to an audience – but it is taken a step further, and at points each of them does something repellent. And that, I think, is one of the most powerful things about this novel. Armies of us career about cities in our early twenties, drinking too much, behaving irresponsibly, perhaps realizing that our fledgling careers are not what we thought they would be. There might have been moments when you woke up on a Sunday morning on a friend’s sofa, having lost your keys; and although you felt terrible, you were sure that you’d dodged a bullet. Perhaps the catastrophe hadn’t been entirely averted – maybe you behaved very badly, or argued with a boyfriend – but with the immortality of youth and the help of bread and ibuprofen, you were sure that no lasting damage has been done; you’d grow up eventually. In Left of the Bang, however, actions have consequences and the characters aren’t given a grace period – whatever your age some mistakes are life-altering, and the choices we make really do ripple through the years. It’s a sobering thought, and a timely one, given that we can sanitize so much of our public persona via social media now. Act as PR gurus for our own lives, as I once heard someone put it.  Some things, unfortunately, can’t be fixed by untagging a photo, and being young doesn’t absolve you from your sins.

I don’t generally read anything which is so recognizably about my own time (or at least my recent past) – but I yomped through this over the weekend. It is a fascinating, sometimes difficult, and finely wrought portrait of the children of the 1980s. What a debut.