Harvest ~ Jim Crace

book-review-harvest-by-jim-crace-L-eZOebDEvery now and again a novel comes along which quite simply takes your breath away.  It won’t necessarily have the same effect on everyone (as the discussion in last week’s book group gave witness to) but for you it will be one of the books that you know you will be returning to for the rest of your reading life.  For me, Jim Crace’s most recent novel, Harvest, proved to be such a novel.

Truth to tell, it was a book I’d been avoiding because I hadn’t got on all that well with earlier novels by the same author.  Oh, I could see that they were real works of literature, not only intelligently conceived but also beautifully written, but they didn’t speak to me.  So, when Harvest turned up on my Wednesday Morning list I’m ashamed to say that I put off starting it until the last possible moment.  More fool me!  Well, at least that gives me a good reason to return to the work as soon as possible because I need to give it a far more detailed read than I was able to last week.  Even so, it still knocked me sideways.

One of the first questions that was raised in discussion was just when and where the novel is set.  This seems to me to rather miss the point.  Although it could be argued that we are somewhere in the Midlands of England at some point in the late Middle Ages an equally valid argument could be made for being in the Scottish Highlands in post reformation days.  (Well, perhaps not equally valid, but the story that is being unfolded would have been just as relevant.)  For this is not about a specific time or place but rather an uncovering of a recurring pattern in the lives of working people who are valued as long as they have something to offer those in power but cut lose the moment a more profitable venture comes along.  In this instance that venture takes the form of sheep, which are to be brought onto the land at the expense of the barley and wheat harvests that have for generations sustained the people of the village at the centre of Crace’s novel.  The people are about to be dispossessed of their lands, their livelihoods and their community without so much as a by your leave.  While it is easy to relate this to fifteenth century Cotswold or East Anglian villages the same thing happened in the Highlands during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and it is a pattern that has been repeated world wide, if not always with sheep farmers as the incomers then invariably to the detriment of those already occupying the land. Perhaps the most important word in the text is the last one, when Walter Thirsk, the novel’s narrator, as he leaves his village home for good reflects

This is my heavy labour now.  I have to leave behind these common fields.  I have to take this first step out of bounds.  I have to carry on alone until I reach wherever is awaiting me, until I gain wherever is awaiting us.

In the book’s final words Thirsk reaches out and connects with each and every reader and reminds us that even now all it takes is for those in power to decide to reallocate the acreage we occupy to other usage and we will be forced to move on.  Discuss this novel with anyone with house or land on the proposed route for the new high speed rail track and they will know exactly what Crace is writing about.

While Walter Thirsk is our principle contact with the villagers who find themselves about to be dispossessed, in terms of village life he is more of an observer than a participant being an incomer of less than twenty years, and this is important in respect of the way we as readers relate to the events of the single week that is the time span of the action.  Although we feel his anguish as he watches the new master of the manor make plans to change the very nature of the land itself, he doesn’t have the same level of commitment to the location as those whose families have been born and bred there over succeeding generations.  This was a sticking point for some of the members of the group because they felt they were being kept at one remove from the very real suffering that was being experienced by the people of the village.  For me, however, it created the necessary distance that allowed me to appreciate the universal nature of what Crace is exploring.  If the narrator had been more deeply entrenched in village life the story would have been particular instead of a singular instance of a wider ill.  Thirsk as narrator works perfectly as far as I am concerned.

However, the greatest beauty of this book for me is the language.  When a student used to come to me and proudly tell me that they had written, shall we say, five hundred words towards an assignment I would always say, ‘Yes, but are they good words and in the right order?’  Not only are Crace’s words both well chosen and definitely in the right order, they have, in addition, a certain rhythm, almost a music, which underlies and reinforces their meaning.  Here he is, for example, talking about the way in which the people of the land understand not just the practical importance but also the symbolic significance of ploughing.

He’s obviously guessed what this day of work will be.  He understands its greater meaning too: that ploughing is our sacrament, our solemn oath, the way we grace and consecrate our land.  Not to mark our futures in the soil before the winter comes is to say there’s no next year.  I cannot admit to that.  The coming spring must be defended.  So, we’ll put the nose before the ear.  And then we’ll plough.

I could read writing of that calibre all day long and quite simply never tire of it.

Not only has this book been a delight in itself but it has also persuaded me that I need to go back and re-read Crace’s earlier novels because I can’t believe that I read them before with sufficient attention to the lyrical writing that swept me along in respect of Harvest.  I also hope that the author will reverse his decision of last year: namely that this would be his final novel.  If there were to be another I certainly wouldn’t be waiting over twelve months from publication to read it.

Reading Obsessions

37788084343093605_97fQ9uva_fWell, it’s good to be back.

First and foremost, thank you all for your good wishes and for you kind comments to The Bears.  They would like you to know that CAKE has been postponed to Saturday, which is also a special day in our household, and that there is a fair chance that there might be some on Sunday as well.  We would invite you all round but I’m not sure that their good nature extends to the sharing of cake!

In fact, they have been extra specially kind and loving Bears over this past weekend because my goddaughter, who has grown up telling them all her secrets and bringing them all her sorrows to be mended, found out on Saturday that one of her closest friends had been killed in the Malaysian Airways crash.  As you can imagine she has been distraught, the more so because it is the first time that one of her contemporaries has died and I’m sure we can all remember what it was like when we first had our own mortality thrust into our consciousness.  In the face of such senseless destruction there is little of any use that you can say.  Perhaps that is why The Bears have been such a comfort; they do know when to keep quiet and just be available to be hugged.

Thank you as well, for your suggestions as to what I might read while I was laid low. A number of you mentioned audio books but as I was having problems concentrating they didn’t work because it is so difficult to go back over anything you may have missed while your mind has been wandering or you’ve dropped off to sleep for a couple of vital pages.  In the end, knowing that a new trilogy was just about to begin, I picked up the last two volumes of Robin Hobb’s The Tawny Man sequence so that when Fool’s Assassin became available I would able to read straight on.  In doing so I realised just how long it is since I read any adult fantasy and yet at one time it was my major source of relaxing reading.  I know I was still reading it when my younger goddaughter (who has just left primary school – where did those years go?) was born because her mother borrowed and read the entire Katharine Kerr series while she was pregnant, but somewhere in between it has been replaced by crime fiction, in particular, the police procedural.

This brought to mind a piece by John Sutherland that I was reading last week in which he discusses the phenomenon of genre fiction.

Readerships and bookshops have always played a decisive role in the emergence and mutations of a genre.  Readers tend to be genre-loyal (‘addicted’ might be a better word) – and voracious.  It is estimated, for example, that sf fans, who tend to be young, male and college educated, will consume up to a dozen titles a month – burning up the new book shelves.

It was the word addicted that resonated with me because I think that was true of my own behaviour in my fantasy reading days and might equally be applied to my consumption of crime fiction now.  I like the term because it implies that there is something unhealthy about the mono-diet that such reading habits suggest and I know that when I have really over indulged my brain begins to feel fugged and I have to force myself to read something different to (and I am aware of the irony) awaken the little grey cells again.

Perhaps Sutherland lights on the reason for this when he writes about women’s popular romance.

It is the peculiarity of women’s popular romance that it likes a high degree of plot repetition between novels - with only small variations.  The imprint websites nowadays have rules to be followed as regards narrative formulae. Nurse Smith finds true love with Dr Brown, Nurse Brown finds true love with Dr Smith. My grandmother, who was addicted to ‘romances’ borrowed, or sometimes nicked, from her twopenny library, would put a cross … on the flyleafs of the novels she had read, to spare herself the waste of reading them again.

His grandmother was not alone.  You can certainly find a wide range of such identifying marks on the inside back covers of the Mills and Boon publications in any of my local libraries.  But it is that fact of repetition that I find really interesting. As a teacher I knew that for many children it was the repetitive nature of Enid Blyton’s plots that kept them coming back for more.  And, where some of them were concerned, I encouraged that.  If they were still in the process of becoming a confident, independent reader then having their expectations met meant that they were likely to feel that reading was something they could succeed at and consequently an activity to which they would return.  It was also my job, however, to recognise the moment when that support was becoming the crutch of addiction and gradually begin to feed them other material, weening them away from the repetitive grooves that they might otherwise never be able to get out of.

For ultimately, addiction is bad for us.  It prevents us from thinking for ourselves.  I was talking to a student the other day who had taken a year out between her Masters and Doctoral studies and who was bemoaning the fact that in that twelve months she had read nothing but crime fiction and now was finding the discipline needed to read anything that demanded she react to it as an individual piece of work rather than as an example of a known pattern very hard to re-establish.  And, I know what she means.  If it wasn’t for the fact that I have to read other people’s selections for the book groups to which I belong I think I could very easily fall into that same trap. There is nothing wrong with a good dose of genre fiction every now and again, but when it becomes the sole item on the reading menu then the spectre of addiction rears its head and, I think, needs seeing to before it becomes a habit you can’t break.

Thank You

IMG_0001Dear Friends,

We are writing to say thank you for all the kind wishes that you have sent to Our Friend Alex (OFA).

She got proper poorly on Wednesday and Thursday but she is a little bit better today although her cough is still very bad and we are all very tired (and some of us are a little bit grumpy!).

We have been looking after OFA very well and feeding her on porridge and honey, which is good for colds (and good for Bears as well).  We will keep her very quiet over the weekend and then perhaps think about letting her come out to play at the beginning of next week.

Lots of Love,  The Bears.

P.S. Today is our Official Birthday.  Normally, there would be CAKE, but we are being very noble and waiting until OFA can enjoy it with us.

Reading for the Sick Room

sick-momCan any one tell me why it is that a Summer cold always feels so much worse than one that you catch during the Winter? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that you’re likely to be glad of an excuse to stay inside and cosset yourself when the wind and rain are doing their worst out of doors, whereas in the Summer months you are simply resentful of not being able to get out and about.  Whatever the reason I have woken up this morning with a dry throat, swollen glands and feeling dreadful.  There is absolutely no point in my trying to do anything profitable; it will only need doing again once I am well.  So, it’s a couple of days dozing in a chair punctuated by short bursts of re-reading for me.

When I’m not well I always seem to return to books that I’ve read in the past and which will therefore demand very little of me in the way of exercising any brain cells that haven’t already waved a white flag and surrendered in the face of the enemy. Often they will be children’s books that I knew and loved when I was teaching Children’s Literature.  In fact I think I am going to dig out my copies of Diana Wynne Jones’ novels and work my way through one or two of those.  But what do you turn to when the bugs have done their worst and you feel like nothing better than a weak and wimpy dishrag?  Even though I hope this isn’t going to be a protracted nor a recurring event, any suggestions would be very welcome.

The Silkworm ~ Robert Galbraith

18214414On a similar Saturday to this last summer, having read a tempting review of a crime novel by new writer Robert Galbraith, I was half way through The Cuckoo Calling and throughly enjoying it.  I was also, however, extremely frustrated because I knew that Galbraith was a pseudonym and with every page I was becoming more and more certain that this was no first novel.  Furthermore, I was certain that in one guise or another I had encountered Galbraith before.  I took myself through just about every other crime writer I had ever read but I couldn’t place what it was about the style of writing that was nagging away in the lower depths of my mind.

Fast forward twenty-four hours and the puzzle was solved.  I opened my Sunday paper to discover that Robert Galbraith was none other than J K Rowling.  Of course, within days The Cuckoo Calling had added a couple of noughts to its sales figures and the world and his wife had their noses buried in it but I have always been proud of the fact that I read Robert Galbraith rather than Rowling and that I’d made my judgement about the book before I knew who the author really was.

Where the second Cormoran Strike adventure is concerned no one is going to be able to read it with such innocent eyes but fortunately that really doesn’t matter because Galbraith/Rowling is such a consummate storyteller that within half a dozen pages I was completely engrossed and I would imagine the same would be true for anyone who enjoys quality crime fiction.

Strike, an ex-army private detective, is now on a rather firmer financial footing  than he was when we first met him, having attracted a good many clients on the back of the murder he solved in the previous novel.  This doesn’t mean, however, that he can afford to take on a case where there seems little likelihood of his ever receiving so much as a penny piece in recompense.  His secretary (cum assistant if she has her way) Robin, points this out to him in no uncertain terms after Leonora Quine asks Cormoran to find her errant husband, the novelist, Owen Quine.  It is clear that Leonora herself hasn’t the money to meet the detective’s fees and given the fact that Quine has not been noted for his Rowlingesque sales figures it doesn’t seem feasible that his agent will foot the bill as his wife has suggested. Nevertheless, something about the case sparks Strike’s interest and he undertakes to find the missing writer even though, as the story progresses, it becomes apparent that he might be better left lost.  For it seems that Owen Quine is not the nicest of people to know, certainly not if his forthcoming novel, Bombyx Mori is anything to go by.

In The Cuckoo Calling Galbraith held the worlds of celebrity status and the paparazzi up to scrutiny, in The Silkworm the author focuses fairly and squarely on the world of publishing and offers the reader a plot built around a series of petty squabbles and spiteful rivalries grown to such a magnitude that when they find voice in Quine’s unpublished novel it is perfectly feasible that they might drive someone to murder. And, given that said murder reflects the ending of Quine’s magnum opus, the pool of suspects is pretty easily defined. Easily defined, but not necessarily therefore easily narrowed down.  I had reached the last thirty or so pages before I felt confident about who the killer was and even then I thought I had got in wrong ten pages further on.  I have said this from the earliest days of Harry Potter, this writer can plot.

One of the aspects I like best about these books is the way in which Galbraith deals with the fact that Strike is not a member of the police force.  Given the way in which so much crime fiction now relies on the sort of specialist services to which only the police have access there has to be a limited range of cases that a private detective can handle.  In fact, most of Strike’s business entails establishing marital infidelities and Leonora comes to him about a missing person case which only later turns out to be a question of murder.  However, Strike recognises this and as far as possible works with the police, only launching out on his own when it becomes apparent that the official guardians of law and order are proving to be less competent than we might hope; there are some features of private eye literature that will never change.

This is a really good and, I would say, literary novel.  In fact, it is literary in more than one sense of the word.  It is, I think, good literature.  It is certainly crime fiction of the highest quality.  It is also about the literary world.  And, it is studded with references to other literary works including a tiny nod towards Harry Potter himself when Robin asks if no one has ever tried to give Strike the nickname of Lightning.  If you enjoy detective fiction and haven’t yet read Galbraith then you really should but I think anyone who revels in a good story, well told, would appreciate this and I very much hope that there will be more to come.

The Severed Streets ~ Paul Cornell

SeveredStreets.jpg.size-230-188x300In the dog days at the end of last year I stumbled across London Falling the first of Paul Cornell’s novels about DI James Quinn and the other members of his team of London police personnel involved in investigating a series of events that no self-respecting DI would really want to admit were happening.  Cornell, a scriptwriter from Doctor Who, had taken the supernatural elements from his televisual existence and blended them with the well loved formula of the police procedural and come up with a hybrid that is perhaps only comparable with the Peter Grant series by Ben Aaronovitch.  That first outing for DI Quinn and his colleagues had its scary moments but it also had a light touch that had me laughing as often as holding my breath.  Now, in The Severed Streets, the second book in the sequence, Cornell turns his attention to much more serious affairs and compels us to look deeper into the forces at work behind those financial and governmental institutions that control our lives whether we like it or not.  You can read my review of this excellent second novel in the latest edition of Shiny New Books by following the link below.


Astley Book Farm

IMG_0002What more could anyone ever ask than a book shop combined with a tea room which sells home made cakes?  Is there any better definition of heaven?  If so, I don’t think I’ve come across it and neither do I think I want to.

Having nothing better to do with my day :-), yesterday I went over to the Astley Book Farm, which, for those of you who know my neck of the woods, is between Meridan and Nuneaton and for those of you who don’t, lies bang smack in the middle of George Eliot country.  It is one of the biggest second hand book shops in Britain and a place that you should only ever enter after having already negotiated an overdraft with your bank manager.

IMG_0003It takes me about an hour to get there so of course the first necessity is a visit to the tearoom for what Pooh Bear would have described as a little something.  I would describe it as a very large slice of fruit cake.  They don’t do things by halves anywhere in this shop.  Please also pay heed to the proper teapot.  I notice these things. Tea out of one of those metal contraptions just doesn’t taste the same.

IMG_0004Suitably fed and watered you then move out of the refreshment area and into the main body of the bookshop.  It is advisable to bring a ball of twine with you because otherwise you may never find your way out of the labyrinthine layout of rooms and the shelves within those rooms.  I found it too complex to get any good pictures but if you follow the link above onto their website you will get some idea of what it is like.  In fact, there are so many books here that I find it a good idea to go over with at the very least a wish list of the authors whose works I might be looking for.  It would take you a full day to make your way carefully through all the nooks and crannies and so just lighting on one of those really special finds takes hard work here.

IMG_0005One area to which I am always drawn is the section where they keep all the volumes published by the Folio Society. They still tend to cost more than I can afford, but nevertheless I can always dream – this time most particularly about a lovely set of Andrew Lang’s collections of fairytales.  I suppose I might just have been able to buy one, but how would I ever have chosen which?  Also, tucked away up on the top right is a complete Pepys Diary.  I tell you, I am still lusting now.

IMG_0006So, what did I come away with?  I was very good and only collected four more volumes for the tbr pile.  The one on top is a volume of essays by Anne Fadiman, At Large and At Small.  I bought her collection Ex Libris some years ago and had to force myself to eke the essays out so as not to gorge on them all at once and make myself sick.  These are not in the main essays about books and reading, but I liked her style enough to want to read more whatever she might be writing about.  Besides, I was only complaining to a friend earlier in the week that I didn’t read enough essays so I’m hoping that these will kick start a habit.

Second in the pile is Laura Wilson’s first novel, A Little Death.  I’ve read and loved all of her DI Stratton books but haven’t read any of her other works.  Like the Stratton novels this is also crime fiction set in London and near enough in the period of her most recent book, the mid 1950s.  This is the time of my own childhood and so I’m going to be fascinated to see what memories it recalls.  If I remember correctly, Litlove was very complementary about this and so with a recommendation as strong as that it is probably the purchase to which I will turn first.

Then there is an early novel by Patrick Gale, The Facts of Life.  I only ‘discovered’ Gale in 2007 when he published Notes From an Exhibition, which I absolutely loved, so I have quite a back catalogue to explore.  Like Notes this book is concerned with a creative artist, in this instance a composer, Edward Pepper, exiled from his native Germany during the war.  Pepper marries an English woman and together they set up home in a bizarre folly which over the following decades is witness to the twists and turns of family life through the generations.  Gale is particularly good at letting character reveal itself through snapshots of events that take place over an extended period of time and I’m hoping that this hefty book (well over 500 pages) will work in the same way.

Finally, my pick from the remainders bin, a Peter Carey that I haven’t yet read, My Life as a Fake.  This is a good hardback copy that cost me only a pound because apparently they can’t get rid of Carey’s work.  I pause to shake my head in wonderment at the folly of North Warwickshire readers.  I love Carey and this is practically the last novel on the list needed to give me a full set of his works.  Using as a springboard an actual hoax that was perpetrated in Australia in the 1940s, Carey tells the story of a conservative young poet who decides to teach the literary establishment a lesson about pretension and authenticity by writing a sequence of lurid verses that he claims are the output of a working class poet conveniently dead at twenty-four.  Not only is everyone taken in by these works but the editor of the magazine that publishes them is prosecuted for obscenity.  However, in the middle of the trial a man who bears an uncanny resemblance to the fake picture of the poet appears and claims to be the writer himself.  No doubt, the twists and the turns start from there.

So, not a bad haul, I think.  After several beautiful days it is now pouring down here so there is nothing to take me out and nothing to get in the way of settling down to a very good read.

After the Curtain Call

Theatre-Curtains460_276I’m just emerging from my long weekend of theatrical extravaganza and am still a little dizzy with it all.  I remember a colleague once saying that he could tell when I hadn’t been to the theatre for some time because it was so apparent that my batteries needed recharging.  Well, at the moment I think said batteries may have been charged to the point where sparks are coming out.  Certainly, I am buzzing with all the thoughts that the productions I’ve seen have given rise to.

Overall, the performance to which I keep returning is the one I saw last Thursday.  For me the best theatre is that which speaks to the audience about the society in which they are living now and with its emphasis on the question of assisted suicide Ghosts did precisely that.  However, it was also the most powerfully staged and performed and the chill with which it left me is still palpably running up and down my spine.

Alan Ayckbourn’s A Small Family Business wasn’t quite what I was expecting.  Written at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s governmental power, it is about the consequences of greed at every level of society and while it is very funny it is also very concerning.  Jack McCracken has just taken over the family business when he is faced with the dilemma of what to do when his daughter is charged with a minor shoplifting offence.  Should he offer work to the private detective who has the power to drop the case or should he let her go to court?  As in so many of Ayckbourn’s plays, a relatively small decision has consequences that snowball until Jack finds himself enmeshed in a web of corruption that threatens the future of both family and business.

I can understand how, when this was first staged in 1987, it would have been cutting edge satire but we have seen so much more of what corruption can do since then and somehow for me this didn’t transfer to 2014 as well as I had expected.  I couldn’t fault the production or the acting but at best it left me squirming with embarrassment and at worst feeling thoroughly grubby.  Not Ayckbourn at his incisive best for me.

The Tempest was typical Globe Theatre and coming from me that isn’t always a complement.    I can’t come to terms with their need to play everything for laughs.  If you don’t know what I mean and you want to see them at their worst then try and get hold of a copy of their Richard II.  The funny bit in that ought to be the scene with the gardeners and even that should have you laughing through your tears.  What shouldn’t be the comic relief is Richard’s performance. Why you should want to make Richard a clown is beyond me.  I had a problem with their Twelfth Night as well, which admitedly is a comedy, but not surely at the expense of Olivia?  Anyway,  what I’m getting round to saying is that I don’t like being asked to laugh at Prospero.  If he isn’t scary then the play doesn’t work for me and much as I love Roger Allam he came over as far too avuncular.  In fact, he played him pretty much as if he was Fred Thursday.  And, what is more, although I’ve only just thought of it, Ferdinand became his Endeavour.  When the final curtain call is for Prospero, Miranda, Ariel and Ferdinand, and Caliban is banished to take his ovation with the smaller roles then you know the balance of the play is out, especially, as James Garnon acts the socks of everyone else on the stage.

Reading this back it sounds as though I had a pretty miserable weekend, but in fact, for me, almost any theatre is better than no theatre at all because you have to engage on a minute by minute basis and even if you’re disagreeing with the interpretation at least you are involved.  This coming weekend I’m going back to Stratford to see the other two plays in the Midsummer Madness series, so I’ll write about the ones I’ve already seen along with those.  I’m afraid I have to say, however, ‘don’t hold your breath’.

It was a good weekend, really!

Theatre Weekend

Book-Wise-16x20-600pxSorry, I seem to have been missing in action this past week. I managed to get myself into a situation where I had half a dozen deadlines to meet all at pretty much the same time and I had to turn my back on everything else just to make sure that I didn’t let anyone down.  And now, when it would be nice to settle down to some uninterrupted reading, I find myself in the middle of an unplanned theatre weekend, when I’m seeing five plays in as many days.

Tomorrow, I’m going over to Stratford to see two plays, one by Alice Birch and the other by Timberlake Wertenbaker, which are part of a programme of new work intended to be a present day response to The Roaring Girls season in the Swan Theatre. This season comprises three plays contemporary with Shakespeare’s work, which each features a strong woman in the main role, The Roaring Girl, Arden of Faversham and The White Devil.  Four playwrights have been asked to respond to the phrase, first coined by American historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, well behaved women seldom make history.  I’m also going to be attending a series of conversations about what it means to be a Roaring Girl today and how difficult it is for women to stand up and be heard not just in the theatre, but in all walks of life.  This is the first of four such events between now and the beginning of September and I have to say I’m very much looking forward to each one of them.

Then, on Sunday, I’m going to a NTLive screening of Alan Ayckbourn’s A Small Family Business.  I’m having a bit of a private Ayckbourne season just at present, having been to see Woman in Mind only last Saturday.  None of Ayckbourn’s plays are as frivolous as they might at first seem when you begin to dig beneath the surface, but Woman in Mind is the playwright at his bleakest and so I’m hoping for something on Sunday that will at least make me laugh at the same time as it makes me think.

Monday sees another live screening, this time of the Globe Theatre’s production of The Tempest with Roger Allam as Prospero.  Now, there’s a treat to look forward to.  Allam has come to more general notice in the past couple of years playing DI Thursday in the Morse spin-off Endeavour, however, I’ve been watching him on stage at Stratford since the early eighties and he was Javert in Les Mis when it first opened at the Barbican in 1985.  (I can’t believe it’s been that long since I saw that play!)  He’s an actor who has just continued to grow in stature with every performance he’s given and I’ve heard great things about his Prospero – mouthwatering!

But the weekend began early, last night, when I got to see yet a third screening (and how lucky we are to get the chance to see shows this way now) in this instance of the award winning West End production of Ibsen’s Ghosts.

I have seen Ghosts before on stage.  Indeed, I was lucky enough to see it with Vanessa Redgrave in the role of Mrs Alving.  However, either that was a very different translation or I simply wasn’t old enough at the time to take in the magnitude of  the issues that Ibsen is exploring.  Ghosts was a wonderful play to see just before the Roaring Girls day tomorrow because if ever there was a woman who suddenly found it in her to roar against the constraints that society has bound her by it is Helene Alving.  I was much more stuck this time round by the feminist issues in the play and the way in which both women are fighting for their right to shape their own lives in a society that still sees them as property and where the male perspective rules with a rod of iron.  I have a suspicion that when I saw it before it was at the time when AIDs was first making an appearance, and if that is the case you can understand why a production, as I remember that doing, would lay its emphasis on the issue of sexually transmitted diseases and focus on Oswald’s inherited syphilis.  Last night, I was much more aware of two other points.  The first was the way in which a man’s good name and reputation had to be put before even common sense let alone a woman’s point of view.  Pastor Manders was so self-serving!  It was a good job we were in the cinema; had we been in the theatre I would have found it very hard not to climb on stage and strangle him. Secondly, and topically, on the day when the question of assisted suicide again went through the courts here in the UK, was the issue of euthanasia.  In the script it is left open as to whether or not Mrs Irving actually decides to use the morphine that Oswald has begged her to administer should he have a final, debilitating, syphilitic attack.  In practice, on the stage every actress is going to have to make her mind up how the play will end.  In this production the brilliant Lesley Manville eventually finds the courage to give her son the drugs that will end his suffering.  It was a stark reminder of the terrible dilemma that the families of the terminally ill can face.

So, a wonderful start to what I hope will be a magnificent weekend of theatre and associated events.  And, the reason I won’t be around much until it’s over.  See you on the other side.

The Fishing Fleet ~ Anne De Courcy

FISHING FLEET UK ppbk Cover res 600dpiTwo of my reading groups are dedicated to reading fiction but the third occasionally adds a non-fiction book to the list, to leaven the load as it were, and so this month we’ve been reading Anne de Courcy’s book, The Fishing Fleet, an account of the women who travelled to India (and I use her words) husband-hunting in the Raj.

I am uneasy about this description because I think it makes these women out to be more mercenary than was the case.  Yes, for many of those concerned, the primary reason for undertaking the trip was the hope of finding a good marriage and indeed some of them were packed off by their families with that as the stated expectation, but when you consider the alternatives that faced so many women in a society where to be single was considered a failure, then I find it difficult to take what seems to me to be such a damning view.

It becomes even more difficult when you read about the hardships that these women, many not out of their teens, had to face.  While I actually found the chapters dedicated to particular individuals the most interesting to read, those which detailed particular aspects of life in the Raj over the years of Empire were often the most descriptive in terms of the harrowing life the women endured.  As well as extremes of climate, which meant that depending on your husband’s posting you could find yourself sweltering in the appalling heat and humidity of the hot season or preparing to be snowed in for months at a time, there was also the threat of illnesses that struck so fast a person could be well at breakfast and yet dead before the evening meal.

Between the mid 1880s and the early 1920s India were struck by a series of major epidemics. As well as malaria and cholera, both endemic, there was Spanish flu and bubonic plague.

Inevitably the young were the most vulnerable and many families left the graves of children behind when they finally returned to Britain.

Then there were the pleasures of rats and snakes to be dealt with, not to mention the possibility of earthquakes, floods and landslides.  And, above all, for those who did not live in the major centres of population but who found themselves instead isolated on a small plantation or rural army posting, there was the sheer boredom.  They might not see another British family from one month’s end to the next and not only were they without the paid occupation that kept their husbands busy they were also without those entertainments that we now take for granted.  There was no radio, no television, very little in the way of cinema and (gird your loins for this revelation) very few books. Books were not only cumbersome to take with you on a  hazardous journey from one posting to the next that could often take over a week, sometimes on camel back, but they were also unlikely to survive the ravages of mildew and the often fatal attacks of the local insect population.  This is one instance where an e-reader would have been a life saver,  except, of course, no internet – no electricity!

The hardship that de Courcy writes about most movingly, however, is that of separation.  For many wives of the Raj, as their children reached school age, there was the decision to be made as to whether they returned home with their sons and daughters when they were sent back to Britain for their education or whether they stayed in India with their husbands.  At a time when the journey between the two countries could take anything up to two months and when, at best, the men would be granted leave only once every four years (and often less frequently) this was a decision which they all had to make.

To be a Fishing Fleet girl who married into the Raj was to face this appalling, inescapable burden: separation from either husband or children sent home at a tender age to England for their education. ‘Early or late the cruel wrench must come – the crueler, the longer deferred,’ wrote Maud Diver. ‘One after one the babies grow into companionable children; one after one England claims them, till the mother’s heart and house are left unto her desolate.’

In her epilogue de Courcy asks

[d]id the Fishing Fleet girls have any real influence on the conduct of affairs in this vast country that was home to so many of them during the time of the Raj?

The short answer is no. The Raj was entirely run by men…the role of the British female was as wife, helpmeet and mother

While on one level that is clearly true, on another it is surely the case that without the women to keep their lives on an even keel many of those men would not have succeeded in the roles to which they were assigned.  Discouraged from marriage until they had reached an age (usually around thirty) or rank where they could afford to support a family, the men lived either in army quarters or in ‘chummeries’ where several bachelors together shared the expenses of a household. As might be imagined, this did not necessarily lead to a settled life style.

Writing to his father about his forthcoming marriage, Lieutenant Stuart Corbett says:

I shall be able by this step [his marriage] to lead a regular and steady life which I have not been able to do for the last 4 months, the Officers of the 2nd Battn being all single and fond of sitting up till 3 and 4 in the morning which I do not like and still as a single man am not able to avoid it. … I really think I shall be much more comfortable and be able to lead a life more after the manner in which I have been brought up and be better able to take care of my health which is one of the most important considerations in the world.

Unfortuately, de Courcy doesn’t tell us whether or not this marriage was a success but almost everything she does tell us pays tribute to the fact that those women who went out to India as part of the Fishing Fleet were in every way remarkable and as responsible for the success (or otherwise, depending on your point of view) of the British Raj as the men they so ably supported.