Monday, October 22, 2012

South Riding

It may seem perverse to describe a novel that has been filmed once, adapted for television twice and never been out of print since publication, as a forgotten masterpiece. But now that I've read 'South Riding', I understand why people have applied this label to Winifred Holtby's last book.

Holtby's story of provincial life didn't bowl me over from the first page. There seemed to be too many characters and I wasn't quite sure where the narrative was heading, but I persisted and my admiration began to grow with each chapter. By the end, I was convinced that I had read a novel that was every bit as good as 'Middlemarch'.

Set during 1933-34, in a thinly-disguised part of Yorkshire that stretches from Hull to Horsea, South Riding is an ambitious novel with a cast of characters that range from the local gentry to a family living in slum accommodation. Many stories of this kind collapse under the weight of their own ambition, but Winifred Holtby pulls it off an aplomb that few writers could match.

There are many reasons why South Riding works as a book, but here are just four. First and foremost, it has credible, three-dimensional characters that the reader cares about, with a very moving love story at the core of the novel . Second, although Holtby clearly has something to say about the condition of England, the narrative never feels as if it is being driven by a crude political agenda. Third, there is a good balance between the broad canvas of a community and the more intimate portraits of some of its citizens. Fourth, although South Riding contains many elements that wouldn't be out of place in a Victorian novel (including a homage to Charlotte Bronte), the author writes with a candour that must have shocked many contemporary readers.

Perhaps South Riding was a little racy because Winifred Holtby had nothing to lose. Diagnosed with Bright's disease in 1931, the 33-year-old author was given two years to live. South Riding is the work of a dying woman, who put everything she had into her last work. The result is a passionate, life-affirming masterpiece.

This isn't the place for a biographical sketch of Winifred Holtby or a summary of the narrative, but I should mention the fact that as the author was an active socialist, pacifist and feminist, you would expect South Riding to be something of a manifesto, with the novel's heroes representing the forces of progress and egalitarianism.

In the hands of a lesser writer that's probably what you'd get. But to coin Virginia Woolf's description of Middlemarch, South Riding is a novel for grown-ups, not a pantomine with easily recognisable villains and heroes. Its characters are flawed individuals, struggling against the limitations of background and circumstance. It is to Holtby's credit that one of the novel's heroes is a man who stands for everything she fought against.

South Riding has been described as a story of 'provincial life', which may suggest that its scope is narrow and its ambitions limited. But nothing could be further from the truth. This is, without a doubt, a truly great novel that has an enduring message about the human condition.

This blog contains a much better review of South Riding than anything I could write, so if your appetite is even slightly whetted, please click on the link.

I'll finish with a few quotes that I particularly liked:

"And who are you to think that you could get through life without pain? Did you expect never to be ashamed of yourself? Of course this hurts you. And it will go on hurting. You needn't believe what they say about time healing. I've had seventy years and more of time and there are plenty of things in my life still won't bear thinking. You've just got to get along as best you can with all your shames and sorrows and humiliations. Maybe in the end it's those things are most use to you."

"We're so busy resigning ourselves to the inevitable that we don't even ask if it is inevitable. We've got to have courage, to take our future into our hands. If the law is oppressive, we must change the law. If tradition is obstructive, we must break tradition. If the system is unjust, we must reform the system."

"I'm an old woman. But when you're seventy you don't always feel old. I know I don't. There are times when you find yourself thinking of yourself as a girl. 'Now the girl went downstairs.' 'Now the girl put her hat on.' And then you look in the glass and there's a stiff heavy lump of an elderly person facing you, your face all wrinkles and the life gone out of your limbs. But you can still feel young."

The latest Virago edition has an introduction from Shirley Williams, whose mother - Vera Brittain - was Holtby's best friend. Sadly, the jacket design portrays a very different Yorkshire to the flat wolds that make up the landscape of South Riding:

The two television adapatations were filmed 37 years apart. One is a 13-part ITV series by Stan Barstow, filmed in 1974. The other is a three-part BBC mini-series from last year. Comparing clips of the two, the 2011 version looks stunning, but probably only bears a passing resemblance to Holby's novel, whereas Barstow's adaptation appears to be pretty faithful to the original narrative, so there's no competition.

It's a great pity that screen adaptations of classics have become such vapid affairs in recent years - beautiful to look at, but hacked to death until the result looks like a trailer.

But that is a subject for another blog post. I think the last word should go to the wonderful Winifred Holtby:

“These are the moments of revelation which compensate for the chaos, the discomfort, the toil of living. The crown of life is neither happiness nor annihilation: it is understanding. The artist’s intuitive vision; the thinker’s slow, laborious approach to truth, climbing through the alphabet of A, B, C, D, up to R, on the long way to Z; the knowledge that comes to the raw girl, to the unawakened woman—this is life; this is love. These are the moments in which all the disorder of life assumes a  pattern; we see; we understand; and immediately the intolerable burden becomes tolerable; we stand for a moment on the slopes of that great mountain from the summit of which we can see truth, and thus ‘enjoy the greatest felicity of which we are capable.’

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Dignity of Labour

When I left high street bookselling, I swore that I'd never work on a Saturday again. But that was before I ended up here:

Even on a grey, misty morning, the drive to my cow shed always cheers me up. The fields appear still and empty, but the surrounding hedgerows are full of life and as I approach, rabbits, squirrels and pheasants run for cover, whilst hopeful sparrowhawks hover above. So far I haven't hit any animals, but a man in Spandex cycle shorts almost came a cropper.

The cow shed may be rather spartan, but it is in a beautiful, quiet place, run by an old Sussex 'gentleman farmer', whose family have been there for generations. After years of working in awful places like Slough and Crawley, it seems too good to be true.

I could quite happily stay there forever, but sadly I'm about to leave and move here:

This is a very different sort of farm - one where sullen, limbless people glare at visitors and the ground is littered with dead rats, whilst semi-erect dogs bark half-heartedly. I'm not joking about the limbs, by the way. I saw four people today and only two of them were in full possession of their extremities. I shall steer clear of any farm machinery while I'm here.

Why am I swapping my rural idyll for this post-apocalyptic settlement, you may ask? The answer is simple: money. The new barn is relatively cheap, with enough space to allow the business to expand significantly. It also has doors that are big enough to take lorries, so deliveries and waste collections will no longer involve an absurd, albeit scenic, time-wasting drive around the lanes of East Sussex.

The one downside of a large space is that it will be impossible to heat, so I have spent most of today building a garden shed-cum-office with a carpenter from Brighton:

I'd been a little apprehensive about spending a whole day making something with a complete stranger, but I needn't have been. The carpenter from Brighton was a true gentleman and when the time came to say goodbye, I felt a genuine pang of regret.

As we chatted, he told me that he'd left school at 16 and joined his father's business in the building trade. He loved the work, but hated the environment: "You know, there's only so long that you can work with racist, homophobic Sun readers." He has now set up a silk screen printing business, but still does a bit of carpentry on the side. I wish him well.

The shed may not be the height of luxury, but it will be warm and I'm sure that with a little effort, I can imbue it with the opulence of an Ottoman palace.

It took six hours to build the shed, which was quite long enough for me - I'm not a huge fan of manual labour. When I returned home, my reward was reading the Guardian Weekend magazine in a very deep, hot bath.

I will miss the old farm, with its chocolate box scene of lush green fields and rolling hills in the distance. The new farm is muddy, smelly and unfriendly, but offers me the chance to make hay while the sun is still shining, if you'll forgive the crass metaphor. I've no idea what will happen to the book trade during the next few years, but I have to assume the worst.

In the meantime, I have found a new rural idyll:

While I'm hanging around, waiting for my son to finish his hour of 'farm therapy', I get to brush the mud out of a pony called Lucy. She seems to enjoy it and I'm picking up a useful skill for the post-apocalyptic society that will begin in 2017.

Everyone's a winner.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

More Random Photos Found in Books

I almost avoided using the r-word in the title of the post, as it has been hijacked by teenage girls - "That's like, so random" (with the annoying questioning intonation at the end) - but 'miscellaneous' sounds a little too cosy, as if I should be sitting next to a roaring log fire, sucking a Werther's Original.

Today's selection consists of five photographs, in chronological order, and a postcard.

We begin with a family portrait taken, I presume, during the First World War. The young sailor looks a little more cheerful than his poor brother - and with good reason. The number of casualties in the Royal Navy between 1914 to 1918 was 35,000. In the British Army, almost a million lives were lost.

As a father of two sons, I can't begin to imagine what the parents of servicemen went through during World War One. I know that in my own family, the death of a young man in the Battle of Loos affected three generations of people for decades after. Indeed, my grandmother never really recovered and even as late as the 1970s, still clung on to the belief that her brother had survived, but lost his memory.

I wonder whether both of the young men in the photograph survived.

Next, a photo of a man who looks as if he was named Len:

This picture is from the days when men still wore ties in the workshop and had a decent selection of pencils in their top pocket. Len probably subscribed to the 'Valves Yearbook' and certainly knew his oscillators from his cavity resonators.

The invention of the printed circuit has taken all the fun out of electronics, in the same way that the synthesizer ruined the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. A microchip is no substitute for a roomful of glowing valves, overheating diodes and magnetron tubes.

The 1970s, when children could still cycle around suburban streets with only a 23% chance of getting knocked down by a passing motorist. Drivers were still 'motorists' then, as if they possessed a professional skill like a chemist or dentist. If you were a driver, you were probably sitting behind the wheel of a van or lorry.

A grainy 1978 study, next to an unusual window. The back of the photo doesn't give any clues. Is the younger man Sebastian Faulks?

It would be so easy to write something about this photo, but I will refrain, except to say that I'm sure that he was the apple of his mother's eye.

Finally, can anyone guess which part of London this postcard shows?

Obviously it's a trick question. It's not London, it's Tehran. I had no idea that they had Routemaster buses, but a quick check on Google confirms that they used to be a 'main feature' of the city's public transport system. 

The other side of the card contains some nice stamps of the Shah and a mention of the 'appetising' food.

Fingers crossed for Iran that Mitt Romney doesn't get elected. In fact, fingers crossed for all of us that Mitt Romney doesn't get elected. 

Was that too random?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Tooth Will Out

I was sitting in the dentist's chair yesterday, about to have a new crown fitted - the old one was gold and made me look like a James Bond villain. I'd been assured that the old crown was too far back for anyone to see it, but every Christmas photograph showed me smiling like a pimp and I was getting fed-up with having to airbrush the offending molar out in Photoshop. It was time for a change.

Tap, tap, tap. "How does the tooth feel?" It hurt. Surely there shouldn't be any pain at all if the nerve had been removed? The dentist explained that some root canal fillings fail, but she knew a man who could probably fix it for £600.

£600 seemed a lot of money to spend on a tooth that occasionally hurt a little, but then I found myself making the following calculations:

If I die at the same age as my father, then I'll live for roughly another 12,000 days. £600 divided between 12,000 is around 5p a day. Would I spend 5p a day to avoid suffering from dental pain whenever I ate? Yes, absolutely. 

Suddenly it all seemed very clear and I tried to explain my reasoning to the dentist, but as soon as I alluded to any intimations of mortality, I knew I'd gone too far. I might think about my death every day, from the basic questions of when and how, to the more trivial ones like how many novels I'll read before I die, but my dentist just needed a simple yes or no.

Spending money on dentistry is as rewarding as repairing a gutter, but the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. By the time they were 40, both of my parents had dentures, which foamed at night in pink and blue plastic containers on their bedside tables. Without their teeth, they looked like figures from a nightmare.

As a child, I was given the impression that the same fate awaited me. My mother certainly did everything she could, albeit unwittingly, to ensure that I followed the same path. Every bedtime I was given a glass of orange squash, which I sipped through the night, bombarding my teeth with a relentless assault of sucrose.

During the day, sweets were added to the mix: Trebor Mints, sherbert lemons, fruit salad chews, Spangles, Refreshers and the original Curly Wurly, which could remove a filling quicker than a Harley Street dentist:

If we were travelling anywhere by train, I could also expect to be treated to a bar of Dairy Crunch, if the Nestle vending machine didn't swallow my 5p. My teeth didn't stand a chance.

By the age of seven, I was already being given fillings. An unscrupulous dentist called Mr Maclean claimed a small fortune from the NHS by filling milk teeth that were about to fall out. To add injury to insult, he didn't bother giving me any injections. It was like being in Marathon Man.

I bore the pain with a stoicism that my sons regrettably lack and my reward for bravery was a record of this:

Filmed in Teddington in winter, it was probably the last time I found Benny Hill funny.

I often wonder why my mother was (and still is) determined to give me as much sugar as possible. Was it the wartime rationing that gave her generation an obsession with toffees and biscuits, or simply the novelty of being able to afford things that were once rare treats?

By the age of 20, most of my teeth had fillings and during the last 25 years, I've felt like a late Byzantine emperor, fighting a futile war of attrition against an increasingly powerful enemy. But all hope is not lost. According to the dentist, my gums are in reasonably good shape and none of the teeth have quite reached the point of no return.

The foaming denture containers will have to wait.

I will finish with this piece of popular verse, which will be familiar to most readers in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, but probably unknown to anyone else. It wouldn't be the same in another accent:

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Nature and Nurture

My oldest son turned 13 today - an occasion that would probably inspire mixed emotions in most parents. In my son's case it's all a little more complicated. His refusal to go to school or travel beyond the environs of Lewes makes me wonder how he is going to negotiate his way through the teen years and emerge as an employable, datable adult.

When I look at photos of the small, wrinkled creature whose whole hand was half the length of my index finger, it's sometimes hard not to wonder if we could have pursued a course that would have guaranteed a different outcome. But then I remember everything my wife did: becoming a full-time mother, buying organic food we couldn't afford, organising play dates and constantly reading to my son. She was jokingly nicknamed the 'perfect mother'.

Perhaps the one thing that could have made a difference was if we'd got a diagnosis six years earlier, rather than being labelled by some psychologists as the ineffectual parents of a badly behaved boy (on one occasion, a rather strange German woman, who wore an absurdly revealing top, turned to us and said "Why do you want to medicalise your child? Hiss behaviour is just simple sibling rivalry").

In the face of 'expert opinion', we meekly acquiesced. Perhaps we were just neurotic, middle class parents, over-intellectualising problems that were simply the result of poor parenting. It took many years and a lot of suffering on our son's part before we met a psychiatrist who changed everything.

I feel rather anxious about the next few years, but there are plenty of positives too. My son is a bright, quirky individual with a good sense of humour and a strong moral sense (when his classmates started using 'gay' as a term of abuse, he not only refused to join in, but openly challenged anyone that said it). He will never be part of the crowd and that's no bad thing, but isolation can be debilitating.

As he grows older, my son should find more people like himself and has the potential to lead a fulfilling life, if he can just find his niche. His main challenge is to find a way of functioning in the world of neurotypicals who won't understand why he doesn't want to go on the staff trip to Thorpe Park or attend a two-day seminar in Telford.

In the meantime, we're trying to fill his life with calming, fulfilling activities that will also get him away from the Xbox. That latest idea is 'farm therapy':

The concept is simple enough. You go to a farm, groom the animals, feed them and do a few odd jobs. It's basic farming, but without the stress of crippling debts, EU quotas and bullying supermarket executives. It's supposed to be very effective for children with severe anxiety.

It's also very good for adults too. As I brushed the mud off a pony, I felt myself experiencing flow and left feeling more physically and mentally relaxed than I had been for a long time. Why should brushing mud off an animal be so rewarding?

On reflection, I liked the way the pony became very still and seemed to enjoy the brush strokes. I also enjoyed the repetition of the action and the way the coat became increasingly silky as the dirt was brushed out. When it was time to groom the pigs, the snorting and probing snouts added an element of humour too.

The farm was only a mile away, but it felt like another world, far removed from the nonsense of marketing meetings, public relations and rebranding exercises. I'm not sure if my son wants to go back, but if he doesn't I'll go on my own.

Finally, on the theme of nature, I went for a walk up on the Downs today and found something unusual in this puddle:

It was easy to miss. Barely thicker than a blade of grass and just under an inch long, this baby newt stopped next to a piece of string:

Judging by the recent weather, there seems little danger of the pond drying up, so I only hope that it survives the steady traffic of horses hooves and hiking boots, not to mention the adders.

I was going to say something along the lines of the best things in life being free, but apparently the farm therapy isn't, so I'll have to think of another platitude.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Plagiarism or Coincidence?

In this post, I wrote about the issue of plagiarism versus coincidence.

Today, I came across another example:

Is one of the most successful children's book franchises actually a shamless rip-off of a title by an obscure author?

Did Ursula Hourihane die in penury whilst Wilbert Awdry recklessly blew his earnings on model railway accessories?

Sadly, Miss Hourihane's book is undated, but after a little detective work it looks as if the illustrator, Rene Cloak, may have been inspired by a certain children's book about steam engines with faces, that was published a few years earlier.

The similarities with Thomas can't be a coincidence, can they?

If only it was the other way round. I'd love to think that beneath his amiable exterior, the Rev. Awdry hid a dark, shameful secret, flinching at the mere mention of Ursula Hourihane's name.

On the other hand, it would also be fun to portray the elderly Miss Irene Mabel Cloke as a shameless plagiarist, who lived in fear of being exposed as the Railway books became increasingly popular.

Sadly, the truth is probably a lot duller.