Monday, July 22, 2013

Going Back For Air

In literature and film, the general consensus seems to be that it is a mistake to revisit the past. Places and  people change. Any attempt to return to the scene of a long-cherished memory can only end in tears, like poor old George Bowling's return to his childhood home in Orwell's Coming Up For Air.

But like a fool, on Friday I set off on a six-hour journey to Wales for a reunion at my old university college. There would be people there I hadn't seen since T'Pau were in the charts. Would I recognise them? Would they recognise me?

The journey didn't begin well. I almost ran over a cat and my car's air conditioning stopped working (I'm not suggesting a causal relationship between the two events). By the time I joined the M25 the temperature had already hit 30 degrees and the traffic had slowed down to 25mph. At this rate, I would reach Lampeter in eleven hours if I hadn't died of heatstroke first.

However, although the car was hot, the music was cool, particularly this little number:

I made up for lost time on the M4, briefly entering hyperspace somewhere between Membury and Swindon. My impossible journey was now looking more hopeful. Perhaps I would reach Wales before nightfall.

When I finally left the motorway, somehere near Carmarthen, I found myself in countryside that was even more beautiful than I remembered, with lush, verdant valleys and densely-wooded hills. I was now in Welsh-speaking Wales and passed through villages with names that defeated my satnav lady: Llanllwni, Llanybydder, Maesycrugiau...

In Coming Up For Air, George Bowling is horrified to discover that the idyllic village of his boyhood has been transformed into a town of drab, modern housing estates and I wondered what I would find as I turned the corner at Cwmann and entered Lampeter. I needn't have worried:

Saint David's University College is the smallest campus the Britain, with a mere 750 students in a town with a population of around 3,500. I chose to go there because I wanted to experience something that was as far removed from my life in suburban London as possible. It was in Lampter that I learned the meaning of the the old Chinese proverb about being careful what you wished for.

Lampeter was very cut-off. The nearest city was 50 miles away and the town lacked a cinema, Indian restaurant or bookshop, so it wasn't exactly buzzing with life. Sundays were particularly grim, as the local authority was dominated by religious zealots who decreed that the pubs were not allowed to open.

But the plus side of the size and remoteness of Lampeter was that it was easy to get to know people and lack of local entertainment inspired some very creative solutions from the students (mostly alcohol-related, I'm afraid to say).

Saint David's attracted several categories of student. Some were there because they hadn't got the grades they needed to be accepted by the university of their choice, including of small contingent of Oxbridge rejects who were attracted by the architectural similarities with Christ Church college in Oxford.

A few chose Lampeter because of its long tradition as a theological college, training generation after generation of Anglican clergymen. Indeed, the SDUC rugby team was still known as the 'Vicars'.

Others, like me, were attracted by the University's rural setting and its rather eccentric character (I turned down the chance to study in a 'better' place because I hated the Brutalist architecture of the campus).

There was nowhere quite like Lampeter.

My weekend visit could have been a salutory lesson about the dangers of nostalgia for the George Bowlings of this world, but it turned out to be the most enjoyable thing I've done for a long time. Sitting outside the Union Bar at 1.00 in the morning, drinking with friends and people I hadn't seen since Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, I realised how happy I was.

It wasn't about going back. We had lived our lives all over again and weren't the people we were, but because we had all gone through something together at an important time in our past, I felt a deep affection towards everyone I met (along with a even deeper gratitude that they all recognised me).

At some point in the evening, we were joined by someone I never knew well but always liked, known as 'Earl Grey'. He had clearly been drinking for quite a while and showed no intention of slowing down, so I was rather surprised when he casually announced that he was being married by a druid in three hours' time. "I think he's in a car somewhere nearby. We're having a bit of a party tomorrow. You should all come's not far."

The Earl rattled off an set of directions which I knew would lead to disaster (I've learned to be wary of anyone who uses the phrase "You can't miss it"), so I got out my smartphone and asked him to point his house out on Google Earth. He couldn't find it and we ended up with a name and an instruction to turn left.

The following morning, we were in a dilemma. Would the Earl remember inviting us? He was quite drunk. But on the other hand, if Earl Grey was expecting us, it would be rude not to make an appearance. We decided to go and after a slightly challenging journey, found him drinking tea in his garden:

Earl Grey gestured to us to sit down at a wooden table and as I was thinking what a nice little garden he had, it gradually transpired that he also owned the adjoining fields and a river. The Earl gave us a tour of his land, which included a cider making facility, bee hives, an orchard, a caravan and the site of a medieval building.

I don't usually fall victim to envy, but it was hard not to be impressed:

Earl Grey even has his own sword in a stone, albeit a slightly rusty one:

And he built the bridge in the background. 

We sat by the river, with John Renbourn playing gently in the background, next to a table laid with grapes, bread and cheese. I think I must be a bit of an old hippy at heart, as this seemed like paradise:

But Earl Grey's estate is a mere suburban garden, compared to his friend Paul, who is also an ex-Lampeter student. When Paul left university, he tried a number a jobs, including working at Threshers in Putney, but had a hankering to go back to Wales. Once he'd made his mind up to return, he learned Welsh and took any job he could find until he had enough money to buy some land.

Today, Paul owns ten acres of land, somewhere up a nearby mountain. Because his house is at a higher altitude, he gets snowed-in for at least two weeks longer than Earl Grey. It's a lifestyle that wouldn't suit everyone (he didn't get electricity until 2003), but he seems a contented man.

I felt inspired by my visit to Earl Grey and, perhaps, a little dissatisfied with my pokey little house and its postage stamp-sized garden. They really were 'living the dream' and, unlike some English incomers, had made a real effort to integrate into the local community. I returned home a little misty-eyed, then my wife reminded me that it wasn't her dream and suggested I went there in February.

In the evening I squeezed into an old dinner jacket for a Lampeter Society dinner and had a very enjoyable time. After several difficult months, it was a tonic to be with old friends again and I left feeling as if I'd come back from a very long holiday.

I realise that it can be a mistake to revisit the past, but last weekend I learned that it can be an even bigger mistake to turn your back on it.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Mrs Woolf and Mr Bennett

During a recent illness, I had to spend a few days in bed and quickly became very bored. After an unrewarding browse through Twitter, I remembered how much comfort I'd derived from reading Of Human Bondage the year before and decided that what I needed was a big, Edwardian doorstep of a novel. But what?

On Google searches, the name 'Arnold Bennett' frequently appeared, but each time I dismissed him without a moment's consideration. The very idea! But why was I so prejudiced against a novelist who had once been called "the English Zola"? I couldn't quite remember.

In an excellent New York Times article, Who's Afraid of Arnold Bennett?, Wendy Lesser neatly sums up the problem with Bennett:

"I have an experiment for you to try. The next time you're at a literary gathering, ask 10 people whether they've ever read Arnold Bennett. Now, by ''literary gathering'' I do not mean your run-of-the-mill publisher's cocktail party, your average book award ceremony. For the experiment to work, you have to choose a group consisting of people who actually read -- anti-Derridean English professors, say, or poets over the age of 40, or freelance writers who pack Trollope novels in their vacation luggage.

Even in such a narrowly selected group, I predict, no more than one in ten will have read an Arnold Bennett novel. One or two will honestly confess they've never heard of him; another two or three will say his name sounds vaguely familiar. But fully half your sample is likely to pipe up with the information that though they haven't read Bennett himself, they have read Virginia Woolf's 1924 essay ''Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.'' And that essay, they will suggest, made it abundantly clear that there was no need ever to read Arnold Bennett.
I find it disturbing that Virginia Woolf, the possessor of an intense but extremely limited form of genius, should have been able, in the course of just 60 or 70 years, to crowd a great novelist like Arnold Bennett right off the literary map. It is as if you had planted a delightfully unusual ground cover in your garden, only to discover some years later that its rampant spread had killed your favorite oak. (Well, not oak, exactly. Charles Dickens is an oak. Bennett is more like an unruly old apple tree: he could use some pruning, but the fruit is delicious." 

After reading the Clayhanger trilogy, I couldn't agree more. I'd always lumped Arnold Bennett in with contemporaries like Hugh Walpole - by all accounts, an average writer of middlebrow fiction. But although the trilogy itself isn't a masterpiece, the first part certainly comes close.

I hadn't read Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, but Woolf's 24-page essay is available here and it's interesting how she flatters Bennett with faint praise before going for the jugular, using his own assertion about the importance over character over plot to highlight his supposed inadequacies as a novelist.

According to Virginia Woolf, Arnold Bennett is too preocuupied with extraneous details to ever get to the heart of a character. In Hilda Lessways - the middle and arguably least successful novel of the Clayhanger trilogy - the characters of Hilda and her mother fail to establish themselves because the author is obsessed with bombarding the reader with facts about where they live:

"We cannot hear her mother's voice, or Hilda's voice; we can only hear Mr. Bennett's voice telling us facts about rents and freeholds and copyholds and fines. What is Mr. Bennett about? I have formed my own opinion of what Mr. Bennett is about - he is trying to make us imagine for him; he is trying to hypnotise us into the belief that because he has made a house, there must be a person living there."

This would be more convincing if there was no Clayhanger, but in Hilda Lessways, the heroine is already a firmly-established character. Why has Woolf picked the middle book in a trilogy to prove her point? I can't help feeling that the literary feud between Woolf and Bennett was mainly a consequence of their different social backgrounds.

For Virginia Woolf, "facts about rents and freeholds" may have been superfluous, but Arnold Bennett knew that to people on a low income, they were anything but. Born in a lower class family, Bennett endured a brief and unhappy spell as a rent collector in Stoke on Trent and saw how people were thwarted by circumstances, slaves to the whims of the local economy.

Perhaps Woolf viewed the working class as a separate species - noble (and ignoble) savages - rather than just people whose characters had only been allowed to grow in a very small pot, limited by lack of money and opportunity. To describe their lives without mentioning the details of their homes, the clothes they wore and the rents they paid would be absurd.

It is tempting to imagine a northern, working class version of Mrs. Dalloway (perhaps Mrs. Dalloby), but I don't think there would be much time in the day for any stream of consciousness.

Of course, Woolf had her own demons to contend with, but they were not financial. Her success as a writer and, later, a feminist icon, was partly achieved because of the freedoms Woolf's monied background provided. While Woolf sat in her 'room of own's one', contemplating the finer points of Elizabethan drama or the Brontes, Nellie Bloxall was busy cooking, cleaning, making the beds and emptying the chamber pots.

Arnold Bennett began his literary career began under very different circumstances and although he eventually became financially secure, he never lost the habit of one who has to write for a living, remaining an artisan in the literary world.

If Clayhanger was all about lists and facts, it would be a very dull book indeed, but the reality is a novel that succeeds on two fronts, creating a broad canvas that vividly evokes the Stoke-on-Trent of the late Victorian age, with a cast of characters who are credible and sympathetic. It took me a little while to become fully engaged with the narrative, but I found the final three quarters of the novel utterly compelling.

Why did Bennett go out of fashion? Did the Woolfs and Leavis's of this world really exert such a strong influence on the reading public? Perhaps Arnold Bennett simply committed the unpardonable sin of being too prolific, publishing mediocre novels as well as good. I also wonder if big, chunky, traditional novels, by working class northerners with bad teeth, are less attractive than slim, experimental, impressionistic ones, by frail-looking aesthetes.

John Carey, in his highly entertaining book The Intellectuals and the Masses, hails Bennett as a hero and suggests that Woolf and company deliberately cultivated a style that would be inaccessible to the 'wrong' sort of people:

"The intellectuals could not, of course, actually prevent the masses from attaining literacy. But they could prevent them reading literature by making it too difficult to understand."

Carey also believes that Arnold Bennett's literary fate was sealed because:

"His writings represent a systematic dismemberment of the intellectuals' case against the masses."

Clayhanger was a revelation and I look forward to read more Bennett. According to Wendy Lesser, The Old Wives' Tale is his masterpiece, but I've also read good reviews of Riceyman Steps and Anna of the Five Towns.

I'll leave the last word to Mr. Bennett himself:

"A cause can be inconvenient, but it's magnificent. It's like champagne or high heels, and one must be prepared to suffer for it."