First love; first light: Seduced by Adam Bede

First Love, First Light: Seduced by Adam Bede

Adam Bede Loamshire
The rough roads

 

I have not addressed the wider world for many moons. I lost any belief that I have new things to say, nor could I find any convincing reason why anyone should heed them if I had. Writing my memoir was an exercise to keep an old brain flexible, and discover whether my life had really had the importance I ascribed to it. It always seemed hell bent on commanding my energies towards something that evaporated as soon as it was accomplished. Anyway…

In recovering my own innocence, so that my disillusionment should shine the brighter, I have been revisiting the books that I now realise shaped not merely my ideas but my very life itself. I searched out what started as fiction and became my reality. The first critical vision of noble loyalty (whether accurate historically is beside the point) was John of Gaunt in Anya Seton’s Katherine. What a mensch he was! But that was all courtly, braided, curtailed and remote from my own world. It fed a kind of velvet dream but could not be dragged back into every daylight. It was a scented sachet of a book that spread lavender at unexpected moments, mostly a vision of an England I longed to know. A place of history and self confidence, a romantic hero of constancy.

-Library_books

Far more binding were the ropes of Adam Bede. In my school we were only permitted to read ‘approved fiction’ that were ranked in a dusty room under the keys held by the Latin teacher- the book room. There we could sort through Dickens, Trollope, Walter Scott in uniform bindings and bear away one book that we could read when prep was over but before the bell release. Adam Bede was my literary initiation. I was smitten at fourteen with a complete hero, but equally with a world I felt I knew. It was the recovery of the best beloved, both exultant joy and weepful gratitude!

I have just re-read it, with some trepidation, for I was afraid to lose the first work that gave me not only a world, but a passion for what literature was. I suspect I was unconscious of that directly, but it lay as undisturbed as the thatched hayricks await the need for food before they are dismantled and borne away. I do crave the recovery of that food, my own innocence that can be aroused, and here is where trepidation begins because I doubt that many now would read it without a curled lip- oh really! Too much! People aren’t like that!

Snow-covered_hay-rick_and_forlorn_sheep_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1160991

Innocence is now disdained in fiction, yet George Eliot was far from innocent when she wrote her first real novel. Yes, like most writers her first work is autobiographical, but for a sophisticate critic, long a Londoner, always a travelling, now in Berlin at the Opera, now with Franz Liszt for breakfast, she immerses herself back in ‘Loamshire’ in the village of Hayslope and gives us her own innocence amongst the characters that are scattered in steady farmsteads or tumbling cottages, where bright brooks well from the ground and all travel takes much walking. They all have dogs, Gyp, Juno, and Vixen and the dogs are ever present, monitoring and observing.

This was my first visit to rural England, where the seasons turn with dependable benevolence, and currents are harvested by small children in stained pinafores, and workers treated after the fields lie to stubble. It was that steady antiquity of tradition that I longed to be part of, and to be encompassed by. I realised again the power of its portrait, back along. In South Africa there was no such antiquity, nor communities of such steadiness. We were all tossed by more violent seasons, and more cogent fears, and a spectacular landscape in which we had had small part. The country was not shaped to fold its cloak of steeples and hedges about our shoulders; we had hardly penetrated its autonomy. We could love it for its beauty, its wild storms, its cirrus or cumulo-nimbus skies, but if we walked away it would not notice our departure.

mongolia-tarvagatai_mountains_in_khangai_range

So the England of Adam Bede held out such a hand of comfort. But here’s the thing. It still does. It no more exists now, than it did for a 60’s South African.  But in the mind rural Loamshire remains perfect, for what it said about George Eliot’s love of her country, her family’s experience among such people. There will be many (probably most) who would find the book improbable, for its almost universal redemption of error, or disgrace. The Methodist sermons of Dinah the preacher are overlong for today’s literary scrimping, that must apostrophe for scant concentrations but they reflected George Eliot’s own rejection of her father’s Church observance, and the hostility she faced. She was exploring their appeal as much for herself as the rough workers who gathered on the hillsides to be captivated by a woman in a white cap and grey dress.

Then there are the long entertainments of dialect and the acidic or philosophical in Mrs Poyser’s pithy put-downs. George Eliot had a wicked enjoyment of language, its metaphors and disrespect;  her characters did not ‘give-over’ nor, even when moved to change, do so easily. So at then end when all ends well, I was not provoked to disbelief. They were their best selves in a society small enough to temper, and close enough to reject. Rather pleased they had survived their trials, more or less unchanged.

I did not start this piece with a review in mind, but rather an examination of my own naïveté, and in the hope of taking up the pen with greater conviction. I might now, and allow myself to entertain rather than follow the plot of my life. I shall do what George Eliot does, reading a reader’s thought, break off and speak directly to counter their misgivings, plead for my prejudices as though prejudice is permissible, and acknowledge that the point of a book is to share what is important to the writer, not conform to expectations. If a reader knows beforehand what they seek, they might as well write it themselves.

My mother did not often speak of her monotonous schooldays in Staffordshire, where she boarded for six long years without ever going back to Uganda for holidays. Instead she and her sister spent them with a Welsh Methodist preacher’s family where Sundays meant chapel and no swimming. But she did tell me of school Easter Sundays walking to church in heavy cloaks, with the snow falling on the daffodils and on the straw boater, and ‘Let us pray’ dripped melted snow onto the prayer books. That was why Easter was always more important than Christmas. Literature is built of single moments and may need nothing more than capturing them, without asking for more.

Daffodils_on_Easter_Sunday_in_Jenny_Wood_-_geograph.org.uk_-_767075

By di ablewhite, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13434662

By Joan Sykes, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13882295

Review of Wood,Talc and Mr J by Chris Rose.

Wood,Talc, and MrJ by Chris Rose.

‘You weren’t supposed to be clever where I came from…’

Readers who are used to Walkers Crisps in portioned packets will find opening this unfamiliar shrink wrapped alternative challenging. I certainly did. The first taste is of something indefinable; salty and lime flavoured, with more than a hint of sea, of vinegar, of jellied eels and certainly bracing. This book takes a willingness to be persuaded, but becomes increasingly addictive, as you bite into separate scenes, and ride a great many buses in pursuit of Sheffield United, the possibility of ‘gear’ or a good dust up with Skin heads or Rockers, and those who fail to appreciate the finer distinctions in Motown and Soul. This is not a world I know anything about, yet something in the self-effacing and evocative staccato began to mesmerize. It got better and better, once the idiom lodged, and more compelling.

I am not sure I can analyse why, or even that I garnered half of what its sharp language referred to, for it is a new language, and describes a world as unfamiliar as Bangladesh, although it only asks me to travel as far as Sheffield, Ilkley, Barnsley, Skegness and environs. Names and words encircle. Well that’s not all: it asks me to take on trust Sheffield in the seventies, through the eyes ears and nostrils of Phillip, its narrator and interpreter of the author’s sardonic, nostalgic and dismissive memory. Into Phillip he pours his unstated affection for his home but like a shirt tail that should not escape but does. If a reader is tempted to sympathy, it quickly disappears.

I feel I begin to get a little closer to its hooking summons to travel with it: Phillip is disarmingly devil-may-care on the surface. He refuses any self indulgence; his affectionate love of Grom (his grandmother-Edith) is epitomized by his refusal not only to take the same bus with her to work, (in Hell’s Satanic Mill) but a different bus route entirely. Her habit of torturing him by eating pungent and unsavoury food with gusto (and without teeth) and in public is politely avoided without resentment on either side.

This family understands one another. They are diffident, tolerant, undemonstrative, and loyal, and the influence of Grom permeates, even when she is absent. His father’s moral rectitude about the obligations of work and discipline, however unrewarded (except in affording legitimacy to weekends letting rip) stem from Grom, almost everything retains integrity, below the surface of seeming chaos. Phillip is quintessentially English in his refusal to disclose more than is decent about his feelings, except about music and song titles for these are safe pegs on which to define himself. They were unfamiliar to me but that was unimportant in this rollicking ride through period, seaside arcades, scooter racing, police check points, imminent catastrophe dared to come out by jeering at it, and his friendship with Jed,JustAbout, Paul, Pete, Mick and Uncle James. His names are minimalist,(his girl friends loved and moving past and on) but as expressive of the time as they are of the character of Phillip, who takes all as it comes (and goes). As must the reader, for this is a ride through affectionate memory of those loved and lost and a world being unwrapped from its confines in maturity; from Batty with her purple hair and his brother Sam’s gradual growth, closely observed.

There is little of ‘story’ in any external sense unless a rite of passage from adolescent to adulthood is story, and for most of us writers until it is told, other stories cannot get top billing or full attention. But it is the poetic vernacular that springs the surprises; they allow dandelions to bloom between the paving stones, tossed over the shoulder prolifically and without stopping; those ‘wagged schooldays’, ‘Madame Shake ‘n’Vac’, ‘heart-splintering honesty’ and ‘prematurely ripened humbug’. This is an extraordinarily original writer seemingly with an endless ability to dislocate the image until the cartilage gleams in the joints of small agonies. Because Phillip pities himself not at all, you feel for him and want to steady him with a hand before he trips on his shoelaces or cuts his feet. Poor Phillip. He will remain with you long after the book is closed. Open it and stay with it, for it is rich, and new. Then read it a second time.

The Sceptred Isle?

Since this is Friday and I am due to post I must revert to poetry and defer the discussion of names for another day and a wider group. I know what I think: what I hoped to engender was what anyone else who writes did, and although one contributor was creative (see comments on blog) a dialogue might prove rather divisive. Instead the poem below might bring violent disagreement which would be welcome. By all means shake up this blog! But don’t assume I am canvassing for UKIP, nostalgia lies much deeper than that,

‘Hath made a shameful conquest of itself’

Sworn Statement

I remember England before I ever came.
It held out not so much a hand
as a perfumed sheltering skirt.

Libraries of promises had told me it was so;
so kind, so empathetic… good laws kept
below the plimsoll line of progress, and never shook their fists.

Red-robed institutions and the wigs of learned men
in processions or procedures, stood up stoutly to defend
like a robin a single spade, abandoned to the rain.

Centuries had assumed much the same kind of thing.
Honour never easily perturbed by waved or shaking sticks,
shouting or enthusiasm, or new planted beds of change.

That picture merely skeletal like an architect’s token tree;
a profile of swinging twigs on which whole flocks might feed…
The glory came with foliage, later season, quiet street,

rows of modest gables, the certain corner-store.
The Pakistani, hollow eyed, exhausted and polite,
his jet-eyed child a clamour still at ten o’clock at night.

Inevitably Cathedrals, Warden Harding in the apse…
Overwhelmed by tearful vespers by half a few intoned
in a mediaeval choir with its candle cloistered lights,

its susurration of sandal, bowing tonsured pates…
Out into the winter fog hugging near the lamps,
the smoking billboard publican stamping frozen feet.

I fell in love with promises, smacked into full-tilt
round the corners of a heedless unintentional search, believed
England was for everyone, somewhere, Harry and St George

Or so for years it seemed.

Could I have been mistaken as little as thirty years back?
Could deception hold its nerve from Land’s End to John o’ Groats?
Grey matter finds it hard to shift something weightless as faith…

There was a certain…certainty?…Officer, I can’t tell you any more
I only notice now its gone, this Island has been robbed.

That oppresses like the Heft /Of Cathedral Tunes-

African Largesse

 African Largesse

The galleon of grandmamma billowed through doorways
leaving no wind but the scent of cologne.
Her horn-handled stick communed with the floor
like the serpent with Eve, both bent upon
a domestic secret service.


The boiler house alive; steam and invective,
stammering lids, riddled coals…wither
the larder sent knaves to forlorn persecution;
speared with clove, smeared with brown sugar,
basted under prodding inquisition…


The flaying of oranges, the shelling of nuts…
(Hourly conscripts, the aproned maids
gossiping in the sun on the stoep of escape).
The trussing of fowl, the knotting of pressed tongue
gilded the hours of her kingdom kitchen.


Wafted seasonal juniper, caraway, mulling of wine…
Sounding drums of enamel, the harp of shattered glass…
Courtiers of dishes medalled in silver…
Embroidered with parsley, tickling a piglet,
its jaws impaled on original sin.


She presided in pearls, with sardonic self-mockery
Smothered each dish with a sauce of jellied laughter…
And her imperious injunction
‘So eat’