From 1968 until the turn of the century, John Fowles lived at Belmont, his home in Lyme Regis, Dorset. Author of The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the latter is a post-modern take on the spirit of Thomas Hardy, an investigation of the Victorian psyche written in the midst of the 1960s’ liberating atmosphere.
Belmont has been restored in the last decade by the Landmark Trust, and is preserved in its original eighteenth century form: all traces of Victorian additions, save for the observatory, have been removed. When I visited, you could see John Fowles’s teapot in the adjoining stable room and a few sentences. Otherwise, his ghost is exorcised.
Yet beneath the idealised re-creation of a 1790s townhouse, now a Wes Anderson-esque confection landed by the car park, I found a deep melancholy.
Fowles’ Victorian imagination, which I think we can safely assume was fired by the house he found in 1968, has no place in this restoration for the 21st century. Yes, we have a beautifully preserved building after years of neglect, but – save for a weekend this year when it is open for the public to view – it only exists because the super-rich can afford to stay here (the Landmark Trust funds its restorations by renting out the properties).
It would be more than churlish to not appreciate the work of The Landmark Trust. We have to be so grateful that they have rescued so many buildings and left them alive with possibility for future generations.
Yet Fowles also wanted Belmont to be a retreat for nurturing new writers. At least this has been given some lip service, though I can find scant current information.
You can’t help thinking: our world could be so different, but we gallop towards extremes of beautifully-curated heritage and plate-glass luxe-life stores at one end, and at the other – well, the opposite, with not much in the middle.
Photos copyright WhistlesintheWind
For anyone still moved by other times & places – a ramble on their role in the everyday
Regular readers (both of you) will know I’ve tried to explore something which would draw together all the eclectic strands of those things which capture my imagination. They extend into my domestic life: each time I made a house into a home, it was not a look I was seeking to achieve (as in our century’s ‘look’ that competes and seeks approval) but an atmosphere, something I could be transported by. It’s never been the time I am living in, and ideally I’d be able to hop between 1967, 1637, 1937, with maybe the odd bit of 1814, 897 and so on. Yes indeed, a carriage crash of design on the toll road.
I know this sounds a bit grand, but my mind is a library of such atmospheres – scenes in books or films are not recalled in words but are felt. (Sure, all this will sound like something from Pseud’s Corner.) Sometimes the particular quality of the light or turn of the weather will send me to some glowering seventeenth century landscape, cider apples in the air, beeswax wafting through an oak door, the crackle of wood on the hearth.
Heat from a baked pavement might invoke a TV memory of a US city I’ve never been – distilled polaroid gold, a coffee-diesel bath of warm air, an oscillating bassline catching sky-high sun in the glitter pulse of cars on distant freeway, going where?
Just a glazing of frost and a finch squeaking on a bit of yew and I’m indoors with Mrs Oldknow at Green Knowe, a tang of woodsmoke, butter sliding off a muffin, amber light on old stone. I’m going to call these motifs – I’m sure there’s an official term, but that will do for a short ramble.
In a way it’s like a dog surveying a scene, contemplating the unremarkable, then wagging its tail for no perceptible reason. So why try to analyse the pleasure, which like most academic thought ultimately leads to a definition that dulls the magic?
I’ll quote this scene from the TV series The Durrells where the prosaic Leslie, who likes shooting animals, is talking with his sister Margo and articulates his role as a matter-of-fact foil for his family:
Margo: “Why are you so worried about the play?”
Leslie: “You’re all so artistic. I see… ‘a tree’, you lot see…”
Margo: “Broccoli. Trees look like upside down broccoli.”
…which is a neat puncturing of the concept of the artistic soul, but what if Margo had said, “I can hear hounds, there’s a figure through the acorns – I can hear his heart pounding and smell the sweat of fear…” where would it have come from? The Ladybird Book of Charles II?
A few years back I thought my imagination grew from children’s literature, but I think I have read more of it as an adult. At 10 years old I was trying to read Tess of the D’Urbevilles for example (before it got taken away). Maybe I felt all grown up after I’d finished Margery Sharp’s Miss Bianca books and went straight for the dour, tragic Victorians.
The worlds presented in a lot of young adult novels are often chaotic and unformed (thinking, for example, of Alan Garner or Penelope Farmer). But they also invite things to happen, quests for belonging and reinvention, or simply, change – characters running to escape the banal and mundane, the once weird and now weirder world of grown-ups where some odd reason to judge, to smirk, deny or destroy is just beneath the skin.
Is there an audience of grown-ups out there still hungry for Ambrosia like Billy Liar, disenfranchised and disappointed, still hoping to find something more through the back of the wardrobe? Should we be embarrassed?
There are pleasurable motifs we carry with us and I think they’re essential to our sense of wellbeing, cinematic flashes of images and experiences internalised from reality or art. They can be used, if we want, to ‘create’ with our own filters applied.
And of course, there are unpleasurable motifs – things that stifle, doubt and procrastinate, and darker places.
From Mary Shelley to Richard Jefferies, from the cult series Survivors of the 1970s to 28 Days Later, The Handmaid’s Tale right up to The Walking Dead (oh yes, Fear the… as well) I’ve always been fascinated by post-apocalyptic visions.
But visiting dystopian futures on screen or in novel has lost that playfully gothic frisson of unsettlement. Science fiction is an outdated term because stock fantasies are a reality, weaving their way into our lives like mutating tendrils from John Wyndham’s pen. We peer into our near future with Black Mirror or Years and Years. But where once it was reassuring to return from these nightmares, we’re now putting the kettle on with predictability now dearly-departed and anything seems possible.
Did we choose our motifs at an impressionable age? Do we know where we found our fascinations? Are we more than the product of those who shared their imaginary worlds, those authors and screenwriters who showed us Herne the Hunter or that strange things happen when the wolves are running? I’d like to think we came into the world predisposed to the things that move us.
Is this ‘childish imagination’ a virtual reality overlay? Are we summoning these atmospheres from our personal motifs to challenge us (overcome our fears, the monsters under the bed) or enhance our reality, whether we want it simplified or decorated, or to realise ourselves and our possibilities, or just to feel some magic among the mundanity?
Somewhere I have the germ of an idea that this might be about noticing and recognising. In reading or watching a story we absorb what are, after all, other people’s experiences. If they strike a chord, as motifs they become part of our own consciousness.
This is part of the act of reading fiction, to download the working of another’s mind, though in film an actor can do the same with barely the flex of a facial muscle or the shift of an eyelash. In this shared consciousness, there are connections from our own experiences (those ‘oh, you feel like that too’ moments). To continue a theme, we might be Game of Thrones’ Three Eyed Raven (the one who can “perceive the past, present and future through visions and time travel with ease”).
I’m not for a moment suggesting there is anything supernatural here, just using the ‘visionary’ trope to explore how a response to external ‘art’ becomes an internal experience which is ‘not real’ – as in not first-hand experience – but it becomes part of us, hidden until we notice and recognise it again, like the lamp-post from Narnia outside a branch of Aldi.
These motifs serve to remind us that things have been and will be, which is affirming, whether from light or dark. And so we end of up with a form of faith, a belief in the power of the imagination.
It would be great to hear if others enjoy a bit of time travel in the course of the everyday, or get transported in unlikely places when a motif is triggered…
Photographs copyright WhistlesintheWind
Why we blog – escape portal, therapy or land of our people?
I went back to my blog this morning, which is over seven years old. It’s bizarre to me that people still visit it… understandable, perhaps, because there are a few seemingly forgotten books and films on here that clearly live on in some people’s imaginations.
‘What kind of imagination’ was the question I vaguely asked myself when I started collecting together some of the things I was still drawn to, having a notion they were formed in the ‘imaginative culture’ of my childhood – the books, the TV and the music. These were all portals which suggested more to life than the mundane things that the adults in our lives were slaves to, popularly known as responsibilities.
But what’s the function of these portals for well-worn grown-ups? I blogged with reservations: I was determined this wasn’t nostalgia (meaning, I understand, ‘a yearning to return home’). It was relevant now, and not all those inspirations escaped derision from the ghost of my long gone 20-year-old self.
There’s a letter from a parent to a child in Tracey Thorn’s book Another Planet. What struck a chord was the line:
‘So do I have any advice for you at all? Not really. Except that, like all young people (or come to that, even old people these days), I know you worry sometimes about being cool. But don’t. Who cares really? Cool’s overrated. Warm is better.’Tracey Thorn, Another Planet, 2019
Which is something I have lamented quite a lot recently. To quote Morrissey, shyness is nice but it can stop you doing all the things in life you’d like to. And so can cool. And actually, being cool is the opposite of cool. Genuinely (and if you can manage it, passionately) getting a rush about the things that make you feel good, and sharing that – the instinct to want others to feel it too – is quite an innocent, child-like response. Most people won’t ‘get it’ or ‘get you’. Put yourself in your wrong context and you’ll feel as reduced as a bag of bargain bucket supermarket flowers. You might feel stagnant even if you don’t quite smell yet.
I’m not one for memes but I do like the one ‘Show your vibe, find your tribe’. Despite vibe always sounding like it could only be uttered for a short window of time – the weekend of some mythical prog-rock fest in 1973, for example – no other word quite sums up the often indefinable and intuitive response we have among others, be it a gentle dawn chorus or a dusty pall of possibly radioactive material.
My point being that blogs, and the subtleties they allow, and the space to reflect, seem to be used by people who need to reconnect with their inner world and relation to the outer world – the sense of self – when most online forms of expression are immediate, proclaiming and projecting an ideal.
I’ve discovered there are lots of carers who blog, caring being a stage of life, if chosen, which involves coming up close to the suffering of others and ourselves. It has the potential to consume identity. In addition, at any stage in life comes a time when we realise things once felt more carefree, and we don’t know yet if that feeling will ever come back.
Then there’s the rite of passage when we move into the front line of mortality when parents, once bedrocks of stone – regardless of the quality of relationship – turn to sand, and nothing will stop the tide.
Or all these things and everything in life that can take away the light. I started my blog in 2012 just after my dad got sick and went into a home, which I found pretty hard-going. I stopped blogging later because life then became a conveyor belt of dealing with elderly care, its fallout and the impact on everyone affected.
In stressful times many of us read or watch escapist fiction because it’s pretty good to get lost in a space where possibility is infinite and identity is an ongoing thing. I told someone that watching four seasons of an epic TV series one summer was great de-stress therapy. It threw me into greater challenges than mine and explored – with some nuance – how people deal with genuine adversity.
‘But it’s not real!!!’ they exclaimed.
Momentarily I was ready to be reduced, but instead announced – not without shades of Brian Sewell, minus the accent, ‘Of course not. But that is the purpose of all art, to help us make sense of life.’
Collecting the imagery, the books, the films – any of the portals to places that remind us that life is a pleasurable thing, either because they are familiar and suggest security, or, and where the real value lies, because they shine light on the selves that get lost or aren’t discovered yet in the fog of responsibility, makes a living resource.
When I wrote my ‘about’ page all those years ago I said:
‘Ambrosia’ is from the 1963 film of Keith Waterhouse’s book Billy Liar, an alternative land that Billy escapes to in his imagination, away from things that are small, narrow and dull. It’s anything that clears the fog in a sometimes mundane world…’
Now, I don’t think it’s the world that’s mundane. It’s the self that is mundane, forgetting what we need to thrive, and accepting what can feel like an inevitable way of dealing with whatever it is we all have to deal with in some way or other, wherever it is on the scale.
Yes, we can escape into ‘portals’ and the things we enjoy, but being around the people that ‘get’ whatever part of ourselves they connect to, is the happiest place to be.
An inscribed bedside clock that makes me think every time I pass it. There are lots of stories, this is one of them… Composite images, John Stezaker; painting, Henry Carr, IWM; music, Andy Connell and Corinne Drewery.
Sometimes you look up and wonder what the dog is thinking.
Perhaps it was the lamp cables, or the glow from the fire, but I saw a wistful, unassuming little character, waiting in the wings of the theatre… perhaps the props man, a star without a stage waiting his turn…
‘That Weimaraner’s always goin’ to steal my light…’
From 1941, James Hilton’s novel Random Harvest… a really excellent cover with just the credit ‘Reeves’ in the corner. It’s the book of the film which I mentioned here. It was a best-seller in the forties (second on the New York Times list of bestsellers for the year). James Hilton is another of those authors unfairly lost in time because of a mis-informed assumption that the work is simply reinforcing bland, reactionary values. He’s actually analysing class and small-mindedness as well as anyone. For example:
“Have you ever been going somewhere with a crowd and you’re certain it’s the wrong road and you tell them, but they won’t listen, so you just have to plod along in what you know is the wrong direction till somebody more important gets the same idea?”
Hilton worked in Hollywood from the 1930s and was involved with some of the most well-loved films of the era such as Goodbye Mr Chips and Lost Horizon. I saw the latter at my grandma’s house as a small child, fascinated as Ronald Colman rescued the love of his life from a magical Himalayan valley. I remember my grandma telling me to wait and see what happened. It was worth it, as she knew, because the rescued girl shrivelled into a 200-year-old crone the moment she stepped from the magic valley, which had us in fits.
Road Through the Woods (1960) was bought for the cover initially (not that I didn’t check it was worth reading) but I soon discovered another once well-known and regarded author in Pamela Frankau. J B Priestley wrote that her work ‘just gets better and better… with every word she writes her pen is sharper’. Frankau was also part of Rebecca West’s circle. I want to know why she disappeared, so she’s a name I look out for when browsing the unloved and forgotten in second-hand bookshops.
And finally H E Bates, from 1967. His time will come again without doubt. Just now, those horns of summer seem way behind us. Britain has just had the most beautiful summer in years, so autumn is a little more melancholy this year. Pan has gone away for now…