Sitting rooms

Geffrye B

Images from London’s Geffrye Museum. Above: a painting from 1942 captures part of the audience at one of many wartime music recitals held in The National Gallery.

Geffrye C

Above, a 1930s sitting room – one of the museum’s many displays, and below, factory workers in wartime.

Geffrye A

Brave new dystopia

Brave New World Finn Dean

Here’s a superb image from Finn Dean, the winner of this year’s Book Illustration Competition. His designs will be published as The Folio Society’s edition of Brave New World in September.

It’s fascinating to look at the future from the thirties and forties, and see how emotional detachment is a key feature. While Brave New World and 1984 are always in the searchlight, Rex Warner’s The Aerodrome is overlooked. I found it a year or two ago on a Waterstone’s ‘staff recommend’ shelf, and it’s great – particularly interesting as a vision of the future in a rural setting. The back cover quotes a Guardian review which describes ‘a horrified and darkly comic response to the appeal of totalitarianism, a mixture of Orwellian satire, rural sentimentality and Kafkaesque nightmare’… I note that ‘rural’ equates with ‘sentimentality’ again.

It’s a really distinctive book: the insight and observation is shot with a mixture of League of Gentlemen humour (as in Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton) and soap opera which makes its unsettling hold only stronger. The BBC adapted The Aerodrome in the early 1980s with Peter Firth, but the Monty Python-ish interpretation made too much light of the dark.

Aerodrome Rex Warner

Setting the graphic equalizer with Virginia Woolf and Stella Gibbons

I hear you’ve been going out a great deal,” said Lady Waters, with that air with which lesser women prefix: ‘A little bird told me’ – but her confidante would have been an eagle.

From To the North by Elizabeth Bowen, 1932

To the North 1

The wood engraving is by Joan Hassall (I think).

This is one of the touches that make Elizabeth Bowen really enjoyable. Although she experiments with form, it’s the natural result of efforts to capture nuance. She’s quite willing to dip swiftly down to earth with an honest quip like this… there’s no desire to set the gentle reader adrift in a pond of preciousness and self-regard.

Of writers with a heyday in the twenties and thirties, I put Virginia Woolf at one end and Stella Gibbons at the other. I imagine this as a little like the treble and bass dial on an old stereo, and with a little balancing at the centre you’ll get Elizabeth Bowen.

I don’t believe there’s a great deal of difference in the ability to observe in either Woolf or Gibbons, though of course the presentation differs, and perhaps Woolf was observing herself a little more. (Woolf famously dismissed Gibbons’ literary prize for Cold Comfort Farm with ‘Who is she? What is this book?’.) My enthusiasm for Stella Gibbons is not based on Cold Comfort Farm, good as it is, but the other novels such as Westwood, Nightingale Wood and The Bachelor. There’s a lightness and modernity, a spirit decades ahead of the 1930s. A cool intelligence wants to escape mundanity, but it will not countenance the smugness and complacency of those who might think that they’re not.

Westwood Gibbons

Vintage have reissued most of Stella Gibbons’ novels, and this illustration is by Pep Montserrat for the recent reissue of Westwood.

There’s a scene in Bowen’s To the North, where the office secretary finally turns on her employer, that could be one of Gibbons’ finer moments:

“She stared at the fatal letter from Malaga, her mind recording a quite superficial astonishment: one had not expected Tripp to go off like this. What had one expected? Little – punctuality, bridling diligence, the impassable patronage of the educated young female towards employers who had respectively failed at the wrong university and attended none. She had been cheap, she wrote the King’s English, absented herself at teatime, and did not sniff… But all this time in Miss Tripp the juices of an unduly prolonged adolescence had violently been fermenting: now with a pop they shot out the cork from the bottle. The effect on Tripp, certainly, did not appear catastrophic: the bottle remained intact. Tripp’s outline (at which Emmeline stole a look) was once more placid, as though some natural process had reached conclusion. Doubtless she felt much better.”

But these moments are the light sparkling on a dark river. Bowen’s skill is in never placing us at the heart of one perspective – she writes with a hand-held camera thrown from character to character, most of them adrift. We’re carried along in the chatter of familiar comforts but it’s a sly deception, for the destination is cold and distant: dislocation.

Decline and Rise

Witley Court 1

A stop at Witley Court near Worcester on the way to North Wales. Partly destroyed by fire, gutted for salvage in the 1950s, and perfect for the recent meander at WhistlesintheWind about what we keep and throw away… pondering the popular view of Britain before the 1960s, what modernised us, and the things salvaged from the 20th century’s garbage skip.

Witley Court 9

Witley Court is well-managed by English Heritage, a grand shell with a centrepiece fountain that fires on the hour.

Witley Court 2

There’s a very particular atmosphere, and the link here is actress Deborah Kerr, who appeared in two films that came to mind while wandering around. One was Jack Clayton’s 1961 film The Innocents, based on Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. Somehow that film made the bright sun of a summer’s day coldly haunting, with images across the water of the house in cadaverous silence. In complete opposition, I also remember Deborah Kerr in a technicolor comedy with Cary Grant, about the inhabitants of a stately home ‘forced’ to take in guided tours to maintain their lifestyle. Witley Court is both – families, dressed in shades of Italian ice cream, sit happily on the manicured lawns, while the brooding, slightly resentful shell of the mansion stands over them.

Witley Court 6

Solid, stoic – it will not be moved.

Witley Court 7

Above: the last echoes of the rustle of a dress up the staircase, sweeping away with the speed of a darting peacock’s tail feathers…

Witley Court 8

Perhaps this is all we need? Nothing could be more honest than Witley Court. The architecture seems to speak more powerfully as a shell – part of the story of the 20th century told with unsentimental beauty.

I remembered last year’s visit to Castle Howard in Yorkshire. I had wanted to go there for years, but what waited there was fairly hideous… a house, like Witley Court, once partly destroyed by fire (in the 1940s), yet risen again. In the 21st century some aspects can only recall garish images of stately grandeur: garden centre statues or statement wallpaper in out-of-town superstores up and down the land.

Castle Howard

2012 in Ambrosia: The whine of WhistlesintheWind leads to the fall of the British aristocracy; Castle Howard is closed and becomes a home for retired spaniels.

Elsewhere, it seemed the very essence of the British heritage industry at its worst: the empty, shored-up and once fire-damaged rooms are barely filled with bored displays flogging the dead horse of the 2009 remake of Brideshead Revisited. 

Castle Howard is itself unconnected with any of Waugh’s inspiration but remains in the Arcadian imagination as the stage set for the iconic 1981 TV drama.

And yes, something from an earlier age remains – in the occasionally fawning and obseqiuous manner of attendants drooling over the family portraits. Brideshead ended the war as the ghost of its former self. If heritage supermarkets with their cafés complete with suspiciously-stained sofas are what we need to feed a dream, then perhaps we should have let Charles Ryder ride away down the drive in his jeep, never to return.

South Riding and Winifred Holtby

South Riding

An edition of Winifred Holtby’s Yorkshire novel from 1938.

Testament of Friendship

And the memoir by Vera Brittain from 1940. The Observer said at the time: “The tale of a life which combined a candle’s briefness with a beacon’s challenging flame has its own strong fire, and is itself a challenge to posterity, lest it forget”.

There was a fairly recent BBC version of South Riding, but the 1974 version, albeit epic and long-winded, is more authentic. Dorothy Tutin is headmistress Sarah Burton, and there is one particularly effective episode with Joan Hickson as a ‘difficult’ member of staff.

South Riding, Dorothy Tutin, Joan Hickson

“Have you never thought of getting a post in the south of England?”: Joan Hickson as Agnes Sigglesthwaite (left) with Dorothy Tutin as Sarah Burton

There used to be lots of such ‘character’ actors – and some of these TV dramas feature top-notch acting in the briefest roles. I think back then TV was an extension of the stage, because most actors had a long history there. In a theatre you aren’t expecting slick editing to hold the attention, simply the skill of the cast.

I’m fascinated by these DVDs of things being screened when I was just old enough for Tom and Jerry. Perhaps it’s because they once belonged to what seemed a privileged and unknown world of adults, who once children had gone to bed, could safely indulge in secreted stashes of chocolate in peace and quiet, have a drink and talk freely. A friend told me that when he was small, every Sunday night two Walnut Whips would appear on his parents’ sideboard in readiness. Perfect.

Dustwrappers from the 30s and 50s – the Joy of Text

Some perfect ‘text only’ dustwrappers, two from the 1950s (The Hireling and Four Plays by Tennessee Williams) and two from the 1930s. Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza is particularly dramatic – a lot of care has gone into the arrangement of that text. Such is the impact, it asks to be writ large on a film screen. I could stare at this font for hours (well, maybe a good few minutes from time to time…)

The Murder in the Cathedral dustwrapper does something quite subtle: it suggests a cathedral with a simple serif font reminiscent of stone lettering on a monument, but the diagonal slash of red shouts of scandal like a newspaper headline.