The World My Wilderness Revisited

Standard

Savagery waited so close on the margins of life; one day it would engulf all…

Wilderness Revisited

The World My Wilderness isn’t the book I was expecting now I’ve read it. We’re told this is Barbary’s story: a girl transposed to post-war London from a life shared with her mother’s villa in Southern France and bands of French resistance fighters. In England she lives with her father (a well-known lawyer), attends the Slade school, but spends most of her time in the ruins around St Paul’s.

There’s something about the urban wilderness scenes with Barbary and her stepbrother I find quite sketchy and detached: like Ealing film reels filed among the substance of her mother’s story.

Helen is widowed after the death of her second husband. She paints, drifts, gambles, plays chess with an abbé, and is working on a fraudulent collection of 12th century poetry while maintaining a sex life. “The days slide by like fruit dropping from a tree,” she tells her grown-up son. Helen echoes the well-worn theory that du Maurier’s Rebecca is the modern woman repressed and demonised by much of the 20th century; we even have her ex-husband remarried to a nice uncomplicated girl in a tweed suit.

Hitchcock Rebecca poster

Helen’s son Richie is “one of those returning warriors whose hang-over was not toughness, but an ardent and delighted reaction towards the exquisite niceties of civilisation. He liked luxury… mulled claret drunk in decorative rooms lit by tall candles, the sparkle and glitter of good talk and good glass, the savour of delicate food”.

He and his friends would be less happy “without the sense of there being massed against them a philistine, vocal army, terrible with slogans, illiterate cries and destructive levelling aims”.

Perhaps this is Brideshead Revisited syndrome, still reaching far into British culture today. It’s seductive and alluring, as novelist after film-maker rehashes the outsider on the fringe of this world, lusting after Arcadia, days of fine wine and strawberries by ancient fountains.

Years after it was plastered over by Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia, it’s as alive as ever. The early 2010s has seen fashion chase a pre-war English idyll, dreams which unite even some Guardian and Telegraph readers. (It’s fascinating that new generations of the anciently well-heeled are now ‘artisans’, dressed as 1930s farm labourers, while marketing teams talk of ‘heritage lifestyle’ and package Sebastian Flyte fashions for Debenhams.)

Rose Macauley

Rose Macaulay… or a young Hugh Grant.

Macaulay uses Richie and his frontline experiences to verbalise some intense cries of pain at what the modern era could mean. It’s not necessarily the author’s voice here, but she stares direct and unwavering into the abyss for an incredible and almost biblical passage, unleashed and at odds with the tame synopsis the novel is given:

“Richie, himself trapped into barbarism for three long, unbelievable years, shrank back from it, reacted towards gentleness, towards bland tolerance, towards an excessive civility. The rich elegances of life, now so little probable, the fine decoration, the exquisite glow of colour and grace and structure, the beauty that wealth and knowledge can bring, the ivory tower of aristocratic culture, that war and peace had undermined, had set tottering, had all but brought down with a crash, to replace by pre-fabs for the multitude, by a thin, weak tainted mass culture – it was towards these obsolescent things that Richie nostalgically turned, pursuing their light retreating steps as one chases beloved ghosts. In this pursuit he was impelled sometimes beyond his reasoning self, to grasp at the rich, trailing panoplies, the swinging censors, of churches from whose creeds and uses he was alien, because at least they embodied some continuance, some tradition; while cities and buildings, lovely emblems of history, fell shattered or lost shape in a sprawl of common mass newness, while pastoral beauty was overrun and spoilt, while ancient communities were engulfed in the gaping maw of the beast of prey, and Europe dissolved into wavering anonymities, bitter of tongue, servile of deed, faint of heart, always treading the frail plank over the abyss, rotten-ripe for destruction, turning a slanting, doomed eye on death that waited round the corner – during all this frightening evanescence and dissolution the historic churches kept their improbable, incommunicable secret, linking the dim past with the disrupted present and intimidating future, frail, tough chain of legend, myth and mystery, stronghold of reaction and preserved values.”

Blake

William Blake: Rose Thou Art Sick

“No civilisation lasted more than a few thousand years; this present one, called western culture, had had its day and was due for wreckage, due for drowning, while the next struggled inchoate in the womb of the ensuing chaos, till slowly it too would take shape and have its day. That day was unimaginable; it would be what it would be; but already the margins of the present broke crumbling and dissolved before the invading chaos that pressed on. We haven’t finished, Richie protested; we have scarcely begun, give us a little more time for beauty… but beauty vanishes, beauty passes, and he saw only her receding back, menaced and to die.”

At the heart of The World My Wilderness is the fear that effects of war and ‘the century of the common man’ will destroy art and beauty. The privileged classes are making sense of a new world where they might not fit. The life of Helen’s daughter Barbary is outside their circle and so viewed as ‘uncivilised’ – even her name suggests barbarism.

But if art is a part of civilisation (which is a theme that appears in the novel) then Barbary carries it with her wherever she goes. The London she paints is post-apocalyptic, but it has not derailed from its past and the train will call at the same stations of the class system forever more. Barbary’s will not.

It’s a book that could work from many perspectives, from the reactionary bigot to If…-style revolutionary. When first published, the conventional view might have called Helen lazy and immoral, but she emerges as the compass of the novel. Her time has come, and her daughter is surely a proto-beatnik. They’re carrying art and beauty into the future while convention withers, but whether the art and beauty is for all is another question…

Advertisements

Waters of the Moon, 1951

Standard

Waters of the Moon

Here’s another scene which carries a theme from the Billy Liar post – ‘escape/something more’ in mid-century Britain (or anytime, come to that). Waters of the Moon ran between 1951 and 1952 at the Haymarket Theatre, London, at the same time as the Festival of Britain. At first glance it’s everything the angry young men and women came to dismantle in the coming years: a drawing room drama about the lives of the ‘bourgeois’ classes…

Waters of the Moon, Haymarket, 1951

Waters of the Moon, Haymarket, 1951

The playwright, Norman Charles Hunter, spent some time convalescing in a Devon military hospital during the war and throughout his recovery would go walking around Dartmoor. On one occasion he stopped for tea at a mothballed hotel, of the type with long-standing residents. He recalled it later when coming across a quote from William Hazlitt: “To what a point of insignificance may not human life dwindle! To what fine, agonising threads will it not cling!”

It is a drawing room drama, with all the familiar devices. And yet there’s some genuine empathy for the characters whose lives are disturbed for a few days at New Year by the rich and dynamic Helen Lancaster, whose car and family have become snowbound.

It’s a fascinating study of how Britain is perceived at this time: the hotel residents are mostly stereotypes, but either wrestling with aspects of the ‘leash’ that Shelagh Delaney is talking about here, helpless in the face of change, or simply ‘used to it’.

Evelyn Daly is the daughter of the hotel’s family, her mother is widowed, her brother may or may not have TB, and her life consists of tending fires and the needs of the guests. Aided by the crate of champagne bountifully shared by Helen, who has instigated an unheard of ‘party’ for New Year’s Eve, she steps out of line.

This clip is from a version filmed in 1980, with stalwart actors of the time reliably producing an era: Joan Sims, Virginia McKenna, Ronald Pickup, and Penelope Keith flawlessly recreating her stock role. So many things echo back and forth over these decades, from the fifties to the eighties. Evelyn (played by Lesley Dunlop) is politely consoled as unbalanced and bundled to bed with an aspirin, while Helen Lancaster/Penelope Keith says it all with her verdict at the close.

Post-war wilderness, 1950

Standard

The World My Wilderness

A view of St Paul’s through wasteland, cover artwork published in 1950 for Rose Macaulay’s story of a girl who is sent to live in London after years in occupied France (jacket design by Barbara Jones). I’ve yet to read it. The inside wrap reads:

“London and the ordered formality of English life seemed to her after the wild maquis society of France more than strange, repellent even, a totally unintelligible confusion. She was bewildered, not merely by the ordinary rules of what is called civilised life, but also by the ambiguity of her personal relationships within that framework… the only escape from it she found in a real but fantastic world which she created for herself in the wrecked and flowering wastes around St Paul’s, which became her physical and spiritual home.”

Here’s an image from 2013.

Hemmed in 7

1947: England and a past and future beauty

Standard

In the last decade or so it seems people have realised the huge debt we owe Penguin and Puffin books. We can buy boxes filled with postcards of their immaculate book covers, while the iconic orange and white originals are available on tea towels, mugs and even deck chairs. And that’s just the look of it all: pick up any of the titles that turn up from the middle decades of the 20th century and you could disappear forever into second-hand bookshops, charity shops or attics, as lost a cause as any Victorian gentleman or woman consigned to the opium den or brothel.

Town and Village dates from around 1947, the paper fairly rough and uncoated, which makes the artwork appear as fresh as some lovingly-crafted linocut.

Village and Town, cover

There are two covers, so can you choose from a utopian future or an idyllic past.

Villages and Towns, Puffin

Inside, there are beautifully-designed diagrams, and this one provides a colour-coded map of the United Kingdom to show how local materials shaped the built landscape. Even more valuable now than then.

Village and Town, Puffin 2

There are images of the idealised English village, carefully illustrating how the past builds layer upon layer and lives side by side.

Village and Town, Puffin 3

But this is no misty-eyed wallow in the ‘scepter’d isle’ imagery of the war years. This is also about the future, one that accounts for everyone and gives them light, air and space. Turn the page and the ugly truths are revealed.

Village and Town, Puffin 4

There is no beating around the bush here, as S R Badmin continues…

Village and Town, Puffin 5

He’s in full flow now – you can’t get more damning than ‘fancy dress houses’. And I can’t help wondering how many of the slums or industrial buildings are now the facades of ‘luxury apartments’ for the affluent of today.

Moving on to the brave new world, our author is more than comfortable with the shock of the new. But it’s a careful argument, taking the reader by the hand from the past into the future (which, marvellously, he tells us will involve ‘plastics such as Bakelite’). He wants everyone to move beyond the Tudorbethan, mock-Tudor sentiment of the pre-war years. (It’s often overlooked how little impact the stylised art-deco movement had on everyday homes: many preferred barley-twist oak, stained glass and olde-worlde brass.)

Village and Town, Puffin 6

Be sure that if a building is well-designed for its purpose, without trying to be new-fashioned or old-fashioned, it will fit into its surroundings just as all the buildings do in the villages we love.

Perhaps not a bad design for life, that one, with endless applications… as long as he doesn’t mean a bland compromise, which I don’t think he does. Although his definition of the English style of building as ‘solid, suitable and not fussy in appearance’ sounds a little joyless.

The last page is given over to the S R Badmin manifesto, which I imagine involved clambering atop the table, waving spectacles and going all-out for a full-on Robert Hardy thespian workout:

We could keep the country as real country, for farming and holidays, instead of eating it up with bungalows. We could do all that and more if we made plans in advance, instead of muddling along as we do now, allowing people to build more or less what or where they fancy, whether it is ugly or not. Is it possible for planning to be carried out when so many people own so many pieces of land?

Village and Town, Puffin 7

As a child, I imagine you might return this to the library believing that the war had changed everything, and feel, as the National Health Service began, the first warm rays of utopia.

Until you realise the unpredictability of the British weather.