The World My Wilderness Revisited

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.”


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…

The fascination of ruins

Some of the most arresting images of recent years are those of ruined Detroit, Michigan by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.

They include the United Artists Theatre, ready to give us vertigo with its height and expanse. But it is monotone, silver-grey – a Narnian witch has withered the unfurling decoration. It’s Miss Havisham’s wedding cake: celebratory splendour gnawed and eaten, enough beauty left to mock us, but fragile as ash.

United Artists Theater, Detroit (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre)

United Artists Theater, Detroit (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre)

There are images of hotels, apartments, railway stations – windows like gouged eyeholes of 20th century excess, flaking like the make-up of septuagenarian starlets.

Michigan Central Station (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre)

Michigan Central Station (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre)

This is ruin on the grand scale. The artists record it on camera and talk of the fall of empires. It’s the sinking of the Titanic, the Statue of Zeus or the Sphinx. It is part of something mighty fallen, and reminds us that humans are here and then were here.

Do we think of ourselves when we see these images? Or are we thinking grandly, of the human race?

Place an upturned plastic chair in the centre of the ruined dancehall and we might respond differently. This is something from within our lifetime, not a distant heritage. It’s the chair we sat on at school, the chair we sat on at interview, the one we stacked at the end of countless work presentations. The chair belongs to now. Yet it’s in a dead ballroom because it has had its time and belongs to the dark (or in the photo, the light…).

Ballroom, American Hotel (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre)

Ballroom, American Hotel (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre)

Stop, we think – that shouldn’t be there like that. We can hear the scrape of its metal legs and feel the warm grainy plastic and our living, and it hurts, because we know that’s where we’re going too, sometime.

But we are intrigued, like the Romantics who saw ruins lit by moonlight. They saw dark things and spectres that rose to give Byronic shivers of pleasure. This was fear to sip from books and shut away afterwards. Buildings also shut things away, and are well-worn metaphors for the mind, with dark attics and cellars rarely visited.

Moorland ruin

Moorland ruin (Whistlesinthewind)

They also witness our lives – this is where we are born, learn, work, love and die. Is our energy so powerful that it is absorbed by plaster, brick, stone and wood? Do we think houses become human?

Old houses and empty houses turn quickly into gothic, romantic heroines. Daphne du Maurier writes here of the first sight of her home Menabilly, which partly inspired Manderley in the novel Rebecca, where the house is as much a character as the protagonists:

Grey, still, silent. The windows were shuttered fast, white and barred. Ivy covered the grey walls and threw tendrils round the windows. It was early still,  and the house was sleeping. But later, when the sun was high, there would come no wreath of smoke from the chimneys. The shutters would not be thrown back, nor the doors unfastened. No voices would sound within those darkened rooms. Menabilly would sleep on, like the sleeping beauty of the fairy tale, until someone should come to wake her.

Houses are not meant to be empty. This scares us. They can decline and rot, and remind us of our own bodies. Throw the windows wide, they say. Let some air in.

An empty house beckons us to look into the unknown, an after life: anything could be lurking in the cellar or the attic. We have always known that. So we paper and paint and polish, and keep the structure from returning to the earth. Renew and replenish. Keep the soil from quietly forming in the gutters, moss from lining the path, trees from tapping at the window.

All those Miss Havishams alone, cobwebbed, time-stilled. A house might change hands, and belong to a family. ‘The house lives again,’ people say, because there is energy and love and conflict.

But ruined buildings remind us of the end. And we are fascinated.

Moorland ruin 2

Moorland ruin 2 (Whistlesinthewind)

The Ruins of Detroit exhibition is showing at the Fontana Fortuna Gallery in Amsterdam from May 12th to June 30th 2012.

Hot buttered toast with Dodie Smith

Then he put a slice of bread on a toasting fork. It was no ordinary toasting fork for it was made of iron and nearly four feet long… it was just what Sir Charles needed, and he handled it with great skill, avoiding the flaming logs and toasting the bread where the wood glowed red hot. A slice of toast was ready in no time. Sir Charles buttered it thickly and offered a piece to the spaniel, who ate it while Sir Charles watched…

One of Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone's illustrations for The Hundred and One Dalmations by Dodie Smith

‘Hot buttered toast’ is a superb chapter from The Hundred and One Dalmations – one of those passages of calm amid the tumult of adventure and uncertainty that remain in the memory from all the best books. Missis pulls some hay over a sleeping Pongo (nursing a wounded leg) and goes off in search of food, and enters into a scene reminiscent of Manderley in Rebecca

She could see no house ahead of her because the drive twisted. It was overgrown with weeds… so wild and neglected that it seemed more like a path through a wood than the approach to a house. And it was so strangely silent… suddenly she was out in the open, with the house in front of her… very old, built of mellowed red brick… with many little diamond-paned windows and one great window that stretched to the roof…

Here Missis meets an old spaniel, and she returns with Pongo to sleep in a four poster bed, rest in front of the fire and feast on toast. The spaniel’s owner, ninety years of age, thinks he is seeing the ghosts of his carriage dogs, and says, wonderfully, ‘What a joy to know that dogs go on too’.