Brave new dystopia

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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

The World My Wilderness Revisited

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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…

Whistler in the wind

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There is much more recognition of Rex Whistler these days, but his brother Laurence has also left behind some amazing work. Here are two windows – inscribed on glass with scriber and drill – from St Nicholas Church, Moreton, Dorset.

Summer, Laurence Whistler

Detail of the Seasons window, with butterflies about to burst from the bubble

The church was hit by a German bomber in World War II, and rebuilt with the windows engraved or deep cut, acid-etched or sandblasted by Laurence Whistler with craftsmen where necessary. These images (with a little adjustment) are reproduced from the guide book and are originally from Scenes and Signs on Glass from the Cupid Press, Woodbridge.

The Trinity Chapel window, Laurence Whistler

Trinity Chapel window, 1982

The Trinity Chapel window is a tribute to a pilot shot down in the Battle of France in 1940, and genuinely stunning. Sunlight and rain reveal nature regenerating, with scenes of Salisbury Cathedral near to where the pilot was stationed, and his cottage home. Vapour trails are suspended and in the corner is a broken propeller bearing two sets of initials and the dates of the pilot’s brief marriage.

I can’t help thinking this would have been quite a personal and possibly a difficult project. In his book Initials in the Heart, Laurence Whistler records the happiness of his marriage to the actress Jill Furse, and the cottage in Devon they shared. She died in 1944 at just 28. It was the same year in which his brother Rex was killed in the war.

Laurence Whistler, Jill Furse, 1941

Laurence Whistler and Jill Furse, with family, Devon, 1941, from Initials in the Heart, published by Rupert Hart-Davis, 1964

I’ve collected quite a few of Laurence Whistler’s books of poems and his biographies of his brother. The diligence with which he kept memory alive is incredibly moving, and I think he is an excellent, insightful writer.

More of that another day…

Everything shining bright

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1941

April 2013. A memorial on Dartmoor to a Royal Air Force bomber which crashed here in 1941.

Relic

There are a few of these posts scattered over the same area: I’m told they were put here during the war to prevent enemy planes from landing.

Jay

Jay’s Grave: an eighteenth century suicide, a girl ruined by a local squire. Fresh flowers appear here every few days, something of a local legend. Whoever places them there is brushing up their act with picturesque daffodils in a glass jar. I always remember it usually being an old margarine tub with a few wilted polyanthus chucked in. Not the most uplifting captions are they? But the sun’s shining like I promised. At least I didn’t get in the bit about the friendly community burying the poor girl at a crossroads so that her doomed soul wouldn’t be able to find its way home.

Pathway

Countryside Commission voiceovers can audition here…

Paws

Whose prints?

Spring again

My prints.

Ponytree

The lightning tree.

Sprung

Resurrection.

Daffodils

Blah blah golden host blah wandering etc., etc.

Waters of the Moon, 1951

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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

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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

Incendiaries in the Suburbs, Henry Carr, 1941

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Henry Carr, Incendiaries in a Suburb, 1941, IWM

A painting from the Imperial War Museum in London. Many of the pictures they hold seem on the fringes of what tends to get shown in galleries: like an overlooked subculture – or maybe it’s just that these images are being viewed in one place. Nevertheless, there’s something quite interesting about the fact that these paintings often deal with people dealing with everyday tasks, albeit within the context of a shattering period of history. There are women in factories, queuing for rations, men and women from every class engaged in the processes of war and aftermath. It’s not just the images of generals or battle which some perceive about the museum.

Evelyn Dunbar, The Queue at the Fish Shop, 1944, detail, IWM

Evelyn Dunbar, The Queue at the Fish Shop, 1944, detail, IWM

Often these images have been labelled as ‘recordings’ and not put on an ‘art’ pedestal. Perhaps the gatekeepers of culture of much of the 20th century saw little profound in images of people going about the detail of everyday life, of what would then be termed the lives of ‘ordinary’ people. (Yet even in the 1970s, an oft-repeated TV documentary series called ‘The Family’ filmed an ‘ordinary’ family with a real sense that looking at this ‘ordinariness’ was something unusual to put before a viewing public. Not to say directors like Ken Loach, kitchen sink dramas and Coronation Street didn’t exist to challenge this of course.)

That, however, is a WhistlesintheWind ramble. I just wanted to post a nice postcard from my desk and then do some work. I love the Henry Carr image – the city sky is beautiful, but with a bitter taste because it’s the work of the worst aspects of humankind and not sun or moon or weather. You can stare into the painting and see so much in a moment captured, not to mention the red post box exaggerating the routine and calm of order shattered.