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Friday, September 30, 2011

And they all rolled over and one fell out: Wait for Me!

When I first read that Deborah Devonshire AKA the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire; Deborah Mitford; Debo; Stubby; Stublow etc was publishing memoirs my first thought was how can the world possibly need more Mitford porn? For 6 posh sisters from Oxfordshire of whom only 1 survives, they have sure generated a lot of literature. Maybe a little too much. There are endless collections of letters and biographies and collective biographies and so on. All except Pamela (who was famously private) and Unity Mitford (who died in 1948 after attempting suicide at the outbreak of war) contributed to the oeuvre from their own pens. So how can another one possibly be worth reading?


Well, somehow it is. It is quick, sure footed, funny, unsentimental writing. As usual, I find myself rather in love with Farve: “Occasionally Farve gave Muv a night off [from chaperoning Debo to balls during her first season]. He refused to take part in the festivities and never penetrated as far as the ballroom, but sat o one of those rickety hall chairs common to all big London houses, still in his evening cloak. One distraught hostess approached him and asked “Lord Redesdale, would you take the French Ambassadress into supper?” … “NO” he said furiously, “I’m waiting for Stubby” . It must be the Telegraph reader in me.


Debo deals with the tragedy and infamy of which everyone knows, but somehow, with new eyes. The passages in which she writes about the death of her sister Unity, the separation of her parents, the re-connection with her runaway sister Decca and the betrayal of her sister Diana by her sister Nancy have a strange, restrained flatness about them. She makes it clear that these events were enormously painful, without going on about it. That is what I like so much. She doesn’t really “go on” about anything (except perhaps the foundation of the Chatsworth shop, but then everyone has their foibles). She is plainly disinclined to peer into the private lives of others and more than once comments of some famous person in her history with the words: “his private life was his own”.


My revised opinion on Mitfordia is not that there should be no more books, but that all secondary commentary ought to be banned. This is a case where the horse’s mouth is preferable and since there is plenty of it about, that is all that Mitford lovers need. On that note, I shall stop typing now, except to say that there are other interesting reviews at Book Group of One, Savidge Reads and Amused, Bemused and Confused.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A visit to Cookham

When he was s student at the Slade, the visionary painter Stanley Spencer, who regular readers of this blog will know is one of my all time favourites, was known by the name of his home village, the Berkshire then-hamlet of Cookham. This is a mere glimpse of the sights that we saw on a recent trundle there.


And if this scene looks familiar.....


This is probably why...

OK, maybe it wasn't familiar, but it *is* the same place.

Friday, September 23, 2011

I am glad that I don't live in Cotter's England



I am sitting here of a sunny September morning wondering what on earth to make of Christina Stead’s 1966 novel, Cotter’s England. On one level reading it was a bloody awful experience. In fact, Reading it reminded me of a recent visit to the Dartmoor Prison museum during which I was saying t myself “OK so this is all very interesting but how do I get out of here?”. The book is a shapeless rambling shamble of hopelessness. Its characters are either actively hideous or weak of will. Watching the nice ones amble through their disastrous lives manipulated and tortured by the very worst is right up there with A Handful of Dust for frustrating literary experiences. But then, I guess, that is kind of the point. Cotter’s England is a discursive, experimental disquisition on its subject – the radical fringe of the post-war working-class left-wing in England.


Its main character is Nellie Clark nee Cotter, and Nellie is proper-horrific. She is a morally repugnant, intellectually incoherent manipulative piece, and if you ever had the misfortune to meet her, you would give her a wide berth. She is tea-drenched, whisky-sodden and when she is not pontificating she is coughing her guts up. She feigns a cloying familiarity with everyone and is close to no one. She prays on the dispossessed and under the auspices of caring for them, drives them into depression and one case, an early grave.



The drama ricochets between grimy London and grimy “Bridgehead” (aka Gateshead). In Bridgehead we are introduced to the Cotter clan, the drunken father, the cloying mother, the frustrated sister Peggy and the butt of all sorts of abuse; poor Uncle Simon. I don’t consider myself to be a feint hearted reader (although it would not surprise me if other disagreed!), but the constant mean acts of domestic violence against this helpless old fool left me feeling drained of strength myself. A case in point: “the next day things were much worse. Tom came downstairs at one moment in time to see Uncle Simon shrink back and Peggy strike him on the temple with a greasy saucepan”.


The reason that this book feels like a creature from another planet is that people don’t really write books like this anymore. It is a political novel, a story about a class of people in politics and about politics and class. It addresses the tension between the advancement of the individual and that of the community and tries to set its characters in the context of communities that both inspire them and also shackle them down. I do not know, and I cannot decide from my reading of the novel, whether Stead is trying to make general comments about the corruption of the far left in the ‘50s, or whether she is trying to suggest that the left somehow can’t accommodate these personalities without them deserting the cause before they have actually achieved anything for the generality of people. A taster, to show what I mean:


“What do you mean by Cotter’s England?” she cried out. “What’s wrong with my England?”
“The England of the depressed that starved you all to wraiths, gave Eliza TB, sent your sister into the Home, got your old mother into bed with malnutrition, ad is trying it on with me, too, getting at my health. I never had an ache or pain in my life: I beat their England. I lived through the unemployment, the starvation, the war, I knocked out a few bloody eyes and I got me fists skinned a few times, that’s all I ever got: and now I’m going to live for my country. You stay here and die in it. Don’t you want to change it? Or is it only the beer-soaked sawdust of Bohemia that you love? The dirt and sweat of the tear-stained bachelor’s bedroom; Bridgehead in all its glory? You don’t know what you’re fighting for. To change Cotters’ England. Wasn’t that what drove you on? Or just ragged rebellion?”


Sobering stuff, and powerful, if a little toe-curling.


I have included a picture of the author and the two Virago covers (of which the one I have is of the lady standing). I have also included another book cover that I found and which I think “gets” the book rather more exactly than the Virago choices.