Celebrating Stella Gibbons and Avoiding Presentism.

I'm reading a novel called Enbury Heath, by Stella Gibbons. I'm working my way through the many excellent but largely neglected books that she wrote after Cold Comfort Farm, although I recently took a break to read some necessary political stuff, Marina Hyde in particular, to remind myself of just what shenanigans the government had got up to over the past few years.

Enbury Heath is a semi-autobiographical novel, published in 1935. It's an engrossing story about three young siblings in the early 30s, trying to come to terms with their troubled past, trying to make their way in the world as adults. As so often with Gibbons, I find myself engrossed in a book that paints a picture of everyday life at that time. A rarity, I realise. So much (but of course not all) fiction about that time is written from a present day perspective. It often focuses on the wars, concentrates heavily on the dramatic, the big events and how they affect the lives of those experiencing them. Enbury Heath, only 'historical' because we are reading it from a perspective of now, with all our knowledge of what will come next, is essentially about how family background affects future life and how individual, even loving, siblings will respond quite differently to the influence of that background. . 

It's also, in a more general sense, a novel about life in pre-war London - acutely observed as ever, and with the author's ability to creep inside the minds of her characters, observing their joys and sorrows, bringing them vividly to life for the reader. It's not 'dramatic' in the current cliffhanger sense, but it's certainly absorbing. 

1934, when this book was written, was ninety years ago. The author was writing about the world as she experienced it. Sometimes we may find attitudes disturbing. But just as, as writers, we shouldn't make our characters think thoughts they could never have thought, we probably should try hard not to project our own mindsets back onto books that are very much of their time - and criticise them for it. Who knows what readers in 2114 will make of our current attitudes and preoccupations? What will it be, I wonder, that will need 'trigger warnings' or suggested cancellations? 

The curse of presentism doesn't only make our own fiction unreal and anachronistic - it prevents us from learning more about the past.

At one point, in Enbury Heath, one of the characters waves in a satirical manner. It is an imitation of the Nazi salute, but one that is deliberately mocked, deprived of its menace. The author observes - in a book written in the early 1930s -  that this mockery of  Hitler, with a version of this gesture, had spread among young people throughout the UK and the US like wildfire. Much like goose stepping that was subject to the same treatment. I remember my father doing it to make his little daughter laugh, back in the fifties. But it was also, I now realise, a pleasure for him, a mockery, a way of reducing the very real monsters of the Nazi regime, monsters he had experienced for himself, to something banal and foolish. 

When I read that casual passage about the salute, light dawned. I suddenly thought of the picture of the young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret as children, supposedly 'giving the Nazi salute'. It was pounced upon by the tabloid press a few years ago, and spread far and wide on social media. What they were probably doing was using the gesture that - as Gibbons observes - had spread far and wide among young people. A gesture that deliberately mocked a perceived populist monster. She had probably used it herself.

There were plenty of Nazis in the upper echelons of British society - read about Edward and Mrs Simpson, read the Remains of the Day, to find out more. But I don't think the princesses or their parents were among them. 

There are populist monsters who walk among us today. To go back to where I started, read Gibbons to be entertained and enlightened. Read Marina Hyde when you find yourself trying to cope with statements like this: 'Britain would be in a far better state today had we taken Hitler up on his offer of neutrality, but oh no, Britain’s warped mindset values weird notions of international morality rather than looking after its own people.'

Predictably, this mindboggling statement comes from a Reform Candidate. Who wants his country back, but - like so many - seems blissfully unaware that he got it back in 2016, and hasn't known what the hell to do with it since. 

A Random Post About Violets.

Primroses and violets on Gigha

I've had violets on my mind for the past few weeks, and I blame Stella Gibbons for reminding me about them. I'm slowly but surely working my way through all of her superb (but largely unsung) novels, written after her youthful success with Cold Comfort Farm. If you love Barbara Pym as much as I do, you'll appreciate Stella Gibbons - perhaps even more. She's also as observant (and occasionally acid) as Austen, her work can be lyrical, and often surprising. It involves the female experience (yay!) it covers a period which from a present day perspective is historical and therefore very interesting, but without the preoccupations of so many male novelists of the time. Instead, she tells us a great deal about what ordinary life, especially for women, was like. She has been undeservedly neglected - but that's a post for a later date.

Back to the violets!

I was reading one of her novels set in Cornwall - The Weather at Tregulla, first published in 1962. I can recommend it. It's essentially a coming of age tale . The protagonist lives (unhappily) on a 'violet farm' in Cornwall. Which got me wondering, are there still such farms? A quick online search reveals farms with 'violet' in the name, but whether they still grow violets I'm not sure.

Now, I've moved on to an even more strange and brilliant novel called Starlight, set in 1960s London and - here we are again.A rather self conscious young curate always buys himself (much against his better judgement because he thinks it frivolous) a bunch of violets in the spring. Gibbons seems to have been fond of these flowers.

That reference to a bunch of violets, encountered late last night, when I was reading on my Kindle,  brought several memories crowding into my mind. One was of little posies of sweet violets on sale in Leeds market, during my childhood. My mum was fond of them, and my dad would buy them for her. Sometimes he would vary it with mimosa. Another disappearing flower. Eliza Doolittle would have sold them too, but who sees them now?

Then I was reminded of buying myself a bunch of sweetly scented violets from a street flower vendor when I was teaching English conversation at Wroclaw University, back in the 1970s. I put them in a glass beside my bed and woke in the morning to find a little trail of red ants (Pharoah's ants they are called in Poland, I believe) leading to and from the violets. I left them to it. By then, I'd got used to them, knew their ways, and as long as I didn't leave any sugar on my kitchen surfaces they didn't bother me. They liked the violets as much as I did. Me, Stella Gibbons and the ants.

It suddenly struck me that I haven't seen violets on sale for YEARS. Decades in fact. They still grow in the woodlands near this village although not as profusely as on the Isle of Gigha, where I was enchanted by carpets of primroses and violets when we visited one year in May.

Given my love of vintage perfumes, I hunted for a true violet scent. I have a bottle of Paco Rabanne's Ultraviolet, and I like it very much, but it's an acquired taste, and the actual violet scent doesn't quite have the freshness of the real thing. Violet essential oil is nice, and Lidl (somewhat unexpectedly) do a lovely delicately scented reed diffuser called Lush Meadow, where a gentle violet scent predominates. 

It made me realise that the flower offering in our stores is very limited these days. It's probably different in high end florists, but I haven't been in one of those for a long time. There are lots of roses, rather boring carnations in bud, alstroemeria which I dislike, for some reason, lilies which I love, and buy for their longevity, mixing them with flowers from the garden, daffodils and tulips in season but even they are not what they once were, in terms of size and variety. This year, I couldn't find a scented paperwhite narcissus anywhere. Is this yet another dubious 'Brexit benefit' I wonder? I had planted bulbs and even they didn't flower at all. 

But what I really want - even though the season is now past - is a fat little bunch of sweet violets with the flowers nestling among those glossy green leaves. I've planted some in the garden. Maybe next year ...

Nice to have the memory though! 


How Not To Be A Writer - Part Six: Back to Leeds

A Moonlit Lane by John Atkinson Grimshaw

Leeds was a very different place from the city I had left aged twelve but it still felt strangely like home. I had managed to secure a room in a student house at the end of Wood Lane, the same long, dark lane where I had gone for my piano lessons at Leeds College of Music, all those years ago. 

My teacher back then was Miss Ingram. She was nice enough, but I was a little afraid of her. She wore a black velvet jacket and massaged her hands with Nivea Cream. The scent of it still reminds me of her. I remember the head of the school remarking to my parents that she had 'an iron hand in a velvet glove' . I was seven when I began lessons and even though I dimly perceived that he didn't mean it literally, there was some part of me that wondered about her hands. Especially since - although she wore no velvet gloves - there was that velvet coat ...

I remember little about the student flat apart from the fact that I wasn't in it very often, due to the nature of the course, which involved research elsewhere. I do remember that on our first night, we went into the shared kitchen to be met with a great commotion as what seemed like an army of mice scattered from the cooker. Investigation proved that it had not been cleaned for years, not even over the summer vacation when the authorities knew that the rooms were to be re-let. It was covered in deeply embedded fat. The previous tenants had been male students, and we blamed them vociferously, although the truth was probably that females would have been just as bad at cleaning up. 

Because the lane was long and dark, with high stone walls enclosing the gardens of large houses - exactly like the atmospheric painting by J A Grimshaw, above - we tried to make sure that if we were coming home at night we didn't have to walk alone. There was one occasion, however, a midwinter evening, when I got off the bus and realised that I would have to negotiate the lane all by myself. Reader, adrenalin kicked in, I slung my bag across my body, took to my heels and ran, not stopping to draw breath till I reached the front door. Years later, I realised that Peter Sutcliffe had frequented that area. His earliest attack was in 1969. I was in Leeds in the early 70s. Sutcliffe murdered a student, Jacqueline Hill, in November 1980, as she walked home from her bus stop at around 9.15 at night. He attacked her in Alma Road, which runs parallel to Wood Lane, presumably another lonely lane. Which still gives me a frisson of disquiet, whenever I think about it.

What possessed university authorities to house female students at the end of dark lanes? A recent question, asking women what they would do if there were no men in the world for 24 hours, was revealing. A large percentage of us would go walking at night, without fear. I can do that in the small Scottish village where I live. Women - especially older women - can often do the same in city centres with significant camera coverage. But I think most men have no notion of the ways in which most women police and prepare themselves, thinking the unthinkable, judging distances, walking briskly, keys in hand, middle of the pavement, seeking the light. And just occasionally, when instinct takes over, running like the wind from the monster behind us. Not all men are predators, but most sexual predators are male. 

I loved my time in Leeds. We were taught by Stewart Sanderson and by a fine lecturer called Tony Green. Among much else I wrote a poem about him called Sudden Man. It was published back then by Akros publications in a collection called A Book of Men, and I included it in my own more recent collection, Midnight Sun. The title is - I'm both moved and honoured to say - on Tony's headstone. I didn't meet him throughout all the years after graduation, but somehow, the poem stayed with his family and after he died, his wife contacted me to ask if she could use it at his funeral. She explained how vividly it seemed to characterise him. And yet - even though I appreciated his teaching very much indeed - I would never have claimed to know him well. 

Like most writers, I was a keen observer, deeply interested in people, in what made them tick, in how it might feel to be them. Interested in what fired my own imagination. I still am. So perhaps I am a writer after all! A piece of advice I was given very early in my career still holds good. 'The way to be a writer is to write.' 

This is not something people want to hear. I doubt if I did, back then, although I certainly loved to write. People often want the magic formula that will transform them. There isn't one. And it certainly isn't AI. We learn by doing, not by being. As Miss Ingram with her iron hand in her velvet glove would have said 'Practise, Catherine. You must do your practice.'  

Where writing is concerned, I have. I still do. Every day without fail.