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Ypres

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A couple of weeks ago, I went on a day trip with some of my students to the battlefields of WWI, in and around Ypres. Having read and taught plenty of WWI fiction in my time, I was intrigued to see the contemporary reality of the world of mud and gore depicted by those who experienced the horrors of trench warfare. Would there still be marks of the conflict on the landscape? Would I be able to recognise any of the places I had read about? Would I feel moved by what I saw, able to imagine the scenes of conflict that had once scarred this now peaceful corner of the Belgian countryside?

cemetery

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The journey to Ypres was in itself a time of reflection. As we drove to Dover to catch the ferry, our guide explained that we were following in the exact footsteps of the soldiers, who would have come to the port at Dover to catch their boats to France. Our approach to Dover was met with delighted gasps from the students, who all pressed themselves up against the windows at their first glimpse of the sea; for us, the prospect of a boat trip across the Channel was a joy, a treat, something to be celebrated. For the soldiers, the sea was a divide between the peace of England and the horror of war: a gaping chasm between a heretofore perfectly ordinary life and an almost certain death. As we clambered up the stairs from the car deck to the top floors of the ferry, the students rushing off to spend their Euros in the shop and race around the deck while us teachers retreated to a quiet corner to get our injection of caffeine and a precious moment of peace, I couldn’t help but wonder what it must have felt like to get on board a ship and know you were facing a hell from which you might never return. When we docked at Calais and started driving through the flat, monotonous countryside on our way to the Belgian border, again, I wondered what it must have felt like to be driving along these roads in the back of trucks, hearing the sound of guns growing louder and louder, watching this foreign landscape pass by, and wondering whether you would ever find yourself returning to the home you knew and loved. How extraordinary that one hundred years on, this place, that was once a churning pit of mud and blood and rubble is now fields punctuated with clusters of suburban homes, peacefully sitting atop land that was a graveyard for so many hundreds of thousands of men. It doesn’t seem right, but then, at the same time, it seems so utterly fitting. After all, this was what they were fighting for; freedom, peace, prosperity. The right for life to go on.

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When we reached our first stop, at Hooge, we had already seen several Commonwealth cemeteries, their uniform gravestones a constant reminder of what once took place here. Many are very small, and take up part of people’s gardens or fields; others are enormous, and the scale of the loss, represented by the thousands of headstones that disappear into the horizon, is truly brought home. However, I was not prepared for what I found at Hooge. There is a large crater here, made by a bomb laid underground, and not only can you go down into the tunnels made by the bombers, but you can also walk in a stretch of trench that still remains in its original condition, duckboards and all. I am tall; 5″10, to be precise, and the walls of the trench barely made it up to my elbow. I would have had to spend all my time stooping in order to stay protected, and even on a dry day, like when we visited, the ground was still a series of sloppy, muddy puddles that the wooden boards sunk into. It was incredibly eerie to be in a trench, and I couldn’t bear to think of what had taken place where I was standing. After just a few minutes, I felt claustrophobic; what must it have been like to spend days in there? It gave us all considerable pause for thought, and showed us a reality that literature cannot hope to convey, no matter how brilliant and descriptive the prose.

german cemetery

After this rather surreal experience of literally walking in the soldiers’ shoes, we went on to visit Tyne Cot cemetery, a huge Commonwealth cemetery where around 20,000 men are buried. We conducted a wreath laying ceremony here, which we all found very moving, before wandering amidst the graves. So many are for unknown men, and so many were younger than me when they died; it was really quite overwhelming to stand there and see these graves, stern and erect as soldiers, stretching on, row after row – the loss is just so difficult to comprehend until you see it like this, with each of those headstones representing a person. When you think that each of these enormous cemeteries dotted around the Ypres region just represents a fraction of those who died in the war as a whole, it really does take your breath away. I found myself feeling quite tearful as I watched the sun start to set in the distance, and thought of these men lying here for so many years, many never visited and some possibly no longer remembered, each dying far from home having faced a death I can’t even bear to think about. Worse than this, however, was the German cemetery just down the road. Understandably, the Belgians did not particularly want to give up much land to the Germans in order for them to bury their dead, and so, in a  small patch of a Belgian field there is a pit where 25,000 German soldiers have all been thrown in together, their names inscribed in tiny letters on a series of plinths. The difference in the treatment of the dead says it all about what it means to win or lose a war, and the bleakness of the German cemetery made us all feel very uncomfortable as we considered how the German mothers, fathers, wives, children and so on must have felt to know that their loved ones, who had faced just the same horror as the Commonwealth soldiers, had been treated in this way. Our King asked our soldiers to fight: their Kaiser asked them to fight. They didn’t start the war, and they were just children, too. Surely they deserved more dignity in death than this?

trench

Our return journey home took us through the rebuilt streets of Ypres, which looks just like an authentic medieval town, despite having largely been reconstructed from scratch after the war. We drove through the Menin Gate, a memorial to the soldiers whose bodies were never found, that was built at the Eastern edge of Ypres, over the road on which all allied soldiers would have had to travel to get to the front. It is still closed every night for the sounding of the Last Post, and if we hadn’t have had a ferry to catch, I would have loved to have stayed to hear it. As we drove back to Calais in the darkening twilight, I was surprised by how moved I had been by the whole day. I had thought the war had been forgotten here, and that all traces of it would be gone. I’m glad that it is still possible to come and understand the colossal scale of the atrocities man committed unto others here, and I think it’s so important especially for young people to see this and reflect on what it means to incite violence and hate. I only wish we would learn from the past, though; it never ceases to make me sad that, as my history teacher always used to love telling us, history teaches us that history teaches us nothing.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

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I’d been looking forward to reading this book for ages. I adored Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy of novels, which are the most beautiful, lyrical, heartrending pieces of prose I’ve ever read, and I had been saving up Housekeeping as a special treat. I’ve been finding it quite difficult to read lately, which is a strange experience for me; I think my mind has often been too full of other things to be able to allow myself to detach from my own existence. Therefore, I plucked Housekeeping off the shelf a couple of weeks ago in the hope that it would reinvigorate my imagination. As I expected, I was met with absolutely exquisite writing, but unfortunately, I found I couldn’t connect with the characters or their stories at all. Unlike the Gilead novels, all of which have very strong narrative voices, Housekeeping‘s narrative voice is much less well-defined and the characters, I thought, were rather undeveloped, which made it difficult to understand and believe their actions. In many ways, the novel’s setting is the main character, and I suppose it could be argued that the human characters are not particularly well drawn because they are periphery to their location. They are shadowy, rather powerless figures, acted upon by the pervasive influence of the haunting lake at the heart of the eerie, sprawling town of Fingerbone, and lost amidst the whisperings of the past that float in the air above this town that is both beautiful and destructive. As one would expect of Robinson, it all feels rather Biblical; the town is regularly flooded, at its heart is a lake that seems to harbour sin and temptation (the train buried in its depths is perhaps a metaphor for the destructive powers of modernity, namely industrialisation and materialism, on the human psyche) and the main character, Ruth, embodies the unquestioning devotion and self sacrifice of her Biblical namesake, following those she loves without a thought for her own desires. Overall, it is a strange, unsettling tale and I really wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.

The essential story at the heart of the novel is that of Ruth and her sister Lucille, whose mother, Helen, leaves them at their grandmother’s house in the rural, lakeside town of Fingerbone before driving her car into the lake for no known reason. This is a tragedy that is not without precursor in the family; Helen’s father was drowned when his train plummeted off the bridge across Fingerbone’s enormous lake some decades previously. The train was never recovered, his body never found, and Helen’s mother was left to bring up her three daughters in the shadow of a legend that continues to haunt this small, sodden, poverty-stricken town of people who have had to grow too used to hardship. The girls’ grandmother, broken by the loss of all three daughters from a home that was never filled with anything but love and comfort, dies not long after Helen, and the girls are left to be brought up by Sylvie, Helen’s long-lost sister, who breezes back into Fingerbone after spending her adult life wandering away from her roots. Sylvie does not understand how to live a conventional life, and has no real wish to; she loves her nieces, but Lucille in particular is embarrassed by her strange behaviour and both girls are perpetually terrified that she will disappear again, wont as she is to sleep in her shoes. As the girls grow older, Sylvie’s inability to provide a normal home environment starts to push the sisters apart, with placid Ruth remaining loyal to her aunt while Lucille begins to view Sylvie with contempt as she strives to become like the other girls at school, who have ordinary mothers and fashionable clothes and enough money to go for milkshakes after school.

What is home? What is family? What are the ties that bind us to people and places, and what does it mean to leave them behind? Robinson asks all of these questions while writing a fluid and mesmerising vision of a waterlogged world filled with love and longing and sadness and frustration. I was impressed by the prose, and loved rolling Robinson’s words over my tongue, but there was something missing that made it quite an unsatisfying read. I think, ultimately, I didn’t care enough about any of the characters, and that made me feel disconnected from the events. I couldn’t become absorbed in the world created for me on the pages, and I was left feeling rather chilled and disturbed by the vision of Fingerbone and its people. Perhaps that was Robinson’s intention, but still. It didn’t sit well with me, somehow. I’m glad I read the Gilead trilogy first, because I’m not sure I would have tried Robinson again after reading Housekeeping. That would have been a great shame, as it would be hard to find more beauty, humanity and emotion in a book than you do in Gilead. If you’ve never read any Robinson, definitely start there first.

London Culture

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I love a good cultural outing, and I’ve been up to a fair bit lately in London, which has a range of fantastic plays and exhibitions on offer at the moment. Popping to see a collection of beautiful paintings or an engrossing play is the perfect antidote to the monochrome February skies that weigh so heavily on the spirit.

In half term I took full advantage of my lovely week of holiday to catch up on some of the things I had been meaning to get to for a while. Firstly, I took my nephews to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, so that we could all learn about space; this was not massively successful in that three boys under 8 are always liable to cause some kind of disaster wherever they go, and before we’d barely walked into the building I was having to rush us past the damage they’d inflicted on a meteorite that had managed to survive for several billion years before these little cherubs had bulldozed their way into it, but they did love the Planetarium, where we watched a fascinating show on Dark Space and the Quantum Universe. Even the littlest of my babies, who is 3, was transfixed by the stars above his head and I was very impressed by the clear yet still cerebrally challenging voiceover that explained a lot of the theory I had seen displayed via the medium of peas and carrots in the excellent The Theory of Everything. If you’ve got any passing interest in space, whether you’ve got kids in tow or not, a day out at the Royal Observatory and Planetarium is highly recommended. It makes a nice change from an art museum, plus, it’s right in the heart of Greenwich Park, which offers glorious sweeping views across the London skyline as well as acres of greenery to explore. Greenwich itself is also well worth a visit; you can have fun hopping over the line where time begins, have a look around its other major museum, the National Maritime Museum, wander around the famous indoor market (if you’re there on the weekend), climb aboard the historic ship Cutty Sark, get the best ice-cream in London at Phillies (almost next to the enormous 18th century church, St Alfege), walk under the Thames via the Edwardian foot tunnel between Greenwich and Poplar, and take a boat back down the river to Westminster, which will offer you glorious views of the city.

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My next museum visit was to the much anticipated Sargent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Singer Sargent is probably my favourite artist (though sometimes I decide I prefer Boldini – his portraits have such energy, such as this one) and I couldn’t wait to see a good amount of his remarkable portraits together in one place. I am lucky in that I have been spoiled through having lived and travelled widely in the US; Boston’s Fine Art museum and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum have exquisite collections of his work, and I will never forget seeing The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit alongside those massive vases in the enormous room they are in (were in? I haven’t been back for a few years…can anyone enlighten me?) at the Museum of Fine Arts. There are also several very good Sargents in New York, and my absolute favourite Sargent (Lady Agnew) is in Edinburgh, which I saw a couple of years ago and was utterly mesmerised by.

The Portrait Gallery showcases, in my opinion, two particularly outstanding pieces; Dr Pozzi at Home, and Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron, which are truly breathtaking, but the others were not particularly exciting and nor were they particularly representative of Sargent at his best, in my opinion. I was disappointed that more works had not been borrowed from foreign collections, and, as I often find at British exhibitions these days, many of the paintings were from the Tate, where they would have been free to view at any time prior to the exhibition anyway. I know all of the reviews have been glowing, but for me, the exhibition was a big disappointment. It was housed in too small a space, too many people had been allowed in at the same time, making it very difficult to see the works, and the price, at £16, was extortionate for what was on offer. When I think of all the portraits of artists and friends of Sargent I have seen around the world, this exhibition was utterly lacklustre. I felt very short changed indeed. Where I did not feel short changed, however, was next door, at the National Gallery, where there is a fantastic free exhibition of the Norwegian artist Peder Balke’s beautiful landscapes of 19th century Scandinavia. I was utterly mesmerised by his amazing depictions of the sea and sky and, as I am going on a whistlestop tour of Denmark, Sweden and Norway over Easter, it made me very excited for the beauty I am sure I will see when I am there.

the hard problem

More success was had at the theatre; I very much enjoyed Di and Viv and Rose, which was funny and moving and so very true about female friendships, and hilarious about the experience of being at university. It’s definitely worth seeing if you’re in town. I also saw Tom Stoppard’s new play at the National, The Hard Problem, which I found thought provoking, though somewhat formulaic and simplistic, which I was surprised by, as Tom Stoppard has been harping on about theatre audiences not being as clever as they used to be and not ‘getting’ his cultural and scientific references, which made me worried that I was going to be the Dunce in the back of the theatre. In actuality, I don’t think I missed anything (probably because I’ve been reading up on Quantum Physics as my latest intellectual sideline – before you think I’m a genius, I’m essentially poring over Quantum Physics for Dummies), and I actually found the science and philosophy behind the action very basic and rather cliched. The play was also utterly lacking in heart, which I do tend to think is rather a theme of Tom Stoppard’s plays; I remember seeing Arcadia in New York and thinking it was the most intellectually engaging play I’d ever seen, but it didn’t move me in the slightest. I’m all for thinking and and being challenged to consider the deeper meanings beneath our existence, but I do wish that Stoppard would inject a little more passion and personality into his characters. The actors did their best with what were essentially just types, and though the action sped by and I was absorbed in the plot, I left not really feeling anything, and personally, that’s what I go to the theatre for. I like my throat to tighten and my hand to flutter nervously to my chest; I don’t want to be a dispassionate observer of events. But the rest of the audience seemed to think it was marvellous, so you can take from that what you will. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s all a bit Emperor’s New Clothes with people like Stoppard. The theatrical equivalent of Damien Hirst, perhaps?

Looking forward to the next few weeks, I’m excited to go to the new exhibition at Two Temple Place, which is just as interesting to visit for the building as for what it houses. I also can’t wait for the Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty exhibition at the V&A, which will be especially interesting as I saw its original incarnation at the Met back in 2011, and I’m intrigued by the Tate’s exhibition of early photography, Salt and Silver. I’ve got tickets booked for Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! at the Young Vic, and for Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman at the National, so I shall be quite the culture vulture as I wait for the weather to warm up and the skies to brighten!

Caught by Henry Green

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I would have to say that Henry Green is probably amongst the best of the many literary discoveries I have made over the past few years. I thought that Loving was an absolutely marvellous feat of characterisation, and though I didn’t very much enjoy Partygoing, again, the characters were all so brilliantly individualised that I couldn’t help but find myself engaged with the story being told. Caught is, rather like the other two Greens I have read, a rather strange and stifling novel in many ways, with its fluid movement between past and present and seedy, claustrophobic setting amidst the backstreets of London during the Blitz. However, Green’s ability to make his characters utterly real and utterly vital renders the difficulties of the prose completely worth grappling with. He is similar to Elizabeth Bowen in that he enjoys making the reader work, but the pleasure of unravelling the beautifully crafted sentences and hearing the voices of the diverse range of characters come alive in your mind makes it an adventure to read their novels rather than a slog. If you haven’t read either, then you are definitely missing out.

Caught is the story of Richard Roe, a well-to-do auxiliary fireman who joins the fire service in London just before the war. His wife has died, leaving him with a young son, Christopher. Shortly after his wife dies, Christopher’s son is taken by a mentally ill woman while out shopping with his Nanny, and though Christopher is promptly found and returned by the woman’s brother, the affair is made much worse by the fact that the woman’s brother turns out to be Pye, the man in charge of Richard’s fire station when he joins up to be a fireman. Subsequent relations between the men are strained, as Pye cannot recover from the shame of what his sister has done and Pye is a constant reminder to Richard of his wife’s absence. The intense emotional lives of these two very different men: one upper class, one working class, yet both desperately unhappy, form the centre of a novel that shows the many ways in which individuals can become caught up in lives that provide them with little of the happiness they hoped for.

Aside from these two characters, there are plenty of other intriguing figures who populate the fire station, providing a colourful and atmospheric depiction of wartime London. Cockney Piper is the oldest fireman at the station, who has a story for every situation and no recognition of how he bores the socks off the other men. Hilly and the cooks, the station’s female representatives, form a band of three against the rest of the men, and perplex Pye with their emotional scenes and irrational prejudices. The motley crew of mostly working class, Cockney firemen, with nothing to do but sit around and wait for some real action to start, spend most of their time in the pub, finding women to sleep with, or complaining about those in charge. Their days and nights are passed in the blacked-out, sour smelling dungeon that is the fire station, and such close contact leads to the festering of personal frustrations and petty gossip, with rumours causing far more smoke than any real fire. For much of the novel, absolutely nothing happens; it is all mere anticipation. This suspension of action allows for the rich and fascinating tapestry of human relationships to take centre stage, and Green’s seemingly effortless ability to capture the voices of so many different people is what makes this such a fantastic novel that simply teems with life.

There is much more than this that I can’t tell you, otherwise I’d ruin it for you, but even so, Caught is the sort of book you read for the writing, not for the story; the narrative itself is confusing, disjointed and ultimately doesn’t really go anywhere. However, the experience of being immersed completely in the underground world of wartime London more than makes up for the lack of plot, and if you want to enjoy wallowing in gorgeous prose and have your imagination set on fire, then this is exactly the book for you.

The Happy Tree by Rosalind Murray

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This is one of Persephone’s newest batch of books, and is an evocative, sensitively written and powerfully moving novel that was a pure pleasure to read. I raced through it in two sittings, and even found myself having a little cry at the end, which is always a sign of a good book. It is the story of forty something Helen, a thinly fictionalised Rosalind, whose early life set against an idyllic yet rather unconventional background of wealth, intellect and privilege is destroyed by the First World War. She grows up with her two much-loved cousins; confident, talented Guy and sensitive, introverted Hugh, at Yearsley, a beautiful Georgian manor house in the country made up of honey-coloured, flower-filled rooms furnished in faded chintz where it seems to be forever summer. Helen and Hugh share a particular closeness; they understand one another completely, and as they grow older and more self-aware, it is clear that their feelings run much deeper than that of brother and sister. However, this knowledge pushes them apart as they enter their teen years, and unable to manage their emotions, they spend less and less time together. Before long, Helen is left alone as Guy and Hugh go up to Oxford, but after she finishes school, she enjoys being part of their cosmopolitan, intellectual crowd in Oxford and London, where they all gravitate as they enter their twenties.

Life is full of friendship, fun and frivolity, but beneath the surface of this seemingly privileged existence, Helen is haunted by the distance between herself and Hugh. Knowing she cannot have him, she drifts into a relationship with Walter, a rather dry and earnest academic, who, much to the chagrin of her friends and family, she marries. Shortly afterwards, war breaks out, and Helen must watch her beloved cousins and friends go off to fight, while she struggles alone with the responsibility of a growing family in her grotty house in North London. Life, which once seemed so full of beauty and possibility, has irreparably darkened. She doesn’t love Walter, life has become a daily grind of childcare and housework, and the war is a greedy spectre, sucking joy and hope from the world. As the inevitable casualties start to roll in, Helen, consumed with grief and regret, is devastated to realise that her world as she knew it has been destroyed, and there will be no going back.

I think what made me find this book so touching is because really it isn’t about war at all, but more the way in which life often takes us in directions we didn’t plan for, leaving us cast adrift from the vision of the future we believed we would have. There is a tone of such melancholy in Murray’s words, perfectly exemplified when she says ‘And this is all that has happened. It does not seem very much…I was happy when I was a child, and I married the wrong person, and someone I loved dearly was killed in the war…that is all. And all those things must be true of thousands of people.’ The lost opportunities, the private sorrows, the secret grief that courses under the surface of all of the perfectly ordinary people we see every day…it’s really quite an overwhelming thought. As such, The Happy Tree, despite its name, is not exactly an uplifting read, but it’s certainly a thought provoking, searingly honest portrayal of a woman’s life, and I loved every minute. I wish Rosalind Murray’s other novels were easier to come by, as her writing is definitely something I’d love to explore further.