Great Expectations: what is a person’s worth?

I was dismayed by the recent BBC TV adaptation of Great Expectations (and by the almost uniform acclaim that it received), but unsure how much my memory of the work was influenced by the David Lean film version, so I decided to read the book again.  It proved to be a welcome return to a novel that had a profound effect on me as a child, with its central question as to how far the pursuit of status and wealth lead to loss of humanity: as Pip ascends he falls, and as he falls he rises.

I had  great expectations of the BBC series, following as it did a recent sequence of superb BBC Dickens adaptations: Andrew Davies’  superb Bleak House (2005),  Little Dorrit (2008 – Andrew Davies again), and Julian Farino’s Our Mutual Friend (1998). But this Great Expectations was a travesty, totally lacking the sense of Pip’s journey to moral awareness, as well as the one thing that makes any Dickens novel memorable and great – comedy and character.  Pip is not a prig, but this was how he was presented in the TV adaptation, seemingly ignoring the fact that the novel is narrated by an older Pip looking back and reflecting subtly and frankly on his earlier fears, ambitions and limitations.

Clearly, when you’re restricted to a three hour dramatisation you can’t include everything. But to leave out the humour, to distort key characters and to omit or leave undeveloped other important characters, such as Biddy or Wemmick, was lamentable.  Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of Miss Havisham was just plain daft, her youthful appearance making nonsense of the chronology of the novel.  The repeated club scenes and the brothel scene took one paragraph from the novel – that has Pip and Herbert joining the Finches in Covent Garden with a very subtle hint of a brothel – and over-egged it.

Dickens dreams of his characters – Robert Buss, 1870

Dickens gave us characters drawn from across the whole social gamut, and was the great delineator of the gulf that separated those at either end of the spectrum. Dickens’ great theme in Great Expectations (or at least, one of them) is the dream of social betterment (a dream that is revealed as a mirage).  Pip’s desire for self-improvement is the main source of the novel’s title: because he believes in the possibility of advancement, he has ‘great expectations’ about his future.  Advancement may be obtained through money or by learning;  but affection, loyalty, and conscience prove more important than social advancement, wealth or class.

Pip desires educational improvement: it’s a  desire deeply connected to his social ambition and longing to marry Estella. A full education (as well as money) is a requirement of being a gentleman. As long as he is an ignorant country boy, he has no hope of social advancement. There’s a hilarious scene early in the novel which reveals Pip’s understanding of this fact as a child. He learns to read at Mr. Wopsle’s aunt’s dame school, where Biddy is an assistant:

The Educational scheme or Course established by Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt may be resolved into the following synopsis. The pupils ate apples and put straws down one another’s backs, until Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt collected her energies, and made an indiscriminate totter at them with a birch-rod. After receiving the charge with every mark of derision, the pupils formed in line and buzzingly passed a ragged book from hand to hand. The book had an alphabet in it, some figures and tables, and a little spelling,— that is to say, it had had once. As soon as this volume began to circulate, Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt fell into a state of coma, arising either from sleep or a rheumatic paroxysm. The pupils then entered among themselves upon a competitive examination on the subject of Boots, with the view of ascertaining who could tread the hardest upon whose toes. This mental exercise lasted until Biddy made a rush at them and distributed three defaced Bibles (shaped as if they had been unskilfully cut off the chump end of something), more illegibly printed at the best than any curiosities of literature I have since met with, speckled all over with ironmould, and having various specimens of the insect world smashed between their leaves. This part of the Course was usually lightened by several single combats between Biddy and refractory students. When the fights were over, Biddy gave out the number of a page, and then we all read aloud what we could,— or what we couldn’t — in a frightful chorus; Biddy leading with a high, shrill, monotonous voice, and none of us having the least notion of, or reverence for, what we were reading about. When this horrible din had lasted a certain time, it mechanically awoke Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt, who staggered at a boy fortuitously, and pulled his ears. This was understood to terminate the Course for the evening, and we emerged into the air with shrieks of intellectual victory.

Later, as he begins to make his way, Pip takes lessons from Matthew Pocket; and later on Pip tells of hours, days spent in extensive reading.  Ultimately, though, Pip learns by absorbing lessons from his relationships with Joe, Biddy, and Magwitch, that social and educational improvement are irrelevant to one’s real worth.  Wealth is not a ticket to happiness; conscience and affection are far more valuable than erudition and social standing.  Joe provides a lesson along these lines early in the narrative, though Pip fails at this point to understand.  He’s just admitted to Joe (the only person with whom he can be so honest) that he lied to everyone about the nature of his first meeting with Miss Havisham:

I told Joe … that I wished I was not common, and that the lies had come of it somehow, though I didn’t know how. This was a case of metaphysics, at least as difficult for Joe to deal with as for me. But Joe took the case altogether out of the region of metaphysics, and by that means vanquished it.

“There’s one thing you may be sure of, Pip,” said Joe, after some rumination, “namely, that lies is lies. Howsever they come, they didn’t ought to come, and they come from the father of lies, and work round to the same. Don’t you tell no more of ’em, Pip. That ain’t the way to get out of being common, old chap. And as to being common, I don’t make it out at all clear. You are oncommon in some things. You’re oncommon small. Likewise you’re a oncommon scholar.”

Joe offers a further lesson as he and Pip part at the end of the visit to London that has so embarrassed the young man:

“Pip, dear old chap, life is made of ever so many partings welded together, as I may say, and one man’s a blacksmith, and one’s a whitesmith, and one’s a goldsmith, and one’s a coppersmith. Diwisions among such must come, and must be met as they come. If there’s been any fault at all to-day, it’s mine. You and me is not two figures to be together in London; nor yet anywheres else but what is private, and beknown, and understood among friends. It ain’t that I am proud, but that I want to be right, as you shall never see me no more in these clothes. I’m wrong in these clothes. I’m wrong out of the forge, the kitchen, or off th’meshes.”

I had not been mistaken in my fancy that there was a simple dignity in him. The fashion of his dress could no more come in its way when he spoke these words, than it could come in its way in Heaven.

Reading these passages again, imbued with the sense of class and the perils of getting too far above yourself, I recalled how, in my teens, these ideas spoke powerfully to me as a boy from a working class background who had passed the 11 plus to go to a Direct Grant grammar.  This was a school which took fee-paying boys from privileged backgrounds, whose rugby team competed in a league with public schools, and where you would be caned if you played football in the lunch hour.

Coincidentally, while I was engaged in re-reading Great Expectations, BBC 4 broadcast a documentary about grammar schools that focussed on their heyday – the period from the 1950s to the 1970s, during which they were opened up to youngsters like me from working class homes, and before the introduction nationally of comprehensive schools.  What was remarkable about this film was the way in which Dickens’ theme in Great Expectations resonated throughout.  Remarkable, too, was the fact that just about everyone who told their personal story ended up at some point in tears.  For some, tears came with the memory of a teacher who had shown faith in their potential, for some recalling  sacrifices made by parents, while for others it was the memory of tensions and conflict with parents or peers who resented their advancement or could see no point in it.

That was my story, for sure. Later, at university and doing a course in sociology, echoes of Great Expectations came back to me when we studied the research that explored the tensions of between class, culture and school.  One such study was Education and the Working Class by Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden. First published in 1962, it took a sample of 88 working-class children educated in Huddersfield and revealed how they were caught between two cultures – home and school.  Meanwhile, there was Basil Bernstein’s work on language that underlined the point that the working class pupil is culturally different – but not deficient.

In Great Expectations, Dickens puts into Biddy’s words an awareness of these cultural differences:

I took Biddy into our little garden by the side of the lane, and, after throwing out in a general way for the elevation of her spirits, that I should never forget her, said I had a favor to ask of her.

“And it is, Biddy,” said I, “that you will not omit any opportunity of helping Joe on, a little.”

“How helping him on?” asked Biddy, with a steady sort of glance.

“Well! Joe is a dear good fellow,— in fact, I think he is the dearest fellow that ever lived,— but he is rather backward in some things. For instance, Biddy, in his learning and his manners.”

Although I was looking at Biddy as I spoke, and although she opened her eyes very wide when I had spoken, she did not look at me.

“O, his manners! won’t his manners do then?” asked Biddy, plucking a black-currant leaf.

“My dear Biddy, they do very well here —”

“O! they do very well here?” interrupted Biddy, looking closely at the leaf in her hand.

“Hear me out,— but if I were to remove Joe into a higher sphere, as I shall hope to remove him when I fully come into my property, they would hardly do him justice.”

“And don’t you think he knows that?” asked Biddy.

It was such a very provoking question (for it had never in the most distant manner occurred to me), that I said, snappishly,—

“Biddy, what do you mean?”

Biddy, having rubbed the leaf to pieces between her hands,— and the smell of a black-currant bush has ever since recalled to me that evening in the little garden by the side of the lane,— said, “Have you never considered that he may be proud?”

“Proud?” I repeated, with disdainful emphasis.

“O! there are many kinds of pride,” said Biddy, looking full at me and shaking her head; “pride is not all of one kind —”

“Well? What are you stopping for?” said I.

“Not all of one kind,” resumed Biddy. “He may be too proud to let any one take him out of a place that he is competent to fill, and fills well and with respect. To tell you the truth, I think he is; though it sounds bold in me to say so, for you must know him far better than I do.”

By the end of the novel, Pip has discovered the true worth of Joe and Biddy. Even the taint of crime and prison which Pip has been desperate to escape cannot hide Magwitch’s inner nobility, and Pip is able to ignore his social status as a criminal and offer him gratitude and succour. Pip has learned to trust his conscience and to a see the real worth of a person, irrespective of wealth, learning or social standing.  He has discover that the Victorian idea of a ‘gentleman’ is built on sand.

First publication of Great Expectations in All The Year Round, 1860

Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations was published in thirty-six weekly instalments in Dickens’s journal All the Year Round between 1860 and 1861. The first part appeared on December 1st 1860 (above).

I first saw David Lean’s atmospheric 1946 adaptation when it was shown by the film society at my grammar school (what is a good education worth!)  And did I find that the pictures in my mind were from that film or Dickens’ novel?   Well, the critic Roger Ebert writes:

Great Expectations’ has been called the greatest of all the Dickens films …[it] does what few movies based on great books can do: creates pictures on the screen that do not clash with the images already existing in our minds. Lean brings Dickens’ classic set-pieces to life as if he’d been reading over our shoulder: Pip’s encounter with the convict Magwitch in the churchyard, Pip’s first meeting with the mad Miss Havisham, and the ghoulish atmosphere in the law offices of Mr. Jaggers, whose walls are decorated with the death masks of clients he has lost to the gallows.

Certainly those were the images I had in my mind.  The film is memorable for its opening sequence on the marshes, enhanced by beautiful black and white cinematography by Guy Green.  In the TV version I had missed the scene where Miss Havisham, supported by Pip, marches around the table on which her mouldering wedding banquet is still laid out, stabbing each place setting with her stick.  That’s in the film – and in the book, too:

“This,” said she, pointing to the long table with her stick, “is where I will be laid when I am dead. They shall come and look at me here.”

With some vague misgiving that she might get upon the table then and there and die at once, the complete realization of the ghastly waxwork at the Fair, I shrank under her touch.

“What do you think that is?” she asked me, again pointing with her stick; “that, where those cobwebs are?”

“I can’t guess what it is, ma’am.”

“It’s a great cake. A bride-cake. Mine!”

She looked all round the room in a glaring manner, and then said, leaning on me while her hand twitched my shoulder, “Come, come, come! Walk me, walk me!” […]

“Matthew will come and see me at last,” said Miss Havisham, sternly, when I am laid on that table. That will be his place,— there,” striking the table with her stick, “at my head! And yours will be there! And your husband’s there! And Sarah Pocket’s there! And Georgiana’s there! Now you all know where to take your stations when you come to feast upon me. And now go!”

At the mention of each name, she had struck the table with her stick in a new place. She now said, “Walk me, walk me!” and we went on again.

The best of Lean’s film is in the first hour, but later on the film takes great liberties with the story with, for example, Estella never marrying the odious Drummle, Miss Havisham’s death occurring much earlier, and culminating in a happy ending quite different even to Dickens’ revised version.

This is the opening sequence of David Lean’s film:

‘Which I mean to say, Pip old chap.  What larks!’

See also

The Sense of an Ending

Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is a gripping read – I raced through it one sitting – but it’s far from lightweight, chewing over ideas about the malleability and untrustworthiness of memory in the course of detailing the unravelling of a mystery with its origins in the narrator’s schooldays.

The (likely unreliable) narrator is Webster one of a clique of clever, cocky sixth form lads who are joined by the even cleverer Adrian Finn, who says to their History teacher things like: ‘That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us’.  It’s a bit reminiscent of  Alan Bennett’s The History Boys.

Indeed, these early exchanges reminded me of the time when I was taking History Special Paper and we were required to read EH Carr’s What Is History? – the origin of that idea about needing to ‘know the history of the historian’ and, coincidentally, the subject of a series of The Essay on Radio 3 the other week.  Barnes’ narrator begins by recalling  his schooldays and these exchanges to do with the past and how to assess it, not because he feels any nostalgia for them but because ‘school is where it all began’.

On another occasion, clever Adrian notes that History ‘is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation’. This becomes the defining epigraph for the Barnes’ short novel – memory is mutable, it changes with the seasons.  Barnes has fun playing around with Webster’s imperfect memory and the inadequate documentation that he is left in a will.

The novella (which won the Man Booker Prize 2011) divides into two parts, the first being Webster’s memoir of  those ‘book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic’ sixth form days, culminating in the painful failure of his first sexual relationship at university, with the enigmatic Veronica. Webster recalls their awkwardness and repression at a time when it may have been the 60s, ‘but only for some people, only in certain parts of the country’. Later, we’ll find ourselves flicking back to reassess his recall because the second section undermines the veracity of these memories, as our narrator finds himself drawn into renewed contact with Veronica.

Anita Brookner, reviewing the book for The Telegraph, wrote:

It would be a mistake to dismiss this as a mere psychological thriller. It is in fact a tragedy, like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, which it resembles. Webster remains in character throughout, as does Veronica, who is not only the prime mover but also major victim. The explanation, when it comes, is unforeseen, almost accidental, and hedged about with a wealth of humdrum detail. Its effect is disturbing – all the more so for being written with Barnes’s habitual lucidity. His reputation will surely be enhanced by this book. Do not be misled by its brevity. Its mystery is as deeply embedded as the most archaic of memories.

While Justine Jordan commented in The Guardian:

With its patterns and repetitions, scrutinising its own workings from every possible angle, the novella becomes a highly wrought meditation on ageing, memory and regret. But it gives as much resonance to what is unknown and unspoken – lost to memory – as it does to the engine of its own plot. Fiction, Barnes writes in Nothing to Be Frightened Of, “wants to tell all stories, in all their contrariness, contradiction and irresolvability”.The Sense of an Ending honours that impossible desire in a way that is novel, fertile and memorable.

EH Carr wrote in What is History?:

The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate. … Study the historian before you begin to study the facts.  …  when recommended to read a work of history always ask ‘what bees he has in his bonnet. … listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf or your historian is a dull dog.  By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants.

When the boys are debating the nature of history back in the 1960s, they are asked by their teacher to characterise the reign of Henry VIII.  One responds: ‘There was unrest, sir …great unrest’.  In the end, reflecting on what he has learned from the events that have been played out, Tony Webster muses:

There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest.  There is great unrest.

The opening of The Sense of an Ending, read by Richard Morant

‘Sea that can only move forward’

In the Guardian Review today there’s a new short story by Colm Tóibín,  The Empty Family, the title story from a forthcoming collection.  Looking through a telescope at the sea, the story’s narrator is transfixed by the sight of the waves miles out:

Their dutiful and frenetic solitude, their dull indifference to their fate, made me want to cry out, made me want to ask him if he could leave me alone for some time to take this in. I could hear him breathing behind me. It came to me then that the sea is not a pattern: it is a struggle. Nothing matters against the fact of this. The waves were like people battling out there, full of consciousness and will and destiny and an abiding sense of their own beauty.

I knew as I held my breath and watched that it would be wrong to stay too long. I asked him if he would mind if I looked for one more minute. He smiled as though this was what he had wanted. Unlike you, who have never cared about things, your brother is a man who likes his own property. I turned and moved fast, focusing swiftly on a wave I had selected for no reason. There was whiteness and greyness in it and a sort of blue and green. It was a line. It did not toss, nor did it stay still. It was all movement, all spillage, but it was pure containment as well, utterly focused just as I was watching it. It had an elemental hold; it was something coming towards us as though to save us but it did nothing. Instead, it withdrew in a shrugging irony, as if to suggest that this is what the world is, and our time in it, all lifted possibility, all complexity and rushing fervour, to end in nothing on a small strand, and go back out to rejoin the empty family from whom we had set out alone with such a burst of brave, unknowing energy.

In the story, the narrator recalls an earlier time in Australia, reading the poems of  Louise Gluck – perhaps this one:

Odysseus’ Decision

The great man turns his back on the island.
Now he will not die in paradise
nor hear again
the lutes of paradise among the olive trees,
by the clear pools under the cypresses. Time

begins now, in which he hears again
that pulse which is the narrative
sea, ar dawn when its pull is strongest.
What has brought us here
will lead us away; our ship
sways in the tined harbour water.

Now the spell is ended.
Give him back his life,
sea that can only move forward.

Now home was this ’empty house back from the cliff at Ballyconnigar, a house half full of objects in their packages, small paintings and drawings … including the Mary Lohan painting I bought in Dublin and other pieces I bought years ago waiting for hooks and string’.

Mary Lohan was born in Dublin in 1954 and studied painting at the National College of Art and Design. She:

works with incredibly thick impasto that oozes over the edges of her paintings, encrusting itself in layer upon layer of oil that clings to the sides of the canvas and extends the picture plane to hover in mid-space in front of the gallery wall. The rough, tactile use of paint is echoed in her fascination with the barren coastlines Donegal, Mayo and Wexford, and the physicality of her painting allows the viewer to experience the rolling and crashing of the waves against the shore.
Taylor Galleries

Alone In Berlin: resistance is futile?

Alone In Berlin: resistance is futile?

To read Every Man Dies Alone, Fallada’s testament to the darkest years of the 20th century, is to be accompanied by a wise, sombre ghost who grips your shoulder and whispers into your ear: “This is how it was. This is what happened”.
– Liesl Schillinger, New York Times Book Review

Every Man Dies Alone is the original German title of the novel by Hans Fallada published in English as Alone in Berlin, which I have just finished reading.  The novel was published in German in 1947, only a few months before the author’s death.  It is extraordinary that this excellent English translation by Michael Hofmann only appeared in 2009. Continue reading “Alone In Berlin: resistance is futile?”

Turtle Diary

‘I was on South Bank one day by the Royal Festival Hall. It was a sunny day with a bright blue sky. I was looking up at a train crossing the Hungerford Bridge. Through the train I could see the sky successively framed by each window as the carriage passed. Each window moving quickly forward and away held briefly a rectangle of blue. The windows passing, the blue remained.’
– Neaera H.

This is not an ecological fable, though I assumed it might be from the title.  Instead, the main focus of Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary, published in 1975, is on lives of quiet desperation and loneliness, and in particular of two people whose lives intersect for a while because they share a compulsion to release the loggerhead turtles in London Zoo into the wild.

William G. works in a bookstore and lives alone in an apartment, haunted by thoughts of the family he’s been separated from by divorce. Neaera H. is the author of children’s books, single, tired of writing books about cuddly animals and resigned to her aloneness: ‘My despair has long since been ground up fine and is no more than the daily salt and pepper of my life’.

It might sound bleak, but Hoban’s two protagonists reflect on their lives, in alternating entries, with a wry, bittersweet irony that engages the reader.  There is a great deal of humour in the book, for example when Neaera H. recalls a childhood visit to Polperro in Cornwall (where she and William G. plan to release the turtles), she muses: ‘One of the principal industries in Polperro is parking cars’.  William reflects on the wording of a panel at the zoo:

‘Two of the turtles at the aquarium are green turtles, a large one and a small one. The sign said: ‘The Green Turtle, Chelonia mydas, is the source of turtle soup…’ I am the source of William G. soup if it comes to that. Everyone is the source of his or her kind of soup. In a town as big as London that’s a lot of soup walking about.’

The turtles only bring William and Neara together briefly. For them both the fascination of the turtles lies in their unselfconcious ability to keep swimming towards their destiny without ever needing to question their purpose.  William thinks:

Could I be a turtle?  Could I through an act of ecstasy swim unafraid and never lost, finding, finding? …A turtle doesn’t have to decide every morning whether to keep on bothering, it just carries on. Maybe that’s why man kills everything: envy.

Naera thinks:

I’m always afraid of being lost, the secret navigational art of turtles seems a sacred thing to me.  My generation was somewhat between things, neither free nor much supported by whatever held us in.

Both are capable of setting the turtles free but not of letting their emotional guard down for more than a moment or two:

Sometimes I think that the biggest difference between men and women is that more men need to seek out some terrible luring thing in existence and hurl themselves upon it like Ahab with the White Whale…William G. has found some monster and…What?  Almost I think he’s swallowed it.  It’s alive and eating inside him…There, I’m worrying about him.  I’ve breached my privacy badly.  There’s not enough of me for that, I have no self to spare…
– Neaera H.

The meaning of this novel could perhaps be found compressed in a line from Hoban’s later work, Riddley Walker:

Its in jus letting your self be where it is.

The longest and most spectacular animal migrations are made by young loggerhead turtles. They travel for a period of years along migratory routes that span entire oceans. Young loggerheads in the North Atlantic cover more than 9,000 miles to their mating grounds before returning to the North American coast. Those in the Pacific travel even farther.

Troubles: the prize at last

Recently JG Farrell’s novel Troubles was chosen by readers as winner of the Lost Booker award, intended to correct the anomaly that befell authors of books published in 1970, who missed the opportunity to be considered for the Booker prize when it changed from being given retrospectively to being handed out for the best novel in the year of publication.  This publicity encouraged me to return to a book I first read in the 1970s (as it must have done many others: when I ordered the reprint on Amazon they were initially out of stock, due to the high level of demand – so the prize certainly represented a successful piece of marketing). And this book deserves to be rediscovered:  it is a 20th century masterpiece.

Troubles is set against the background of events in Ireland in 1919 – the struggle for independence led by Sinn Fein and the atrocities of the Black and Tans – and the story unfolds in the microcosm of the rambling and decaying Majestic hotel run by Edward Spencer, a conservative Protestant loyalist back from serving in India who demands that his tenants sign a loyalty oath to the King and stockpiles weapons to defend the hotel against the rebels. To the hotel in 1919 comes Major Brendan Archer, recovering from shell-shock, to be re-acquianted with the woman to whom he is almost certain he became engaged during the war.  The novel begins in the present, as Archer’s grandchild survey’s the ruins of the Majestic:

Curiously, in spite of the corrosive effects of the sea air the charred remains of the enormous main building are still to be seen; for some reason – the poor quality of the soil or the proximity of the sea – vegetation has only made a token attempt to possess them. Here and there among the foundations one might still find evidence of the Majestic’s former splendour: the great number of cast-iron bathtubs, for instance, which had tumbled from one blazing floor to another until they hit the earth; twisted bed-frames also, some of them not yet altogether rusted away; and a simply prodigious number of basins and lavatory bowls. At intervals along the outer walls there is testimony to the stupendous heat of the fire: one can disinter small pools of crystal formed in layers like the drips of wax from a candle, which gathered there, of course, from the melting of the windows. Pick them up and they separate in your hand into the cloudy drops that formed them.

Another curious thing: one comes across a large number of tiny white skeletons scattered round about. The bones are very delicate and must have belonged, one would have thought,to small quadrupeds … (‘But no, not rabbits,’ says my grandfather with a smile.)

The Majestic is the decaying symbolic centrepiece  of the novel. When the Major arrives in 1919 there is no one at the hotel desk to greet him, and he evenually finds himself in the Palm Court, ‘a vast, shadowy cavern in which…beds of oozing mould supported banana and rubber plants, hairy ferns, elephant grass and creepers that dangled from above like emerald intestines’. Storms and neglect have scoured the Majestic and undermined its structure. Windows are broken, the roof leaks, and stonework threatens to crash down. Roots from the plants have worked their way inside walls, floors, and even ceilings, swelling and cracking them. The hotel’s Imperial Bar is ‘boiling with cats’ which live inside upholstered chairs. The handful of mostly female tenants who remain at the hotel are aged, clinging to the faded elegance of the Majestic.

There’s a pervading air of melancholy sadness and encroaching violence in this book; but it is also very funny, with passages of almost surreal starngeness:

Leaping to his feet…Edward seized a bread-knife and began to slash away at  the foliage as if it were a machete.  And it was true that the growth of ferns, creepers, rubber-plants and Good only knew what had become so luxiarant as to be altogether beyond a joke.  Whereas previously the majority of the chairs and tables had been avaialble, here and there, in clearings joined by a network of trails, now all but a few of them had been engulfed by the advancing green tide…

There was a long silence as they sat there in the greenish gloom…A faint rustling sound  became audible, as of someone making his way with caution along one of the trails through the thicket. There had previously been a way through, the Major remembered, from one end of the Palm Court to the other (leading to a spiral staircase down into the cellars). It seemed, to judge by the steadily approaching rustle of leaves, that against all probability this trail was still practicable. The noise of movement stopped for a moment near at hand, and there was a deep sigh, a long exhalation of breath, almost a sob. Then the noise started again. In a moment whoever it was would step into view from behind an extraordinarily powerful tropical shrub which seemed to have drilled its roots right through the tiles of the floor into the oozing darkness  below.  No sound but for the rustling footsteps.. .The Major tried to see past the hairy, curving, reticulated trunk of this tree, to distinguish (between succulent, oily leaves as big as dinner-plates) the tiny figure that slowly shufiled into sight. It was old Mrs Rappaport.

She stopped in the clearing opposite the tea-table and turned her sightless eyes in their direction. ‘Edward!’ Edward said nothing but continued to sit there as if made of stone. ‘Edward, I know you’re there,’ the old lady repeated shrilly.


Edward looked agonized but said nothing. After a long pause the old lady turned and began to move forward again. For what seemed an age they listened to the decreasing rustle of her progress followed by a prolonged wrestling with the grove of bamboo shoots. Listening to the interminable thrashing as she tried to escape from the toils of bamboo, the Major wondered whether he should go to her assistance. But at last the thrashing stopped. Mrs Rappaport had won through into the residents’ lounge. Silence returned and it seemed to the Major that the greenish gloom had deepened into an intolerable darkness…

When it was first published, The Guardian commented:

“The evidence of change and decay at the Majestic is no parochial phenomenon and it is this feeling of the particular reflecting the universal, a feeling so successfully pervading page after page of this clever book that makes it a tour de force.”

It is the metaphor of the Majestic’s rapid decay that is Farrell’s triumph here,  supported by his gift for description, characterisation and wry humour. Into the narrative, Farrell inserts small news items that provide parallels to the rebellion in Ireland, illuminating a time when virtually all the colonies of the British empire were simultaneously agitating for independence. Newspaper stories about the British army’s firing on the populace in Amritsar, a ‘native’ uprising in South Africa, along with the Bolshevik attacks in Kiev, provide the context of the Irish rebellion.

Ion Trewin, Literary Director of the Man Booker Prizes commented:

Troubles is a novel of such lasting quality that it has never been out of print in the 40 years since it was first published. Had this been the winning novel in 1970, JG Farrell would have gone on to become the first author to win the Booker Prize twice.’ (Farrell won the Booker Prize in 1973 for The Siege of Krishnapur).

JG Farrell was born in Liverpool in 1935 and studied at Oxford University, contracting polio as a student (an experience which he drew on for his second novel, The Lung). He completed six novels, and was working on The Hill Station at the time of his death, drowned in a fishing accident on the Irish coast in 1979 . Asked why he wrote about the past, Farrell said: ‘History leaves so much out. It leaves out the most important thing: the detail of what being alive is like’.

In Troubles, Farrell speaks about the Anglo-Irish conflict through the words and thoughts of his characters and the metaphor of the decaying grandeur of the hotel. The poet Derek Mahon was so inspired by Troubles that he wrote
‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ and dedicated it to his friend, Farrell.  In the poem, travellers find ‘deep in the grounds of a burnt-out hotel, / Among the bathtubs and the washbasins’, a disused shed.  They force open a long-locked door to reveal a host of mushrooms crowding in the darkness.

Seamus Deane (whose Reading In The Dark, set in Derry, is another great novel of the Irish Troubles) asserts that, like Troubles, Mahon’s poem, though it has Irish signifiers, is a poem about humanity: ‘It is a poem that heartbreakingly dwells on and gives voice to all those peoples and civilisations that have been lost or destroyed’.

Let them not forget us, the weak souls among the asphodels
– Seferis: ‘Mythistorema’

For J.G. Farrell

Even now there are places where a thought might grow —
Peruvian mines, worked out and abandoned
To a slow clock of condensation,
An echo trapped forever, and a flutter
Of wildflowers in the lift-shaft,
Indian compounds where the wind dances
And a door bangs with diminished confidence,
Lime crevices behind rippling rainbarrels,
Dog corners for bone burials;
And a disused shed in Co. Wexford,

Deep in the grounds of a burnt-out hotel,
Among the bathtubs and the washbasins
A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole.
This is the one star in their firmament
Or frames a star within a star.
What should they do there but desire?
So many days beyond the rhododendrons
With the world waltzing in its bowl of cloud,
They have learnt patience and silence
Listening to the rooks querulous in the high wood.

They have been waiting for us in a foetor
Of vegetable sweat since civil war days,
Since the gravel-crunching, interminable departure
of the expropriated mycologist.
He never came back, and light since then
Is a keyhole rusting gently after rain.
Spiders have spun, flies dusted to mildew
And once a day, perhaps, they have heard something —
A trickle of masonry, a shout from the blue
Or a lorry changing gear at the end of the lane.

There have been deaths, the pale flesh flaking
Into the earth that nourished it;
And nightmares, born of these and the grim
Dominion of stale air and rank moisture.
Those nearest the door growing strong —
‘Elbow room! Elbow room!’
The rest, dim in a twilight of crumbling
Utensils and broken flower-pots, groaning
For their deliverance, have been so long
Expectant that there is left only the posture.

A half century, without visitors, in the dark —
Poor preparation for the cracking lock
And creak of hinges. Magi, moonmen,
Powdery prisoners of the old regime,
Web-throated, stalked like triffids, racked by drought
And insomnia, only the ghost of a scream
At the flashbulb firing squad we wake them with
Shows there is life yet in their feverish forms.
Grown beyond nature now, soft food for worms,
They lift frail heads in gravity and good faith.

They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way,
To do something, to speak on their behalf
Or at least not to close the door again.
Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!
‘Save us, save us,’ they seem to say,
‘Let the god not abandon us
Who have come so far in darkness and in pain.
We too had our lives to live.
You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary,
Let not our naive labours have been in vain!’

Malcolm Lowry: an exhibition

I popped into the Bluecoat this afternoon to see the exhibition marking the centenary of Malcolm Lowry’s birth, Under the Volcano, which is in its last few days. I was glad I did – it’s an enormously interesting exhibition, featuring paintings inspired by Lowry’s work as well as memorabilia from Lowry’s Wirral and Liverpool upbringing collated by Colin Dilnot.

Malcolm Lowry (1909-57) was inspired by the Wirral of his childhood. His Merseyside youth informs his writing, and Liverpool, which he described as ‘that terrible city whose main street is the ocean’, continued to hold tremendous significance for him. Under The Volcano (1947) is considered one of the most poignant, poetic  and significant novels of the last century. Set in Mexico on the Day Of The Dead, the novel’s tragic resonance and insights into the struggle for creative expression have inspired many artists as well as writers. I read it decades ago – as a student – and only have a vague memory of the atmospherics – carnival noise in the streets and dark, alcohol stupefied interiors.  This exhibition has encouraged me to read it again.

The exhibition focusses on Lowry’s Merseyside origins and his international dimension. It reflects his continuing influence on artists across the creative spectrum – painters, filmmakers, choreographers and musicians, as well as writers and historians. I was impressed particularly with three impressive paintings by Edward Burra , a series by Julian Cooper and work by Adrian Henri.

Edward Burra

Skeleton Party

Extensive notes on this painting at the Tate

Edward Burra: Mexican Church

Extensive notes on this painting at the Tate

Notes on this painting at the Tate

Bluecoat programme notes:

Edward Burra (1905-1976) occupies a particular place in 20th century British art: represented in major collections yet remaining, like Malcolm Lowry, something of an outsider. He is best known for his satirical, often macabre paintings of 1920s and 1930s urban life, particularly its seedier side. He flirted with Surrealism and his allegorical works share some of its characteristics. Working mainly in watercolour, he imbued his art with ‘a feeling of tawdriness and the meretricious and yet, at the same time, (created) such convincing beauty’ (George Melly).

Despite constant ill health, Burra traveled widely, visiting Lowry in Cuernavaca in 1937, together with Lowry’s early mentor and their mutual friend, the American writer Conrad Aiken. On his return to England Surra painted Mexican Church, its composition based on two postcards of churches he’d visited, the cathedral at Taxco and Santa Catarina, Mexico City. Burra and Lowry did not get on, however both shared an interest in Mexican culture.

Burra was influenced particularly by the Mexican muralists and the prints of Jose Guadalupe Posada (1851-1913), whose depictions of lively skeletons had a profound effect, contributing to his interest in representations of death. Under the Volcano’s Day of the Dead theme is echoed in Burra’s other two paintings shown here. Dancing Skeletons, painted after a visit to Spain, anticipates his Mexican journey and immersion in the iconography of death. In Skeleton Party, completed nearly 20 years later, Surra returns to this earlier theme. Whilst the pyramid shapes on the horizon have been identified as slag heaps in an industrial landscape, they could equally suggest the twin peaks of Lowry’s Mexican volcanoes.
– Bryan Biggs Artistic Director The Bluecoat Liverpool: Under The Volcano; An Exhibition for Malcolm Lowry 1909-1957

I love Edward Burra’s Harlem paintings. There’s a good selection of his paintings, including some of those, here.

Julian Cooper

Bluecoat programme notes:

The three paintings by Julian Cooper are from a series of seven completed in the 1980s entitled Under the Volcano. The novel was instrumental in the artist’s search to develop a kind of abstract painting using figurative methods, one capable of taking on contemporary experience in the way that Lowry’s novel does, with its intricate symbolism and a vivid representational surface. For Cooper the book ‘had everything. It was set in a landscape, it was outer narrative and inner narrative as well, it had lots of references to literature and cabbalistic religion – it had all the complexity of a Renaissance painting. ‘

Douglas Day’s biography of Lowry in particular, linking the writer’s life to his fiction, provided Cooper with a ‘layering of myth and reality. .. I see the novel now as quite prophetic in the way that its leading metaphor applies as much to an “economic growth” as to an alcohol addiction’.

Like Lowry’s writing, the paintings are meticulously detailed and create a real sense of place and time, an evocation of Mexico and the book’s setting. Each takes a particular episode from the book chosen for its self-sufficiency and symbolic power. They avoid being simply illustrative however, the structure and execution of the paintings echoing the complex layering of meaning found in Lowry’s masterpiece. Despite the specific references, the paintings are autonomous, requiring no prior knowledge of the book.
– Bryan Biggs Artistic Director The Bluecoat Liverpool: Under The Volcano; An Exhibition for Malcolm Lowry 1909-1957

Adrian Henri

Bluecoat programme notes:

In his series of paintings and drawings, Adrian Henri (1932-2000) sets the Mexican Day of the Dead in contemporary Liverpool, populating Hope Street with a crowd including artists and writers William Burroughs, Alien Ginsberg, Frida Kahlo, Ed Kienholz and Henri’s Liverpool painter friend, Sam Walsh. In the main painting shown here the white suited, pipe-smoking figure on the far left is Malcolm Lowry.

Henri’s partner Catherine Marcangeli describes his interest in the writer: ‘He went to see the Day of the Dead exhibition at the Museum of Mankind, a visit that had immediate echoes with Lowry. He bought lots of paper-lace patterns, sweets in the shapes of skulls, and all manner of folkloric artifacts … when he painted the Day of the Dead years later those echoes were also mixed with a host of other references, the most important and obvious one being his own earlier painting, Entry of Christ into Liverpool, of which The Day of the Dead, Hope Street is a kind of new version, except that the “friends and heroes” are dead ones here.’

There are other echoes, of a visit Henri made to a graveyard in Lorraine on the Day of the Toussaint (All Saints’ Day in France, when people take flowers to the graves of dead friends or relatives), and of the eerie and sinister masks at the Basle Carnival.
– Bryan Biggs Artistic Director The Bluecoat Liverpool: Under The Volcano; An Exhibition for Malcolm Lowry 1909-1957

Bluecoat programme notes:

For Cisco Jimenez, a native of Cuernavaca where Under the Volcano is set, Lowry’s book and his life continue to provide – 70 years after he stayed there – a barometer for measuring the expectations and failures of this Mexican town. For Jimenez the paradox portrayed in the novel repeats: the clash of the popular against the contemporary, tradition under threat from global changes and impositions, and the failure of utopianism (colonial utopias, the social experiments of the 1960s, the neoliberal policies in the 1990s).

Jimenez’s mixed media sculptures make playful reference to Lowry’s life: his drinking (Two Atoms Connected), golfing prowess (Necklace), and in Peddler the imagery and folkloric aspects of Under the Volcano, whilst AK47 Barroca is indicative of the artist’s concern with the contradictions and violence of the everyday in Mexico.

‘Cuemavaca is no longer what it used to be. What remains are tourism and opportunistic “cliches” of the quiet and colonial past – multiple thematic hotels and restaurants for wealthy foreigners and visitors from Mexico City, and real estate speculation. Nature has been covered over with tons of concrete, and the last old mansions with their majestic gardens are slowly falling down, giving way to massive condominiums (which we call “condemoniums”). You face such disaster every day’.

Echo review of the exhibition:

Malcolm Bradbury described Malcolm Lowry as having a “curious internationalism”.  That is what has perhaps led him to be less well known in his home city than he might have been, and is also what the Bluecoat has attempted to reflect in this new exhibition marking the centenary of his birth.  Those who do know of Lowry will probably have read his magnum opus, Under The Volcano. But few will be aware that the author of what has been described as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century was born the son of a Liverpool cotton broker in New Brighton.

In fact, there are many intriguing aspects to the man who was a writer, golfer, nomadic adventurer and inveterate drinker (alcohol caused his death at 47).  The Bluecoat’s two-month celebration of all things Lowry includes the publication of a new book, From The Mersey To The World, the screening of John Huston’s film Under The Volcano starring Albert Finney, and music written by poet Ian McMillan. At its heart, however, is this exhibition of artwork and film inspired by the writer and covering not simply his life in the Mexican town of Cuernavaca (where the novel is set on the Mexican Day of the Dead), but also his fascination with the Isle of Man, his time in New York and his spartan existence in Canada.

It turns out to be perhaps one of the most satisfying exhibitions held recently at the Bluecoat, mostly because while it features disparate artists, it has a pleasingly unified central theme – they all share a fascination with Lowry. Adrian Henri’s vibrant Day Of The Dead In Liverpool paintings sit alongside works from Julian Cooper’s Under The Volcano series, Cooper’s images redolent of Hockney or Hopper.

There are also a series of intricate Under The Volcano-themed prints by Chilean artist Jorge Martinez Garcia, while the Tate has loaned the gallery watercolours by Lowry contemporary Edward Burra which (despite his apparently disliking Lowry) also feature the skeletons so prevalent in day of the dead iconography.  And, most fascinatingly of all, there are never-before-seen telegrams, borrowed from Liverpool Record Office, charting the highs and lows of the globetrotting writer’s hectic life.