Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘environmentalism conservation’ Category


Lucy reading Sarah’s letter telling of the coming of Mr Turner (Staying On, 1980)

“We should write to Cooks,” suggests Lucy, “and ask them to put us on the tourist itinerary. After the Taj Mahal . . . the Smalleys of Pankot” (she is not without a sense of humor)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been posting so much less because I’ve been reading books and essays as parts of projects directed by aimed-at (from accepted proposals) papers, essays, talks, and teaching, not to omit a face-to-face book club (my first),listserv discussion groups (now I’m down to two at most) and a book project (Winston Graham, Cornwall and the Poldark novels was its working title but my perspective has changed). However, I don’t want to give up blogging because I love this kind of communication: natural easy English, liberty. responses far more numerous and quicker than anything one gets from a printed piece because blogs readily reach people.

For the “Booker Prize Marketplace Niche” course I’m teaching the first novel has been the 1979 winner, Paul Scott’s Staying On, and I became deeply engaged by the book’s central presence, Lucy Little Smalley (yes the names in the Scott’s fiction are partly allegorical), in a re-watch the 1983 Granada mini-series, The Jewel in The Crown (how I wish I had time to reread the four books); as important was the class members’ careful reading of the novel and genuinely unbiased (disinterested is the better word for what I mean) debate and conversation in class.

Scott wrote that he had been much influenced by Anthony Trollope and certainly the political outlook of his books which shows how our most fundamental experiences are shaped by social, ethnic, racial class, position in a colonialist state is reminiscent of Trollope’s all encompassing political vision. I’ve written about the Raj Quartet, the books and mini-series as among the great achievements in fiction of the 20th century.

What is distinctive about Staying On? It’s colonialism told from the angle of the displaced lower status white European, a mood piece about two people living on an economic disaster precipice as the man’s pension is tiny and he is dying, and they are outsiders in the newly re-formed capitalist, colonialism, multi-racial Indian societies. Lucy our heroine maintains herself in sanity by holding on to her dignity and composure in the midst of her husband’s continual inflicting on himself brooding over petty and large raw humiliations. Scott has always been deeply sympathetic to the feelings of the aging elderly people. A large question is that of identity: who are you in this global world? we see the outside of Tusker (a name redolent of elephants) an irascible man alienated and disillusioned after a lifetime of service (as he saw it) to India. One of the things that’s remarkable about the book is how slowly it moves.


Lucy bringing the box with papers and putting it in front of Tusker to deal with for her

A minor Colonel in the Raj. Tusker would not return to live in Engaland. They represent the last “withered survivors,” and now 25 years later they are living on a reduced income. Why didn’t he want to go back –- he said they could live better in India. Why else? He had served for a couple of years as an advisor to the Indian new army from which he retired; then about 12 years a commercial job (box wallah) with a firm in Bombay where they went once to London in 1950. It turns out he was wrong; they would have been better off returning to where they originally belonged. He is irritated perpetually, acid, falling physically apart; Lucy sees this and is frightened and has been trying to get him to tell her what she will have. He has been avoiding this, guilty, aware he has mistreated, not appreciated her all their lives.

His one friend is Mr Bhoolabjoy, Francis, Frank, who wants to enable him to stay in the quarters. Frank’s enormously fat wife, Lila, is driven by spite and greed to want to kick her Anglican tenants out after selling the building they are in. She is ambitious, ruthless, the new commerce is probably going to destroy her. Grotesque comedy comes from her size against her husband’s: he is ever serving her, waking up inside her enormous body. There is some stereotypical misogyny in the portrait of the wife. Mean, cold, exploitative, Lila bullies her husband, idle – as the book opens she had ordered Frank to write a letter to Tusker telling them in effect to get out because they have no legal lease. This demand and his failure to comply in the way she wants provides the thinnest skein of story line moving ahead – by near the end of the book he has written an unsatisfactory one, trying to be kind and when he finally does what she wants and gets to Tusker, he has this massive heart and we are back where we began, Lucy at the hairdresser with Suzy (having her blue rinse), people having to do something about her husband, now a corpse in the garden.

What is Bhoolabhoy like? Non-ambitious, has mistresses and does as little as he can get away with. Lila is gross, unscrupulous, could come out of Dickens who has many hateful domineering women. Francis and Tusker live for their money evenings together, where they drink, talk, dine, play cards. How does he treat Lucy? Not well. Not ambitious either of them.


Bhoolabhoy and Tusker

His wife, Lucy, is the book. Her parallel is much less evident as her primary relationship is with Tusker: it’s Susy, the hairdresser, Eurasian, living precariously on sexual earnings (from Francis, from Father Sebastian, see below) too. Susy Williams, I wish we knew more of her. Eurasian, born Chapel so an English dissenter, she does Lucy’s hair, she gets money from Frank by having sex with him – he doesn’t lack for appetite.

Sarah Layton has written to say that a man named Turner (associate of Saraha’s professor husband) is coming to interview her and in her loneliness – she says she and Tusker never communicate — she rehearses in her mind what she will tell him. And her tragic history (Chapter 10, pp 132-141) of thwarted talent. She begins by saying she was happy in Mudpore, a prince’s state and then remembers back to when she typed letters: made fun of by Mr Coyne, one of the bosses, as left over “Virgin of the Vicarage” (p 133). Her job in Litigation in England had been fun, she had been courted by Mr Coyne. She lived at the Y and Miss Martha Price took her under her wing, got her a flat – Miss Price we begin to realize is lesbian, loves Lucy – and is very hurt when Lucy falls in love with Tusker Smalley — as she loved her as an intense friend . Basically Lucy gives up everything she has built for herself for this man.


In the garden by their lodging next to Smith’s

She is fringe gentry (she is mocked in the UK when she takes a steno job which lowers her status), whose condition is parallel to that of subaltern women in her employ. The novel is told through the subjective soliloquies of Lucy (the prevalent presence), her Indian servant Ibrahim (who understands her and values his domestic position, the Indian landlady’s husband, Francis Boulabhoy, caricatured as subject to his ruthless wife’s erotic and cutthroat appetites, but like Lucy, having a dignity and moral position of his own. Tusker is there, but much less because his dark angers would change the whole tone of the book, which is ironic comedic plangent. It’s structured cyclically (as is his Raj Quartet), beginning with the sudden death from a massive heart attack of Tusker, and then arranged as flashback of memories and present experiences acutely realized.

The book is intertextual: Lucy had joined a dramatic society and despite her non-aggression had a chance at a part, which probably means she could act – The Housemaster – a play from 1936, Ian Hay, an all male school is destroyed when a woman and three daughters related to them disturb the peace. Very English. She did something similar in Rawalpindi.. She could have had a part in The Letteras Leslie Crosbie, a play by Somerset Maughan where Bette Davis played the part (she kills a man who rejected her and is acquitted) in a film by William Wyler. and Tusker discouraged her. A third play is called The Wind and the Rain – it was a popular ballad at the time. Very minor English plays of this era which were popular. Like you might go to a community theater today. Deeply uneasy comedies.

How much a dress meant to her; always low, looked down on but she learned rules of club and game and acted these out, and her reward at the end is to be left isolated. She’s cut off from her country of origin, her culture. I don’t think she is made fun of – she maintains composure and dignity until the last page when she loses it – her dignity hides her sorrows and is the source of her strength – that she goes through the forms. When he dies suddenly despite all the obstacles Tusker among others creates she is planning a dinner party. Gallant lady — for Susy, Francis and Father Sebastian, a black Anglican priest who has taken over the church, Father Sebastian; only Francis wanted to come.


Ibrahim yawning

Second most frequent POV is Ibrahim, though it might be Bhoolbhoy has more interior monologue. Who is Ibrahim? He is the central servant of the house and they are continually firing him. Mrs Bhoolbhoy is refusing to take care of the grass, to fix anything and Ibrahim hires Joseph (another remarkable presence, so glad to have any job, so servile apparently) to do this demeaning work. He is one level of Indian and Mr Bhoolbhoy another. He maintains a comic impartiality. He helps his memsahib whenever possible. He does the shopping, cooking, keeps them all going. Note the quiet ironies:

Ibrahim regretted the passing of the days of the raj which he remembered as days when the servants were treated as members of the family, entitled to their good humours and bad humours, their sulks, their outbursts of temper, their right to show who was really boss, and their right to their discreetly appropriate perks, the feathers they had to provide for the nest when the nest they presently inhab- ited was abandoned by homeward-bound employers. Ibrahim had been brought up in such a nest. He still possessed the chits his father had been given by Colonel Moxon-Greife and a photograph of Colonel and Mrs. Moxon-Greife with garlands round their necks, Going Home, in 1947. He had also inherited and preserved the two letters which Colonel Moxon- Greife had written to his father from England. Finally he had inherited the silence that greeted his father’s two letters to Colonel Moxon-Greife inquiring about the possi- bilities of work in England …

We have three people trying to make sense of their worlds, who they are, and they can’t – Lucy, Mr Bhoolabjoy and Ibrahim. Smaller characters: Father Sebastian, a black man, Anglo-Catholic and now in charge of the church. Reverend Stephen Ambedkar – administering to people’s spiritual needs takes generous swigs of wine.

Scott objected strenuously to the usual comparison, that ensues early in discussions of Scott’s fiction: with E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. That too includes rape but it is kept to the margins and the book told from a male point of view, while in Staying On Scott keeps up female subjectivity as his major medium. Forster’s people are gentry who visit; they are tourists, part of an imperialist overlay of job and place-seekers, or on holiday. Scott’s characters are embedded in the central work of the society, administrative, church, political, economic, social capital is what they depend on. A habitas if you will. He saw the work of the colonial administration as the expression of their ideology; when the ideology failed, was exposed for the hypocrisy it was, so they were crushed. In his books we see Indians, Hindu and Muslim crushed by the imperialists. Staying On differs because the petty powerful local Indian people have taken over as they often did in local instances, and Hindus, Muslims, and any whites that get in anyone’s way of profit destroyed. A strong idealism underwrites the books. Racial and ethnic and religious persecution are motifs that emerge early in other books. People in close units all dependent on one another. Feed off and prey on another but also sustain one another.


Moment of frenzied behavior by Tusker over papers

A little on Scott’s life (the lamp):

Paul Scott. Born 1920 and died 1978. So not long lived. Given how frequently and fully he wrote about India and also other places abroad in the British commonwealth (Africa once) you might think he grew outside the UK borders. Not so. He grew up in London and as he said many times his use of India and the history of colonialism and exploitation seemed to him a metaphor which could reach out and cover far more than the class, gender, money, and by extension school, status, rank system he grew up in. You at once expanded your vision. At one level Lucy Smalley is still the “old” vicar’s daughter from 19th century novels displaced, the marginalized subaltern governess married off to a fringe gentry person.

It’s important to know he was a closet homosexual: he lived an outwardly heterosexual life because in his time you still were punished in all sorts of direct ways. You could call him bisexual – hermaphodite. What’s really remarkable is how heroines are central to all his books – they are the subject narrators, he writes a kind of l’ecriture-femme like Henry James. He was much influenced by Trollope who as far as we know was straight heterosexual but Trollope too leans heavily on women’s points of view. Raj Quartet: opens with rape and the girl who is raped is our first central voice, then Edwina Crane, a missionary never married, spinster, attacked on the road, burnt herself to death in a suttee when the man she worked all her life dies in this incident; the nun-nurse, Sister Ludmilla, the companion who becomes an outcast, Barbie Bachelor, and the traditional deeply humane “virtuous” in the modern ways heroine Sarah Layton (Geraldine James) – all women have sex, Sarah is driven by her family to have an abortion.

Schooling he went to Winchmore Hill Collegiate School in London, a good school but left at 16 to become an accountant. His family were commercial artists, interacting with the lower echelons of London Bohemianism in its entrepreneurial artistry. They wanted him to have the safe remunerative career. He married in 1941, Nancy Avery, herself a novelist, short story writer, they had two daughters, he lived quietly with them and groups of friends.

World War two was transformative. He was sent to India in 1943; there for three years the first time as an officer cadet in World War II. As an air supply officer he traveled widely throughout India, Burma, and Malaya, moving easily in the varied society of civilians and military, of British and Indians. After returning to England from India in 1946, heworked his way slowly up to become part of a literary commercial world. He used his accountancy degree to join a small publishing firm, Falcon and Grey Walls Press, as company secretary. In 1950 he became a director in a firm of literary agents, Pearn, Pollinger and Higham (later David Higham Associates). He had written poetry and drama during and after the war, but now he turned to fiction and produced five novels between 1952 and 1960, when he gave up his work as a literary agent to devote himself to writing the longer and more substantial novels that he had been wanting to attempt for some time.

In 1964 he returned for the first time to India, financed by his publishers, and there found inspiration for The Raj Quartet and Staying On. The British Council enabled Scott to make further visits. In 1976 and 1977 he was a visiting lecturer at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma. He died of cancer in London in 1978, shortly after receiving the Booker Prize — but the first film was in the offing. He knew Staying On was to be filmed, but never saw the film, and he could not have foreseen Christopher Mornahan’s Raj Quarter which he would have loved.


Lucy enlisting Ibrahim

The seeds of Staying On at the end of his ilfe: in 1972 Scott returned to India and saw the world as it was evolving in the provinces; stories about left-over sahibs being published. Scott’s friend Mollie Hamilton showed him a letter by her mother, Lady Kaye, a widow, lonely harassed pitifully vulnerable; he was influenced by the stories by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (e.g., A Backward Glance). (Years later Jumpha Lahri tells of Indian versions of such women.) Another friend, Maisie Goodbody’s husband died suddenly while on the toilet in a hotel. Goodbody would tell Scott of how they had to haggle at the bazaar and every week were harassed and would think they coudn’t get through another week and yet would. This couple living in decaying hotel – opposite people, Goodbody the elegant wit, and his wife, ill natured, raw, sarcastic. There was a Eurasian woman like Susy, manufactured cameras trying to make money.

He finished the book in 1976 and a friend in the theater saw potential for a film with Ralph Richardson as Tusker and Celia Johnson as Lucy. Tusker contains strong elements of Scott. It was a bleak and bitter time in Scott’s marriage. In brief, his wife had not been able to work at her career the way she could have. He had become alcoholic with incessant work and self-repression. He did love her but not sexually. She started proceedings for divorce when he got his position at Tulsa, she would not communicate with him. He asked her to stay and she refuses. The daughters conflicted. He wrote a letter like Tusker’s closing one to Lucy, revealing his understanding of his failure, only Tusker is kind, loving while Scott’s is harsh, raw, unforgiving how he didn’t get to go to university, how he pours himself into writing – very egoistical, felt himself in this letter a sense of waste and failure.

A little on Scott’s earlier writing:

The Alien Sky is an earlier slender novel also set in India, which deals with a theme that becomes the issue of Staying One: tragic alienation that comes to a man who has dedicated his life to India and Indians and is now rejected at Independence, his former proteges unwilling to shake his hand. The character of Tom Gower is skillfully drawn and encapsulates the moral dilemma of the colonial who genuinely feels that his work, now discredited, has been worthwhile. The second major character in The Alien Sky is an American, Joe MacKendrick, who is traveling in search of his brother’s past. The pattern of memories juxtaposed with present experiences that echo the past and the figure of the solitary traveler who seeks to piece together a story became familiar modes of presentation in Scott’s later work. The Corrida at San Feliu is about himself as a writer, how he writes novels.


Daphne Manners (played by Susan Woolridge (Scott said he began the novel with the image of a girl fleeing violence …)

The Raj Quartet itself:

Raj Quartet is a story that begins with a rape, and folds out in layers of responses and development of the original cast of characters involved directly and indirectly. Alas it reminds me of our own culture only make the Indian young men blamed for the rape into Black young men in Central Park; beaten up, sent to jail for years and never properly publicly vindicated. These crimes are skillfully linked to the political turbulence of the “Quit India” riots of 1942, and the response to the civil unrest forms the major part of the novel, with the reactions of civil and military forces, of Indian judges and English memsahibs, of petty criminals and Indian princesses all woven together to give the novel its rich texture and alluring moral complexities. Not only do different characters reveal different views of the same incident but they present them through a variety of literary forms. The reader must evaluate letters, memoirs, formal reports, a journal, a legal deposition, and omniscient flashbacks, all dealing with basically the same events seen from different points of view. As Scott adds layer upon layer of detail to the plot, it becomes clear that making any kind of moral judgment of the events or the people involved in them is going to be hard. Trollope’s first novel is about a young Catholic Irish man accused of murdering an English officer and he ends up hanged because the people running the state make him a scapegoat for revolutionary Catholic Irish groups. The Macdermots of Ballycloran.

Daphne Manners is willing to go out with Hari Kumar but when they are attacked she shows her racism by refusing to tell the truth: the two were having sex in the Bigighar Gardens; and by getting him to promise not to tell, and not standing with him she condemns him to helpless silence. The characters we see cannot escape being racist. Sarah Layton, the traditional and decent heroine who is a major voice in the second novel involves herself with an Indian Muslim man but she marries a white professor. She accedes to pressure and has an abortion when she gets pregnant by someone else. Scott does not present us with unreal victims and innocents. Barbie Bachelor, Mabel Layton’s companion, turned out as soon as the kind high officer’s wife dies, is one of the untouchables of English society – hers is the chief voice of the third book. The last book deals with the partition and brings in world historical characters.


Hari Kumar (Art Malik), the hero of the Raj Quartet, kept off stage most of the time — Scott invested a lot of himself in this deeply betrayed character

Put another way, Staying On, set in 1972, satirizes the new India of sophisticated, wealthy businessmen and politicians, corrupt property dealers, and fashionable hairdressers, as Scott depicts the now elderly and fragile Tusker and Lucy, who first appeared in The Day of the Scorpion as rather dull but useful appendages to the military station in Pankot, still making their home there after the other British have gone home. The profusion of characters found in The Raj Quartet has been distilled to these two figures. Tusker’s death at the opening of the novel leaves the remainder of the narrative–with most of the emphasis on Lucy’s thoughts … a miniature Raj Quartet in low key. We look at character’s memories through flashbacks, very delicate approaches to corruption and emotional pain.

I culled the above this from various books I read, the brilliant literary biography by Hilary Spurling (which I read years ago), Paul Scott: A Life of the Author of the Raj Quartet. Jaqueline Bannerjee’s Paul Scott (a slender concise perceptive study), K. Bhaskara Rao, Paul Scott, a Twayne product filled with clear information and background. Two very good articles: Chotiner, Isaac. “Revisiting the Raj,The New York Times Book Review. September 10, 2017,p. 13; Weinbaum, Francine. “Staying on after the Raj,” Journal of South Asian Literature, 17:1 (1982):225-29.


India photographed in the movie (POV Lucy in a car)

As to the movie, Staying on is a gem of a TV film featuring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard who were so brilliant and compelling in Brief Encounter. The acting throughout is pitch perfect, but perhaps Saeed Jaffrey stands out. Written by Julien Mitchell, directed by Silvio Narizzano, it is more comic, less poignant until near the end. The film does not begin with Tusker’s death, but with a scene of Tusker’s drunken humiliation in his decline. In general it moves forward in chronological time, using only occasional present time flashbacks; Celia Johnson speaks aloud a number of the soliloquies Lucy thinks of herself as speaking to Mr Turner. It is accompanied by alluring Indian music, filled with shots of India. Her final words in the book and film:

but now, until the end, I shall be alone, whatever I am doing, here as I feared, amid the alien corn, waking, sleeping, alone for ever and ever and I cannot bear it but mustn’t cry and must get over it but don’t for a moment see how, with my eyes shut, Tusker, I hold out my hand, and beg you, Tusker, beg, beg you to take it and take me with you. How can you not, Tusker? Oh, Tusker, Tusker, Tusker, how can you make me stay here by myself when you yourself go home?

I wish I had taken down what the various people in my class said about the book and film. Subtle and fine readings. I’ll content myself with the one woman who said at first she couldn’t understand why this book would receive such an award, but after immersing herself, she understood.


Lucy busy about the house

Ellen

Read Full Post »


George Bain, for his Book of Kells, Plate 14, and a mural: Highland games

Friends and readers,

One last briefer blog on my Road Scholar Tour in the Highlands area just around Aigas House. I’ve arranged my memories (from notes on a stenographer’s pad) thematically, and so we have left scenic drives and walks. Non-human animals, ruins, a small museum, lunch in an apparently well-known pub liked by tourists (and it was the one place I was at where the food was pompous and absurd, and I could find very little edible so the less said the better). On Thursday night there was the splendid treat of Celtic folk music by three musicians who appear also to live at Aigas House, which prompts me to end on the house itself.


Western Coast, Isle of Skye … much that we saw looked like this from the bus ….

Thursday was the long drive day – to the Western coast and back; part of Friday we drove around the Black Isle, a peninsula. We used observation equipment to see birds (all sorts), bottlenose dolphins (sunning themselves on stones in the sea), deer — and everywhere sheep (including black face, rams) and goats. We sat by a lovely beach in a quiet cove. Some brave souls were actually trying to get into the water. There was what was farmed, what was grazed, where there are attempts to bring back the original plants, trees, and landscape. Attempts have been made to have a railroad going through some of this but there is just not enough traffic.

On the West Coast tour, we got as far as across the way to the Isle of Skye whose “song” serves as one of the thematic tunes for the opening paratexts of Outlander. I discover that I can no longer transfer YouTube music and videos to another site so you will have to be satisfied with these (said to be) original lyrics;

Speed bonnie boat like a bird on the wing
Onward the sailors cry.
Carry the lad that’s born to be king
Over the sea to Skye

Loud the wind howls
loud the waves roar

Thunderclaps rend the air
Baffled our foes
stand by the shore
Follow they will not dare

Speed bonnie boat like a bird on the wing
Onward the sailors cry.
Carry the lad that’s born to be king
Over the sea to Skye

One of the most interesting drives was around a bay which served as a military installation during World War 2 — one can still see the re-fueling installations, places for submarines and planes to land. We stopped off at an exquisite museum, very small, a perfect place: Groam House Museum or Taigh-Tasgaidh Taigh Ghroam). Downstairs was relics of Pictish art, complete with stories of savage rites around some of it; upstairs the work of a local artist, George Bain (1881-1968), who is said to be recognized as an artist of “national significance.” He worked during World War One and there were drawings and paintings of the local area in that time, of his time in Bulgaria, and later work in a children’s art center; he is important for having studied, understood and and re-created central Celtic patterns and designs. Here is a picture by him of an ordinary day for someone driving through the area:

Bain, George; Highland Picnic; Groam House Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/highland-picnic-166734

Two ruins of note: an 18th century Priory in Beauly, in much better shape (destroyed by wars rather than time) 12th century Fortrose Abbey, Erchelss Motte (a museum of archaeological sites). The guide had much to tell about one of the Beauly Priory early abbots who amassed a great fortune for himself (not easy in the 15th century), robbed his nephew of what was due him, and left the first endowment for the present University of Edinburgh. Frontose Abbey, a later 17th century building was in much better shape; it was one fought over in the Civil War, Cromwell had meant to destroy it and didn’t but I find I did not take any photos. I did not get to Ercheless Motte: it was one of those places where a choice of place was given and I chose a walk by a lake (loch).


Beauly inside — we were shown where the prior is said to have made very comfortable quarters for himself; I kept asking about some stones dedicated to mid-20th century people but the guide would not answer (not in his remit?)

Blair Castle is notable because of its continuous existence as working place and political linhpin where a family connected to the most powerful in the UK lived, or some which was used by some institution got-up for the moment (it was a hospital during the two world wars) from before the time of Robert Bruce until today. The family members appear to have had no interest in art (mostly sportsmen and women having babies and social lives), but the family included Lord George Murray (he was deeply against fighting that day at Culloden) and a couple of other highly controversial (and sometimes executed) people; the place was burnt down more than once; it contains relics of its Balmorality period, of the empire the younger sons traveled to. The place is nowadays painted white (which seemed to me ludicrous somehow, it made the building unreal, like a piece of cake). This entrance hall shows typical sets of guns, fireplaces, mahogany.

I saw intelligent faces on the people, sportsmen and women alike, a interesting nursery recreated. A fascinating recreation of a ship during Nelson’s time — by one family member. In the shop, there was a slender biography on sale of a female member of the family who spent her life embrodering exquisitely; more interesting (but no biography) plaques and photos in the house showed a woman who was among the first women MPs and a fervent supporter of the labor party. Like Longleate, the place is today supported by the tourists (there are summer gardens with sculptures in them), by having on places for picnics, racing and shows of horses, working and tenant farms. There is a generosity of social spirit: local people come to walk with their dogs. The usual sheep and cows in the fields.


Not the band lodged at Aigas House, but instruments they are using are what was used, and they sat close together

Thursday night after dinner was great fun. We as a group were invited to get up and speak, sing a song, tell a story. I was the only one of the 16 to stand and read aloud some lines of poetry I thought in the spirit of place. I quoted some of it as the epitaph to my first blog. There are many beautiful pastoral passages in John Lister-Kaye’s books: “All deep thought leads to the spirit” is his; give the natural world a chance. Rachel Carson: “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after the night and spring after the winter.” “Reserves of strength” in the beauty of the earth and living things. A couple of the guides stood up and talked of how they felt about their work. The musicians then said they’d bring the “tone down a bit” and gave us some rollicking and melancholy songs. Bag-pipes much used. I remember tonight some of the most enjoyable passages from Johnson and Boswell’s twin tours are evenings of dance, song, and drink.

I haven’t got a text from that night to share so hope this poem by a 19th century Scottish woman poet will do: if it’s not jolly, it’s not as desperately sad as so many of the Gaelic songs’ lyrics originally were. It comes out of that tradition as a Scottish woman’s poem:

Who hath not treasured something of the past
The lost, the buried, or the far awav
Twined with those heart affections , which outlast
All save their memories? these outlive decay:
A broken relic of our childhood’s play,
A faded flower that long ago was fair
Mute token of a love that died untold.
Or silken curl, or lock of silv’ry hair,
The brows that bore them long since in the mould.
Though these may call up griefs that else had slept,
Their twilight sadness o’er the soul to bring.
Not every tear in bitterness is wept.
While they revive the drooping flowers that spring
Within the heart, and round its ruined altars cling.
— Isabella Craig-Knox (1831-1903)

I come back to the house. The next day I was told one of the musicians was blind (I hadn’t noticed) and he and the woman among them lived on the estate, she in the Lister-Kaye gatehouse lodge with her autistic son. The son was said to come to the great or central house frequently to talk to people. Perhaps the most remarkable thing was this place, Aigas house and its surrounding lands. It upstairs and behind the scenes. Its show spots.


Dining room (aka Baronial Hall where most of us ate — also in the nearby small library)

It was like living in a version of Downton Abbey vastly updated and kept up for quite different reasons, but the connections were clear: one can see the Granthams becoming tour masters to keep their estate and income flowing in. All the people stay in cottages around the estate; the “staff” who come and go (including bus drivers and all sorts of people like tour-bus drivers) stay in the house in the turrets and other tucked-away places. I didn’t walk around the estate half-enough: it was cold and at night dark. I was told the remains of the iron-age fort were a few rocks.

It was easier to cuddle into bed, rest and relax in the bedroom in the cottage I was in with Winston Graham’s Poldark novel, The Angry Tide. My roommate had a copy of Outlander, which some evenings she read too, probably much more appropriate. I’ve listened to this fist of the novels read aloud very well by Davina Porter, and have now finished watching the second season of Outlander, the mini-series, and will probably listen to Dragonfly in Amber read aloud by Porter too.

What I mean to end on is the familiar comfortable intelligently done hospitality of Sir John and Lady Lucy Lister-Kaye was crucial. When we left on another big bus, she and he (Sir John had both hands up and was waving away) and all the staff on hand at that moment came to the door, lined up and waved us goodbye. Just like in Downton Abbey.


Photograph in the house

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Culloden battlefield today

My dear, dear aunt,” she rapturously cried, “what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone — we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarrelling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers — Jane Austen as Elizabeth, P&P, Chapter 17 or 2:4)

Dear friends and readers,

A second of probably three travel writing blogs on what I saw and experienced of the Scottish Highlands from the Aigas Field Center. The focus the first day we left the center was archaeology and history: the first in order to reach pre-written history of life in the Highlands dating back to the neolithic age when these rings of stones (the most famous Stonehenge and Avebury in England) were first built. The second day we explored the landscape of the area, some of it reflecting deep past, other parts showing conservative efforts after a couple of centuries of destruction. The third and over three afternoons we went local, towns there now, commercial enterprises (whiskey distilling); and three women showed us their “gardens:” Lady Lucy across the grounds of Aigas; a crofter named Anne Macdonald on land adjacent to Aigas, and J-P (I never got her last name) who has created and manages an organic farm, making a place for bees, kitchen gardens, beer refinery, sheep, cattle and deer. Each talked to us for a couple of hours about how she spends much time in her life this way.

**************************************

Probably one of the more crucial events/dates in Scottish history is 1745 when a continuing civil war not just between those groups of leaders and their (often conscripted, forced) armiese supporting the Hanoverian dynasty from Germany fought those groups of leaders and their (equally forced, but as tenants, as clan members threatened by fire and death) armies of Scots, but rival and enemy clans of Scots trying to take over one another, and stray groups of mixed bands of men all fought in England and Scotland in the context of a larger global imperial war at sea and across lands from Europe. This global war affected the attitudes of the local generals and trading and land owning classes: where say England won here, or the Dutch there, anxiety and/or triumph changed the mood of events. The people under Prince Charles (the young pretender) got as far as Derbyshire, but turned back (the explanations for this are various). This third campaign (the 1690s in Scotland under Claverhouse, 1715 for James III) came to a head in Inverness on April 16, 1745. The Scots were not just technologically at a severe disadvantage; the terrain was vulnerable and several of the leaders were against fighting that day. Prince Charles prevailed out of pride and (it’s thought) an inadequate understanding of battle. Within 45 minutes there was a slaughter of a couple of thousand Scottish leaders and key followers; this was followed by an aftermath of flight by the Scots and brutal annihilation (the aim) by the Hanoverian authorities of the Jacobites (all Scots said to be in any way involved in the fight), which changed Scottish history forever. The country was decimated, emptied of people, their houses and villages destroyed. The books to read are John Prebble’s Culloden and The Highland Clearances. What was left was enclosed by chieftains turned landowners to put sheep in the place of people; and on top of that following myths of “Balmorality” by the upper class of England and lowlanders brought the ravages of deer to the landscape.


The heather along the line where these people stood and killed others or were killed themselves — as they dared not do otherwise even if they didn’t want to

Well we began our touring by spending much of Monday morning (8/14) at the Culloden battlefield where there is now an effective museum taking visitors through the phases of these battles. One room is set up so the visitors in the center see on all four walls the men killing one another while the sounds of battle echo very loud. In other a lit board shows the disposition of the bands of men. Halls take you through global and local events. I was struck by how small the Scottish shields or targets were, and how crude and (from the perspective of today’s huge guns) feeble, and (from the perspective of the professional Hanoverian armies with canon, real guns) ineffective, their axes and broadswords. It was the battlefield itself which is so moving. You can go out and walk along the line that was “no-man’s land” between the two armies before Prince Charles and Lord Murray’s Scottish armies so foolishly attacked from an indefensible vulnerable position. All along the way are rough rocks carved with names of clans or individuals who were killed.


A cottage on the Culloden plain at the time and left standing

We then (early afternoon) traveled back in time far (but not in geographical space) to Clava Cairns, a site of four rings of stones (each one bigger than the next as you walk from a fence), with free standing stones all around, from the Bronze age, about 5000 years old. These stones are not the huge standing stones of Stonehenge (or the type of time capsule for them seen in Craig na Dune in Outlander) but mounds made up of hundreds and hundreds of small stones. These are exceptional mesolith tombs from the Bronze Age. At the time the climate might have been subtropical so an agrarian culture had emerged. There are also the free-standing stones (more like Avebury) all around, and many outside a fence placed around the central circles: into picnic areas (where we had lunch), and the nearby surrounding hills. They were probably places where the people buried their dead. Coffins are thought to have been removed long ago. Very little is known about these people as they left no writing; it’s thought they (called Picts, a mixture of Scots and Irish) decorated their bodies (tattooed) and performed rituals around these stones. There is something uncanny, creepy about supposing (as the Ranger suggested) bodies were left in the open at first to be “de-fleshed,” and then the skeletons put in coffins or underground. It poured rain as we stood there and the ranger unflinchingly lectured on about what is supposed about these people’s customs and agricultural.


One angle on the largest mounds of stones, and the smallest circle seen from a distance (Clava Cairns)

The last stop on that day, middle to late afternoon we spent at Cawdor Castle. a vast castle-house only recently opened to the public. It is the place where Macbeth was said to have met with witches in Shakespeare’s famous play. John Lister-Kaye had said this place was owned by a friend of his and we should be sure and read all the plaques and inscriptions because they are witty. He and this friend had discussed together the cost of maintaining Cawdor and just about rebuilding Aigas, and (after much less renovation) he had opened his ancient home estate to the public. Instead of the usual solemn drone-like recitation of how serious and interesting (great, wonderful) all we were seeing is, they described in a wry truthful way, satirically reductive, the furniture, pictures, objects. His aunts had been indefatigable in making tapestries; he called figures in painting The Unknown This or that (according to function); there was a rare truthfulness, plainness, and when an object was nicer, it was done justice to against this context. The house was lived in until very recently and one felt this in some of the rooms (plugs, modern comfortable chairs). There are said to be beautiful gardens created and maintained by the Countess; there’s a cafe, a shop … Since the bulk of the standing house is from the later 19th century, one could say the group had covered Scottish history over the course of the day.


Cawdor Castle/House from the outside (part of a wall) and an art object in the gardens I was drawn to

Tuesday (8/15) we spent in “Caledonian” glens and forests, hiking walks along rivers and streams, waterfalls. The scenery was beautiful and much of it in a now restored state after half a century and more conservation’s efforts to bring back native trees, bush, shrub, to reconstitute the land after the ravages of the 19th and early 20th century. Some of the rocks are like those found in the Bronx or Central Park: they are not brought there by ice but formed in the ground over the centuries. The Highlands of Scotland are said to be a break-away piece of plate from North America. The landscapes are immense when you climb high and look down over the hills and see lakes and here and there someone’s (expensive) summer home. Balmorality has morphed into 20th century holiday houses. The Royals were said to have a house “just out of sight” (Fussell in his book on the class system remarks the really high status house is ever out of sight). We had lunch on picnic tables again, and in the afternoon drove to another large piece of scenic glen, with spectacular water falls. This one included the ruins of house where (it’s said) “Winston Churchill learned to drive” (why he looms so large in the public imagination I don’t understand).


People clambering about, a stunning waterfall, slate rising out of the ground

So much for the big picture.

********************************************

Now locally temporally and nearby (place and space)


The town of Beauly, close to Aigas

Wednesday (8/16) we spent the morning first in the near-by town of Beauly, saw the shops where people living in the area come for tea, cake, cheese, to socialize, an antiques shop, a store where they sold excellent knitted and woolen garments of all sorts (sweaters, scarves, throws, hats, and leather boots too), the most obvious tourist place sold cards, pictures, souvenirs. There was a butcher’s shop — individual cuts of meat! bakery. All but the butcher’s shop were run by women.


Inside the Glenn Ord distillery — where there is much mechanization … (and few employees involved in the manufacturing of the whiskey itself)

Then a very educational (for me) couple of hours at a whiskey distillery which was first founded in the early 19th century. It made single malt whiskey, and we were taken from huge room to huge room to see how the slow process worked (five stages) until the mixture was in casks to wait for X number of years before being bottled. That evening after dinner there was a “whiskey tasting:” I had never been to such a ritual before. A young man in a kilt with the panache of a salesman brought forth four different bottles of whiskey, talked them up with much hype and then passed the bottle around the table where all 26 people were to have a dram or two. It seemed to me a very strange experience, this controlled ritual drinking where we were to decide which whiskey we liked best. A great deal was made over the subtle nuances of taste.


From one corner of Lady Lucy’s Flower garden

I suggested that the Scottish highlands are clearly a patriarchal society. Nowhere was this more apparent in the hard work three women showed us were either their lives or central to them. All three women’s working garden/farms were on or close to Aigas. I should not omit the Countess of Cawdor’s whose gardens and landscape I didn’t walk in; she is said to be a formidable woman. This too is a male-shaped concept, male language for a determined strong woman, which offputs them. In no case was a man held responsible for the beauty of the garden though I daresay many staff members are male.

Sunday afternoon for a couple of hours, Lucy Lady Lister-Kaye took us around the property to show the gardens, landscaping, bridges, small fowl and all sorts of contrivances for children and adults it has taken her forty years to bring to a kind of continuing flourishing and blooming. She has a full staff of course (like Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey), but she invented the schemes, manages, supervises — she also (doubtless with a cook and staff) prepares three meals a day for her household, visiting tour groups, children coming for school agendas; there is each day afternoon tea and cake, and most evenings some social event (lecture, whiskey tasting, folk song fest were among those I experienced). A domestic existence? With her domesticity is the foundational reality of all else. A pretty, soft-spoken woman who knows how to take and keep herself in charge, in control. I forget what clan she comes from, but she is said to be proud of her heritage. She showed us a wooden bridge, very picturesque, which she said was a present from Sir John. I shall probably remember her best though in front of her aga stove in a very modernized great square kitchen in the 20th century part of Aigas house, showing us her porridge pot.


One corner of Ann’s property — I could not take photos of her barns, the vast spread of machinery, the trees, what is seen visually is not much

Lucy’s gardening is mostly ornamental, not so Ann MacDonald’s, the generous-spirited crofter who met us off a road and took us round her property that Wednesday afternoon. (Lunch had been at Aigas house, some splendid soup and salad.) Ann is a remarkable woman who has made a success of what is now several crofts put together from non-arable land, where the profits are so meagre but can be lived upon because the land was given her very cheaply, she has complete security of tenure (laws can change of course but have not for a couple of centuries), she pays hardly any taxes. The work she showed us she did with her husband and now her son alone is very hard: the son has modern huge equipment (enormous machines) and now makes money making and selling fences. She seemed to me so in touch with the natural world, her body and face shows years of hard work, effort, weather-beaten and contentment too: she was clearly a smart woman, and had a constant flow of talk (she was glad to show her life’s effort to people and tell us all about it) and until her husband died a year ago a satisfied one. The last part of the tour was her garden in front of her house, which included areas for growing vegetables and a greenhouse. John Lister-Kaye presented crofters as privileged people; if so it’s a privilege she has spent her life working hard to sustain. He admitted the laws could be changed as there are groups of people (large landlords and those without land) who are resentful or want the land themselves. I was struck by the sheer energy and difficulty of some of the tasks that still take hand-labor (like sheering sheep); she talked animatedly of cows, of the timber on the hills, and showed a continual sense of humor.

I wish I had photographed Ann’s happy collie dog who stayed close to her the whole time … I spoke briefly with her, and unlike most of the people who were “official” (rangers, staff, the Lister-Kayes), she seemed to talk directly to me, to listen to what I said, something genuine in her ways


Allangrange — this is a promotional on-line picture; tour and lecture groups are invited and pay to come

The third woman we met on the Black Isle, a very fertile peninsula sticking out from the northeast of the Highlands (vis-a-vis Aigas). This was the last day of the tour, Friday afternoon (8/18), J-J (probably a “lady” but she did not use her title, perhaps her or her husband’s family name is Godwin): Allangrange, the name of the house and estate has at its center a house built in the 18th century (I’m sure all is renovated). She began by showing us a garden set up to attract and sustain bees (so she is a beekeeper); she uses and sells the honey. She then showed a vast garden of flowers and vegetables; near this was a brewery whose profits she said paid for her garden. I saw sheep from afar and cattle. Her garden and hay feed these animals; in the brewery was a room where she sold sweaters (from the sheep). Nothing wasted. She told us what she serves for lunch each day in a given season. Like Lucy, like Ann, her existence is wrapped up in immanence. She was in appearance, accent, clothes the most elegant of the three, I could see her in an evening dress showing not a iota of the work she did daily.

In my third and last we’ll turn back to geography and history.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally has come to look and not to buy. As shoes are worn and hassocks are sat upon … finally everything is left where it was and the spirit passes on — Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping


A Promotional photo of the house from the website advertising programs


My photo of the Aigas common room where the group gathered periodically — that’s Lucy, Lady Lister-Kaye at the center in front of the woodfire stove

Friends and readers,

I’ve not blogged here for more than 3 weeks because I’ve been away: I journeyed by plane (8/10-11/17) and bus to what John Lister-Kaye calls “the Aigas Field Center,” a large mansion not far from Inverness (the closest big Scottish city) made up, on the one side, of a large 19th century-built wing (in the cake-like or phony 19th century style he names Balmorality), “baronial hall,” library, withdrawing room, a gallery with bedrooms, one of which nowadays is one Lister-Kaye’s writing rooms, a much smaller central wing from the later 18th into early 19th century Georgian style, and a later 20th century addition (warm comfortable rooms, including a modern style kitchen with Aga stove). It sits on a several hundred acre ground where there are other buildings, some for tourists and guests, others for the ranger and guide staff, some for staff of the kind seen in Downton Abbey (front gatehouse for lodgekeeper, gardening and house staff who sometimes live there, holiday guides, drivers), some for ecology restoration projects (the wildcat is one, native trees another, a large pond with beavers and “hides”), others for lectures and schoolchildren as well as adults to have learning experiences in, and lots of small animals (from chickens and roosters, to pine martens, beavers, many birds, and cattle and sheep, and the occasional deer too. Enormously old trees.


My photo of the terrace in front of part of the Aigas House (taken from window of common room)

From there starting on second day (Monday, 8/14/17), 26 or so people traveled several hours a day to public sites and buildings in and about the immediate area and to the western and northern coasts (Isle of Skye, Raasay across the way), to the Black Isle (a fertile peninsula stuck out into the North sea. We also explored the Aigas landscape: the whole of Sunday, the first full day there (8/13), was a tour of the house, the immediate grounds, of Lady Lucy’s gardens, which we were to wander in at any time of day or night after we arrived). We were privileged to be invited to go, meet and talk with a crofter’s house and acres not far from Aigas (a friend of Lister-Kaye or “Sir John” as he is familiarly called by everyone), as well as a local landowner and aristocratic lady’s (“J-j”) organic farm-garden, where she is developing bee centers, keeps sheep, grows native trees, has an extensive kitchen garden, all of which is supported by a beer distillery using hops from her land, by selling sweaters from the sheep. All of this arranged around a somewhat renovated 18th century mansion. We also had a 5 hour Saturday drive (8/12), up to Aigas where we visited Glenn Coe (where a massacre occurred and is now a site for arduous walking) and a week later (8/19), away from Aigas (where we visited the historically laden Blair Castle, there since the 12th century or so) and a couple of other sites.

Before launching into a eight day and evening travelogue, I want to imitate John Lister-Kaye (whose nature writing books are rightly much admired — at his best he can match Loren Eiseley for poetry and geology, and animal studies, Annie Dillard for weaving significant autobiography, and is often implicitly political in a mildly socialistic, occasionally paternalistic and green party mode) and provide a framework for what we saw. It seems to me gaping at places without giving them context is like presenting photos and expecting them to tell their story. They don’t. I won’t have many pictures, since I’m not a photo-taking type (I’ve never taken even one selfie) and when I do take photos they are often at odd angles I happen to be standing or sitting at. But I do have a couple of hand-outs to share as well as my photos and pictures found on the web. There were several excellent presentations, most of them at most 20 minutes long, but three stand out, Robin MacGregor’s explanation of the maps of the Scottish Highlands he gave us the first evening we met, the first Friday evening (8/11) we most of us arrived at Glasgow airport and a nearby Holiday inn on Friday afternoon.


A simplified map of geology, waterways of Scottish Highlands

Robin MacGregor was a lawyer and accountant when younger, now is a guide leader and is an expert on Scottish geology and World War One. He began by impressing us with the difference between lowland and highland Scotland: the north comes a plate previously attached to North America, is mountainous, rocky, a lot of sedimentation, while the south is green, meadow-y. The present small population results from a 2 century diaspora it’s fair to call ethnic cleansing, or sheer ejection by chieftains become landlords determined to make a large profit on the land by filling it first with sheep and later with deer (for rich people to come and slaughter. He talked of how romanticized the descriptions of its civil social society, which is now based on commercialism laid over family biology bonds and the original tribal laws and customs of clans, as well as results of warfare and sex. We might call them an edge people, a people descending in written history from Celtic culture which was pushed back by the more modern Roman culture, successful war machine from the Mediterranean, found along Northern Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, down to Basque country. Tribal people forced into the peripheries where it’s hard to make a living on much non-arable land. Little of Northern Scotland is more than 37 miles from the sea, it’s crossed by faults as are the lowlands. and rivers. Large cities include Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth, Sterling, Aberdeen, Dundee, Inverness. One of the maps had pictures of food and fish that are indigenous to each area.


I’ve made this one bigger in the hope the print can be read

The most peculiar of these maps was of the clans — which are still remembered by many Scottish people and are seen in their last names — Lady Lucy is a descendant of clan Mackenzie. Robin named all the clans including his own, MacGregor, and told us about their specific rivalries, whose side they were on at Culloden (a central historical moment, a watershed defeat in Scottish history taking 45 minutes). I was cheered to realize that the novels and mini-series of Outlander (the books are found in most decent bookstores and the TV programs have been big hits) are in large outlines historically accurate: so clan Fraser is where the stories say, its relationship with clan Mackenzie generally accurate. He did keep emphasizing that Scottish and English people while intertwined utterly are nonetheless part of different cultures, with distinct identifications and histories.


One wing of that fabulously wealthy woman, Elizabeth Windsor’s Balmoral Castle, first started in the 19th century by Victoria

I believe it was Saturday evening (8/13) that in one of the buildings on the estate, Magnus House, Sir John gave his extraordinary lecture (he’s been giving it since 1986) “Balmorality.” I feared it would include yet another rehash of the Jacobite disasters (hundreds of people killed each time, not counting the states’ savage reprisals) or be just about the myth of Balmoral beauty promulgated by Victoria’s vacation life. It was in effect a debunking of some silly clothing, and recent made-up customs (especially believed in it seems by US people) and a genuine history of the mid- to later 19th into the later 20th century. He contrasted the reality of the experience most Scots people knew against the imposed picturesque narratives of the wealthy who came north to exploit the people left and their land. He explained why northern Scottish landscape looks and often is so empty, how it came to have species of animals and plants not indigenous to it at all, the abject poverty of what we can call the 99% until the early 1980s. In 1972 one could easily find people living in huts with no central heat, not running water, poor windows and ventilation, no electricity, without shoes. He stressed that a lot of the emigration from early 19th century on became voluntary: when the Scottish reached North America, they realized a much better life was on offer for them all.


Victoria Hamilton as the Queen Mother Mary (Wife of George VI) photographed in the highlands as soothingly beautiful, with vast old houses whose cost no one minds, with hardly a servant about to keep everything up, was an embodiment of the most recent melancholy-sentimental myth-making

“Balmorality” stands for the way wealthy, naive and often non-Scottish people project images of Scotland (as seen in Downton Abbey‘s visits to Scotland for Christmas and again in Queen Mary’s visits to Scotland in the Netflix series, The Crown) the way Edward Said’s “orientalism” stands for the way prejudiced western people describe and pervert and misunderstand Islamic, middle eastern and South-Asian cultures. He showed Landseer paintings of animals who couldn’t exist (great stags with astonishing antlers), quoted the abysmal poetry of William McGonegal, which he averred was nonetheless often more accurate about the highlands than say Burns or Scott. He explained one of the uses of Aigas house was a site for restoration ecology: restoring Scottish land to be as productive, fruitful, and beautiful as it can. Rebuilding the place that capitalism, rentier-landlords, colonialism destroyed. Put the wolves back, the lynx, small and large animals almost gone extinct, make a habitable lifestyle cooperated in by all.


The story design of the chapters of this book is a history of Aigas House,and stories attached to it and its lands — beginning with an iron age fort, moving on to a Jacobean house, then the couple of hundred years the house now represents; how it was a run-down home for poor aging people until he took it over, renovated it at great cost

His second lecture, which I regret not taking better notes on, was originally going to be reading aloud in the drawing room from his books on Wednesday (8/16), while we had roarding fire and drank and ate. Instead he gave another hour and one-half lecture at Magnus House, this time on his recent life-writing cum-nature writing book, The Dun Cow Rib: A Very Natural Childhood. In a way he retold the same history of Scotland starting with his parents’ lives (though the family is England, and its estates in Yorkshire, with money coming from mines) in terms of his personal life, with an extended section on the man who he feels brought him to be what he is and does today: Gavin Maxwell


Sir John is hardly seen without one of three dogs very much attached to him


Gavin Maxwell when young

Sir John’s talk included Maxwell’s intimate relationship with the poet Kathleen Raine (whose poetry I had read but did not know she was all her life in love with Maxwell who was however homosexual (one of the reasons for his reclusiveness); I remembered Raine as a poet strongly influenced by Virginia Woolf in French.

As someone who taught Advanced Composition in the Natural Sciences and Technology for over 17 years at George Mason (to junior level students) and in the first ten years read with students, concentrated on nature writers (I assigned Eiseley, Dillard), people who cared about non-human animals and conservative (I assigned Joan Goodall, Sy Montgomery) I recognized where his deep Thoreau-like impulses to retreat came from: a detestation of the ludicrous cruelties of so many human institutions. It was a litany of his miseries in public schools, of how he was forced into working as an engineer for a profit-driven inhumane company polluting vast lands and waterways, of the great poverty he first saw in gypsies and the state schools he also apparently attended, and the story of how he broke away to live differently. Gavin Maxwell’s retreat and stubborn return to nature, the book, Ring of Bright Water, was a great revelation, their relationship one of the most important in his life. It must be admitted Maxwell was a little mad: he broke with Raine because she was accidentally responsible for the death of an otter she bought for him.


This statue of an otter overlooking Front Bay honors Maxwell

I’ll end on a poem by Kathleen Raine, who I once intended to write a foremother poet blog on but never got to it. A chapter in Didier’s book on l’ecriture-femme is dedicated to Raines and she is one of those poets chosen by Catherine Kerrigan in her An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets:

Heirloom

She gave me childhood’s flowers,
Heather and wild thyme,
Eyebright and tormentil,
Lichen’s mealy cup
Dry on wind-scored stone,
The corbies on the rock,
The rowan by the bum.

Sea-marvels a child beheld
Out in the fisherman’s boad,
Fringed pulsing violet
Medusa, sea gooseberries,
Starfish on the sea-floor,
Cowries and rainbow-shells
From pools on a rocky shore,

Gave me her memories,
But kept her last treasure:
‘When I was a lass: she said,
‘Sitting among the heather,
‘Suddenly I saw
‘That all the moor was alive!
‘I have told no one before.’

That was my mother’s tale.
Seventy years had gone
Since she saw the living skein
Of which the world is woven,
And having seen, knew all;
Through long indifferent years
Treasuring the priceless pearl.

If I seem strangely to have begun and ended on women writers, what bothered me all week was the preponderance of people in the tour (2/3rds), the rangers (about the same), the staff were women. the relief was to find myself in a genuinely socially-rooted society, one where people identify and pull together: they believe they have a right to health care, a right to education up to and including university, a right to housing, a right to a decent life together. It was Lady Lucy who provided the very good food and ran the place. But all the people named as important historical figures, described, pictured were men. In other words, it is at the same time still a patriarchy. In my next I hope to tell of Lucy’s descriptive tour of her gardening on Sunday afternoon (8/13)– really a creation comparable to areas of Central Park in little — and what I saw of women’s lives through her, the Crofter Ann MacDonald and some other Scots women writers and artists too.


A wide and far shot of the property probably in winter — there are the tiny remains of an iron fort too

Ellen

Read Full Post »