Sunday, 28 June 2009

Bibliotherapy: what to read when you can’t move on.

As anyone will know who has suffered loss – and in this, most of us share common ground – there is a simple piece of advice that is handed out with irritating regularity. ‘You must move on.’ To which one might feel tempted to reply, ‘Why?’ or, ‘How?’ or even ruder expletives.

It is at times such as these that I find some consolation in A.E Housman’s poetry, where no one is expected to move on, and everything is suffused with heartache and nostalgia for what has gone before. Most satisfyingly mournful of all is ‘A Shropshire Lad’, and its sighing evocation of ‘those blue remembered hills’: ‘That is the land of lost content,/ I see it shining plain,/ The happy highways where I went/ And cannot come again.’

But if Housman’s poetry is an epitome of melancholic longing, the truth of his life (if such a thing can be said to exist) was rather more complicated. Certainly, he displayed a steadfast refusal to let go of the past, but it was a past that never quite existed. Housman was not a Shropshire lad – he came from Worcestershire, studied at Oxford, and settled in Cambridge – and unlike the protagonists of his narrative, who spend their time fighting, drinking, courting and killing, the poet was a reticent Classics professor. True, he suffered the pains of unrequited love – for Moses Jackson, previously an Oxford contemporary, who subsequently married and moved to India – and appears never to have shifted his affections elsewhere. Forty years after their separation, when Jackson was dying of cancer, Housman wrote to him to say, ‘I am an eminent bloke; though I would much rather have followed you round the world and blacked your boots.’

Globetrotting, however, seems not to have been a pursuit that Housman wished to follow. After Oxford, he and Jackson shared lodgings in London; thereafter, when Jackson moved on, Housman moved into academia (‘those minute and pedantic studies in which I am fitted to excel’). His meticulous scholarship forms a measured counterpoint to his haunting outbursts of poetry; though it is the latter that acts as a surprisingly effective antidote to prolonged bouts of regret. For it seems to me easier to relinquish the past – that luxuriant, imaginary, shape-shifting landscape -- after retreating and returning from those blue remembered hills.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

In Rebecca's footsteps

I'm really looking forward to returning to Port Eliot at the end of July for the Literary Festival. I'll be talking about 'Daphne', and walking in the estate, which is the closest you can get to Manderley, I think.
Just wrote a piece for the Times in their series of Literary Walks; the others are definitely worth reading: Ian Rankin in Edinburgh, Juliet Barker on Bronte country, and Andrew Lycett on Dylan Thomas's Wales.
Anyway, here's mine:

‘We can never go back again, that much is certain,’ wrote Daphne du Maurier in ‘Rebecca’, a novel that is nevertheless about returning (of the dead to the living, and to the places where they still live), which has inspired legions of devoted readers to retrace Rebecca’s footsteps. I count myself as one of those fans, and in the course of writing a book about Du Maurier – and Menabilly, the mysterious Cornish mansion that inspired Manderley – I have been walking the same paths as she did, trying to follow the shadows of ghosts that haunt her landscape.

It is not easy to pin down Daphne du Maurier, the most secretive and reclusive of women; which is perhaps why she fell in love with Menabilly, a house on the south coast of Cornwall, hidden from the outside world and encircled by dense forest; or as she described it, ‘a jewel in the hollow of a hand’. Du Maurier first discovered Menabilly in the autumn of 1927, when it was abandoned and falling into ruin. She was 20, the second daughter of a handsome matinee idol, Sir Gerald du Maurier, and still living at home in Cannon Hall, a grand Hampstead house that hosted the celebrated theatrical stars of the era. But Daphne had already declared that her heart belonged to Cornwall, soon after her father bought Ferryside, a waterside house in Boddinick, sheltered on the wooded side of the Fowey estuary where the du Mauriers holidayed with their friends.

Fowey has become more fashionable than it was eighty years ago – there are chic little shops and boutique hotels overlooking the harbour – but it still has a fairytale air, its narrow streets curving beneath the towers of Place, the gothic mansion owned by the Treffry family that stands on a hill, surrounded by high stone walls. This is the nearest town to Menabilly, and Du Maurier devotees arrive here for its annual literary festival, many of them hoping for a glimpse of the setting of ‘Rebecca’; though the mansion is as inaccessible as it was when the writer first set out to find it, as a trespasser who lost her way. Menabilly remains closed to the public now, as it has always been – it is the home of the Rashleigh family, who have owned the estate for the last 800 years – but there is a footpath at the margins of the grounds, crossing close to the long, overgrown drive that Du Maurier was to describe in the opening of ‘Rebecca’ (‘a muddied path, leading nowhere, and the shrubs, green no longer but a shrouding black…’).

The overgrown rhododendrons and tangled brambles still beat back the most intrepid of intruders, just as they did when Du Maurier made her initial attempt to follow the serpentine twists of the drive; but she eventually found her way to Menabilly by the coastal path, clambering up from the rocky beach that she was to make famous as the place where Rebecca drowned and rose again. Du Maurier fell in love with the house in an instant, yet with a passion that would last a lifetime; for Menabilly appeared to her to be “the sleeping beauty of the fairy tale, [waiting] until someone should come to wake her... She was, or so it seemed to me, bathed in a strange mystery. She held a secret – not one, not two, but many – that she withheld from many people but would give to one who loved her well.”

If Du Maurier saw herself as waking Menabilly, then the house also awakened something within her. It provided the atmospheric Cornish setting for subsequent period novels – ‘The King’s General’ and ‘My Cousin Rachel’ – and when Hitchcock directed the film version of ‘Rebecca’, he observed that Du Maurier’s story was of two women, one man, and a house, and of these four central characters, the house was the dominant presence.

It therefore seems appropriate that Du Maurier used the money she made from ‘Rebecca’ – a book which still attracts legions of new fans, over seventy years after its publication in 1938 – to lease Menabilly in August 1943; and although she could never make it her own (it was entailed to the Rashleighs, who reclaimed it in the 1960s), much of her fortune went on renovating it, to keep its walls safe from the strangling ivy and encroaching fingers of wild creepers. Thus Menabilly was the house that Rebecca rebuilt, and also the place to which Rebecca returned, when Du Maurier felt herself to be haunted by the ghost of her famous fictional creation; an episode in her life that seems powerfully emblematic of her ability as a writer to blend fiction and fact into a landscape that readers can go back to, over and over again.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

The Closet Thinker...

... is thinking about bandage dresses in today's Sunday Telegraph.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

It's my birthday...

... and in previous years, I have celebrated midsummer's eve on wild and windy beaches (the one above was in west Wales). This year, however, after the most turbulent of times, I shall be at home, eating cake and drinking champagne. But what should I be reading in bed tonight?

Sunday, 14 June 2009

The Closet Thinker...

... is thinking of sequinned jackets this week.

Bibliotherapy: what to read when you’re lost for words

If Sappho has come to be seen as one of the great poets of female desire, then she is also the embodiment of silence; for all but a few tantalising fragments remain of the writer described by Plato as ‘the tenth Muse’. There is only one complete poem (the ‘Ode to Aphrodite’), as much of her work was lost in the ninth century, with just the occasional scrap of papyrus subsequently unearthed to supplement the surviving texts quoted by other ancient authors. The most famous is Fragment 31, a poem that gives word to the wordlessness of love, and shape to a state of speechless incoherence.

Sappho’s inability to speak in the presence of her beloved has been translated in a number of different ways from the original Greek text – “I have no longer power to speak”; “no speaking is left in me”; “my tongue keeps silence” – and there are numerous interpretations of who, and how, Sappho loved. Inevitably, her gender and sexuality has absorbed critics, despite the attempts of Victorian classicists to explain away her relationships with other women as that of the sensible headmistress of a girls’ school (although Queen Victoria’s sketch of Sappho poised to leap from a cliff top is an intriguing expression of passion and loss, particularly as the face in the drawing looks rather like Her Majesty). But perhaps it is Sappho’s mysteriousness – the manner in which she has become emblematic of the unknown -- that continues to speak to us, because, like love, she defies understanding.

The final line of Fragment 31 is not the last line – it breaks off, and is lost, just as the speaker in the poem disintegrates, as if she is losing her self. This is both tormenting and enticing for the reader; emotions that are integral to the subject of the poem, and to the human capacity to yearn for what we cannot have, to possess that which eludes us.

In an era when we are bombarded with speech – it buzzes around us, filling our ears and eyes – and constant instructions that it is ‘good to talk’, Sappho’s poetry survives as evidence, however fragmentary, that silence is powerful, even if it feels unbearable, nor should it be feared in a quest to find the right words.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

PS... more good shoes

Just been emailed a picture of these shoes by my friend Julietta, who is going to wear them for her 40th birthday party. They're by Rupert Sanderson, and I feel they should be shared. They seem to me to be an intriguing mix of Miss Jean Brodie, Mayfair dominatrix, and the first Mrs de Winter.
As you may have noticed, my shoe obsession is mounting, as my book deadline nears. Doubtless Herr Doktor Freud would have something to say on the subject of heightening anxiety and precipitous heels. Or maybe that's a scene from an unmade Hitchcock movie? (Almost certainly based on a Du Maurier story...)
Actually, Freud was quite interested in buttons; undone, of course...

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Future imperfect

This week's Closet Thinker from the Telegraph (posted late, for which I apologise); shoes from Alexander McQueen (sadly sold out at net-a-porter, but please tell if you find anything similar on the High Street -- black roses, silver heels and perspex -- v. clever):

A century ago the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti launched his Manifesto of Futurism, a startling document published on the front page of Le Figaro in February 1909. The Futurists, he declared, would celebrate ‘a new beauty, the beauty of speed’; the movement’s artists would ‘glorify war – the world’s only hygiene’, and sweep away the art forms of previous generation, in a triumphant uprising of youth: ‘For too long has Italy been a dealer in second-hand clothes. We will free Italy from her innumerable museums which cover her like countless cemeteries.’

An early member of the Italian Fascist Party, Marinetti went on to support Mussolini; but his politics seem not to have deterred a number of contemporary fashion designers from citing Futurism in their current collections. Who knows whether they’ve embarked upon an in-depth study of the Manifesto – a document that will presumably be available at the Tate Modern when its Futurism exhibition opens next week – but it does provide a context for several leading designers’ work this season. Missoni’s spring/summer collection includes prints inspired by Italian Futurist art (in particular Dottori’s ‘aero-paintings’); and the hi-tech futurism displayed at Calvin Klein, Yves St Laurent, Gareth Pugh and Alexander McQueen seems of a piece with Marinetti’s advocacy of technological innovation and slick urban industry. “We want no part of it, the past,” he wrote in his Manifesto, “we the young and strong Futurists!”

Of course, however passionate the commitment to a vision of the future, it can still have a distinct whiff of the past. Gareth Pugh’s version of futurism is a sci-fi fantasy with dresses that hover somewhere between costume designs for ‘Predator’ and historical drama, encompassing medieval armour and Elizabeth ruffs, mixed up with extra-terrestrial reptilian scales. As for Francisco Costa’s current collection for Calvin Klein: he uses the silvery semi-sheer fabrics of an eroticised Hollywood space-age movie, the kind where beautiful heroines display a flash of nipple alongside the blaze of their laser-guns.

Marinetti never went as fast as he had hoped – in fact, he wrote his Futurist manifesto after crashing his car into a ditch to avoid two cyclists – and his poems and plays have mostly lapsed into obscurity. It remains to be seen whether fashion’s latest take on Futurism will survive beyond this summer, or sink, deflated, into a morass of discarded clothes. Right now, I’m more intrigued by the report that three astronauts in the International Space Station have been watching the remake of ‘Star Trek’ on a laptop, thereby proving that the past is always present in the future.