Much of my reading time this year has been spent working my way through a two-volume edition of D. H.Lawrence’s Complete (?) Letters. Currently, I’m up to page 945, November 1926. 301 pages and four years to go. Other large works that have happily taken my time are Thomas McGuane’s Collected and New Stories, Cloudbursts, weighing in a 556 pages and two books about Abstract Expressionism and the art world of New York in the middle of the last century – de Kooning: An American Master by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan and Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women, which concentrates on five women artists who kept their heads above water in an otherwise all-male tide: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler. Pretty much the subject matter of the PhD thesis I never got around to writing, in fact, save that I would have concentrated more on the work and less on the biography. I think.
I was pleased that Robin Robertson’s noirish The Long Take won the Goldsmiths’ Prize for fiction that “opens up new possibilities for the novel form”. As far as I can see it’s a long poem sequence hemmed together with occasional sections of prose: a poem in the form of a novel – new possibilities, indeed. Also short-listed for the Goldsmiths’ was Gabriel Josipovici’s enigmatic and beautifully written The Cemetery in Barnes – at a fraction over 100 pages more (less?) a novella than a novel and, in these days of overblown fiction, all the better for it. The Long Take was also on the short list for this year’s Man Booker Prize, which was won by Anna Burns’ Milkman, which I found oddly compulsive in parts – chilling and funny – but by my take overly repetitive and just, yes, too long. I haven’t yet read the Daisy Johnson, but intend to as I very much enjoyed her short story collection, Fen. After greatly admiring Sarah Baume’s A Line Made By Walking, I began Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither with considerable anticipation which the first section, Spill, did nothing to allay – quite superb, in fact – but after that … oh, dear, what a falling away …
Amongst the crime fiction I’ve read, I’ve enjoyed new novels by Eva Dolan, Kjell Ola-Dahl, Mick Herron, Attica Locke, Garry Disher and John Lincoln (Williams), as well as rereading Peter Temple’s Jack Irish series and Jamie Harrison’s delightful The Edge of the Crazies. Best of all, Ross Thomas’ 1984 novel, Briarpatch. So good I read it twice.
And, overall, the book that impressed me most this year – and one that I went back to with no little trepidation – was Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. Even better than I’d remembered.
When, in the early 1960s and recently graduated as trained teachers from Goldsmiths’ College, my friends and I were looking for somewhere outside London to ply our trade, and we decided, after a relatively small amount of research, that Nottingham was just the place. Rents were significantly cheaper than in the capital [nothing changes] and, according to the back pages of the TES, there were jobs. A couple of brief visits aside, however, our knowledge of the city and its environs was less than well-informed. We’d seen, and been braced by, Tony Richardson’s film of Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night & Sunday Morning; seen and just managed to stay awake through Jack Cardiff’s tame version of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons & Lovers, a novel I would have read as part of my English studies, Lawrence being more academically respectable then than I believe he is now. [Except at the University of Nottingham, of course.] We’d heard and half-believed the rumours about there being 10 young women for every man – or was it a baker’s dozen? What clinched it, however, was the opening, in 1963, of the newly designed Nottingham Playhouse – Peter Moro’s modernist building, John Neville’s fine profile and artistic reputation … if the city could support a theatre like that, well, there had to be something special going on … and it was only a few hours away from London.
As it happened, my friend John Phillips and I ended up getting jobs in South East Derbyshire, some ten miles west of Nottingham in the small mining town of Heanor, just across the Erewash Valley from Lawrence’s birthplace, Eastwood.
I was born nearly forty-four years ago, in Eastwood, a mining village of some three thousand souls, about eight miles from Nottingham, and one mile from the small stream, the Erewash, which divides Nottinghamshire from Derbyshire. It is hilly country, looking west from Crich and towards Matlock, sixteen miles away, and east and north-east towards Mansfield and the Sherwood Forest district. To me it seemed, and still seems, an extremely beautiful countryside, just between the red sandstone and oak-trees of Nottingham, and the cold limestone, the ash-trees, the stone fences of Derbyshire. To me, as a child and a young man, it was still the old England of the forest and agricultural past; there were no motor-cars, the mines were, in a sense, an accident in the landscape, and Robin Hood and his merry men were not very far away.
D. H. Lawrence: Nottingham and the Mining Country, 1929
Most mornings, unless we chose the alternative route through Ilkeston, John and I would drive out, often in thick fog, past the hosiery factories on the outskirts of the city, on and on towards Eastwood, then down into the valley and up again into Langley Mill, on the edge of Heanor, which was where both our schools – secondary modern in my case, primary in John’s – were situated. It was a journey rarely undertaken without another section of Lawrence’s essay playing somewhere at the back of my mind.
Now Eastwood occupies a lovely position on a hilltop, with the steep slope towards Derbyshire and the long slope towards Nottingham. They put up a new church, which stands fine and commanding, even if it has no real form, looking across the awful Erewash Valley at the church of Heanor, similarly commanding, away on a hill beyond.
So, somehow, those sentences, that essay ‘placed’ the area for me in a writerly way, gave it a kind of added resonance, just as, I suppose, Sillitoe’s writing did for much of inner-city Nottingham. I continued to read Lawrence for my own pleasure [The Rainbow & Women in Love] and read his poems – Snake! – and the short stories with my classes – Sillitoes’s stories, likewise. All of this without any suggestion, any idea or ambition that I might one day attempt to be some kind of writer myself; that was to come later, more than a decade later, and from a quite different direction. Though I suppose, in retrospect, what was learned, what was carried through, was some belief that story and character were best told, best seen and understood, when they were most closely allied with place. Which, in my case, has most usually been Nottingham – that and the few other areas I’ve spent enough time in to feel I know beyond the lines and contours of a map.
And speaking of maps …
The above is ‘borrowed’ from the newly redesigned website of the Haggs Farm Preservation Society – https://haggsfarm2.wixsite.com/lawrence – an organisation dedicated to encouraging the preservation of the farm buildings and reinforcing the vital importance of Haggs Farm to the early formative years of D.H. Lawrence’s development as an internationally renowned writer.
The farm was the home of the Chambers family, both farm and family being inspirations for much of Lawrence’s early writing; the daughter, Jessie, being the clear model for the character of Miriam in Sons and Lovers. The farm, unfortunately, has been uninhabited for over 50 years and is on private land with no public access. Despite being a Grade ll listed building since 1966, the house is in a serious state of disrepair and I would encourage readers to log on to the society’s site and pay the small amount [surely, it should be more?] it takes to become a supporting member.
Looking at the map above took me back to the many times I’ve walked, usually with friends, from the site of Moorgreen Colliery, north along the sparsely wooded side of Moorgreen Reservoir and then across the open fields towards Felley Mill, with Haggs Farm off to the west, turning then towards Beauvale Priory and round in a sweep back to Moorgreen. Beautiful country, indeed.
Since the summer, I’ve been reading – a group at a time – through the two-volume Heron Books edition of Lawrence’s Collected Letters, and just recently came across the following, written in response to a request from H. A. Pilcher, a writer of travel books.
from Del Monte Ranch, Questa, 17 April 1925
Dear Sir: I received your letter only last night.
The scene of my Nottingham-Derby novels all centres round Eastwood,Notts (where I was born): and whoever stands on Walker Street, Eastwood, will see the whole landscape of Sons and Lovers before him. Underwood in front, the hills of Derbyshire on the left, the woods and hills of Annesley on the right. The road from Nottingham by Watnall, Moorgreen, up to Underwood and on to Annesley (Byron’s Annesley) – gives you all the landscape of The White Peacock, Miriam’s farm in Sons and Lovers, and the home of the Crich family, and Willey Water, in Women in Love.
The Rainbow is Ilkeston and Cossall, near Ilkeston, moving to Eastwood. And Hermione, in Women in Love, is supposed to live not far from Cromford. The short stories are Ripley, Wirkswoth, Stoney Middleton, Via Gellia (‘The Wintry Peacock’). The Lost Girl begins in Eastwood – the cinematograph show being in Langley Mill.
No reading year that begins with Virginia Woolf (as did 2016) and ends with Katherine Mansfield can be construed as bad. Nor was it, though I found myself – and this, as I’ve suggested before, may be a function of ageing – spending more time with and deriving more pleasure from books from earlier days than those published during the year.
Having started the year with Lawrence and ‘Sons and Lovers’, I moved on to Woolf and, accompanied by the first volume of her diaries and Julia Brigg’s excellent survey of her life and work, reread, with much pleasure and admiration, ‘Mrs Dalloway’, ‘To The Lighthouse’, ‘The Waves’ and ‘The Years’ together with, for the first time, ‘Night and Day’. Looking for something, to my mind, equally good but different, I moved on to Hemingway. Well, I was about to start writing a novel and in need of something bracing that moved to a different set of rhythms, one more suitable for my purposes. So, before setting out, I reread for the umpteenth time a generous selection of the short stories, followed by ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’. And as I was hovering over chapter one, and thinking to prosper from his excellent example, I read again Peter Temple’s ‘The Broken Shore’ and ‘Truth’, in order to remind myself of the tautness, tension and sense of purpose that can be found in the very best of crime fiction.
Once safely ensconced in front of my computer in the mornings, my novel on course and moving along at a not unreasonble rate, I turned to Graham Greene for the sheer pleasure of good stories well told. ‘The Human Factor’ (under-rated), ‘The Heart of the Matter’ (a tad over-rated?), ‘The Comedians’ and, best of all, ‘The Quiet American’. Later in the year, I read, for the first time – what had I been doing? – Elizabeth Bowen (loved ‘The House in Paris’) and some Willa Cather I’d not yet got around to, ‘Alexander’s Bridge’, ‘The Professor’s House’ and ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop’. And yes, okay, in between all of this harking back I was reading newer things, trying and, all too often, finding them lacking. Tired and obvious in some cases, trying too hard in others. I had been knocked sideways by much of Eimar McBride’s first novel, ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’, scenes from which are vivid to me still, but didn’t finish ‘The Lesser Bohemians’, in which she managed to make the sexual dalliances and excessive drinking of a young drama student living in Camden about as repetitive and uninteresting (to others) as, looking back, they probably were at the time. As for George Saunder’s much-touted and prize winning ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ – even for a writer, one of whose fortes is being experimental and clever (and who, especially when he forgets to be both of those things, has written some of the best short stories of the past decade or two) – it was too tricksy and clever by half. Unreadable.
I must have liked something. Well, yes. Woody Haut’s novel, ‘Days of Smoke’, was fascinating in the detailed and knowledgeable way it recreated the cultural and politcial turbulence of San Francisco and L.A. in the late 60s, and Henning Mankel’s ‘After the Fire’ dealt tellingly with issues of ageing and mortality that, to some of us, are becoming increasingly relevant. Jane Harper’s CWA Gold Dagger winning, ‘The Dry’, was compelling and believable until she felt the need to pull a plot twist out of nowhere towards the end, which lost my sympathies but clearly not that of the judges.
Almost more than any other, I enjoyed and admired Ann Patchett’s ‘Commonwealth’, a skilfully crafted and in some ways old-fashioned novel, which follows the connections and disconnections of two American families from the 60s to the present, and which I found totally absorbing. I also very much liked two of the novels that were short listed for this year’s Goldsmiths Prize: Sarah Baume’s ‘A Line Made By Walking’, which traces a young woman’s deliberate retreat into solitude in prose that is clear and direct yet evocative and moving; and Jon McGregor’s ‘Reservoir 13’, which is set in a Derbyshire village where a teenage girl has gone missing.
McGregor is one of my favourite contemporary writers and three of his books – ’So Many Ways to Begin’, ‘Even the Dogs’ & ‘This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You’ – are amongst my favourites of the past twenty or so years. I read ‘Reservoir 13’ the moment I got my hands on a copy and then, almost without a break, read it again, the second time to remind myself of what I’d liked, but also because I was hoping to find whatever it was I’d been missing – not the facts about whatever happened to the missing girl, I didn’t need that, nor did I read with an expectation the mystery would be solved; what I’d missed was more about her family, more about the people of the village – in exchange for which I would quite happily have settled for less about the cyclical life of bats, birds and the bloody foxes.
Much of what I wanted is there in the fifteen short stories of ‘The Reservoir Tapes’ that are currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and are available both as a download and, now, a book. If, instead of being issued as a companion piece, all – or most – of that material had been included in the original novel, I think it would have been a more complete and satisfying work. But even as I write this, I know (or think I know) that kind of completeness is not what McGregor is after in ‘Reservoir 13’, what he’s setting out to achieve; this is more a narrative that darts its way in and out, giving us a moment here, a moment there; a voice raised, a sudden sharpened glance; a mosaic from which we build our portrait of these lives. And the writing, the prose is so skillfully handled; like Sarah Baume’s in some regards, it is delicate but strong. Push it and it may bend but not break.
And next year, once I’ve finished rereading Katherine Mansfield’s excellent short stories for the fourth or fifth time … ? Well, with the gorgeous new Vintage Classics editions to hand, all with beautiful covers created by Aino-Maija Metsola, it may be the third year in succession I turn to Virginia Woolf to begin …
Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
Yesterday, August 9th, I spent the day in Nottingham with David Fleeshman, the actor who will play Charlie Resnick in this autumn’s production of Darkness, Darkness at Nottingham Playhouse. Though David is no stranger to Nottingham – nor to the Playhouse – it was interesting for us both to trace some of Charlie’s footsteps around the city centre, even though a number of the places he would visited in the novels, the earlier ones especially, are either no longer there or have changed almost beyond recognition.
Here’s a recent piece about Nottinghamshire and my largely accidental connections with D H Lawrence that I wrote for web site of Nottingham’s bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature.
By hazy co-incidence, I’ve ended up inadvertently shadowing different periods of D. H. Lawrence’s life: a year spent with my family in Cornwall, on the Penwith Peninsula, found us just down the lane from Mermaid Cottage, where Lawrence had lived with his wife, Frieda, while he was writing “Women in Love”; earlier, moving back down to London from Nottingham in the 80s, I pitched up in the nether regions of Hampstead, an energetic stroll away from the Vale of Health and Byron Villas – like Mermaid Cottage, one of several locations in which Lawrence’s attempts to collect around himself a group of fellow-writers came to little or nothing.
Most significant for me, however, was the period in the mid-1960s, when I first moved up to Nottingham from London to teach at Heanor Aldercar secondary school. Living on Castle Boulevard, I would drive into Heanor every day, taking either the route through Kimberley and Eastwood – Lawrence’s birthplace, of course – or through Ilkeston, tracing for a time the path of the River Erewash, bringing to mind as it always did the description of the land close to the river in the opening of “The Rainbow” – a description more pleasantly evocative than the disparaging reference in his essay, “Nottingham and the Mining Country” …
“Now Eastwood occupies a lovely position on a hilltop, with the steep slope towards Derbyshire and the long slope towards Nottingham. They put up a new church, which stands fine and commanding, even if it has no real form, looking across the awful Erewash Valley at the church in Heanor, similarly commanding, away on a hill beyond.”
Although Lawrence is writing about a time a good thirty years earlier, the basic geography remained unchanged, so that it was possible, standing at the centre of Heanor and taking a reverse view across the valley, to feel a sense of closeness, of continuity, that was enriched further by reading the early short stories and re-reading “Sons and Lovers” and “The Rainbow”. His landscape: a writer’s landscape.
I walked around Eastwood then on numerous occasions, to 8a Victoria Street, where Lawrence was born, and on down to Garden Road and thence to Walker Street, following the family’s move from house to house. Moving away myself at the end of the 60s, it wasn’t until I returned some fifteen or so years later, a writer now and no longer a teacher, that I explored the landscape of Lawrence’s life and writing further, using Michael Bennett’s “Visitors’ Guide to Eastwood and the Countryside of D. H. Lawrence” as my guide. (I have my copy still.)
A favourite walk was past Moorgreen Colliery to Moorgreen Reservoir – “all grey and visionary, stretching into the moist, translucent vista of trees and meadow” – that Lawrence used as the setting for the drowning in “Women in Love”, and on from there across the rise and fall of open fields that leads towards Haggs Farm, the home of Jessie Chambers, the Miriam of “Sons and Lovers”.
As Lawrence described it in a letter … “A tiny red farm on the edge of the wood. That was Miriam’s Farm – where I got my first incentive to write …”
Though it would be reckless – and, almost certainly, wrong – to discern any clear connection between Lawrence’s writing and my own, there is something in that distant and fleeting sense of the proximity to a great writer – being able to walk, as it were, the same ground that he walked and know what it became in his fiction – that gave me – much as reading and retracing Alan Sillitoe has done – a sense of permission, at least. A sense of place. Somewhere to write about if you can.
You can find the original piece, suitably illustrated, here …