From my bookcase: Less Than Angels: Barbara Pym

Thought I’d go for something less scary this time, so ‘Less Than Angels’ by Barbara Pym, 1955. It’s quite a while since I read this book and so I’ll crib from the back cover:

Catherine Oliphant is a writer and lives with handsome anthropologist Tom Mallow. Their relationship runs into trouble when he begins a romance with Deirdre Swann, so Catherine turns her attention to the reclusive anthropologist Alaric Lydgate, who has a fondness for wearing African masks. Added to this love tangle are the activities of Deirdre’s fellow students and their attempts to win the competition for a research grant.

The course of true love or academia never did run smooth.

I remember thoroughly enjoying this book.  The African mask thing: the wonderfully-named Alaric Lydgate, who wears the masks (in the privacy of his back garden, if I remember) is a true eccentric, seen in snatches through the eyes of his very ‘normal’ neighbours. A troubled man, but things turn out all right for him in the end. Pym’s knowledge of Africa and anthropology came from seventeen years working at the International African Institute in London, from 1946. She was the assistant editor for the scholarly journal Africa. I think she felt herself to be a kind of anthropologist – observing the ‘tribal customs’ of suburban post-war Britain with a quiet fascination, from the outside.

Two things about Barbara Pym.

First: she is much underrated and only now being rediscovered. She has been described (by Alexander McCall Smith of No 1 Ladies Detective Agency fame) as a modern Jane Austen, and you can see it there – the very small canvas – a gathering of essentially good or well-meaning, if rather restrained, muddled and emotionally inexpert – characters – English, in other words – and the overall female tone to the book.

This is not to say that her stories are dull, or bland. She can be witty, and very sharp. Her characters may not indulge in explicit sex (this was 1955, after all) but it is there in the background. Barbara Pym herself had quite a number of love affairs, though these  seem to have ended in unhappiness. She was at one point involved with a much younger man, as is Catherine Oliphant in the book. Barbara Pym was reticent about her private life and inner world but you might see a partial self-portrait in Catherine.

One of the things I like about the book is the sense that men and women in those days actually did expect to ‘court’ one another, and were hoping for romance even if they did not always find it – or find it with the person the expected to find it with – followed by marriage and children. These were – how would you put it – quieter times, and kinder.

Second: when you have read one Barbara Pym book you are almost certain to want to read them all. That’s another reason I can’t recall the plot in detail – because at the time I was working through the whole of her oeuvre (such a pretentious word, whyever did I use it?) one after another. Every now and then I put my books back into alphabetical order and am always surprised and pleased at the sight of all those colourful long-lost Pym paperbacks sitting neatly in a row. Sad, yes.

Barbara Pym’s books tend to contain lots of little bits of poetry – her characters, being academics, tend to toss quotes back and forth quite naturally. This leaves you with the delightful task (if interested enough, as I always am) of discovering where the stray lines came from. To give you a head start, at the end of Chapter 4 a character refers to a sonnet by Dante Gabriel Rossetti beginning: When do I see the most, beloved one? I notice I have even glued the sonnet into the back cover:

Lovesight, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)

When do I see thee most, beloved one?

When in the light the spirits of mine eyes

Before thy face, their alter, solemnize

The worship of that Love through thee made known?

Or when in the dusk hours, (we two alone)

Close-kissed and eloquent of still replies

Thy twilight-hidden glimmering visage lies,

And my soul only sees thy soul its own?

O love – my love! if I no more should see Thyself,

Nor on the earth the shadow of thee,

Nor image of thine eyes in any spring,

How then should sound upon Life’s darkening slope

The groundwhirl of the perished leaves of Hope

The wind of Death’s imperishable wing?

I used to feel guilty about ‘customising’ my paperbacks but nowadays book customisation is all the rage – a sub-category of scrapbooking, apparently – and anyway, to slightly paraphrase Lesley Gore (1963-ish) and many others:

It’s my paperback and I’ll glue if I want to…

 

Playing Elvis to the Buttercups

There’s something very sad about a rusty car; sadder than a tiny teddy bear growing soggy in the gutter; sadder even than a child’s cheap bracelet glittering in the hedge. To me, things are people and I grieve for them in their lost, forgotten and discarded endings.

I think maybe the sadness of a rusty car is that a car is made to shine and made to move. Its great purpose in life is to whizz round corners, to gleam in the sunlight. It is speed made manifest, distance, travel. A car is A to B. It is not A, year after year after forgotten year, whilst its tyres deflate and the weeds grow up around it and mice make a home in its upholstery. It is not this view, this rain, this snow, this burning sun. It was meant to be there, always there, eating up the miles, heading for the horizon. It was never meant to be here. I suppose I see me in rusting cars. I see the future vanishing, without me.

But enough of the rusty gloom. Something very strange has just happened. The rusty car in Krusher’s front garden has been taken away. A low-loader came, two days running. Its strenuous efforts to execute a three-point turn into various unsuitable driveways were worth the risk of a peer round the edges of the net curtains. The first day it got sent away: maybe Krusher couldn’t quite bring himself to let his beloved go. The second day the wreck got loaded onto the low-loader – they had to use the crane – whilst Krusher circled around, wringing his pasty hands, zipping and unzipping his windcheater. It was a torment to him, this final goodbye, the sight of those two bare forever gashes in the mud of his front lawn.

The car was there when I moved in, abandoned at an illogical angle as if someone had just screeched in home one boozy 1980s night, maybe a few pints worse for the wear, and left it where it happened to end up, not even bothering to lock it. ‘Shtraighten it up in the morning, maybe.’ And there it sat forever after, already orange going more orange, its go-faster stripes barely distinguishable from their background. There it sat, annoying all the neighbours, decade after decade.

Something had happened to Krusher. Something had gone wrong with him which meant he could no longer drive his car. He was in a lot of pain. It was his back, some said. His lungs, others said, or maybe it was his heart. On morphine for the pain, someone said. Sits up all night playing on the computer, someone else said. Can’t sleep for it. Krusher became small and bitter and wispy. He shrunk, but then don’t we all? Krusher, you might say, was krushed, but his car was not. They suffered together, he indoors in the dark illuminated only by the lonely blue flash of his computer screen, it outdoors come wind and storm.

It’s strange the things we grow to love, supposedly inanimate objects we just can’t let go of, that have become an integral part of us. Sometimes, driving along, I pat my little car’s steering wheel. “Good girl,” I whisper. “I had you from new and I’ll look after you, don’t you worry. Whatever it costs we’re going to see each other out.” Each time I renew my secret vows to her and put aside those treacherous, ever-present fantasies of a massive olive green four-by-four, a capacious white van or even a slick black Cadillac for cruising down quiet spring lanes or under the lush green canopies of summer trees, playing Elvis to the buttercups or Motown classics to the cows.

Should you, because you can?

I often start off thinking no, I couldn’t possibly write that…

Next thing I know, I’ve written it.

This post may be one of those.

Sometimes I have moments of enlightenment. It’s probably a myth, you know, that enlightenment happens all at once, a blinding flash in the dark, sunlight on the road to Damascus. It’s more a tantalising chink before the door creaks shut again, sometimes for millennia.

Last night it occurred to me, not for the first time, but every time I forget – which is another way in which the door creaks shut – that I may not even be here to write. Or rather, just because I can write doesn’t mean I should, or that I absolutely have to. Maybe I’m not meant to be doing it at all at this point.

I don’t mean this sort of writing – this blogging pastime – which to me is more like chatting on the telephone, or writing a longish letter to a friend.  I mean the sort that requires the participation of your entire being, that drains every drop from the glass, that scrapes the last baked-bean from the saucepan, that… well, you know.

It just reminded me. When I was younger I had a friend. He was more than a friend, in fact (and then considerably less, but that’s another story).  My friend had a guru, except that, being a Christian he referred to him as something else – my Mentor, my Guide – can’t exactly remember now. This Guide was revered among Christians of a certain hue – those who drawn to the paranormal, out-of-body and near-death-experiences. He wrote a whole series of books; I read one or two of them but found them a bit chewy. Perhaps I should have another go at them now.

We visited him together, just once. His house was quite a long way away, and so bare. I never saw a house so devoid of everything except its occupant. It was as if stuff no longer had any meaning for him. There was a piano, but it was locked. There was a big old table but no cloth, no books, nothing on it. Ladies brought him food – home-made cakes and such, my friend said, and he lived mostly on what people brought him. Food didn’t matter.

I can’t remember much more about that meeting, except that he looked at us both, very carefully, and for an uncomfortably long time, and told us we were old souls. I think I knew this already, as did my friend: I had known him since the earth was molten metal, since we were blades of grass side by side in some prehistoric meadow, since… but then people in love tend to reckon in geological time. How can there ever have been a time when we were not together? How can there ever come a time when we will be apart? And maybe they are right. Maybe we’re the deluded ones.

And I couldn’t help thinking, well, what else would you expect a guru to say? Just as you’d expect a fortune-teller to tell you that you would cross water and meet a tall, dark gentleman. A gypsy fortune-teller at a church fête once told me I’d have four children. That didn’t come to pass, in fact no children came to pass. But then she was the vicar’s wife in boot-polish and a fancy shawl. What would she know?

I asked about the locked piano. My friend told me that his Guide once played the piano. He had so loved to listen to a certain piece music that he could close his eyes and be transported by it onto another spiritual plane. But music had to be given up in order that he could become what he needed to become. It was the price he had had to pay. There is always a price to pay. It seemed very shabby to me then – all of it – the house with the empty table, the donated cakes, the locked piano, the absent gramophone, the being alone in the dark most of time, the occasional cup of tea, a visitor.

spider4.jpg

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, I had a dream. I was on an upper level of a railway station, looking down at the scurrying figures in the concourse beneath. Between them and me was a plate-glass window so wide and so thick that there was no way they could ever hear me, even if I thumped on the glass. And they would never look up. They were fixed on their destinations, whereas I had no destination – or at least none that I knew of.

Writing was always a kind of thumping on the glass or – a later analogy – the weaving of an elaborate web. I couldn’t get into their world but maybe, just maybe, I could entice them into mine. With the benefit of hindsight and old (well, medium) age, I see this would never have worked. Had the spider’s web been encrusted with precious gems and its strands laced with the finest of nectars – had they crawled in in their little wingèd millions to worship me, the Great Writing Spider – it wouldn’t have worked. They would have been deceived, bewitched, enticed. They wouldn’t have come otherwise, wouldn’t have entered willingly. And that great windy nothingness at the centre of everything would still be there.

So what’s an old soul to do, apart from a bit of blogging now and again?

I think maybe nothing. I think just Be.

I think open a channel.

I think wait.

Golden Apple Earrings

“Pretty,” he said, brushing the golden apples absently.

I kissed him – but not the way I did before –

Being pierced through the heart by the one who gave them to me.

Never play word-games with Christians, they’re superstitious,

Truly believing in Serpents and Souls and Apples,

In sunlight stippling Eden’s long-ago leaves

And Jehovah’s moon asleep in the fork of the Tree.

Between my husband’s heart and mine stretches a silver chain;

I left him easily enough, but it pulls and pulls sometimes.

The links that make our chain are dainty fine:

A break in any one and the pain may end me.

“I am the serpent in your Eden,” I said

– so much throw-away imagery –

But my lover stared at me and stepped away.

moon

earrings

Lucifer

I picture him in winter, mostly:

A half-forgotten face, uncommon man-shape

In southern cities where he could not be. 

I hear him playing to an empty church,

Notes ricocheting round a birdless sky:

He, who could have made a new religion.

He goes by fields, crossing sour northern ditches,

Clutches the rail, the rust flaking off in his hand:

A stranger in a green, wind-bitten land.

 Why does my Lucifer fold away

His fiery wings? Why does he hide

With the blameless and the earthen?

 

He, who had such a talent for destruction.

sky

NaPoWriMo 15/4/16: Writing By Lightning

Writing by lightning, I’m

Wishing that we could share

Smell of paraffin,

Heat of the flame.

 

Beloved, is your garden

Incandescent green

And is the rainfall

Drowning your roses too?

 

Are you alone, or is she with you?

Do your fingers drift along that icy arm,

Hiroshima blue, then white,

Then blind again?

 

Whisper and I will hear you.

Lamplight will relay you.

Tonight the very air

Is charged with you.

NaPoWriMo 8/4/16: In the Memorial Gardens

She was meant to meet him here, once, possibly.

She’s lost his face but recalls that he sang, and was thin.

Such is remembrance, such is memory.

 

Or was it some other garden or century?

Too early for wasps, but the chestnuts are in their green.

She was meant to meet him here, once, possibly.

 

Too early for wasps, too old for virginity.

Soon the paths will be white with feather-down.

Such is remembrance, such is memory.

 

The blackbird prospects for worms with a beady eye.

How pleasant to see, how nice to be or have been.

She was meant to meet him here, once, possibly.

 

A bird in the hand is worth two in the chestnut tree.

How odd to be old when you feel like seventeen.

Such is remembrance, such is memory.

 

A sparrow that feeds from your hand can be company,

And many’s the song to be heard from singers unseen.

She was meant to meet him here, once, possibly.

Such is remembrance, such is memory.