Early on in proceedings, Mrs Beddows, one of the bedrock heroes of Winifred Holtby‘s South Riding: an English landscape (1936) offers as an excuse for a small indulgence in the evening that she’s been “wrestling all day with fallen girls and upstanding bishops.” Looking back from the mid-2010s it’s hard (sorry) not to see innuendo there, the sort of line that would have had them in stitches at the very music halls that characters in the novel (and, I infer, the author) are a bit sniffy about. While not being entirely dismissive, Winifred Holtby does seem to distrust and struggle in trying, unlike her contemporary, George Orwell, to come to terms with popular culture. Even taking into account the shifting perspectives she allows us there’s a hectoring, improving tone creeps into the writing that threatens at times – though only threatens – to take away from one’s appreciation and enjoyment of a novel that approaches greatness at others.
All things being equal I doubt I would ever have read South Riding if it hadn’t been for the Reading Group I’m in. So hurrah for reading groups. While we were split on the likelihood of the big romantic twist in the plot – déjà vu to that same unconvincing (or me at least) moment in the telly adaptation a few years back – everybody liked Mrs Beddows, the elder confidante of both parties:
Accustomed to take the bad with the good in this world and having wide experience of both commodities, Mrs Beddows wasted no undue sympathy. Some people, she would say, are so full of the milk of human kindness that it slops over and messes everything.
What we have here is a panoramic picture of a Yorkshire community in the mid-1930s, of decision-making public and private, in a period of great change, seen mostly through the eyes of Sarah, the hometown gal made good returning as the progressive headmistress of the local Girls’ High School, and variously aligned local government politicians and some of the people they serve or supposedly represent. As a portrait of the way things were, you get the feeling that that was precisely how it was. But it’s more than just a period piece: the questions it examines – class, poverty, responsibility, sacrifice, redemption, hypocrisy, change for who? – still resonate freshly from its pages.
There’s a large cast (and thankfully – authors and editors please note – a list of Characters in order of appearance 6 pages long) with representatives drawn from a broad social spectrum. The cynic might say all the category boxes are ticked but that’s just not fair, such is the power of Winifred Holtby‘s sympathetic imagination. Her great strength is in the gradual (but in effect dramatic) uncovering of what makes her conflicting major players tick. Even Snaith, the scheming capitalist bastard of the piece is given his light as a moderniser (a plan for ‘A New Jerusalem’ bringing indoor toilets to the people that he gets passed with the help of a compromised Socialist) while his empty personal life hints of a suppressed homosexuality. Indeed, in a novel that appeared early in the Virago imprint’s distinctive green covered mission rescuing feminist classics from out-of-print oblivion, I can only think of two characters who are given no saving graces; both are middle class women whose idea of fulfilment is their dependent marriage status, or achieving it.
So … time and place beautifully evoked, vivid characterisation and character development, a decent plot. This is a good if old-fashioned novel – compassionate, wise and looking for a better way. Many stories are told here, but – forgive me – I’m going to take Sarah Burton, the headmistress and central character, for granted here. She wears it well, fights a good fight, has her doubts – a bit dated, those, actually – but sees it through.
What I want to talk about is the passage towards the end of South Riding that is so fine, so powerful and resonant, I feared it would undercut whatever happened after it – like that duet in Bizet’s opera The pearl fishers after which everything is just going through the motions, seeing the evening out – but life goes on and Holtby carries the story through to the end well enough. The horse ride that leads to the ultimate demise (oh, sorry – spoiler alert) of Robert Carne, the sporting gentleman farmer who married the Lord’s rebellious but unstable daughter, the slow reveal of the full tragedy of how his love, passion and care for her (never mind changing economic circumstances) set him on a path to ruin is a tour de force indeed.
If Carne is a man who stands for tradition, who instinctively feels and cares for the land and ‘his’ people, the modern world has a double whammy for him; there’s the new rampant capitalism and materialism, and, my concern here, its opposition in the form of the Socialist Astell, another finely nuanced character, who thinks and cares for ‘his’:
Queer, thought Carne. Socialist chaps like Astell think it’s us employers who grudge the unemployed their dole; but it’s the old workers, like Castle, who are far harder on them.
Astell’s commitment and idealism is never doubted – he is no comic character, has a back story to prove it – but he’s still a bit of a prig: “The traditional humour of the poor angered Astell. He felt humour to be an inappropriate emotion.” Of the working class at leisure he thinks, “They moved to a rhythm without reason …” but you have to sympathise with him when he observes, “You begin by thinking in terms of world revolution and end by learning to be pleased with a sewage farm”. Yup, so it goes.
Three more things I feel the need to mention. Firstly, and irrelevantly really, in the character of young Lydia, an intelligent child trapped in poverty but whose “mind ranged free through moonlit Athenian forests” reading a book atop her family’s railway carriage home I kept getting glimpses of a young Caitlin Moran. Secondly, a reminder of how far we’ve come in the UK – in the report of the local Watch Committee’s interference with the books in the public library – that someone with power can get away with
… Aldous Huxley was “a disgusting pervert,” Virginia Woolf a “morbid degenerate” and Naomi Mitchison “not fit for a lunatic asylum.” “No. I’ve not read it all through, but I know enough,” was his favourite condemnation.
And thirdly, made an issue here most might say unfairly and rather gratuitously, here’s some of the worst writing about football I’ve ever found in any novel of quality otherwise thoroughly decent prose (unless anyone knows better):
… on the Saturday evening after the gigantic victory of the Kingsport Rovers over the West Riding Wanderers and the city was en fête. […] After that glorious contest in the mud … after that last goal shot just before the whistle blew …
Enough. Though it doesn’t have its intellectual clout – nor a hint of a Casaubon – with its close examination of how a community works and fits together, George Eliot‘s Middlemarch, is often cited in connection with South Riding. It is certainly a major work of its time and I’d say it’s to be regretted very few novels even attempt this kind of big picture in mainstream quality fiction these days. Of late I can only think of Philip Hensher’s ambitious try with The northern clemency and, for all its faults, J.K.Rowling’s post-Potter The casual vacancy. It’s an abdication that has been left for crime fiction to pick up, in the work of writers like Ian Rankin.
Dark entries: a John Constantine novel (2009), a small format black and white graphic novel in DC’s Vertigo Crime series, scripted by said Ian Rankin, looked to have a lot going for it, both because of Rankin’s involvement and because it’s John Constantine, who I first encountered in an intriguing comic called Hellblazer during a lengthy post-Watchman comic binge. It’s worth checking out Constantine’s Wikipedia entry for a fascinating over-view of the fictional career of this “working class magician, occult detective and con man” and his dry wit. I never realised he was originally (yet another) Alan Moore creation; such is Constantine’s stature that some of the best comic book creators have leant their talents over the years to his ongoing story.
Sadly if this had been a blind reading … no, let’s re-phrase that: if I had read Dark entries without knowing of Ian Rankin‘s involvement I never would have guessed it. And I’m afraid I was unenamoured of Werther Dell’Edera’s artwork, which had me regularly confused as to what was actually going on or to who. Set in ‘Anytown’ (but a town with the London Transport broad horizontal line through the circle) it starts off with JC being conned into entering a big brother style reality tv house with added hauntedness. As you’d expect, Rankin’s cynicism is to the fore in the establishing scenes. The ‘reality’ turns out to be very different as the perceived landscape switches to one inhabited by the denizens of hell. Don’t know about the chronology, so this might have been a fore-runner, but the reality tv horror scenario is pretty much a well established sub-genre by now, is it not? The white bordered pages turn to black – actually rather effectively – with this revelation, but it’s just yer standard stuff of horror fantasy, which has never been my bag. Pity, but putting Dark entries out under the Vertigo Crime logo is a bit of a misnomer.
Music Hall encounters & whatever the collective noun for songwriters is …
Friday night and we have monologues, melodrama and a sand dance as just some of the ingredients that went to make up Stony Music Hall 2! at York House. Throw in Swannders & Flan, Pat as the Stony nightingale, and some clog from the same couple of Stony Steppers – out of the folky streets and onto the stage, an early staple of the Halls – with the irrepressible Bubbles closing proceedings and a fine frolicsome and fun night was had by all. Bubbles chose songs that were directly relevant, or were popular at the time, to the First World War and it was a strange feeling to be singing along to “Come on along / Come on along / and join Lord Kitchener’s army” to the tune of Alexander’s Ragtime Band. Pack up your troubles morphed into It’s a long way to Tipperary (or vice versa). The deliciously delivered Spotted dick song is a perfect example of the sort of thing that made the South Riding progressives so uneasy:
We’re having a bit tonight, tonight, we’re having a bit tonight.
Me mother says I must be quick to get me bit o’ spotted dick.
I loves me roly-poly. It fills me with delight.
I haven’t had any since Christmas, but we’re having a bit tonight.
Boom, boom. All ending with an ensemble Daisy, Daisy. Another fine evening’s entertainment, not forgetting the Great Oakley brewery’s Welland Mild and our impressive, ineluctable, ixistential impresario – thanks Ken.
Sunday night the fruits of the latest AORTAS Songwriting Workshop (Association for Oral Traditions and Songwriting, no less, if you’re wondering) are delivered to market at the Old George. And a fine and varied night of infectious music and fellowship it was too. It would be invidious to single out specific performers on the night. They obviously had a grand time in what must have been difficult circumstances – an enforced last-minute change of workshop venue – though judging from his FB post, by the end of the night Dan must have felt a long distance away from the earlier desperation; Dan and confrères dared and won. Mr Plews’ Death wore a gaberdine raincoat is my current earworm and no bad thing for that. (You can also find his lovely Hearts and books at that link too, booklovers).