Well, when the January Book Group book turned out to be one of Daphne du Maurier‘s I wasn’t expecting anything like this. Still set in Cornwall, mind, but …
A drug that takes you back six centuries but you maintain the exact map locations as you move about following the fourteenth century action, regardless as you do so of physical changes in the landscape over those centuries; little things like tarmac roads, shifting estuaries, rivers changing course and the coming of the railway. Fourteenth century wet feet are not magically dry on your return. And when you’re there, if you actually touch any of the people who can’t see or feel you but whose lives you are observing unfolding and with whom becoming increasingly emotionally involved, you get the most almighty instant and violent comedown in the present.
If you can suspend disbelief in all that, then The house on the strand (1969) makes for quite an absorbing story; I did really want to know how things turned out in both centuries, and things become alarming indeed when for our narrator, Richard, the two worlds start to overlap: “I stared at him. Then I pushed aside my cup of tea. It had happened, oh sweet Christ, it had happened. The confusion. The confusion between worlds …” He does a lot of heavy sweating.
Richard, slightly adrift in his life, has a few days on his own in a cottage belonging to his absent brilliant old uni chum Magnus (to whom he’s always been a bit of an acolyte), before Vita, his wife – about whom he’s increasingly luke warm – returns from the States (she is American) to join him for a holiday. Unbeknownst, Magnus has set him up as a fellow drug trialist. Magnus remains off-stage but he’s never far away in spirit. It’s not all fun: “Nausea, vertigo, confusion, a bloodshot eye, and now acid sweat, and all for what?” but he’s hooked. Much drama, manoeuvring and adventure ensues in both centuries, and, without giving much away, it doesn’t end well. The Cornish landscape remains a winner whenever.
The problem for me was that the fourteenth century leaps off the page more vivid and vibrant than Richard and pals. Or was that the point? Their set-up – him bored, she trying to get him to take up an offer with her brother’s publishing firm in the US – seems a bit cardboard in comparison. He starts out a classic sci-fi stooge, his wife being American a fictional device. It is hard for them to compete on a narrative level with the sad love story happening against the brutal background of family and political intrigue in the 1300s that he keeps being drawn back to. It is probably because of this that his last trip is so devastating for the reader, never mind yer man.
Written and published in the late 1960s, The house on the strand has a distinct whiff of the drug counterculture without its characters betraying any such social allegiance or recognition. The first two named are C14th characters, Cain is biblical:
There was no past, no present, no future. Everything living is part of the whole. We are all bound, one to the other, through time and eternity […]
This was what Magnus had not so far understood. To him, the drug released the complex brew within the brain that served up the savoured past. To me, it proved that the past was living still, that we were all participants, all witnesses. I was Roger, I was Bodrugan, I was Cain; and in being so was more truly myself.
I felt myself on the brink of some tremendous discovery when I fell asleep.
The ending is ambiguous. Look the book up on Wikipedia and there’s a quote from Daphne du Maurier herself saying she’s not sure what happens to Richard. But she has a good idea, and most of the Book group agreed with her. We were all a bit ambivalent about the whole thing; had its moments.
The Virago edition of 2003 that I read had a really interesting introduction by Celia Brayfield, pointing out, among other things, the significance of their names – Magnus, the great magus and idealist, Vita as practical life, and Richard as … a Dick. Brayfield also puts the book in the context of du Maurier’s own bi-sexuality, alongside the homosexual subtext of Richard’s longstanding hero-worshipping of Magnus. I don’t usually indulge in reading introduction before I’ve started reading – wanting to make my own mind up, thank you very much – but I half-wish I’d read this one.
One last grouch. I know narrator Richard is meant to be a bit of a dick but there’s one observation – well there are others, but, you know – that sticks out like a sore thumb, and I still find hard to credit that a half decent writer like our Daph would put pen to paper for: “… Vita stretched herself at my side. Her jeans became her – like all Americans she had a stunning figure – and so did her scarlet sweater.” Really? Oh, come on.
Cultural events closer to home
Lillabullero hasn’t been out much this year. That cough that newspaper articles have been written about – debilitating, demoralising and bloody annoying, never mind disturbing if you’re sitting next to it. So I had to miss Scribal Gathering returning to The Crown and the mighty Antipoet doing new material. [See below: Mr Hobbs has submitted an amusing comment concerning the spelling occurring on the poster]
Managed the climax of Stony Stratford’s Bardic Trials; or at least, having timed it wrong, got there for the result of the final count. Having both, I was reliably informed, performed out of their skins, Stephen Hobbs and Sam Upson tied! Judges gave it to Steve. So Stony’s got a brand new Bard. All Hail the Hobbs! And there was still time for “The glittering frenzy of Emma Purshouse” (© Fay Roberts). Sparkling – like her top – words of wit and splendour at the speed of sound delivered proud (and tall!) in a Midlands accent of some description; that I remember in particular only an art history tour of tangled rhymes and accomplished wordplay is a reflection on me.
MK50: Milton Keynes, where I’ve lived nearly half my life now, is 50 years old! Tis indeed a thing to celebrate. Decent exhibition in Middleton Hall, lots of fascinating detail of how it all happened, aerial maps, plans that did and didn’t happen, archaeological finds and more. The mystery of architect’s models: studying one of Woughton on the Green we couldn’t work out where Ye Olde Swan was; nor could a couple who actually lived there.
[Click on the photos and then click again for their full glory.]