24 July 2010

Thomas Hughes and Kingston Lisle, Oxfordshire, and the Blowing Stone

The pub The Blowing Stone, with its inn sign of a stone with several holes set against a background of the famous white horse, obviously hides a story or two.

L. V. Grinsell's leaflet The Blowing Stone attempts to unravel some of this mystery, and he is of course right to virtually dismiss the myth that it was used by Alfred the Great to summon his men to fight the Danes: the sound made through blowing into it was thought to be heard for many miles around.

Nevertheless, the blowing stone has acquired a piece of immortality for itself. It once stood in front of a different pub called The Blowing Stone, toward the bottom of Blowingstone Hill, and this lump of sarsen stone is mentioned in Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's Schooldays:

'At the bottom [of the hill] there is a pleasant public [house], whereat we must really take a modest quencher, for the down here is a provocative of thirst. So we pull up under an old oak which stands before the door.

"What is the name of your hill, landlord?"

"Blawing Stwun Hill, sir, to be sure."

"And of your house? I can't make out the sign."

"Blawing Stwun, sir," says the landlord, pouring out his old ale from a Toby-Philpot jug, with a melodious crash, into the long-necked glass.

"What queer names!" say we, sighing at the end of our draught, and holding out the glass to be replenished.

"Be'an't queer at all, as I can see, sir," says mine host, handing back our glass, "seeing as this here is the Blawing Stwun his self," putting his hand on a square lump of stone some three feet and a half high, perforated with two or three queer holes, like petrified antediluvian rat-holes, which lies there close under the oak, under our very nose. We are more than ever puzzled, and drink our second glass of ale wondering what will come next. "Like to hear un, sir?" says mine host, setting down Toby Philpot on the tray, and resting both hands on the "Stwun." We are ready for anything; and he, without waiting for a reply, applies his mouth to one of the rat-holes. Something must come of it, if he doesn't burst. Good heavens! I hope he has no apoplectic tendencies. Yes, here it comes, sure enough, a grewsome sound between a moan and a roar, and spreads itself away over the valley, and up the hillside, and into the woods at the back of the house - a ghost-like, awful voice. "Um do say, sir," says mine host rising purple-faced, while the moan is still coming out of the "Stwun," "as they used in old times to warn the country-side, by blawing the stwun when the enemy was acomin' - and as how folks could make un heered them for seven mile round; leastways, so I've heered Lawyer Smith say, and he knows a smart sight about them old times." We can hardly swallow Lawyer Smith's seven miles; but could the blowing of the stone have been a summons, a sort of sending the fiery cross round the neighbourhood in the old times? What old times? Who knows? We pay for our beer, and are thankful.

"And what's the name of the village just below, landlord?"

"Kingstone Lisle*, sir."'

The village (without an 'e') is about a half mile from the stone, which seems to attract a number of people: when I visited earlier today, there was a party of schoolchildren there, one of whom tried blowing into the stone and only succeeded in what his guardian called 'making rude noises'. Grinsell explains that to make a successful noise, all that need be done is to cover the hole entirely with the mouth and simply blow.

I didn't bother trying.

Kingston Lisle is also the name of the house Hughes built in his experimental school project in Rugby, eastern Tennessee, more of which I shall mention when I go there next month.
 This fascinating photo shows the blowing stone in about 1910, and was sent to me yesterday by George Zepp, of Rugby, Tennessee. Many thanks, George!

Thomas Hughes at Uffington, Oxfordshire

Thomas Hughes (1822-96) was born in Uffington, Oxfordshire, where he spent his first ten years. His famous novel Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857) is semi-autobiographical in that it introduces many elements of his younger years in Uffington, and his later youthful years at Rugby School.

Interestingly, Hughes did not intend the book to be a good read, as he makes clear in his Preface to the sixth edition. His aim is didactic:

'Several persons, for whose judgment I have the highest respect, while saying very kind things about this book, have added, that the great fault of it is, "too much preaching;" but they hope I shall amend in this matter should I ever write again. Now this I most distinctly decline to do. Why, my whole object in writing at all was to get the chance of preaching! When a man comes to my time of life and has his bread to make, and very little time to spare, is it likely that he will spend almost the whole of his yearly vacation in writing a story just to amuse people? I think not. At any rate, I wouldn't do so myself.'

In Tom Brown's Schooldays, Hughes particularly criticizes bullying, and the fagging system, present in public (meaning private!) schools.

'Our village was blessed amongst other things with a well-endowed school. The building stood by itself, apart from the master's house, on an angle of ground where three roads - an old gray stone building with a steep roof and mullioned windows.'

Tom Brown's School Museum next to the parish church is understandably mainly dedicated to Thomas Hughes, although there is also a large amount of information there about the general history of Uffington.

The school orders.

Once a village shop, Benjy's Cottage is named after the character in Tom Brown's Schooldays:

'But old Benjy was young master's real delight and refuge. He was a youth by the side of Noah, scarce seventy years old - a cheery, humorous, kind-hearted old man, full of sixty years of Vale [of the White Horse] gossip, and of all sorts of helpful ways for young and old, but above all for children. It was he who bent the first pin with which Tom extracted his first stickleback out of "Pebbly Brook," the little stream which ran through the village. The first stickleback was a splendid fellow, with fabulous red and blue gills. Tom kept him in a small basin till the day of his death, and became a fisherman from that day.'

The parish church of St Mary's, more familiarly known as 'The cathedral in the Vale', is where Thomas Hughes's grandfather was the vicar.

John Betjeman (1906-84) has a way of imposing his presence in many places, and he spent eleven years in Uffington - from 1934 to 1945 - as a tenant at Gerrards Farm. Betjeman had recently married Penelope Chetwode, and the couple soon became prominent features in the village, with John being the People's Warden of the church, and Penelope a keen director of plays. As the landlord John Wheeler wanted the farm for his son in 1945, the Betjeman family then moved to Farnborough in Berkshire.

22 July 2010

Sue Monk Kidd: The Secret Life of Bees (2002), and Sex

In this quarter's Oxford American, there's an article called 'Beth Ann Fennelly's Ode to Ten Sexy [Southern] Books', and most of her choices are indeed pretty sexy. However, having just read Southern novelist Sue Monk Kidd's extraordinarily popular The Secret Life of Bees, I'm surprised that that book didn't receive a mention, as there are some passages which positively drip with sex.

The protagonist Lily is 14, Zach no doubt about the same age, and Sue Monk Kidd has a particularly powerful way of expressing Lily's developing awareness of her sexuality. Perhaps the word 'membrane' is a little unsubtle here, but the passage is otherwise very subtle indeed:

'I knew I was crying because he had that one-sided dimple I loved, because every time I looked at him I got a hot, funny feeling that circulated from my waist to my kneecaps, because I'd been going along being my normal girl self and the next thing I knew I'd passed a membrane into a place of desperation.'

A little later Zach gives Lily a notebook, and OK, perhaps we are given a little redundant information when we're told that it is 'green with rosebuds on the cover', but Lily's reaction to this gift is pure sexual electricity:

'I threw my arms around him and leaned into his chest. He made a sound like Whoa, but after a second his arms folded around me, and we stayed like that, in a true embrace. He moved his hands up and down my back, till I was almost dizzy'.

The above words are an excellent example of how strongly sexual intensity can be expressed without being specific, although the narrative immediately after this underlines how impossible this love between a white girl and a black boy was in South Carolina in 1964:

'Finally he unwound his arms and said, "Lily, I like you better than any girl I've ever known, but you have to understand, there are people who would kill boys like me for even looking at girls like you."

'I couldn't restrain myself from touching his face, the place where his dimple caved into his skin. "I'm sorry", I said.

'"Yeah, me too", he said.'

Heartbreaking. As Zach states later on, 'We can't think of changing our skin. [...] Change the world - that's how we gotta think.'

20 July 2010

Mary Heaton Vorse: Strike! (1930)

Mary Heaton Vorse (1874 -1966) was born in New York and brought up comfortably in Amherst, Massachusetts. She was a feminist, journalist, and novelist who published Strike, one of the six novels mentioned below (under Grace Lumpkin) which concerns the Loray Mill strike in Gastonia, North Carolina, which received national newspaper coverage. The textile mill strikes began in Elizabethton, Tennessee, and soon spread to the Carolinas. In the late 19th century, Northern industrialists had been drawn to the South by the promise of happy, contented workers who would work for considerably less money than workers in the North.

However, after World War I, demand for textiles declined as uniforms were no longer needed, and the fashion of the 1920s required less material. The mill owners were forced to makes cuts, and the work of management consultant F. W. Taylor in particular was given a great deal of attention. Families were working 55-hour weeks for less pay, and the workers became far less happy and contented and joined unions. The Gastonia strikes led to several deaths, and Strike is in part a re-creation of the workers' struggle, emphasizing the general animosity toward unions, Northern intelllectuals driven south in sympathy, and a hatred of communist ideas. Strikers (largely meaning unionists), of course, were demonized by mill owners and their supporters.

Unsurprisingly, although Vorse is tremendously sypathetic to the plight of the workers, unlike Lumpkin's To Make My Bread (1932), she was an outsider, and her novel - perhaps particularly from the point of view of the living conditons of the workers and their language - seems to lack the authenticity of Lumpkin's work, much of which is set in the mountains and descriptive of the subsistance farming before the workers were lured to the mills in the lower lands by the illusory temptation of greater wealth.

Charles Morgan's The Voyage (1940)

Charles Morgan's The Voyage is mainly set in the Cognac area of France, and in Paris in the late 19th century, with brief mentions of Angoulême‎ and Royan. It concerns a man, Barbet, who owns a vineyard and a farm, and, oddly, is also the warden of a tiny private prison attached to his farm. He's in love with the sexually promiscuous singer and dancer Thérèse, who doesn't realize she's in love with him until some years pass, and eventually they come together (but perhaps not definitively) shortly after he's freed the prisoners, for which he is imprisoned, escapes, and is then pardoned because his lover has sung up so much support for him.

Previously, on reading Barbet's letters from Cognac, Thérèse in Paris thinks 'His descriptions [are] not of external things towards which he look[s] outward [...]', and the reader can't fail to think this about Morgan's writing too: the most striking thing to me is the lack of description of physical features, including the characters in the book, as opposed to the massive foregrounding of the psychological: I see why the French took to him so readily, as opposed to the English.

In another letter, Barbet writes:

'Now, if you were in a prison I should let you out if I could, and if a wild bird were in a cage I should open the door, and if an animal were in a trap I should release it. That is simple enough. But I can't stop arguing about the prisoners because, even if I were to give up the prison, that wouldn't set them free....'

This is a strange book, but strangely compelling too. On the wild female side, it's unbridled id, on the repressed Protestant male side it's keep your pants on at all times, but when the two, er, come within close proximity, isn't there a permanent bulge in those pants? Those pesky prisoners are getting more and more fractious, and Morgan doesn't do subtle symbolism, he shovels it on.

Oddly, in 1924, when writing to an Oxford friend seeking advice on writing, Morgan calls 'anything symbolistic' 'infernally dangerous', but then goes on to contradict himself in a way. And it's pretty obvious what he'd have thought of the UEA mafia. Creative writing courses, or whatever they were called in those days, are beautifully snobbishly dismissed:

'They are [for] mostly uncultured men. They are useful to teach bank-clerks the rules of grammar, but they teach no Oxford man anything. Read the masters: that's the only teaching.'

The symbolism can get ovrwhelming, but I find this novel quite exceptional: it's unpredictable, intelligent, inconclusive, very 'modern' (in fact futuristic) in its approach to sex, and at times beautiful in its description of psychological states.


Duffin, Henry Charles, The Novels and Plays of Charles Morgan (London: Bowes & Bowes, 1959)

Lewis, Eiluned, ed., Selected Letters of Charles Morgan (London: Macmillan, 1967)

Michelle Shocked and the Meaning of 'Anchorage'

As I'd recently picked up a copy of Michelle Shocked's Arkansas Traveler (1992), I took the trouble to look up the lyric of my favorite song of hers, 'Anchorage', which confirmed my opinion that this is a great song. Unfortunately, I also clicked on a link to a comment on this song in Wikipedia, which confirmed the deep suspicion I have about many of Wikipedia's articles. This is the first paragraph:

'"Anchorage" is a song by Michelle Shocked released as a single from her 1988 album Short Sharp Shocked. The song is about the writer taking time out to write to an old friend, who has moved from Texas to Anchorage, and her friend's reply. Although sung, the song retains the feel of the written correspondence between the two. The "sung" letters lyrically describe her friend settling into a life of contented domesticity, talking of her husband Leroy moving to a better job in Alaska, a new baby girl and her son losing a tooth. At the same time she calls for 'Shell to "keep rocking in New York."'

Forgetting the misquotation at the end of the paragraph, but remembering that much of the material in Wikipedia is in effect often written by many people continually 'correcting', the phrase 'contented domesticity' is bizarre in this context, and suggests that the writer(s) has/have no understanding of the song at all.

This song is not called 'Anchorage' for nothing, and the refrain 'Anchorage, anchored down in Anchorage', by its repetition alone, should underline what the song is about: a rather desperate young woman who has given up her freedom in exchange for a life effectively led for her by her husband in particular, but also, of course, her two young children anchor her down further. And the refrain could be the narrator Chel's comment on her friend's predicament, or the sub-text of her friend's letter. She is as existentially dislocated as Alaska - whose east coast adjoins Canada with its west almost touching the USSR - is geographically dislocated from the USA.

She is given no name, as though she is a non-person. Conversely, her husband Leroy (Le Roy = The King, of course), is mentioned by name five times.

This then, is a song of lost self, but also of lost love: the unnamed writer has not only forgotten the name of the song that Chel sang at her wedding, but also says twice in succession ('forget' followed by 'don't recall') that she doesn't remember the song itself. The listener hardly needs to be told that this is because love too has gone.

Oh yeah, I just had to change Wikipedia's 'Anchorage' entry too. I'm sure some person'll alter it, but that's the nature of palimpsests.

ADDENDUM: I don't think I like Michelle Shocked anymore, and don't understand who she is or what she represents. In the light of contradictory statements she's made relatively recently, I think that's all I have to say. (Written 2014, although in no way would I wish this statement to deter anyone from making further comments below.)

13 July 2010

Southern Appalachia: James Still - River of Earth

I've quoted the wonderful Lee Smith before, and I don't think she'll come after me with a copyright hammer for repeating what she says about River of Earth (1940), a novel by James Still (1906-2001), simply because any amount of publicity for either Smith or Still can only be of benefit to all concerned:

'[T]he beautiful and heartbreaking novel "River of Earth" [is] a kind of Appalachian "Grapes of Wrath" chronicling the Baldridge family's desperate struggle to survive when the mines close and the crops fail. This is not only one of the best Appalachian novels ever written, but it is also one of the best novels ever written.

'And yet James Still is not usually taught in so-called Southern literature classes.

'Why not?

'Because Appalachia is to the South what the South is to the rest of the country. That is: lesser than, backward, marginal. Other. Look at the stereotypes: "Hee Haw," "Deliverance," "Dogpatch" and "The Dukes of Hazzard." A bunch of hillbillies sitting on a rickety old porch drinking moonshine and living on welfare, right?

'Wrong. All of this is wrong; none of this is true.

'And I am here to tell all you people who are visiting Atlanta for the first time: You may think you're in the South, but you're not in the only South. There's another South, an almost secret South, waiting for you. All you have to do is get in a car and drive north, up into the beautiful wild mountains of North Georgia. Come on up and see us in North Carolina, in east Tennessee and Kentucky, and southwest Virginia and West Virginia.'

Lee is so right: if the South is the America of the outsider, Appalachia is the South's outsider. Appalachia is steeped in a widely unread literary wealth, of which James Still's novel River of Earth is a classic. But at the same time, it is easy to see why it is a neglected classic: it contains none of the Appalachian feud clichés or crude remarks about interbreeding, or details about moonshining, and is more a collection of stories than a single one. But it describes the dilemma of making a viable existence in the mountains as opposed to the ephemerally more lucrative lure of the mines in the lowlands.

And the unfamiliar vocabulary is difficult for some readers, although many linguistic nuances are very accessible: in Appalachian-speak, there seems to be a tendency to overcompensate for literacy skills by saying, for instance, 'hain't' and 'hit' for 'ain't' and 'it', as well as to say 'tuck' for 'took'.

Still's writing is not only a world away from more familiar Southern writing, but even a world away from better-known Appalachian novels such as John Fox Jr's The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1908). It is a world well worth discovering.

4 July 2010

George Bernard Shaw at Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire

George Bernard Shaw and his wife Charlotte began looking for a house in 1904, and found one that suited them two years later. This was a former rectory at Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire. The house suited them because neither of them liked it, which provided Charlotte with the opportunity to continue her love of travel, and GBS to continue writing. They moved in as tenants in 1906 (though still keeping their London flat), and bought the house in 1920.

The painting on the cover of the booklet above is one of three of Shaw that Augustus John made in 1915.

Shaw died in the house in 1950, at the age of 94.

Locally, the house acquired the nickname 'Shaw's Corner', a fact that Shaw recognized by incorporating the name into his gate. This is one of the few uses of the apostrophe of which he approved.

The north entrance from the road, which is only wide enough for one vehicle - many roads around here are positively hazardous to negotiate, and a very low speed and constant use of the horn are essential.

The south elevation, which looks out onto the three-acre garden (extended in 1920) where the Shaws would often exercise by taking walks, or simply relax.

The east elevation.

A sculpture of a lurcher stands at the west end of the terrace, and one of a lamb at the east.

Prince Paul Troubetzkoy designed them both, inscribing the base of the lamb 'A mon ami GBS'.

Troubetzkoy's signature on the north side of the base of the lamb.

The south elevation again, showing part of the extensive garden.

Originally Charlotte's summer house, this became Shaw's writing hut, where he had a telephone link and electricity. The most interesting feature is that it revolves to catch the direction of the sun.

The interior is reconstructed, with only the telephone being original. The bunk bed is just visible to the right of the photo.

The statue of St Joan in the Dell was executed by Shaw's neighbor Clare Winsten. Shaw particularly liked it as it depicted Joan not in the usual armor, but in peasant clothing.

Shaw had become a vegetarian toward the end of the 19th century partly because of Shelley, but mainly out of economic necessity. He had a large vegetable patch at Shaw's Corner that ran north from the orchard to what is now the parking lot. As part of their 'Food Glorious Food' promotion, the National Trust - the present owners - have re-introduced a vegetable patch.

The Shaws frequently exercised by chopping wood.

Ayot St Lawrence originally had no mains water supply, but the well and pump house to the west of Shaw's Corner provided water for drinking, washing, and cleaning.

The accumulator house, now scarcely visible because of the surrounding foliage, provided electricity for the Shaws right up to the late 1940s. There was also an electric motor here to pump water to the property after technological advances rendered the pump room redundant.

Shaw was not a drinker, but he sometimes - out of respect for the sick Charlotte - met friends in the village pub, The Brocket Arms.

2 July 2010

Kingsley Amis and Regent's Park Road: Literary London #29

Kingsley Amis (1922-95) lived at 194 Regent's Park Road, Primrose Hill, from 1985 until his death.

The house is very close to Chalk Farm railway bridge, which Ted Hughes wrote about in the poem 'Epiphany' in Birthday Letters (1998).

Amis used to drink at the Garrick Club in the West End, but on weekends he would drink at The Queen's on Regent's Park Road.

A Murder in Islington, a Suicide in Primrose Hill - Joe Orton and Sylvia Plath: Literary London #28

Flat 4, 25 Noel Road, Islington, was the home of the playwright Joe Orton and his partner Kenneth Halliwell from 1959 until their deaths in 1967. Their defacing of books from Islington libraries in the 1960s - such as by typing false blurbs on them - is well known, as is the fact that they spent six months in Wormwood Scrubs prison for these multiple offences. By the mid-sixties, Orton was becoming famous for such plays as Entertaining Mr Sloane (1964) and Loot (1966), although that fame was to be short-lived.

As their relationship deteriorated, violent incidents increased until Halliwell murdered Orton with a hammer before taking a fatal overdose of Nembutal pills.
A blue plaque on the wall of 23 Fitzroy Road, Primrose Hill, records that W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) lived here. Yeat was here from 1867 to 1872. There is no plaque to record that Sylvia Plath moved into the top part of the house toward the end of 1962, after separating from her husband Ted Hughes, who had left her for Assia Wevill.

In February 1963, Plath gassed herself in the house, and her suicide was followed by Wevill's in 1969, when she gassed herself and her child.